Read: James 5:12

I can’t say that the phenomenon that I am about to address has a technical name, but it is a common way of thinking, especially for Christians. Allow me to give it a name—“Formulaic Living!” It is the “mistaken” idea that if we do things in a set pattern, or if we use a specific set of words, then we will get the results we desire. For instance, we sometimes engage in “formulaic living” when we pray. That is, we start the prayer, continue the prayer, and end it using a specific pattern. There’s nothing wrong with the pattern, mind you, unless we expect specific results.

The same could be said with the way we do evangelism. We sometimes use a certain method or formula for sharing our faith. The more we use a given method, the more we are convinced that it works, and every other Christian should use it as well. Keep in mind that the formulas are not necessarily wrong. It’s the demanding heart that accompanies the formula we use. 

There are other “formulas” we could mention, but I wonder what God thinks of “formulaic living?” We can discover God’s mind on the matter when we understand our text for the week. However, to get to what James is specifically talking about it would be good to understand his terminology and the culture in which it was originally presented. 

Please notice that James makes reference to “oaths.” The term is used in the context of a two-fold command. The first command is in the negative – “Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath (v. 12a).” The second command is more positive in nature. James states,“Your ‘yes’ must be ‘yes,” and your ‘no” must be ‘no’ (v. 12b).  It is important to note that James is NOT ruling out all oaths. Both Jesus and the apostles sometimes employed oaths as part of their communication (cf. ROM 1:9; 2 COR1:23; GAL 1:20: PHIL 1:8). In addition, oaths were used in courts of law, even as they are today, to call those testifying before a court to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!” However, oaths were often misused. They were used to call God to someone’s defense, as if uttering His Name would assure someone’s honesty. For example, someone might say, “What I’m telling you is accurate. God is my witness!” What the person was saying may or may not be true, but the use of God’s name was thought to solidify someone’s veracity.  

There was another misuse of an oath in the ancient world. It was a form of calling on God to help or deliver someone from danger. A person might say, “If you deliver me from this situation, O God, I will serve you for the rest of my life.” You may recall in Judges 11 that Jephthah went into battle and promised Yahweh that if he was delivered from the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house when he returned from battle. To his dismay, his only child, a daughter, was the first “thing” to come out of the house. But the interesting point in all of this is that Jephthah did not have to make the oath. God already promised victory to the people of Israel when they repented and turned to Yahweh as their God and King. But Jephthah’s oath came from a fearful, demanding heart that assumed a “formula” would bring about the victory.

There is one other observation we need to make. And that is the cultural context in which James penned these words. You will recall from the first eleven verses that the believers James addressed were facing all sorts of injustices. This was hard, especially when they assumed that King Jesus would return to deliver them sooner than later. And under such harsh and stressful circumstances, people were inclined to look for a formula and utter certain words that they thought might bring some relief. In essence, this formulaic approach to life distorted the life of faith to which James had been calling his readers throughout the epistle.  

So what is the lesson that we can draw from this one, very significant verse? Allow me to put it in these terms:


That’s easy to say, but what would we be doing if we lived a life of consistent faith? Several things, but I will identify two.

First, consistent faith employs speech that is absent of“hedging.” That is, we say what we mean and we mean what we say. We keep our word when we promise to do something. And we don’t just do this once or twice. We do it 24/7, 365 days a year. Or to put it another way, our “yes” is “yes,” and our “no” is “no!”

Second, consistent faith is reverent faith. In James 5:9 we are told, “the judge stands at the door!”  And in verse 12 we are warned that our words must be true in every circumstance, “so that (we) won’t fall under judgment.” James wanted us to be aware that everything we say and do is ALWAYS done in the presence of God. He sees and hears everything! Therefore, we must speak and act out of reverence. And reverence is not something reserved for Sunday morning worship. It should be something that consistently characterizes our lives, every minute of every day!  

So where is your faith? Is it faith in a formula—a set of words that you assume will get you what you want from God? Or is your faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Our Savior knows the stresses and strains of our human existence. He has promised to return and establish His righteousness on the earth. Until that day, He calls us—His citizens—to live a consistent, honest faith.

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