The Epistle of James emphasizes practical gospel living, counseling readers to demonstrate their faith through the works of righteous day-to-day actions. For example, James warned that an uncontrolled tongue is destructive (see James 1:26; 3:2–10). He declared that caring for the poor and needy, especially the fatherless and the widows, is the essence of “pure religion” (James 1:27). James also taught that being “a friend of the world” makes a person “the enemy of God” (James 4:4).
The Epistle of James holds a prominent place in the minds of Latter-day Saints for its role in prompting young Joseph Smith to seek for greater wisdom from God (see James 1:5; Joseph Smith—History 1:11–13).
The practical nature of this epistle is evident in the opening verses. James wrote that when faith is tested or tried through difficulties, patience is produced (see James 1:2–4). This patience, which leads to sanctification and spiritual development, is a necessary attribute for all who seek eternal life (see D&C 54:10; 67:13; 101:4–5). Joseph Smith Translation, James 1:2 changes the phrase “divers temptations” to “many afflictions” (in James 1:2, footnote a).
Every member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been blessed by the declaration that James made: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5). This simple but inspired passage motivated young Joseph Smith to turn to God for a heavenly answer (see Joseph Smith—History 1:11–13). James 1:5 teaches that the heavens are not sealed, that God will reveal answers to those of any generation who ask Him in faith, including us today (see also D&C 6:11; 42:61). Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles described the unique significance of this passage for Latter-day Saints:
“This single verse of scripture has had a greater impact and a more far reaching effect upon mankind than any other single sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age. It might well be said that the crowning act of the ministry of James was not his martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus, but his recitation, as guided by the Holy Ghost, of these simple words which led to the opening of the heavens in modern times.
“And it might well be added that every investigator of revealed truth stands, at some time in the course of his search, in the place where Joseph Smith stood. He must turn to the Almighty and gain wisdom from God by revelation if he is to gain a place on that strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:246–47).
James emphasized the importance of faith when asking God for answers (see also 1 Nephi 15:11; Moroni 10:4). Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained what it means to “ask in faith” (James 1:6):
“Notice the requirement to ask in faith, which I understand to mean the necessity to not only express but to do, the dual obligation to both plead and to perform, the requirement to communicate and to act.
“… Note the questions that guided Joseph’s thinking and supplicating. …
“‘My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join’ (Joseph Smith—History 1:10, 18).
“Joseph’s questions focused not just on what he needed to know but also on what was to be done! His prayer was not simply, ‘Which church is right?’ His question was, ‘Which church should I join?’ Joseph went to the grove to ask in faith, and he was determined to act.
“True faith is focused in and on the Lord Jesus Christ and always leads to righteous action. …
“… We press forward and persevere in the consecrated work of prayer, after we say ‘amen,’ by acting upon the things we have expressed to Heavenly Father.
“Asking in faith requires honesty, effort, commitment, and persistence” (“Ask in Faith,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2008, 94–95).
Double-mindedness refers to fickleness, being noncommittal, and wavering in one’s loyalty. Here in the Epistle of James it means to vacillate in one’s commitment to the Lord (see also 1 Kings 18:21; Matthew 6:24; 1 Corinthians 10:21).
While God is known to test the faith of His children (see Genesis 22:1; D&C 101:3–5; Abraham 3:25), He is not the source of temptation. James taught that temptations do not come from God but from the devil, who attempts to draw us away from righteousness by enticing us to do evil. The Greek verbs from which “drawn away” and “enticed” are translated refer to the traps and bait used when hunting and fishing (James 1:14). Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:
“The use of artificial lures to fool and catch a fish is an example of the way Lucifer often tempts, deceives, and tries to ensnare us.
“Like the fly fisherman who knows that trout are driven by hunger, Lucifer knows our ‘hunger,’ or weaknesses, and tempts us with counterfeit lures which, if taken, can cause us to be yanked from the stream of life into his unmerciful influence” (“O That Cunning Plan of the Evil One,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 108).
James wrote that there is “no variableness” with God. Moroni similarly wrote that “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing” (Mormon 9:9; see also Moroni 8:18; D&C 20:12). God’s power is constant, as is His love for His children. This attribute of unchangeableness permits us to place our faith in Him.
James counseled, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). Wrath is intense, vengeful anger, a characteristic that Paul described as one of the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19–20), or one of the characteristics of the fallen, natural man. Wrath does not allow the Spirit of the Lord to flourish, and, as James taught, does not achieve God’s righteous purposes: “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
As part of his teaching that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20), James exhorted his readers to “lay apart all … superfluity of naughtiness” (James 1:21). “Naughtiness” has come to connote petty or mischievous acts, such as the pranks of children, but this is a very inadequate translation of the Greek word James used, which is kakias. This Greek word not only meant evil in the general sense but, specifically, hatred or bitterness toward another. Thus “malice” probably comes closest to the truest meaning. The Greek word translated “superfluity” is used in many other places in the New Testament. Typically it is translated as “abundance,” which gives the true sense of James’s phrase: “abundance of malice.”
In his oft-quoted passage “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22), James taught readers that it is not sufficient to hear the word of God; the Lord expects us to act upon gospel truths (see Matthew 7:21–23; Mosiah 4:10; D&C 78:7). The Epistle of James focuses largely on helping readers to become doers of the word. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: “It is not enough to know that God lives, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, and that the gospel is true. We must take the high road by acting upon that knowledge” (“Be Not Deceived,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2004, 46).
In James 1:23 the word “glass” refers to a polished metal surface that was used as a mirror (see commentary for 1 Corinthians 13:9–13). James compared those who deceive themselves by hearing God’s word but neglecting to act in righteousness to those who see their own reflection in a mirror and then forget how they looked. Elder Bruce R. McConkie added this insight: “To hear and not do—to seek salvation solely through the good works of Christ, without personal conformity to his laws—is to see a glimpse of what salvation is in a mirror without ever receiving the real thing” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:252).
To read about the importance of guarding our words as followers of Christ, see the commentary for James 3:1–10.
James observed that caring for others, particularly widows and the fatherless, is a manifestation of “pure religion” (James 1:27). Anciently, widows and orphans were among the most underprivileged members of society and had few rights or opportunities; thus, the Lord repeatedly commanded His people to care for them and for others in great need (see Exodus 22:22; Isaiah 1:17; Acts 6:1; D&C 83:6). While serving in the Presidency of the Seventy, Elder Earl C. Tingey pleaded with Church members to care for the widows around them:
“The term widows is used 34 times in the scriptures. In 23 of these passages, the term refers to widows and the fatherless. I believe the Lord has a tender feeling toward widows and the fatherless, or orphans. He knows that they may have to rely more completely on Him than on others. …
“To the family and friends of widows, God knows of your service and He may judge your works by how well you assist the widow. …
“… I know that the leaders of the Church are concerned about the welfare of widows. We members should care for and assist the widows within our family, home, ward, and neighborhood” (“The Widows of Zion,” Ensign, May 2000, 62–63).
Joseph Smith Translation, James 1:27 changes the end of the verse to read, “and to keep himself unspotted from the vices of the world” (in James 1:27, footnote g).
To have “respect of persons” means to show partiality or favoritism toward individuals (James 2:1). The Joseph Smith Translation of James 2:1 clarifies: “My brethren, ye cannot have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, and yet have respect to persons” (in James 2:1, footnote a). James condemned such biased treatment of others, specifically discrimination against the poor in favor of the rich (see James 2:2–6). Other scriptures teach that followers of Christ should not discriminate on the basis of skin color, social standing, gender, or nationality (see 2 Nephi 26:33); education or economic standing (see 3 Nephi 6:10–12, 15; Proverbs 22:22); clothing (see Jacob 2:13); or health, age, or religious affiliation (see Alma 1:30). By living in this way, we become more like our Heavenly Father, who “is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; D&C 1:34–35).
President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) stated: “We must never forget that we live in a world of great diversity. The people of the earth are all our Father’s children and are of many and varied religious persuasions. We must cultivate tolerance and appreciation and respect one another. We have differences of doctrine. This need not bring about animosity or any kind of holier-than-thou attitude” (“The Work Moves Forward,” Ensign, May 1999, 5).
To exhort his readers to treat all people, both rich and poor, with charity, James quoted from Leviticus 19:18, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” labeling it “the royal law” (James 2:8). “Royal” means “belonging to a king.” This teaching parallels Jesus’s command to “love the Lord thy God” and to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). Those who keep “the royal law” love everyone and avoid showing favoritism.
See the commentary for Matthew 5:7 to read about the heavenly rewards given to those who extend mercy to others.
James responded to reports of people who were speaking simplistically of faith as something separate from one’s actions, or “works” (see James 2:14–26). It may be that the Apostle Paul’s teachings were being distorted as they circulated orally among members of the Church (see Acts 21:21; 2 Peter 3:15–16). Paul had emphasized that salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ and not through works or ceremonial performances of the law of Moses (see the commentaries for Romans 3:27–31 and for Galatians 2:15–16).
James used the term works in a different manner than Paul, referring to righteous deeds as the natural expression of belief. In response to those who suggested one could have faith “and have not works,” James asked, “Can faith save him?” (James 2:14). The Greek text of this phrase contains an article before faith; James meant, “Can [that kind of] faith save him?” James was not teaching that faith has no saving power; he was teaching that a passive belief that resulted in no action was not true, saving faith. When James challenged his readers to “shew me thy faith without thy works” (James 2:18), he was pointing out that it is not possible to show one’s faith except through one’s actions—true faith cannot exist apart from righteous works.
In Lectures on Faith we read that “faith is not only the principle of action, but of power also, in all intelligent beings, whether in heaven or on earth” (, 3). Commenting on this statement, Elder David A. Bednar taught, “Thus, faith in Christ leads to righteous action, which increases our spiritual capacity and power. Understanding that faith is a principle of action and of power inspires us to exercise our moral agency in compliance with gospel truth, invites the redeeming and strengthening powers of the Savior’s Atonement into our lives, and enlarges the power within us whereby we are agents unto ourselves (see D&C 58:28)” (“Ask in Faith,” 95).
Both James and Paul cited the Old Testament prophet Abraham as an important example of faith and good works (see James 2:21–25; Romans 4; Galatians 3:6–19). Abraham’s willingness to carry out the command to offer up Isaac was a validation of his faith in God (see Genesis 15:6; 22:1–14; Hebrews 11:17–19).
Like Abraham, the harlot Rahab also demonstrated her faith through her actions (see Hebrews 11:31). She was an inhabitant of Jericho at the time the armies of Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, approached the promised land (see Joshua 2). Joshua sent two men into Jericho to spy out the strength of the city. Rahab took the spies in, even hiding them when the king sought for them. Then she helped them to escape safely from the city. For her actions, she and her family were spared when the rest of Jericho was destroyed, and she dwelt in Israel for the remainder of her life (see Joshua 6:22–25).
James warned the Saints of the potential ruin that unkind words, inappropriate language, or the loss of one’s temper can cause. To help readers recognize the importance of speaking with care, he compared the mouth and the tongue to a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, fire, and poison.
“Obviously James doesn’t mean our tongues are always iniquitous, nor that everything we say is ‘full of deadly poison.’ But he clearly means that at least some things we say can be destructive, even venomous—and that is a chilling indictment for a Latter-day Saint! The voice that bears profound testimony, utters fervent prayer, and sings the hymns of Zion can be the same voice that berates and criticizes, embarrasses and demeans, inflicts pain and destroys the spirit of oneself and of others in the process. …
“Husbands, you have been entrusted with the most sacred gift God can give you—a wife, a daughter of God, the mother of your children who has voluntarily given herself to you for love and joyful companionship. Think of the kind things you said when you were courting, think of the blessings you have given with hands placed lovingly upon her head, … and then reflect on other moments characterized by cold, caustic, unbridled words. … A husband who would never dream of striking his wife physically can break, if not her bones, then certainly her heart by the brutality of thoughtless or unkind speech. …
“… Wives, what of the unbridled tongue in your mouth, of the power for good or ill in your words? How is it that such a lovely voice … could ever in a turn be so shrill, so biting, so acrid and untamed? A woman’s words can be more piercing than any dagger ever forged, and they can drive the people they love to retreat beyond a barrier more distant than anyone in the beginning of that exchange could ever have imagined” (“The Tongue of Angels,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2007, 16–17). To read more about the need to control what we say, see Matthew 12:34–37; Alma 12:14; and Doctrine and Covenants 42:27.
James admonished those who use their mouths to bless and to curse that “these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10). The language we use reveals what is in our hearts (see James 3:11–13). In For the Strength of Youth, Church leaders have offered guidelines to help us avoid destructive speech:
“How you communicate should reflect who you are as a son or daughter of God. Clean and intelligent language is evidence of a bright and wholesome mind. …
“Always use the names of God and Jesus Christ with reverence and respect. Misusing the names of Deity is a sin. …
“Do not use profane, vulgar, or crude language or gestures, and do not tell jokes or stories about immoral actions. These are offensive to God and to others. …
“If you have developed the habit of using language that is not in keeping with these standards—such as swearing, mocking, gossiping, or speaking in anger to others—you can change. Pray for help. Ask your family and friends to support you in your desire to use good language” (For the Strength of Youth [booklet, 2011], 20–21).
James observed that prayers are inappropriate if one’s intent is just to satisfy improper desires. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that we must seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost in order to avoid asking “amiss”: “God sees things as they really are and as they will become. We don’t! In order to tap that precious perspective during our prayers, we must rely upon the promptings of the Holy Ghost. With access to that kind of knowledge, we would then pray for what we and others should have—really have. With the Spirit prompting us, we will not ask ‘amiss’” (“What Should We Pray For?” in Prayer , 23). See also Doctrine and Covenants 46:30.
As suggested in James 4:11, to speak evil of or to slander another person is a violation of God’s law to “love thy neighbour” (Leviticus 19:18; see also Matthew 25:40; Mosiah 27:4). While serving as a member of the Seventy, Elder Cree-L Kofford spoke of the need to speak well of others:
“What a blessing it would be if … each of our names truly could be safe in the home of others. Have you noticed how easy it is to … find fault with other people? All too often we seek to be excused from the very behavior we condemn in others. Mercy for me, justice for everyone else is a much too common addiction. When we deal with the name and reputation of another, we deal with something sacred in the sight of the Lord.
“There are those among us who would recoil in horror at the thought of stealing another person’s money or property but who don’t give a second thought to stealing another person’s good name or reputation. …
“James, a servant of the Lord in the meridian of time, repeated this eternal truth when he said: ‘Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law. …
James recorded that it is a sin when we fail to do the good things we have been taught to do (see James 4:17). These sins are often termed “sins of omission.” President James E. Faust (1920–2007) of the First Presidency explained:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. When smitten, turn the other cheek. When asked for a coat, give your cloak also. Forgive, not just once but seventy times seven. This was the essence of the new gospel [Jesus taught]. There was more emphasis on do than do not. …
“I fear that some of our greatest sins are sins of omission. … These are the thoughtful, caring deeds we fail to do and feel so guilty for having neglected them” (“The Weightier Matters of the Law: Judgment, Mercy, and Faith,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 53, 59).
Prophets have warned repeatedly against pride and the evils that often accompany wealth (see Jeremiah 9:23; Amos 2:6–7; 4:1; Matthew 13:22; 1 Timothy 6:7–10; 2 Nephi 9:30; D&C 56:16). James specifically identified three areas of concern: (1) hoarding wealth (see James 5:2–3), meaning accumulating so much material wealth that it sits unused and decaying; (2) failing to pay wages to employees (see verse 4); (3) living a luxurious and self-indulgent lifestyle (see verse 5). The “day of slaughter” (verse 5) may refer to the coming Day of Judgment—much like cattle are fattened prior to their slaughter, so the wicked rich have fattened their hearts, unaware of the coming judgment against them.
In verse 4, James wrote that the cries of those defrauded by their deceitful employers “are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.” Sabaoth is a Hebrew word meaning “hosts”; thus, “Lord of sabaoth” means “Lord of Hosts.”
Farmers in ancient Israel waited patiently for the “early” rain of the planting season, which helped a seed to sprout and to grow, and for the “latter rain,” which helped plants to mature prior to harvesting. James used this imagery to teach that, like the farmer who must patiently tend the field and wait for the rains and eventual harvest, the righteous are to patiently preach the gospel and nurture one another, knowing that salvation will eventually come. Elder Bruce R. McConkie provided an additional insight concerning the early and latter rains:
“Our Lord’s return is like the planting and harvesting of crops by an husbandman. The seeds are sown at his first coming and are watered by the early rains so that they sprout and take root. Then after a long wait, attended by much patience and endurance on the part of the saints, amid the latter rains, the rains that ripen the harvest, he comes again to pluck the fruit of his vineyard and to reign on earth a thousand years with those who have kept the faith.
“… The early rain fell at sowing time; the latter rain came to mature the crop for harvest. Thus, the heavens rained righteousness when our Lord ministered among mortal men in time’s meridian; and also there shall be a great day of revelation, refreshment, and restoration when ‘Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven’ (Psalm 85:11), incident to the Second Coming” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:270–71).
James cited Israel’s prophets as an example of the patient endurance that all Saints must have as they await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In our day, Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles specifically identified the Prophet Joseph Smith as an example of being patient in times of affliction:
“In our dispensation, the Prophet Joseph Smith endured all manner of opposition and hardship to bring to pass the desire of our Heavenly Father—the restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joseph was harassed and hunted by angry mobs. He patiently endured poverty, humiliating charges, and unkind acts. His people were forcibly driven from town to town, from state to state. He was tarred and feathered. He was falsely charged and jailed. …
“Joseph knew that if he were to stop going forward with this great work, his earthly trials would probably ease. But he could not stop, because he knew who he was, he knew for what purpose he was placed on the earth, and he had the desire to do God’s will” (“Behold, We Count Them Happy Which Endure,” Ensign, May 1998, 75).
James 5:13–16 provides evidence that anointing the sick with oil so that they might be healed was practiced by authorized servants of the Lord in the early Christian Church (see also Mark 6:13). Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained the modern practice of anointing the sick with oil:
“When someone has been anointed by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood, the anointing is sealed by that same authority. To seal something means to affirm it, to make it binding for its intended purpose. When elders anoint a sick person and seal the anointing, they open the windows of heaven for the Lord to pour forth the blessing He wills for the person afflicted.
“President Brigham Young taught: ‘When I lay hands on the sick, I expect the healing power and influence of God to pass through me to the patient, and the disease to give way. … When we are prepared, when we are holy vessels before the Lord, a stream of power from the Almighty can pass through the tabernacle of the administrator to the system of the patient, and the sick are made whole’ [Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 252]. …
“Faith is essential for healing by the powers of heaven. The Book of Mormon even teaches that ‘if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them’ (Ether 12:12). In a notable talk on administering to the sick, President Spencer W. Kimball said: ‘The need of faith is often underestimated. The ill one and the family often seem to depend wholly on the power of the priesthood and the gift of healing that they hope the administering brethren may have, whereas the greater responsibility is with him who is blessed. … The major element is the faith of the individual when that person is conscious and accountable. ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole’ [Matthew 9:22] was repeated so often by the Master that it almost became a chorus’ [‘President Kimball Speaks Out on Administration to the Sick,’ Tambuli, Aug. 1982, 36–37; New Era, Oct. 1981, 47]. …
“… As we exercise the undoubted power of the priesthood of God and as we treasure His promise that He will hear and answer the prayer of faith, we must always remember that faith and the healing power of the priesthood cannot produce a result contrary to the will of Him whose priesthood it is” (“Healing the Sick,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2010, 48–50).
James also made a connection between the healing of the sick and forgiveness of sins (see James 5:15). This statement may be based on the principle that the humility and faith required for a person to be healed are the same required for that person to receive forgiveness. Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated that “the person who by faith, devotion, righteousness, and personal worthiness, is in a position to be healed, is also in a position to have the justifying approval of the Spirit for his course of life, and his sins are forgiven him, as witnessed by the fact that he receives the companionship of the Spirit, which he could not have if he were unworthy” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 297–98).
In James we read, “He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). James taught that when a sinner is converted and receives the ordinances of salvation, his sins are “hidden”—covered or forgiven—through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and he is saved from spiritual death. Latter-day revelation provides the additional insight that the person who assisted in bringing about the conversion can also receive a remission of sins (see D&C 62:3).
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) affirmed this truth: “The Lord has told us that our sins will be forgiven more readily as we bring souls unto Christ and remain steadfast in bearing testimony to the world, and surely every one of us is looking for additional help in being forgiven of our sins. (See D&C 84:61.) In one of the greatest of missionary scriptures, section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants, we are told that if we serve the Lord in missionary service ‘with all [our] heart, might, mind and strength,’ then we may ‘stand blameless before God at the last day.’ (Verse 2)” (“It Becometh Every Man,” Ensign, Oct. 1977, 5).