James 5:13-20, part 2 (AD 48)
“My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death an cover over a multitude of sins.” (v.19)
Wandering has stages, and the danger depends on where you are and who you’re with. You can be in a hiking group in broad daylight and take a few dozen steps in the wrong direction. Before you know it a dozen voices are encouraging you back, and back you trot, embarrassed at your inattention. Or you might be walking away from a friend, in a swamp-filled, featureless terrain where two steps in the wrong place might be the end of you. Or you might be on a mountain, tethered to fellow-mountaineers, looking at your map while taking the advice of more experienced climbers in front of you.
In our Christian walk we go through all those places. In one moment on a precarious mountaintop of temptation. In the next, through a green pasture of health blessings. Another time, in a swamp of discouragement. But we weren’t designed to be in those places alone, or to abandon others to solo efforts. We were built to have and be fellow-travellers. Who do you walk with as you follow Jesus? Expert map-readers? Well-equipped climbers? Or the kind of person who sees danger as an invitation, and lostness as freeing?
A single man once asked a friend how to find a wonderful, godly woman to be his wife. He was told, ‘Be a wonderful, godly man’. There’s a similar lesson here: be the kind of person who helps other people stay on the path with God, and you will more easily surround yourself with people who help you do the same.
Note also that to “wander from the truth” isn’t a harmless deviation from the optimal, or even a desirably exciting side street. The ‘truth’ in Scripture is not intellectual accuracy but relationship with God and safety from the consequences of our sin. To ‘wander’ from can mean to adopt heretical teachings or deny basics of the Christian faith. But it equally means to live in a way that betrays that faith is not in you, or that you are pushing it away. John said, “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth” (1 John 1:6, NIV).
To protect each other from this, we are to live in intentional and proactive community, entwined with our spiritual siblings’ lives. How? Not by taking an emotional crowbar to our conversations, or with a demand that people tell us what we have no right to know. Rather, by building relationships deliberately, that by design put us in a position to help people. That help might be needed when we can see that something is wrong. Or when we suspect something is wrong and, out of love, challenge someone on it. We do it by mourning with people in their sadness, and celebrating with them in their happiness. We do it through practical help and spiritual support. We do it thanklessly, over time, with no expectation of anything in return.
For some cultures this comes naturally, but if it doesn’t it’s not a pass, just like being an introvert doesn’t give us a pass from the urgent need to share the gospel. It is a duty of care that we share first and foremost with others in our local church, for those with us in our local church.
And as James pointed out, it’s not merely a matter of bodily life or death – it’s much more important than that.