Reasons to Resist the Secret Sin of Prejudice and Partiality
This is the final article on the secret sin of prejudice and partiality as described by James in James 2:1-7. Here I want to address the five reasons James gives us for fighting this sinful tendency in the human heart. Continue reading . . .
This is the final article on the secret sin of prejudice and partiality as described by James in James 2:1-7. Here I want to address the five reasons James gives us for fighting this sinful tendency in the human heart.
First, prejudice and partiality are inconsistent with our faith in Jesus Christ as the Lord of Glory (v. 1)! Don’t overlook how James describes Jesus in James 2:1 (“our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”). Why does he use this unusual descriptive phrase? Why the emphasis on Jesus as the Lord of “Glory”?
The likely answer is that at the heart of prejudice is our own craving for glory and honor and praise. We want powerful and wealthy and influential people to take notice of us and we want to avoid the embarrassment that comes from being associated with weak and impoverished and inconsequential people. We crave glory from others, and we strive to avoid the loss of it. So we show partiality or give preferential treatment to those we believe can provide us with glory and avoid those who we fear might undermine it.
James wants us to see that if we know and love and trust in all that God is for us in Jesus, who is himself the Lord of all Glory, we won’t be controlled by the craving for human praise and acceptance. If Christ is himself our glory he is all the glory we need. If Christ is himself the security our souls so desperately desire, we won’t seek it in what others can supply.
So, ask yourself why you seek the favor and approval of powerful and wealthy people and why you avoid association with those who you mistakenly believe are beneath you. Why do you feel drawn to one group and repelled by the other? Is it not because of your craving for glory and recognition and the comforts of life that you think some might provide? But if you genuinely know who Jesus is and walk daily in confident trust in him and all that he is and will be for you, if you draw moment by moment on the strength and security and joy and peace that he provides, what possible place would prejudice have in your heart?
I would also suggest that James has in mind the reference he makes in v. 2 to “gold rings” and “fine clothing”. It’s as if he says: “Do you think that glory resides in man’s earthly financial gain? Do you think glory is found in the weight, worth, and glisten of gold, and in the shiny, silky, fashionable clothing of those who visit your church? Please! The only glory that is glory indeed is in Jesus!” [By the way, I find it instructive that the word translated “fine” in the phrase “fine clothing” actually means shiny and bright.]
Second, to show partiality toward the rich by granting them preferential treatment, or to harbor prejudice in your heart toward someone of another ethnicity, is to set yourself up as “judges with evil thoughts” (v. 4). But you and I aren’t judges! Only God is. Who do we think we are passing judgment on the worth or value of another human being based on some external factor, be it wealth, rank, popularity, or skin color? You and I must never usurp a role and right that belongs only to God by elevating ourselves to such a lofty position. We have no right to envision ourselves sitting behind the bench, passing judgment on who is of greater value and who is of lesser value, who is deserving of our attention and who is not. To do so is to be guilty of “evil thoughts” (v. 4b).
Later in James 4:12 he will say this: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
Third, prejudice and partiality are inconsistent with the heart of God himself as seen in his choice of the poor to inherit eternal life (v. 5). To harbor prejudice in your heart is to belittle God and his sovereign work of saving whom he will. To put it bluntly, “if we are ashamed of the poor, we are ashamed of God, because God is not ashamed to choose the poor” (John Piper, Bloodlines, 186). Perhaps the best commentary on James 2:5 is 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. There the apostle Paul says this:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
When Paul speaks of the “wise” and “powerful” and those of “noble birth” and the “foolish” and the “weak” he has in mind classes of people. There are obvious exceptions. As a general rule God has chosen the foolish and the weak rather than the wise and the powerful, at least in terms of how the world judges wisdom and power. He does not say that God did not choose “any” wise and powerful and wealthy but that he has not chosen “many”.
God’s motive in this was so that no one could boast about being chosen. His desire was to orchestrate salvation so that everyone would be compelled to acknowledge that he alone is deserving of praise and glory.
So again, neither Paul nor James is suggesting that all poor people will be saved or that all rich people will be lost. Their point is that material poverty and material riches have no influence whatsoever on God’s electing choice. The poor are not at a disadvantage to the rich and the rich are not a leg up on the poor when it comes to experiencing God’s favor. And if that is true, what possible reason could we have for holding one in higher regard over the other? What possible reason could we have for treating one with contempt and the other with generosity?
Fourth, prejudice and partiality not only dishonor God by usurping his role as judge but they also dishonor the poor who are created in his image. “But you have dishonored the poor man” (James 2:6a). All humans, not just the poor but also the rich, are to be treated with the honor and dignity that comes with being created and fashioned in the image of God (see 3:9).
Fifth, prejudice and partiality cater to the very people who themselves oppress and treat with injustice the people of God (vv. 6-7).
In the first century context in which James wrote and his audience lived, many among the rich were oppressive in their treatment of the poor. Not all, mind you, but many, if not most. There were probably more poor people in the kingdom of God and they were especially vulnerable to exploitation and injustice on the part of the wealthy and powerful. Here is what James says about it in James 5:4-6 –
“Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you” (James 5:4-6).
That being the case, says James, why would you single out for special treatment and flattery the very people who are most responsible for the violent oppression of Christian men and women? The rich would take advantage of their money and influence to bribe the courts to render favorable verdicts and to deprive the poor of their rights. The rich were predominantly, not exclusively mind you, but predominantly the very ones who blasphemed the name of Jesus Christ. How ridiculous and inconsistent for you to cater to their needs and whims and overlook the obvious needs and pain of the poor in your midst.
Prejudice and partiality, whether based on racial or socio-economic grounds won’t go away easily. Many today mistakenly think that the answer to prejudice in the human heart is legislation. Now, don’t misunderstand me. In many instances there must be legal steps taken to protect the rights and dignity of certain individuals who are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own.
Some insist that affirmative action is called for when it comes to the grounds for admission into our colleges and universities. Others believe that monetary reparations should be made or that wealth should be redistributed in some fashion. I’m not here to pass judgment one way or the other on such measures. Certainly I hope we would all agree that any and all forms of segregation along racial and socio-economic lines must be eradicated.
But my point is this: not all the legislation in the world can transform the passions and dispositions of the human heart. We can implement new laws and regulations and hiring procedures and countless other steps to overcome the inequalities that exist in our society. But if prejudice and partiality are ever to be overcome and defeated there must first be a work of God’s grace in the human heart.
Although much could be said of this, let me mention only one thing. The first and most important step to take is to realize and embrace and act upon the simple truth that all men and women are created in the image of God, and for that reason alone are endowed with dignity and worth not only in the eyes of their Creator but also in ours as well. When you look upon a rich man or a poor woman, an African-American teen-ager or a Wall Street executive, a baby in the womb or a Hispanic crossing the border into Texas, you are looking on people shaped and fashioned in the image of our great God and Creator. In saying that I’m not making a political statement. I’m making a theological and spiritual statement. And until such time as you and I feel the force of this truth in our hearts, we will never win the war against prejudice and partiality.