To be honest, working through my study guide on the Book of James these past few days had felt rather like doing a comprehension exercise in school.
Until this question came out:
‘In James 2:5, it says God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Is God guilty of showing favouritism in this way? Explain.’
Now that is what I call Bible study.
To answer this question, we first need to know what exactly is favouritism.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it’s the ‘unfair practice of treating some people better than others’, i.e having a ‘favourite’, and also known as partiality.
And how about the original Greek word used in James? (Often, the Hebrew or Greek word has a significantly deeper meaning than the English translation, and it seems like it’s the case here as well.)
The Greek word prosopaulapsia literally means ‘receiving of face’. It is understood as ‘the fault of one who when called on to give judgment has respect of the outward circumstances of man and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high born, or powerful, to another who does not have these qualities.’ Sounds familiar? In Singlish, we would probably term it as ‘give face’.
With that, we can already answer our question. But because the end goal of Bible Study is never just to answer questions and be intellectual, rather than to know God more and be humbled and made wise, let us go a little bit deeper, into Scripture itself.
First of all, we know God is just.
- Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.(Acts 10:34-35)
- But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil,there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:5-11)
- And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:9)
- …since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. (Colossians 3:25)
We also know that God commands us not to show favouritism.
- Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15)
- Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.(Exodus 23:3. Note that this is referring to the context of a lawsuit, and it shows that no one should condemn the rich just for being rich.)
- I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. (1 Timothy 5:21)
But here are some counter-questions:
Doesn’t God show favouritism towards Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau?
If God has mercy and compassion on whom He wants to have mercy and compassion (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15), isn’t that favouritism?
No, and no. Simply because having a criteria for our choice isn’t quite the same as showing favouritism.
The issue really is, what is this criteria based on?
And in this case, it really is God’s perfect wisdom. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will..(Ephesians 1:11.)
It’s at this point that some will probably groan, “oh, here it is again- the ‘usual God is God, so let’s just have faith and believe’”.
God certainly is God, and we do need faith, but it goes beyond that.
Our God is one who reveals Himself to us, through His Word, and may I suggest, through our seeking too.
Abel and Cain were given the same criteria, and were under the same set of rules. Abel followed what God commanded, Cain didn’t.
As for Jacob and Esau, God had already chosen Jacob before the nrothers were even born (Genesis 25:23). If anything, was their parents who showed favouritism (Genesis 25:28).
Finally, it’s common to hear this argument- if God is fair/impartial, then shouldn’t He save everyone? I’ve found myself asking that too.
But while reading up on this topic, I find that if this argument holds, then it leads to a very interesting question – if God chooses not to save anyone, does that then make Him fair/partial?
Whenever God makes a choice, it’s always for a purpose.
Israel was chosen among other nations, so that through it God’s salvation could reach all nations.
Indeed God chose us not because of favouritism, but because of His mercy and compassion.
What God does is the opposite of favouritism.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)