Friday, January 9, 2009

The Royal Law

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.

                        James 2.1

Voluntary Blindness

In the 70’s, the country singer Ray Stephens released one of those corny “love-everybody” songs that regularly surfaced during the era. “Everything Is Beautiful” packed wall-to-wall platitudes—“We shouldn’t care about the length of his hair or the color of his skin,” etc. As a kid growing up in a tradition that placed a lot of credence in appearances, one phrase haunted me: “There is none so blind as they who will not see.” I’d never heard that proverb before. Stephens’s point was clear: those who can’t find beauty in our differences choose blindness voluntarily. That made great sense. How could anyone dismiss someone else as unchristian because he/she doesn’t fit a “Christian” profile? We see what we want to see, and that’s the surest way to see more or less than what’s really there.

Years later, the oldie spun out of my jukebox memory while reading James 2. It startled me, though, how James upholds the same principle from the opposite angle. He advocates voluntary blindness, pressing us to ignore differences altogether. Whether or not “everything is beautiful” is irrelevant, because beauty—or any other virtue—is a quality we assess, a comparative value defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is. It’s within our bounds to appreciate virtues of one and regret shortcomings of another. But James makes no bones about our having no grounds to prefer one person to another because we respect his/her attributes more favorably. It’s judging.

Seeing is Not Believing

James constrains us against favoritism as believers. For Christians, equality is neither a matter of politics nor a manner of politeness—it’s a mandate of faith. We believe God forgives and accepts us with the same justice and equanimity He offers everyone. When we prefer some to others, we reveal doubt we’re all fundamentally the same, namely, sinners redeemed (or able to be redeemed) by grace. Titus 3.5 reminds us, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.” Grace comes without merit. It’s not a reward. It’s not recognition of how good we are. It’s a gift that anyone who believes in God’s mercy can claim. Therefore, viewing some as better—or, conversely, worse—than others implies entitlement no one has.

Seeing is not believing, if our eyes notice differences that refute the equality of all, the very equality our faith depends on. But, you say, it’s humanly impossible not to recognize differences, whether surface traits or behavioral ones. That’s true. Side by side, a homeless alcoholic and the Pope appear nothing alike. But faith in God’s equal compassion for both blinds us to the variables and focuses solely on the common feature: two humans in equal need of His grace. Anything else we choose to see or believe is a judgment and, regardless of how right or wrong we perceive them to be, it’s essential to see we’re wrong. James urges us, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2.12-13) Faith in God’s mercy means nothing if it doesn’t extend to to everyone. That’s what we see—that's all we see—because that’s what we believe.

Doing Right

In verses 8 and 9, James writes, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” When we view others differently, we love them differently. It’s easy to love people who look and act like us. That requires nothing. Honoring Christ’s commandment to love, however, demands voluntary blindness on more occasions that we expect.

This is a “royal law”—an edict given by our King. It is absolute and unavailable to personal interpretation. Obedience to this law is our first and only priority, leaving no justifiable rationale or extenuating circumstances to explain non-compliance. It demands mental, emotional, and spiritual commitment, which in turn demand readjusting perceptions. Diversity is an optical illusion. There are no good people and bad people. Some Christians aren’t better than others. No one is above us. No one is below us. We’re all the same. We have to see that. If we can’t, we need to look at our faith with fresh eyes—specifically, with our Father’s eyes.


Diversity is a beautiful, honorable quest in human affairs. But in matters of faith, it's an optical illusion.

(Tomorrow: Guest Lists)


Missy said...

Beautiful post, Tim. I love the way you lay things out.

And I love James.

Check out an old post some time.

Tim said...

Missy, thank you. Your compliment means a great deal to me, as I know this is a topic you feel very passionately about.

Your "social justice" post is terrific--so spot on and tuned into the dolor of carelessness that prosperity encourages. You were right to levy guilt on your students, as we are all guilty of not digging out of our warmth and comfort to look at the reality of a bigger, harsher world. (Anyone reading this should most definitely take the extra few minutes to read your old post.)

And I love James, too. He's master of simply stating the facts, which are never simple once he helps us understand them.

Peace, my dear sister.

Annette said...

Tim, Missy is right...this is beautifully written. So funny how we forget this...that we are all His children. The "things" we put above the law of loving one another - social status, career choices, appearances, orientation, beliefs - are all illusions. I know I say this a lot, but thank you for the reminder to love and accept because I've been taught to by Him.

For a girl who hasn't been to church in quite some provide a "place" for me to remember...

Love - A

Tim said...

Annette, dear, you're always so kind. I believe the main reason why we forget that the "facts of life" you mention (and those like them) are illusory is because we live in a world that mistakes them for reality. It's extremely--ridiculously--hard to balance being measured by these artificial standards and maintain faith-based standards simultaneously.

That's why Paul explicitly told the Corinthians, "We live by faith, not by sight." Seeing, rather than believing, fills our minds and hearts with bad information. And because there's so much coming at us at all times, it's tough to swim against it. But we must.

Thanks so much for adding your thoughts here. James gives us all much to consider.

Peace and love to you.

PS: I'm happy you've found this "place"--it's all the richer and sweeter because you're here.

genevieve said...

I remember the song very well. It was spring or summer of 1970. I try to live this every day. Being transgender makes me see that there are so many different people and God loves each and every one. A great post, Tim.

Tim said...

Genevieve, great to see you! There's just so much more peace and joy in our lives when we're able to look at everyone through eyes of faith and love--it puzzles me why we'd ever want to see the world any other way. I've found that when I'm looking at others as my equals, I'm less apt to worry about how they look at me. It's tremendously liberating.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your generous compliment. It's such a pleasure to hear from you!

Blessings always,