The beginning of a nightmare
James 4:17 is one of those passages in the Bible that haunts faithful Christians. The teaching that comes from it has been called “the sin of omission”. That is, it is a sin that is not actually committed, but is the intentional refusal to obey some command. It’s a legitimate thought, so let’s examine it.
Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. –(James 4:17)
Cotton Mather (as quoted by Albert Barnes), stated that “the ability to do good in any case imposes an obligation to do it.” With such a statement, it is easy to see why some people have nightmares about this verse in James.
For example, at any given time I could possibly look at my life and see something I could be doing that is better. For that matter, if I rest at the end of the day, I am “neglecting” something that I could be doing for another person.
This kind of thinking I addressed in the previous post. It is a terrible way to live because it assumes perfection, even robotic obedience without the freedom to decide to do something that is “lesser” (but not sinful) from time to time.
Illustrating two absurdities
If I dine by myself, I know that I could invite friends over and dine with them, which would be “good”. Therefore, I am sinning if I dine alone. However, if I dine with friends, surely I could invite the poor man standing on the side of the road begging food. Therefore, I sin if I dine with my friends. And if I dine with the man on the side of the road, surely there is another man who is standing in another place who could eat my food instead of me. Therefore, since I should sacrifice myself for others, I sin by eating anything at all.
The absurdity is obvious, but it seems that some people walk this path to a lesser degree. I want to know, what prevents them from going to even greater degree in the application of this principle? Is that, therefore, sin on their part? Death should come quickly to us as we give away all food, water, and shelter.
Some respond by saying, “You are going too far! The principle cannot be taken to extremes here.” My response is twofold.
- Who are you to determine what “too far” is, but I am not allowed to determine it?
- How can we possibly take a statement such as what Cotton Mather stated and avoid extremes with it? If in any case my ability to do a good deed obligates me to it, it must be so in every circumstance in life, because I can always think of some good deed that I could do.
Some recognize this problematic approach and define it only in relation to the context. “Since I told you not to be arrogant, if you ignore this truth, then to you it is sin.” It is better than suggesting that every moment of life must be sacrificed for the greatest good that can be done, but it still has problems. This becomes a second absurdity.
What is the “good” in the context that we should be doing? The only thing we are specifically told to do in James 4:13-16 is to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:15). Therefore, the person who knows to boast in the Lord’s will, but does not do it, to him it is sin.
There is something missing here when I think of it in that way. “Boasting in the Lord’s will” means that I am looking at every circumstance of life and choosing to rejoice in God’s way. Therefore, knowing I should do that, if I do not do it, then I am sinning. I still find my way back to the original problem with the interpretation. There is always a good way or thing to do. There is always the idea of doing anything at all according to God’s will, which implies that by doing it I am rejoicing in the things of God. So, in any given instant, if I do not analyze my every thought and behavior and “boast in the Lord’s will”, then that is sin. Or does it only apply to business ventures?
This is a serious problem
I suspect that you see the problem here, and also see that it is not a figment of my imagination.
I have no problem with the concept of a general principle that guides us. Some people undoubtedly see this passage as one. I understand that sometimes we deal with a spectrum of knowledge and information. I cannot accept, however, that we can be in a position where we cannot know whether or not we are sinning against God. How can one repent if he does not know what sin is? In this case, we cannot know what sin is if we interpret this passage according to the two ideas above. Where is the “line” where we say, “James meant this up to a point, but don’t go too far with it. He obviously did not mean THAT is sin.” I am thinking about my illustration about giving up all my food and water for others and sacrificing myself for them. Why is it OK to ignore THAT knowledge of good, but NOT OK to ignore some other kind of knowledge? Is it because my illustration is too difficult to do? No, I suspect that the reason we know it is going too far is because we see the flaw in the logic, but do not want to admit it. I didn’t want to admit it.
Alternative approaches to the passage
Is it possible that James is using the term, “sin”, figuratively? I highly doubt it. Of the 174 times the Greek word “hamartia” (one of several words translated “sin” in the Bible) is used, as far as I know, it is never used figuratively. (I admit that I did not study the context of every single usage.)
So what do we make of this verse?
We know that it says avoiding what we know to be good is sin. We know that it is right in what it says. So what application do we draw from it?
Keeping the context of the book
Let’s remember the context of this book. It is about bringing joy to life through looking at our needs and desires, and choosing those pathways that are godly so that we dismiss sin and take on righteousness. We are to consider what brings about the end results we want in life–heaven. With several illustrations, James pointed out practical ways this process plays out in our lives, and it is always basically the same. We wish to fulfill our needs, so we have desires. These desires will be fulfilled by one of three spiritual pathways: spiritually negative, spiritually neutral, and spiritually positive paths. Ultimately, if we want to bring about the best in life, we should choose that spiritually positive pathway. That is, the more we choose that path, the better our life becomes, because we are adding the fruit of the Spirit over time.
This point of decision and the attributes of this decision-making process underlie the entire book. The book is not about the tongue, or about treating one another without prejudice. It is about WHY we use our tongues improperly and WHY we treat one another so wickedly. It’s about the process.
So, when you are facing a situation where you have looked at the process, and you see clearly the pathways in front of you, if you see clearly the teachings and information in the Bible, and that path is clearly laid out for you, but you choose to ignore it and take another path, that is sin. It is not that you “forgot” something, or that you failed to think of something that you could be doing that is better than what you are currently doing. It is not about fear when you lay your head down at night, worried sick with the thought, “What did I neglect to do today that I should have done?” That is no way to live. It is no wonder some have walked away from religion, having been taught such fear.
Illutrating the process
No, James is talking about a process. To illustrate it from earlier posts, consider this. A man discovers the desire for companionship because he (being human) has a built-in need for spiritual intimacy, but he is away from home on a business trip. He faces possible temptation. So, because he has followed along with the instructions from James, he identified this desire and traced it to his need. Now he has a choice. He can choose to pursue a godly desire to meet that need. For instance, he might decide to call home, or chat online, or read the Bible, or go for a walk, or visit a nursing home, or do some other good deed that will allow him to meet his needs without ignoring or neglecting them.
In this illustration, that man could choose either a spiritually neutral or spiritually positive pathway. Either one is OK, but one is obviously better. But let’s suppose he decided to do something spiritually neutral. He has not sinned or harmed himself in that way (he avoided sin), but he did miss an opportunity for growth. Considering James 4:11, however, we are taught not to judge his decision as long as he did not decide upon sin.
And sin is the other option on the table. He can choose to pursue a godly desire that will fulfill his spiritual need, or he can instead choose to fulfill his needs with an ungodly pathway based on ungodly desires. He can decide to go places no decent man should go and do things no decent man should do.
Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Learning how bad sin really is
When we stumble and fall, we sin. When we see what we are doing and choose to ignore it, this is “double sin”. If we repent, we cannot simply say that we will not sin again. To truly repent, we would also need to address the problem of deliberately choosing to walk away from the path of righteousness.
The more we learn, the more we realize just how bad sin really is.
But there is always hope. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord. Decide that you are going to pursue God’s pathway again. And when you face the three choices, choose the spiritually positive one so you continue to grow stronger.
Maybe that is the point after all. Maybe ignoring the positive and pursuing the neutral violates this passage too. After all, if you are not choosing the pathway of righteousness, you are not choosing to grow toward spiritual life.
There is no need to spend life worried and afraid that you have not “done enough”. God does not expect us lie down at night and worry that we did not do every possible good we could have that day. The idea that Mr. Mather expressed is false. James is NOT saying that “the ability to do good in any case imposes an obligation to do it.” To accept such a statement without qualifications will lead people either to abandon faith altogether or live their lives in terror and worry over what they “just know” that they missed doing. Where is joy in that life?
The interpretation of this passage relates to the entirety of the book. We must look at it from the perspective of choices that we make. If we are faced with a situation where we are required to make a decision, and we analyze the information available and still refuse to do what is good, we sin. The key is knowledge and acting in faith. So, stop worrying! Avoid sin. Do your best in life. Give yourself opportunity and time to grow.
Choose the right. Leave the rest.
See you tomorrow!