In addition to the thirteen letters attributed to Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews, the New Testament contains seven other letters. According to the Catholic Study Bible, three of these are attributed to John, two to Peter, and one each to James and Jude. They are referred to as the "catholic letters" because they were apparently addressed to the universal church, rather than to a particular local church, as are Pauls letters.
In this synopsis, we look at the Letter from James.
The person to whom this letter is ascribed is not one of the two members of the Twelve who bore the name. He is not identified as an apostle, but only as "slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ." The letter of James was written to early Christians who were undergoing persecution. Alienated from their Jewish kinsmen and under suspicion of Roman authorities, those early Christians found themselves in a hostile world. But they faced even greater dangers from within their own community. These inner dangers were more practical than theoretical, more moral that doctrinal. Many Christians had lost their sense of the church as a community of love. They had turned faith into a system of belief rather than a way of life. James wrote an open letter to encourage Christians to meet these trials with wisdom, patience, humility, and endurance. He went further to assure them that these trials would only serve to deepen their faith and strengthen their lives. "Realize that when your faith is tested this makes for endurance."
Most of us dont go looking for trials and trouble. Theres something wrong with a person who isnt happy unless hes miserable! But the apostle James had a point. We ought not to run from trials because the only way we grow is by meeting and overcoming difficulties. Try building muscular strength by just thinking about getting stronger. Thats not the way things work in this world. You have to exercise those muscles. You have to push yourself against heavy weights and long distances. The same is true in matters of character. We build character by facing temptation and overcoming it, by confronting fear and getting beyond it, by getting knocked down and picking ourselves up again! Given the gain that comes from such struggles, perhaps James wasnt stretching the point after all. "Count it pure joy when you are involved in any trial."
A number of years ago, there was a popular comedy on television called "The Flip Wilson Show." In one of the weekly comic sequences, Flip Wilson dressed up as a woman named Geraldine. This program obviously aired before our society became so up-tight about comic cross-dressing. Geraldine was a sassy young woman who was always getting in trouble of one sort or another. Her excuse was always the same: "The devil made me do it!" That line always brought down the house and that phrase entered into the vocabulary of a whole generation of television viewers. Anytime things went wrong, a person was likely to blurt out Geraldine-style: "The devil made me do it!" It was an effective way of laughing about mistakes and of passing the buck. "I couldnt help myself. The devil made me do it!"
While Flip Wilson and his alter-ego, Geraldine, have passed off the scene, the line that he/she made famous is still with us. We are quick to shift the blame when things go wrong, if not to the devil then to God. But the letter of James reminds us that we have to take the blame for our mistakes. We cant say that God or the devil makes us do anything. Whatever the evil influences and opportunities that surround us, we are still the ones who choose to do wrong. No matter how warped by our upbringing, no matter how stunted by our environment, every human being retains some margin of freedom.
We can choose good over evil. We can throw our weight on the side of truth rather than error. Given the limitations of our background and opportunity, we are still responsible for ourselves.