From elementary schools to nursing homes, prejudice is everywhere. Often, we reject or accept one another based on superficial observations because, at the core of our beings, we are all self-serving.
This flaw of self-centeredness stokes many of society’s problems, particularly the problem of prejudice. Sometimes prejudice revolves around money; sometimes influence, ethnicity, gender, or race. Sometimes we discriminate based on politics or age. In every case, prejudice involves a failure to deal with people impartially—and it displeases God: “If you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (Jas. 2:9).
Unfortunately, churches are not immune to this sin. That’s why James wrote, “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality” (v. 1). The word partiality means “preferential treatment”—which can be either positive or negative. It comes from two Greek words meaning “face” and “receive” and involves behaving based on what we see on the surface. The Greek imperative construction means “stop holding,” indicating James knew the believers to whom he was writing were guilty of partiality. This is the subject of James 2:1–13.
Expunge Evil Motives
Prejudicial behavior emanates from evil motives within us:
For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (vv. 2–4).
Many of the people to whom James was writing had fled Jerusalem because of persecution. They lost their possessions and homes, some had been in jail, and they suffered financially and socially. Thus, some in the church tended to favor the rich, whom they perceived could help them. We may tend to do the same thing by favoring people who can help us, either in our churches or businesses. However, Scripture says we are not to give preferential treatment to the rich or poor.
We must ask ourselves, “What are our circumstances? What do we wrestle with? Where are the pressures in our lives, and how are we tempted to use relationships to help ourselves? In what situations might we relate positively to one person because of the assistance that might be afforded, or relate negatively to another because that relationship might require time, money, or effort?”
James’s teaching contradicts the popular concept of “looking out for number one.” God considers such motivation evil. It is a lie from Satan to think if we don’t look out for ourselves, no one else will. Jesus said, “For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt. 6:32–33).
God Himself takes care of us when we follow His ways. Who would you rather have looking out for your best interests? You or God? I’d rather have God.
Overcoming prejudice requires that we expunge those evil motives and recognize our hearts are not as pure as they should be. Wicked reasoning lurks beneath the surface, and we must fight it. We must recognize evil motives exist, confess them for the sin they are, and trust in God’s character and promises.
Embrace God’s Ways
Embracing God’s ways usually contradicts our human nature: “Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (Jas. 2:5). The apostle Paul wrote,
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence (1 Cor. 1:27–29).
God’s way is the opposite of our way. God sometimes chooses the lowly of this world, as opposed to the high and mighty. Some of James’s readers were disparaging those in worse financial condition than they; yet it was the rich who were oppressing the believers, dragging them into court, and blaspheming the name of Christ.
My wife and I have observed a modern-day “woman at the well” (Jn. 4:7) whom Jesus delivered from a horrible life of multiple marriages, abuse, and rejection and who continues to deal with serious interpersonal, financial, and health issues. But today this woman blesses everyone she meets with her exuberant testimony and vibrant love for Jesus and the people around her. What were the odds?
Make no mistake: God is not against rich people. God is against partiality. It countermands the way He thinks and works. We must embrace God’s ways and “fulfill the royal law” by loving our neighbors as ourselves (Jas. 2:8). That means we are to seek our neighbor’s highest good—whether he or she is rich or poor or in between. We are to seek to meet the needs of whomever God brings across our paths. Prejudice is a sin.
We are to embrace the way God thinks and acts. Jesus reached out to the poor and the wealthy. Unfortunately, the wealthy often rejected Him because of a tendency to trust in riches. Trusting in wealth, however, is sheer folly: “For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven” (Prov. 23:5).
Engage Practical Mercy
The “royal law” is that we love one another. If we show prejudice, we become lawbreakers:
Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law (Jas. 2:10–11).
Partiality alienates us from a proper relationship with Jesus. James was not speaking about salvation here. He was not referring to whether or not we are born again. He was talking about how we relate to God on a daily basis. If we show partiality, we are not walking with Him.
We must recognize that when God commands us not to lie, commit adultery, or commit murder, He also commands us not to show partiality. If we stumble in that area, we are guilty as lawbreakers. We fall into a pattern of a broken relationship with the Lord. “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (vv. 12–13).
We are to live under the “law of liberty,” also called the royal law or law of love. The law of loving your neighbor as yourself is the commandment Jesus gave His disciples before He died. This law of love liberates those who practice it. When we behave as God has designed, we experience freedom and joy. But merciless judgment awaits those who are merciless.
On the other hand, mercy triumphs over judgment. Mercy accomplishes what strict adherence to the law cannot. It accomplishes God’s will.
We should behave like the unnamed Samaritan who cared for the stranger who had been mugged and “on the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you’” (Lk. 10:35).
We must guard our hearts; evaluate our motives; be willing to reach out to people in ways they don’t deserve; and extend forgiveness, love, and grace. And then we trust God to take care of us.