At some point in our journey with Christ, we begin to ask ourselves, what is the standard by which we are called to live? James offers an interesting perspective when he says, “So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free” (James 2:12). It seems contradictory to say that the same law that judges you will also set you free, but that is the plain reading of the text. In pondering James 2:10-13, I have come to believe that James is equating “the law that sets you free” with God’s law of love, by which God chose to have mercy on us (and thereby set us free from sin). The law of love is the summation of the two greatest commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. When you fulfill these two commands, you are fulfilling God’s law, which perfectly expresses his loving nature.
But James is also keenly aware that even believers are tempted, fall into sin, and then look for ways to rationalize their behavior. But in doing this, they can become resistant to God’s will. For when you are a lawbreaker, you don’t look at the law as something that sets you free, but as something restrictive, guilt-inducing, or even unfair (to your particular circumstances, of course). But for James, the law we have in Christ sets us free because instead of enslaving us to follow the letter of the law, and thereby having to nitpick ourselves and others to ensure we follow every jot and tittle, we are set free to fulfill the spirit of the law, the law of love, knowing that when we love and show mercy as God does, we are doing God’s will. Moreover, James teaches the same thing Jesus taught, that we will be judged with the measure of mercy with which we judge others.
James is also clear that a sin is a sin is a sin. If you break God’s “royal law” to “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8), then you are a lawbreaker, no ifs ands or buts. Yet how often do we rationalize our ill treatment of others? Sometimes we don’t even acknowledge that our actions bring pain or injustice into others’ lives. We would rather live ignorant than conscience-stricken. We choose to be deaf and blind, and in so doing we become wrapped up in our own little worlds, slaves to our own egos, not even aware of the freedom from self that comes from loving others fully and showing the mercy of God.
Perhaps we tend to rationalize those sins that are more natural to our personality, or we categorize certain sins as “not really bad” because our culture accepts or even condones them. Whatever the case, James calls us to name our sin, accept that we were and are lawbreakers, and live our lives conscious that our deeds will be judged in the future. Yes, we are saved in Christ and free from the law of the Israelites, but we are still held accountable to Christ’s law of love.
It is hard to admit that though I love others, doing my best to support friends and family and extend kindness to all around me, I have my own well-tread paths of unloving behavior. I’d like to think they are personality quirks, but I am reminded today that that lack of love is a sin. Yet how freeing it is to admit my failure and open myself to the Spirit’s leading me into new and better ways of living. It makes me wonder who I could be without those “personality quirks.” My unloving behaviors certainly don’t make me happy in the long run. They create conflict and shame. But learning God’s ways of love and mercy has always made me feel empowered and free, somehow more my true self. So I ask you, how do you tend to be unloving? What gives you that twinge of conscience, that moment when you know you should have treated another person differently? God wants to set you free from your own selfish desires so that you can love like he does and be all he created you to be. As one of my favorite praise songs puts it, I will end with this prayer: “teach me how to love like You have loved me.” Lord, teach us all to love like you have loved us.