Speaking Before God

(1 Kings 17:1-7; James 1:5-8, James 5:12-20)

As we’ve been working our way through James the last couple months, we’ve seen a consistent concern with our speech, both the ways we talk and the things we say. That concern is most clearly expressed in the first part of chapter 3, as James laments the damage our tongues can do and our inability to control them, but it finds its beginning in chapter 1 in his command that we are to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, and recurs throughout the letter as he issues commands against various forms of negative speech. His concern is well-founded, since the things we say can do great harm—but for most of the letter, there’s nothing positive to balance that concern. If you stopped the book with last week’s passage, you might come away thinking there’s nothing for it but to join the monks and take a vow of silence.

Here at the close, though, James winds up his letter by laying out a positive vision for our words and our speech. This section is usually read as a section on prayer, and certainly prayer figures largely in it, but his concern is broader than that. He’s talking more generally about our speech together as the people of God—and in the process, he highlights the fact that everything we say, we say in God’s presence; God is involved in everything we say, and thus our words are more significant than we tend to assume. In a sense, one of the subtle lessons of this passage is that prayer isn’t just specific things we say to God; we are standing in his presence every moment, and he’s involved in every conversation we have and every statement we make, and so we need to think and speak accordingly.

This, I believe, is the connection between verse 12 and the rest of this passage. At first glance, this verse doesn’t seem to connect to anything around it, until you stop and consider what oaths are. When you swear an oath, you call a power greater than yourself to witness that you’re telling the truth. People don’t do this seriously very much anymore—though our legal system and public ceremonies still require people to swear on the Bible, which is to call the word of God to witness to our truthfulness—but the remnants of it are all over our speech. That is, among other things, where the casual use of the names of God comes from, as people used to swear by God the Father or by Jesus Christ; the meaning has dropped out, but the pattern remains. In each case, whether the oath was sworn in the name of God, by some aspect of his creation, or even by one of the pagan gods of the old myths, the point was the same—to invoke some greater power than myself to support my own assertion that I’m telling the truth.

There are several problems with this. First, this kind of thing ultimately raises real questions about our credibility. As the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, using oaths to support our speech becomes, paradoxically, an admission that we can’t be trusted to tell the truth on our own; the harder we work to convince people, the stronger the language we use, the more suspect our own honesty becomes. Second, implicitly, oaths are a form of manipulation of God, as we try to use his name—or the name of something he has made—for our own purposes, to get people to believe what we’re trying to tell them. That, as James well knows and indeed as the whole Bible makes clear, is nothing God is going to tolerate.

And third, oaths and strong language are an attempt to manipulate our hearers as well, to try to force people to believe what we say or to go along with what we want them to do, not because they believe us or trust us, but on some other basis. Oaths are essentially persuasive language, but not in an honest or straightfoward way; rather than attempting to persuade people with facts and honest argument, they attempt to persuade people by impressing them in some other way. It’s the same sort of problem we see in our political advertising and argument, where our politicians are unwilling to come right out and tell you what they stand for and what they intend to do, much less to allow their opponents to do the same. They’re all trying to spin their own positions for maximum votes, while at the same time doing everything they can to convince you that the other candidate is a cannibal mass-murderer who apprenticed under the Wicked Witch. Truth is uncontrollable, and honest persuasion isn’t the most effective way to win—so if winning is your primary concern, you’re going to find another way to go about it.

By contrast, James calls us to plain, straightforward speech—to speak the truth, say what we mean, and mean what we say. As Christians, we shouldn’t need to add anything to our words to convince people of our honesty and sincerity; we should be known as truthful people whose word can be trusted and whose integrity is obvious. Others may not agree with us, but they should have no doubts that we’re being straight with them; nor should they have any doubt that we’re treating them with respect. We should not seek to manipulate others into doing things our way, nor to pressure or intimidate them into giving way for us; our practice should be to speak the truth plainly and openly—not that we have to say everything, but that we should not seek to misdirect others by what we say and don’t say, or by how we say it. As it is God who determines our success, we should devote ourselves to the truth and let him do as he will.

James continues by encouraging us to pray in all kinds of circumstances—for songs of praise are a form of prayer in their own right. If we’re in trouble, we should pray; but just as well, we should also pray when we’re happy and all seems right with the world, because God deserves the credit and thanks—and because we need to remind ourselves of that fact. And in cases of serious illness, James says, call the leaders of the church to pray for you. This is something that tends to be ignored outside Pentecostal and charismatic churches, which is too bad. Partly, this is an aspect of the pastoral responsibility of the leaders of the church—pastors, elders, and deacons alike—and partly it’s an indication of the kind of people church leaders ought to be: people of sufficient maturity and faith to lead such a prayer and seek God’s will in the faith that he can and will bring healing. As part of that prayer, James says they should anoint the sick one with oil, symbolizing that that person is being set apart for God’s special attention in the prayers of the church.

Now, James says, “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well”; does that mean that he’s guaranteeing physical healing if we just pray hard enough and have enough faith? There are those who believe so, but this runs counter to the rest of the New Testament; such an understanding makes the work of God dependent on us rather than on his love and grace, and it turns prayer into just another attempt to manipulate God and make him do what we want. How then do we understand this promise, since we know that God does not in fact bring physical healing to everyone for whom we pray?

The answer is to be found, I think, in the fact that the Greek verb which the NIV translates “make . . . well,” sozō, doesn’t only mean “heal”—it’s also the standard New Testament word for “save.” Some, in fact, take this and try to give this passage a purely spiritual meaning, though that doesn’t really work here. It does, however, point us to an important reality: sometimes it isn’t physical healing that God is most concerned about in our lives. Everything he allows to happen to us, he allows for a purpose—and sometimes he allows illness or other physical problems so that he may demonstrate his power by healing them, and we need to believe that, and pray accordingly. But at other times, he has other purposes in our physical afflictions. He may use them to humble us, to teach us to rely on him rather than to trust in our own strength; he may allow them as a way to force us to deal with emotional or spiritual issues in our lives. Or, to take the case James highlights, he may send them to discipline us for our sin and push us to repentance; in which case, the primary problem is the sin, not the illness.

This is why he says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” It’s not that every sickness is the result of sin; but sin which we have not confessed or of which we refuse to repent blocks the healing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The obvious reason for this is that God does not honor disobedience or reward rebellion, but there’s more to it than that; sin is itself a sickness, a spiritual illness, a defect that blights the health and goodness of creation. If we would truly be healed, if we truly want to be whole, we need to confess our sin, lay it aside, and turn our back on it—whether our sin is the direct cause of any bad circumstances in our life or not. This isn’t a disconnected precondition God imposes on healing us, nor is it reason to complain that he has unreasonable expectations; it is, rather, something which is simply necessary for its own sake.

But if we will confess our sins to one another and lay them aside, if we will pray for one another in God-given faith, there’s no telling what may happen. The prayer of the righteous, James declares—and here, he’s not referring to super-saints, but to anyone who has found salvation in Jesus Christ and is not harboring unconfessed sin—the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. That power isn’t inherent in us, nor is it anything magical about prayer; it is, rather, the power of God made available through us. When we seek God’s will, he guides us to pray according to his will, and his power goes to work through us to accomplish his purposes. To illustrate this, James offers the example of Elijah—a great prophet, yes, a worker of miracles, yes, a holy man of God, yes, but someone fundamentally different from us? No. At bottom, he was just another human being, really no different from us. He didn’t have some special magic power, he was simply a man of prayer who devoted his life to following and serving God; as a prophet, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and as followers of Jesus Christ, so are we. There was no power available to him that isn’t also available to us, if we will walk by faith in God rather than by sight and our own strength.

Now, none of this comes easily, for we all struggle against the sin that’s rooted deep in our hearts; God is at work by his Spirit patiently rooting it out, but sometimes we don’t want it rooted out—sometimes we want to hang on to it. Sometimes our sinful desires distort our vision, and we come to mistake the evil for the good. And sometimes we just get tired, or distracted, and wander away from the truth. When that happens, sometimes we can put things right ourselves, but more often, we need help. We need each other, people to come alongside us and speak truth into our lives—the kind of truth Dr. Larry Crabb talks about in his book Real Church, that I hope you’ve been reading with us. We need people to tell us, gently and humbly, that we’re a mess, that we’re off the rails, that we really need to face up to the sin in our heart—and that however great our problems may be, however dark the darkness in our heart may be, the love of God is greater, and the grace of God shines brighter, and there is nothing wrong in us that he does not have the power and the desire to put right. There is no evil we can do out of which he cannot bring good, and no part of our lives that he cannot redeem. This is a great and profound truth; but it’s a truth we need to hear from others before we can tell it to ourselves.

This is why James tells his hearers, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way”—whoever sees someone wandering down a path that leads away from God, and corrects that person and brings them back to the true way—“will save a soul from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Sin leads to death, sooner or later, as inevitably as falling leads to a sudden stop at the end, and believing things which are not true about God will inevitably result in doing things which are not true to his character; none of us gets everything right, of course, but a serious departure from the gospel of Jesus Christ has very serious consequences. When we see people going astray from the core truth of the gospel and the holiness of God, wandering into significant sin, it’s nothing less than an act of love to reach out to them gently and seek to correct them, to bring them back to the truth. They may not want to hear it, they may resist, they may not perceive it as loving—but it is; for in so doing, if they do ultimately respond, we prevent a great many sins they would otherwise have committed, and save them from making shipwreck of their lives. Such can be the power of godly speech, of speech that is filled with the power of God—for when God speaks, even when he speaks through us, his word never fails to accomplish the purpose for which he sent it.

And on that note, James concludes, leaving us with a word of hope. We cannot control the tongue, and in failing to do so we can do great damage; but God can, and as we speak to him and he speaks through us, we can also do great good with our words. The way of friendship with the world is what sets our tongue ablaze with the fire of Hell, but the way of friendship with God opens us up to the work of his Holy Spirit in our lives, which puts out that fire and fills our mouths instead with the word of the gospel of the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, that we may speak words of life instead of death, blessing instead of cursing, peace instead of destruction.

Trust in the Lord

(Deuteronomy 11:13-17; James 1:2-4, James 5:7-11)

Back when I was in seminary, I had the chance to watch a video of the great preacher E. V. Hill. The Rev. Dr. Hill, who died not long after that, was one of the greatest of the great black preachers in this country, a fine example of a preaching tradition that I truly admire. I’ll never preach like an E. V. Hill or a Gardner Taylor, but I’d love to be able to. Dr. Hill was a Baptist, the long-time pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and the sermon I got the chance to see was delivered to the general convention of some Baptist denomination or another. I don’t remember which one, but I do remember this much—it was one of the historically white Baptist denominations. The choir stood behind him on the stage, and their robes were white, too, so you can well imagine that Dr. Hill appeared as an incongruous figure up there. It didn’t bother him any—this was a man who’d marched with Martin Luther King, he was a friend of Billy Graham and a confidante of presidents—but he was clearly aware of the incongruity; so he started off with a joke.

As Dr. Hill told it, there was an old black farmer out with his mule, working not far off the side of the road, when a half-drunk cowboy came riding by. The cowboy stopped, looked at him, and said, “Hey, old-timer, do you know how to dance?” The old man said, “No, sir, I don’t.” The cowboy responded, “Well, you better learn quick,” pulled his revolvers off his belt, and began firing into the dust at the old man’s feet. The old man, of course, began capering around as the cowboy fired off a dozen rounds, laughing himself silly. When both hammers clicked down on empty chambers, the cowboy, still laughing, looked down and re-holstered them. A moment later, he looked up to the sound of another sharp click—and found himself looking down the barrels of a double-barreled shotgun. The old man asked him, “Mister, you ever kissed a mule?” The cowboy answered, “No sir, but I always wanted to.”

Dr. Hill segued from there into talking about how he’d always wanted to speak at his fellow Baptists’ general convention, which never exactly seemed to me like a compliment; but the joke has stuck with me for a different reason. They say that the thing that makes jokes funny is the sudden reversal of expectations at the end—you get hit with something you didn’t see coming—and that’s certainly the case here; but what makes this joke particularly satisfying, I think, is the way that that reversal of expectations moves from injustice to a sort of rough justice, as the old black man is humiliated by a younger white man, but then gets his own back. That’s not just a joke, it’s a morality play of a very old type, which expresses an impulse which we might even call biblical in its essence.

Though James isn’t joking, we see that same reversal in our passage from chapter 5 this morning. “Therefore,” James says, “be patient until the Lord’s coming.” In other words, “because of this”—because of what? Look back up the page, what do you see? You see James laying out God’s judgment on the arrogant; in particular, right before this passage, you see judgment pronounced on the rich who have oppressed the poor and the vulnerable. During my time in Colorado, one of the restaurant owners in Grand Lake closed down for a month during the spring for inventory—nothing new about that, every restaurant did it; they staggered things a bit so that someone was always open, but the spring was so quiet in town that even if we were down to one restaurant, they still weren’t all that busy—but what was new was that he told his employees that they weren’t allowed to file for unemployment during the month he was closed, and if they did, he’d fire them. They couldn’t afford to lose their jobs—it was one of the few really stable businesses there—so they did as they were told, and our food bank was even busier that month. That’s the kind of thing James is talking about in the first part of chapter 5—and he makes it clear that God will not tolerate it, that his judgment is coming and cannot be stopped.

Therefore, James says, be patient—because you can trust God for what he’s going to do. Be patient in the face of suffering, be patient in hard times, be patient in dealing with injustice, because it’s all only temporary; the Lord is coming, and his justice is coming with him, and all will be made right. This is a new development in the thought of this letter. It ties back, of course, to what he says in chapter 1, but there his focus is on the rewards of patience under trial; as we read again this morning, he tells them—and us—that having our faith tested helps us develop the ability to persevere, it builds up our spiritual endurance, thus helping us grow to maturity. In verse 12 of chapter 1, James adds to that the promise of reward: blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because “when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” Different focus, same basic idea: yes, trials are hard, but if you don’t give in, the benefit you get out of them is more than worth it.

Here, though, James goes further: be patient and strengthen your hearts, because the Lord is coming—and he is coming not only to bless us, but he is coming as the one who will judge the world. We will not be immune from his judgment, for even the best of us are sinners—this is why James says, “Don’t grumble against each other,” for if we let our frustrations in hard times turn us against each other, we are liable to judgment for that—but for those who follow Jesus, though the day of judgment will not leave us unscathed, it will be a time of joy nevertheless, for it will be the time of our vindication, and the time when all that is wrong will be set right. We can be patient in dealing with trials and suffering, we can endure the injustice of this world—though not without doing what we can to create justice, but in the understanding that even our best efforts will be both flawed and limited—because we know that perfect justice and an end to all suffering are coming. As such, we are to work actively for what is good and right in every way that we can, trusting that God is coming, and when he comes, everything will be put right, and our efforts will not have been in vain. Like Paul, James encourages us not to lose heart in doing the work God has given us.

The first image he offers is that of the farmer who “waits for the land to yield its valuable crop”—but not passively! No, we might say the farmer is actively patient, waiting for God to provide the early and later rains, waiting for the land to respond to the rain with a crop, but at the same time hard at work to do everything possible so that the crop will come, and so that it will be large and healthy. The interesting thing about that language of early and later rains, which the NIV translates as autumn and spring rains, is that this is Old Testament language, used in a number of places talking about the faithfulness of the Lord to provide for his people and keep his promises. In the way he phrases this, then, James is reinforcing his point: God is faithful to do what he said he will do, he is faithful to take care of his people, and we can trust him to do what he has promised. As such, we can persevere, we can hold fast, we can keep going, trusting that Jesus is coming, that the work to which he has called us will not be in vain, and that though the wicked seem to prosper now, their victory will not endure.

James also offers examples from the history of the people of God, first of the prophets, then of Job. Both of these are interesting. The prophets, of course, are strong examples of active patience—none of them passively waited around for God to do something, or simply endured suffering, but all actively and stubbornly went about proclaiming God’s word, often to people who really didn’t want to hear what they had to say. Indeed, for most of them, that was the cause of the suffering they faced—if they’d just been willing to shut up and go hide in a corner, they could have had much more peaceful lives. They would not. They saw injustice, and they spoke out against it; they saw unrighteousness and disobedience of the will of the Lord, and they would not be silent. Because they condemned injustice, they suffered it, and because they did the will of God, they faced significant trials; but that did not cause them to give in. Instead, it only strengthened their resolve, and their commitment to be faithful to God who called them to be his messengers, trusting that he would vindicate them—as, indeed, he has.

And then there’s Job. People will often talk glibly about the patience of Job, and I’ve said more than once that anyone who can do so has clearly never read the book; I wouldn’t particularly call him “patient.” However, that’s not what James says. He talks, rather, about the perseverance of Job, about the fact that Job endured suffering. If you’re familiar with the book, stop and think about that for a minute. Job as we see him in the book isn’t an especially pleasant man, though certainly he has reason not to be. He has a great deal to be angry about; he lived a righteous life, he followed God faithfully, and all of a sudden, his entire life was destroyed; and then, to make matters worse, his three best friends come along and start telling him it’s all his fault, that obviously he was really a terrible sinner in disguise. You could see why he’d complain. But complain he does—at God, to God, about God, to his friends, about them, and all in a rather self-righteous way—again, understandable, but still, a little grating.

But what’s the one thing Job doesn’t do? He doesn’t follow his wife’s bitter counsel to “curse God and die.” He doesn’t change sides, and he doesn’t give up. The one thing he has left to him is the faith that somehow, someway, God is still out there and still good, and that God can be called to account to Job for what he’s done to Job. It’s bedrock faith stripped down to the absolute bedrock, nothing left standing on top of it. I think James holds the endurance of Job up as an example because Job’s endurance wasn’t particularly pious, or pretty, or meek and uncomplaining, but it was uncompromising. It didn’t look holy, and it gave his friends plenty of room to criticize him, but he never let go of God. Job didn’t understand, and he raged about it, but he raged in faith . . . and God loved him for it, and blessed him for it.

And as a consequence, James says, “You have seen what the Lord finally brought about” in the life of Job—which is twofold. First, through his trials, God refined Job, bringing him to greater maturity and a deeper understanding of and relationship with God, which is the sort of thing James is talking about in chapter 1. And second, God vindicated Job and restored his fortunes, giving him back everything he’d lost. As such, the example of Job reminds us that our present suffering and our present struggles are not the end of the story, and do not have the last word. When Christ comes again, God will transform our situation for good. Why? Because the Lord is full of compassion and mercy. He cares for us, he suffers with us in our suffering, and his love for us never fails; he is absolutely faithful to us, he will never let go of us, and his commitment to us never wavers. This explains his forbearance with the unjust, for he loves them, too, and is at work seeking to bring them also to repentance; but he will only let them go so long before at last his justice comes. We will be vindicated in the end, and all that is wrong will be made right, because our Lord is faithful, and he loves us.

The Folly of Arrogance

(Psalm 39:1-7; James 1:9-12, James 4:11-5:6)

I said last week that if you follow the headings in your Bibles, the way I’m breaking up this part of James will seem strange to you. The reason for that is that the headings were added by people who are used to thinking of the book of James as a collection of practical wisdom on various topics, and thus they miss the broader organization of the book. In particular, they miss the fact that there are two long coherent sections in the middle of James. One is 3:13-4:10, which we looked at over the past two weeks, which is a call to James’ hearers to set aside their worldly wisdom, stop having one foot in the world and one in the church, get off the fence, and choose their side. As we saw, wisdom and humility and the necessary connection between the two is a major theme in that section.

The second long section is the one we’re looking at this morning, which follows right out of the preceding section. That’s not immediately apparent, because it’s easy to focus on the obvious topics James is addressing here—slander, business, oppression of the poor, and judgment coming on the rich. If you do that, though, you miss the common thread running through these three topics: having made it clear that true wisdom brings humility, and called his hearers to set aside the false wisdom of the world for the true wisdom of God, James now proceeds to warn them against pride. He shows them the folly of arrogance, and rebukes them for the ways in which they are living in arrogance rather than in proper humility before God.

Now, remember what I said last week about pride: the core of pride is insisting on our own primacy. Pride tells us that we’re number one, that we’re the most important thing in our own lives, and more important than those around us. It tells us that we have the right to rule our own lives and to get what we want when we want it. Pride says that no one has the right to tell us what to do, or how to do it; it says that we are gods unto ourselves, and no one can tell us different. As such, the core of pride is the root of the sin of idolatry, because it directs our worship toward ourselves rather than to God, and thus will not allow us to worship any external god which we cannot control, or at least manipulate.

This is the spirit against which James is writing, and we can see it in his three sections here. In verses 11-12, he’s condemning slander and false judgment—on what grounds? That the one who does this judges the law. That may seem strange to us, but stop and think about it: the law of God forbids slander and false judgment, and also gossip and other ways of tearing people down. James himself has laid out the case against that in chapter 3. To violate that is to say, in essence, that we have the right to pick and choose which of God’s commands we want to keep and which ones we want to say don’t apply to us. It’s to set ourselves over the word of God rather than to stand under it. As such, it claims a position that does not rightly belong to us, but only to God.

If the one who slanders and attacks a brother or sister in Christ is guilty of arrogance in claiming for themselves the right to judge the law of God, which is the law of love, then what about the businesspeople James talks about in verses 13-16? That sort of business planning makes perfect sense to us; what’s wrong with it? Is planning a bad thing? No, it isn’t, if it’s undertaken in the right spirit; but look at the way these folks talk. “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” There’s no humility there, no recognition that their project depends on many factors beyond their control; they’re talking as if they can control the future and determine their circumstances, and they can’t. They have the arrogance to assume that they can determine their success—and not just to assume that, but to boast about it. They need to learn to recognize that their success, their future, even their very existence, is in God’s hands; rather than taking life as a given, they need to recognize it as a gift—a gift from God, which may be taken away at any time.

From here, James turns to the rich who oppress and exploit the poor and the powerless. It’s an interesting thing that he feels the need to do this in a letter addressed to the church; but this is in line with his earlier remarks to the church about showing partiality to the rich and treating the poor as unimportant. Certainly, it has been a temptation for the church throughout the centuries to try to attract the rich and keep them happy, because they can make your budget; if keeping them happy means not challenging them on how they treat their workers, or on other aspects of their business practices, well, that’s a small price to pay for the income.

As such, it may well be that folks like this were a real problem in one or more of the churches to which James was writing, and that their arrogance was going unchallenged by the timidity of the church leadership. James, however, calls them out for that arrogance: do you think your money will enable you to avoid the judgment of God? No, but God will judge you harshly for what you have done to those who worked for you.

Now, that one might not seem to connect to us particularly, since we don’t have any rich folk of that type among us. The principle still holds, though, as it connects to the previous two sections. We need to remember that we stand under the law of God, that we cannot control the circumstances of our life, that even our life comes to us as a gift from his hand, and that we are liable to his judgment for what we’ve done. The only way to escape that judgment is by his grace—by casting ourselves on his mercy. We have to accept that we aren’t in control, God is; we have to accept that we cannot judge his law, but his law judges us, and that we cannot be good enough on our own to get a good judgment.

James’ purpose in laying all this out is not simply to call out sinners in the church, though there was evidently need for that—indeed, there’s always some need for that. His purpose, rather, proceeds from the previous section: he has called his hearers to be purified of their double-mindedness and to commit wholly to God, but he knows that many of them will resist that call. He knows that they are proud, and that they see his call to humility as foolish; they’ve bought into the world’s wisdom, and they’re comfortable with one foot in the church and one in the world. As such, he takes pains to make it clear to them that their arrogance is the true foolishness, because it leads them to act as if they have far more control than they in fact have, and that can only get them into trouble, sooner or later. His purpose is to show them the downside, the ultimate pointlessness, of continuing on living that way.

This whole passage, then, is in service of James’ statements earlier in chapter 4: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity toward God? Do you not know that you cannot have the best of both?” Therefore, he says, “Wash your hands, you sinners”—deal with the specific outward behaviors he’s addressing in this passage—but not simply for their own sake; rather, he’s highlighting these behaviors to demonstrate and illustrate the double-mindedness of many of his hearers. That’s his primary concern; he’s not just calling them to change their behavior, but to purify their hearts.

This is an area where God’s been working on me, these last few weeks. After our last presbytery meeting, as I was driving back from Rochester, God convicted me of the dividedness of my own mind and heart, of the ways in which I don’t serve and follow him whole-heartedly. He gave me a sense of how much of my energies are dissipated in ways that aren’t really fruitful, that there are things in my life that need to be pruned away, or at least pruned back. Jesus, you’ll remember, talks about that in John 15, about how the vinedresser prunes every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. This isn’t exactly his point, but the principle applies, I think. I have to admit that I am not, within my own mind and heart, simple, whole, at one; rather, I’m at war within myself.

Such, of course, is the human condition; this isn’t just me, it’s something that’s true of all of us to one extent or another. But I found myself strongly convicted of it, and driven to pray that God would correct it—that he would purify my heart and mind, that he would give me an undivided heart so that I might be always moving toward the same goal, in the same purpose. I prayed, and I’m still praying, that he would prune away all the efforts and occupations in my life which don’t bear fruit, all the activities that produce nothing of value, all the wasted effort and wasted motion that dissipate my energies and produce heat but no light.

This is the desire God has given me, and it’s the way of life to which he calls all of us; we’ll never fully realize it in this life, but this is the goal, and it’s what James is talking about in this letter. It’s what he calls us to ask God to do in our lives, that God would prune away all those things that don’t glorify him, and free us from our other allegiances—that he would bring us to a point where we are single-minded in his service, no longer divided against him and against ourselves, so that we might be truly, wholly and completely his.

Choose Your Side

(Hosea 1:1-3; James 1:19-21, James 4:1-10)

If I were king of the world for a day—and we can probably all be grateful that I never will be, but if I were—one thing I might do would be to outlaw headings in pew Bibles. In fact, I might go a step further and order the headings removed from all translations—because those headings are put there by the translators, they’re not part of the Bible. If study Bibles wanted to put in headings, fine, but take them out of your basic Bibles.

Now, that might sound strange to you, and it might sound like a really minor thing to focus on, but I assure you, I’m serious. We read those headings as part of our Bibles, even if we know in our heads that they aren’t, and they shape how we read the Scriptures; and while they’re helpful if they get it right, sometimes they don’t. Too often, they don’t; and when they don’t, they mislead us. If you have your Bible open in front of you this Sunday, and if you did last Sunday—and I do think it’s better if you do—but if, as a consequence, you’ve seen the headings in your Bible, you may have wondered why I’ve broken the text up differently.

The truth is, what those headings miss in James is that we have two long sections here in the middle of this epistle. The first begins at 3:13 and runs through to 4:10, and this is the heart of the book: James has talked about how true faith produces a different kind of life—the works of faith—and he’s talked about how that different kind of life is impossible by human strength; no one can tame the tongue, and that corrupts all the rest of us, and everything we do. Now, in this long passage, he issues what the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls “a call to conversion,” a call to fully embrace that different kind of life that Jesus gives us. True faith produces works, but where do those works come from? They come from true wisdom, from the wisdom of God, which is diametrically opposed to the wisdom of the world that produces a worldly way of living. And where does that wisdom come from? It comes from a complete change of allegiance and priorities.

And with this, we come to the fullest and starkest statement of this great theme in James, that there are two ways to live: the way of friendship with the world, and the way of friendship with God. James doesn’t pull any punches here—he wants to make it absolutely clear that this is critically important, and something God takes very, very seriously. He’s laid out what true wisdom, the wisdom of God looks like, and then he looks at the people he’s addressing—and bear in mind, this is a letter written to Christians—and their lives don’t show that. As he looks at them, he says—you’ll note, I differ with the NIV a bit here—“You want something and can’t get it, so you kill; you covet and don’t get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. But you don’t have because you don’t ask God, or because you ask with evil motives, just to spend it on your pleasures.” In other words, their lives did not show the wisdom of God because their hearts didn’t truly belong to God; they were still really in love with the world, wanting the things of the world, filled with the lust for more, not with desire for God.

And so James explodes at them: “You adulteresses!” The NIV changes that to “You adulterous people,” but literally, James calls them all adulteresses. This is the language of Hosea, of Israel as God’s adulterous wife; it’s the same language Paul draws on when he calls the church the bride of Christ. It’s language that makes clear that God isn’t just thinking about “religion” as we understand it when he saves us and calls us to be his people—a point too many in Israel never understood. It’s not enough just to give God an hour or two a week, especially if we grudge him the last fifteen or twenty minutes; it’s not enough just to show up and go through the motions. What God wants from us is what he offers us: love, loyalty, commitment, faithfulness. He invites us, in Christ, to be not just his servants but his friends; what he wants is for us to respond accordingly. That’s why James compares this to the highest form of friendship we know on Earth: the marriage relationship. If you’re married to someone, that person is supposed to be your first priority ahead of all other people and all other things. What God claims is that first place in our hearts and in our lives, ahead of all other people—even husbands and wives. If anyone or anything else draws our hearts away from him, that’s spiritual adultery; that’s idolatry, and it makes us an enemy of God.

This is why verse 5 reminds us—and unfortunately, the NIV takes the wrong reading here—of a common biblical theme: God is jealous for his people. He is the one who created us and breathed life into us; he is the one who made us spiritual beings, not merely animals, capable of consciously knowing and loving him and being his friends, not merely his adoring servants. He has given us every gift and every good thing we have, and created our capacity for joy and pleasure. He wants our absolute allegiance ahead of all others—he wants to be our unquestioned and unquestionable top priority—and he has every right to expect that from us.

The thing is, of course, we can’t meet his expectations on our own; our love, our loyalty, our faithfulness, our commitment, just aren’t up to that standard. That’s why James follows up by saying, “But he gives us more grace.” God by his grace enables us to do in his power what we cannot do on our own. He gives us the faith we need to please him, and the wisdom to live out that faith day by day in the works that demonstrate and realize our faith and bring it to life; he gives us his love, that we may learn to love him, and to love each other, as he loves us. He frees us from slavery to our desires, from the bottomless hunger for more of things that cannot possibly satisfy, and gives us his peace by teaching us to find our satisfaction in him.

All that he asks is that we draw near to him and submit ourselves to him—that we accept his will for our lives and his way rather than insisting on our own. That’s why Proverbs 3 says, as James quotes, that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Pride, at its core, is insisting on our own primacy, that we are first in our own lives and should be first in the lives of others; it is the attitude of active resistance to the claims of God in our lives. As such, it’s also the act of denying that we need his grace—for why would we need his grace to meet expectations which we refuse to accept? Pride tells us that we’re good enough already, and that anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about and has no right to say so. God opposes the proud because pride is, in its very essence, opposed to him—and unlike some politicians, he recognizes essential opposition when he sees it. He gives grace to the humble because the humble are those who are wise enough to know they need grace.

Which brings us back around to where the larger passage begins, with the connection between wisdom and humility, and the reality that the root of wisdom is the humility to acknowledge and accept our utter dependence on God, and our absolute need for his grace. James doesn’t talk about the Holy Spirit, but in the context of the broader New Testament we recognize that it’s by the Spirit of God that we do what James tells us we must do; and verses 7-10 really do contain the nub of the matter. Do you want to be wise? Do you want to please God? Do you want to live the kind of life that he wants you to live? Draw near to God. Bow your head before him; humbly acknowledge and accept him as the absolute Lord, and thus as the one who has rightful authority over your life. Recognize that saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to the Devil, that as God opposes the proud—of whom the Devil stands foremost—so if we bow to him we are committed to opposing those whom he opposes. Every “yes” logically implies a “no”—this is why saying “yes” in marriage to one woman means saying “no” to any others who might be interested; we cannot draw near to God if we do not resist the Devil. But if we will resist, God will give us the power to hold firm, and the Devil will flee.

The great requirement in this is repentance; the great promise is that if we will draw near to God, he will draw near to us. These two go together, because they must go together; God will not draw near to us if we’re still hanging tight to our sin. James lays out two components to the repentance God desires. Taking them in reverse order, one is godly sorrow at our sin. Those who are too much with the world take sin lightly and laugh it off; God wants us to take our sin seriously as that which mars our relationship with him, and to be honestly grieved by the sorrow our sin brings him, and the harm it causes to ourselves and others. This should then lead to purification, to cleansing ourselves of our sin; and this too has two components: we must repent and cleanse ourselves both externally and internally.

The external component is behavior, of the things we do or fail to do that we identify as sins; that, James pictures as washing our hands. But as important as washing our hands is, it isn’t enough by itself; if we’re sick, washing our hands may help keep the illness from spreading, but it won’t change the sickness within us. We must also, James says, purify our hearts—we must identify, repent of, and be cleansed of the unclean attitudes in our souls that produce the unclean behaviors in our lives. And note what he identifies as the root: double-mindedness. You may remember that word from back in chapter 1—it means those who are unwilling to commit to God, whose loyalties are divided and who are intent on keeping them divided. They are divided against God and thus against themselves, untrustworthy and spiritually unstable. To them, James says bluntly: get off the fence and choose your side. Choose this day whom you will serve.

Repentance is, of course, hard and painful at times, not anything we consider pleasant; but as already noted, it comes with a promise: if we will draw near to God and bow down before him, he will in turn draw near to us and lift us up. It’s God’s work in our lives, and if we will submit to him doing it, he will be faithful to be with us and to give us himself. Whatever he may call us to give up, he calls us to give up only so that we can realize that we have something far better in him; and he commands us to humble ourselves only so that he can exalt us. What God wants us to lay down is temporary, fleeting, not worth what we think it is; what he offers us in return is a gift beyond price.

True Wisdom

(Jeremiah 9:23-24; James 1:12-18, James 3:13-4:3)

We have, I think, an interesting pattern going in the book of James. Back in 1:26, James says, in essence, “Do you think you’re religious? Check your conduct. Do you control your tongue? Do you indulge your desires, or do you take care of those in need?” In 2:8, he says, “Do you think you’re really keeping God’s law? Tell me this: do you play favorites?” The challenge in 2:14 is, “You say you have faith—do you have any evidence of that?” In 3:1, it’s “So, you think you’re ready to lead the church; can you control your tongue?” And now here in 3:14, he asks, “Which of you considers yourselves wise? Does your life show the fruit of wisdom in the way you conduct yourselves and deal with other people?” Again and again, we see James emphasizing the point that our thoughts and our attitudes produce results in our actions; it is, of course, a point rooted firmly in the words of Jesus, who told his followers in Matthew 7 that they would be able to recognize false prophets by their fruit, because the health of the tree is revealed in the fruit it bears.

Now, wisdom is something which was much prized in that day and age; I’m not sure it is so much now, but calling someone “wise” is still considered to be a significant compliment. But what is wisdom? I think often we’re not very clear on that. We tend to get it mixed up with the other things that we think of as related to our minds, with knowledge and understanding and intelligence, but it isn’t any of those things. Granted, to exercise wisdom, it helps to have a lot of knowledge, but there are many people for whom great knowledge just means the chance to be greater fools. Similarly with intelligence; intelligence can amplify wisdom, but it can’t increase the number of wise options available. It can, however, allow for the invention of lots of new ways to be foolish. Understanding is good and necessary, but we can begin to take pride in our understanding, and when that starts to happen, it can lead us astray very quickly. As the saying goes, logic is often nothing more than a way to go wrong with confidence.

Wisdom, by contrast, is all about being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s about facing the questions, “Is this a good idea, or not? Is this the right thing to do, or not?” and being able to answer those questions correctly. It is the ability to perceive the best thing to do—and then to go and do it. If someone can tell you what they ought to be doing but doesn’t go out and do it, we don’t call them wise, we call them a very particular sort of fool. Wisdom isn’t wisdom until we put it into practice; it’s all about how we live.

James highlights two important truths about wisdom. First, wisdom is humble. This is an underrated virtue, not the sort of thing we tend to praise people for, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and because we often tend to consider pride a good thing. From the point of view of the Scriptures, though, humility is one of the virtues which is supposed to define the people of God. The Catholic priest and philosopher Ernest Fortin went so far as to call it “the Christian virtue par excellence . . . humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many. But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith. We are at every moment God’s creation.”

Think about that: we worship “a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many.” That’s straight out of Philippians 2. No one ever had more reason to put his own interests and desires first, or to glorify himself, than Jesus; and yet he let go of glory, he let go of all the things pride values, and humbled himself to become a mere human being—and not even one who lived a rich, comfortable life, but a vagabond from the working class; and even beyond that, he accepted the horrible death of a convicted criminal. And he did it all for us, out of love, and set us his example to follow—and Paul points to that in 1 Corinthians 1 and calls Jesus our wisdom from God.

Does this mean, then, that God calls us to look down on ourselves, to put ourselves down and dismiss ourselves as unimportant? No. Those sorts of attitudes are counterfeits of true humility, and are really just pride in disguise; they still focus our attention inward, on ourselves, and they still put us at the center of everything we do. True humility takes our focus off ourselves altogether; it’s what Paul means when he writes in Romans 12:3, “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Humility is seeing ourselves clearly, in the light of God’s holiness and grace, and accepting what we see; it is the place where we are well aware both of our weaknesses and failures and of our glories and strengths, and don’t make too much or too little of either, because we know that our value and importance rests not in what we have done or what we can do, but only and always in the fact that God made us and loves us. As C. S. Lewis put it, someone truly humble could design the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and look at it and know it to be the most beautiful cathedral ever built, and enjoy it just the same as if someone else had done it.

This is why the Scriptures consistently associate humility with wisdom—to take another example, Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but wisdom is with the humble.” Wisdom begins with the understanding of our own limits—that is, I think, part of the reason for the declaration in Psalm 111:10 that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; one of the reasons for that is the recognition of just how great God is, and how small and limited we are. Wisdom requires the acceptance that we never know as much, we never understand things as well, we’re never as smart or as far ahead of the game, as we think—and that in consequence, we need each other. That requires humility.

We must humble ourselves before each other if we are to learn from each other; we must humble ourselves before God if we are to grow in his wisdom; we must humble ourselves to receive correction and rebuke if we are to learn from our mistakes; we must humble ourselves to confess our immaturity if we are ever to mature. We must humble ourselves to accept and admit our incompleteness, our brokenness, our sinfulness, if we are ever to be made complete, whole, and holy. And in the last analysis, we must humble ourselves to understand that “all is grace,” that none of us are self-made, but that “we are”—all of us—“at every moment, God’s creation,” if we are ever truly to be ourselves.

This is essential because, as we saw, true wisdom is all about how we live. It’s profoundly practical, but not just in the sense of “whatever works”; rather, the focus of wisdom is on living a life pleasing to God. There are many aspects to that, of course, and we get a pretty good list here; but in this passage from chapters 3-4, James’ primary focus is on peace. True wisdom produces peace, while the wisdom of this world produces strife and disorder. This is because the wisdom of this world is characterized by envy and selfish ambition—it is focused on getting more. What that “more” looks like is different with every person. Some desire more pleasure. Some want more money and possessions. Some seek more power. Some long for more recognition. Some crave more excitement. We could keep the list going for a while, checking off all the things people think they need more of to make them feel fulfilled, and we’d probably still miss some. Whatever it is that people want to get, though, that’s where the world focuses its idea of wisdom: on how to get what it is that you want, or feel you need.

The problem is, as James points out, that such “wisdom” leads to disorder, conflict, and all sorts of evil behavior. The world justifies this in many ways, telling us it’s a dog-eat-dog world, that you gotta do what you gotta do, that all’s fair in love and war—our friend Joanie, in her college days, memorably declared to her mother that she was going to take Dave away from his girlfriend because “all’s fair in love and war, and this is war”—that you have the right to stand up for yourself, and whatever else we need to tell ourselves (and others) to justify us in going out and doing what we’ve already decided we want to do. At bottom is this idea that if I’ve determined I need that in order to be happy—whether it be that car, that man or woman, that job, that house—then whatever it might be, I have the right to have it, because I have the right to be happy. We seem to have forgotten that even the Declaration of Independence only tells us we have the right to the pursuit of happiness, not to be guaranteed to catch it and mount it on the wall with the rest of our butterfly collection.

And what happens? Conflict and pain and heartbreak as people fight over things, over opportunities, over relationships. Marriages are broken up, families torn apart, lives ruined; careers are wrecked and reputations destroyed as rivals sabotage each other; souls disappear into the maw of drugs, sometimes never to emerge again, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Whenever my fulfillment is my highest goal, and the way to achieve that is by getting more of whatever it is I think is going to fulfill me, I will necessarily treat you not as my equal to be respected but as an object which relates in some way to my need for fulfillment. You might be the person through whom I hope to find fulfillment by one means or another; you might be an obstacle to my fulfillment, which I must go around or find some way to remove from my path; you might be a rival who threatens my fulfillment, in which case I must find some way to defeat you; but whatever the case, you are at the most fundamental level a thing to me, not a real person, and deep down I will feel myself justified in doing whatever it takes to make sure that I get what I want with regard to you, because my happiness is at stake, and that has become my idol.

And thus, as James says, wherever that mindset prevails, you find fights and quarrels, disorder and every evil practice, sown by the Devil, who is the father of lies and the author of discord. That’s as true in the church as anywhere else. Why else do we have the term “worship wars”? Disagreement over the best way to worship was no doubt inevitable—people in the church have been disagreeing about the best way to do things for as long as there’s been the church. I’m sure even back when they met in the catacombs, there were probably differences of opinion as to whether they should put in carpet or just go with the natural stone floor. But why did those differing ideas turn into raging conflicts that split some churches and destroyed others? Because people saw questions of musical style and worship structure as questions of their own personal fulfillment, insisting that they had to have their way in order to be happy—and the discord, and the back-stabbing, and the quarrels, and everything else followed.

The only antidote to this is true wisdom, the wisdom of God, and the humility that his wisdom brings. It’s the humility that seeks to serve others and meet their needs, and thus is considerate and submissive. It’s the humility that remembers that we ourselves are sinners saved by grace, dependent on the mercy of God, and thus is willing to show mercy to others. It’s the wisdom that recognizes that when we insist on our own way and allow envy and selfish ambition to drive our decisions, even when we win, we lose, because we’ve set our hearts on things that cannot satisfy, at the expense of greater goods. It’s the wisdom that sees that what God offers us is in fact greater than anything this world can give, and thus that it’s worth letting go our death grip on earthly things to draw near to him—that friendship with God is in fact a far better thing, and far more fulfilling at the deepest levels of our hearts, than friendship with the world. It’s the wisdom and humility that enable us to hear God’s words in Jeremiah 9 with joy: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom—let not the strong man boast in his might—let not the rich man boast in his riches—but let him who boasts, boast in this and this alone: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

A Greater Judgment

(Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; James 1:17-20, James 3:1-12)

When you were young, and someone insulted you or made fun of you, did your parents tell you to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? You’ve all heard that? You know, most pieces of folk wisdom, I can see where they came from, but I have no idea why that one showed up; whoever came up with that one must have been someone who never heard a negative word in their life—or who was too thick-skinned and thick-skulled to notice. Honestly, that’s the dumbest famous saying that ever got famous; to borrow a line from Mark Twain, it’s “the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved.” Granted the harm that sticks and stones can do, it’s generally a lot easier to heal the body than it is to heal the spirit, if only because we can see what we’re working with; and often, it’s a lot easier to wound the spirit than it is to wound the body. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but only words can break me—and they can, make no mistake about it.

This is a truth I know well from my own family. Several years ago now I flew home from Colorado for my Nana’s funeral, my maternal grandmother. She was a great woman, someone who accomplished a great deal through a long and fruitful career in ministry, and I loved her very much. She was also self-righteous, extremely strong-willed, and a naturally dominant person who expected to run the show, and thought she deserved to; and she had a barbed tongue, which she wielded quite carelessly. She would say things and move on without a second thought, leaving them embedded in the souls of others to rankle and fester. Nana is gone, but the barbs she left in her children and grandchildren, and no doubt others as well, still remain. She never got me—nothing she ever said to me stuck in that way—but I’m unusual in that respect. Just to give you one example, she would say, “The first child is expected, the second is understandable, the third, you should have your head examined.” My mother was her third child; you can imagine how that made her feel.

Now, Nana was a blunt sort, and practical to a fault—and being practical can be a fault, if you carry it too far, which a lot of people do; they’re the sort of people who tell you, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and think they’re being helpful. There’s a wiser sort of practicality, though, that recognizes and understands the damage words can do; this is what we see in James. If there’s anyone who never fails in their speech, he says, that one is a perfect person, because if you can control your tongue, you can control your whole body—but no one can do it. No one can tame the tongue, no one can keep it bridled and checked. We can steer great ships, taming wind and wave to our purposes. We can tame wild animals; maybe not every species, but go see Ringling Brothers the next time they come around. Watch kids riding elephants, watch the guy dominate a cageful of tigers—he makes them bunny-hop on their hind legs, for crying out loud!—and you’ll realize that James isn’t that far off. We can train bears to ride unicycles, we can train predators to sit at our feet and eat table scraps, we can turn swift, powerful animals into beasts of burden—and yet we cannot tame our tongues. Whatever else we might be able to control, we can’t control that—which is to say, really, we can’t control ourselves, and our baser impulses.

Now, some of you out there may be saying to yourselves, “That’s not true—I can”; and certainly some people are better at this than others. But before you sprain your shoulder patting yourself on the back, take another look at yourself: can you really say that? Can you really tell me that you’ve never said anything hurtful to another person? Intentional or unintentional, it doesn’t matter. Can you really say that you’ve never told a lie? Indeed, the people who are best at controlling their speech are often the best liars, because they’re the best at being convincing. Can you really say that you’ve never complained about someone behind their back, or shared a bit of gossip, or undermined someone you didn’t like? Can you really say that you have never used your words to bring someone else down, or to advance your own goals at someone else’s expense? Because if you’ve ever done any of these things, then it is true of you, too, that your tongue has helped to set the world around you aflame with the fire of Hell.

Now, obviously, James has a very pessimistic view of this whole matter—the tongue is a restless evil, a poisoned arrow, a small fire that can set the whole forest ablaze; but though we might find his picture bleak, it’s hard to argue with. Yes, we also say many good things, and yes, we do much good with our words; but as James says, with our tongues we bless God, and with the same tongues we curse those he made in his likeness, and that should not be. For all the good we may do, we can undo many good words with one ill one. Winston Churchill famously said that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has finished putting on its pants; or to go back to Twain again, “the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal.” We might also say that for many people, self-confidence is a fragile flower, but self-doubt is a weed; sow a few seeds of the latter in the garden of their soul, and they may take years to recover. It is far easier for us to speak evil powerfully than it is to speak good powerfully, just as it’s easier to roll a boulder down a mountainside than up it; this is why Shakespeare could write in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

This is also why James begins this section by saying, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers”; his reason is blunt and to the point: “we who teach will be judged more strictly.” For those of us called to teach the church—really, for any of us called to a position of leadership, because we all lead by our words as well as our actions, and there is always a teaching component to what God calls us to do—the power of our words is amplified, both for good and for evil; as leaders in the church, everything we say takes on extra weight and force, and often not in the ways that we intend. And since there is great peril in the tongue—and since all of us make many mistakes—this is a perilous place to be, and puts us in line to receive a more severe judgment, indeed.

You can see the truth of this in the ways leaders are judged by the church; our mistakes reverberate in countless ways (some harmless, some not so much), and the judgments come apace. Take me, for example; if I misstate myself from the pulpit, or if I phrase something carelessly, I’ll usually have someone come up to me afterward and ask about it—because it matters, every word matters. Those are usually fairly minor points, easily clarified; but still, they need to be clarified. Similarly, things that other elders say carry extra weight, and can have an effect beyond what is intended; one ill-considered or thoughtless word, one small lie, one place where anger escapes us when it shouldn’t, can have devastating effects. And beyond that, there are times when it seems like people are looking for reasons to judge their leaders; sometimes, in fact, people are. In those cases, every time we open our mouths, it gives them an opportunity.

As real an issue as this is, however, it isn’t James’ main concern. He isn’t primarily focused on how people will judge those who step up to teach, but rather on how God will judge us, on the fact that God necessarily holds us to a higher standard. We saw the reason for this in 1 Timothy as we considered the damage the false teachers did to the church in Ephesus. When those whom the church has entrusted as leaders and committed to follow say things which are not from God, the church is weakened and turned aside from the purposes God has for us. When we preach or teach that which is not true, when we communicate a vision for the church which is not in line with God’s will, when we insist on getting our own way, when we shout down those who disagree with us, then the church is harmed—and God will hold us accountable for that harm.

There is much less room for error on the part of preachers and teachers and other leaders in the church than there is on the part of others in the congregation, because when we fail to control our tongues, when we fail to say only that which is true and honorable and just and pure, our failure has much greater consequences; it doesn’t only harm us, it harms the whole body. This is one of the things we need to understand before stepping up to take on the responsibility of church leadership; as leaders, because of this, we will be held to a higher standard, and judged accordingly.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I’m talking about this. Partly, of course, it’s because James talks about it; but more than that, do I think our congregation has a leadership problem? Do I think we’re particularly bad at controlling our tongues? No, I don’t. Actually, for a congregation our size, I think we’re remarkably blessed in the quality of the leaders we have. We have a very small group, and I worry about overworking them, but they’re an excellent group of people—and just as importantly, they work well together, and in a godly spirit.

No, I say this for two reasons. The first might seem counterintuitive: I say this because we’re coming to the end of the year, and it’s time for the nominating committee to start looking for people to serve as elders and deacons. Is this my idea of a recruiting pitch then: “become a leader in the church so you can be judged more strictly”? No—although I would note, if the standard of God’s judgment is higher, so too are the blessings, because just as leaders have the ability to do greater harm, so to we have the ability to do greater good. If God has given you a vision for what this congregation can be, then this is a role you need to step up and step into, because it means he’s calling you to lead; and if he is, then yes, you’ll make mistakes along the way—all of us do—but God will use even your mistakes to accomplish his purposes. It’s a noble task, and an honorable calling, and I trust that there are folks sitting out there right now whom God is prodding to step into leadership. I just want to make sure that you take that step with your eyes open, understanding that God takes those responsibilities very seriously.

Second, I want to say a closing word about grace. To each of us, James tells us how impossible it is for us to control our tongues—and so it is; it’s only by the power of the Spirit of God at work in us that our tongues begin to come under control. To those of us called to lead, he says, this is an especially grave danger, because leadership gives our careless tongues even more opportunity to do harm. Implicitly, too, though, he reminds all of us that this is just as true for others as for ourselves—that just as we struggle to control our tongues, and sometimes fail, so too others are going to fail sometimes, for we all stumble in many ways; and just as we need the grace of God when we do fail, so too do others need his grace—which means they need us to show them grace.

If you say something you shouldn’t, it may be my responsibility to correct you, but it’s my responsibility to do so with love and grace; if I do so harshly and gracelessly, am I not as much at fault as you? Yes, I am. Or if something I do upsets you, and you speak harshly to me, what is my responsibility to you? Because you spoke without grace, is it okay if I respond in kind—or do I need to show you grace anyway? Yes, I need to show you grace anyway; I need to control my tongue whether you’ve controlled yours or not. It’s not my place to decide whether you deserve grace—none of us deserves grace. Grace doesn’t come from what we deserve, it comes from the love of God; and it’s only as far as the love of God fills us and motivates us that we’ll be able to control our tongues and show his grace to others. Which means that the bottom line here isn’t “try harder,” it’s “submit yourself to God, draw close to him, and let him do in you what you can’t do in yourself.” The only way to live in grace is to live by grace.

No Private Matter

(Genesis 15:1-6; James 1:22-25, James 2:14-26)

We celebrate when people come to join with us in our fellowship and ministry in this community; we rejoice when people come to faith in Christ and claim their place in his body. But those moments are just the tip of the iceberg, built on much that has come before. Part of that is the inquirers’ class that we run from time to time. I don’t call it a membership class, since taking it doesn’t mean you have to join; there’s no pressure. Rather, it’s for anyone thinking about membership, wondering if they should join this congregation, if they want to, what it would mean if they did, and still uncertain. I’m not much of one for high-pressure salesmanship, and quite frankly, I’m no good at it anyway; I’d rather just present the truth as best I can and let the Spirit lead people wherever God wills, and so that’s the approach I take.

Now, there are a lot of ways to do this, but given the busyness of people’s schedules, I figured I ought to keep ours short. As such, I use a three-session structure designed to answer this question: what does it mean to be a member of a Presbyterian church? What’s the significance of that word “Presbyterian”? More generally, what is this thing we call the church, anyway? And what does it mean to be a member? We don’t insist people agree completely with everything in order to join, but it’s still important to lay out what this church, being rooted in that theology and having that particular understanding of the church and the meaning of membership, is all about.

One of the things we talk about in the first class, because it’s at the heart of what it means to be Presbyterian, is that we understand that salvation does not come by our own effort in any way, but is purely by faith, which itself is a gift from God. We know that we can’t earn our salvation, because we can’t live up to God’s standards; rather, we receive it as a free gift—what we cannot do, God did for us in Jesus Christ. This was a major theme of the Reformation, as Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged a Catholic Church that had grown corrupt, because it’s a major theme in the letters of Paul; it was a significant recovery for the church, for all the conflicts that came along with it.

Unfortunately, one of the divisions that arose, in the mind of Luther—and among Catholics as well—was between Paul and James. Luther saw James as contradicting Paul, and dismissed the book as “a right strawy epistle.” He didn’t quite go so far as to leave it out when he translated the Bible into German, but he’s said to have ripped it out of his personal Bible. His objection was based entirely on our passage this morning, thirteen verses out of the 108 that make up the book; and it’s based on a misreading of this passage, which unfortunately has become all too widely accepted.

It’s easy to see where this came from, as both Paul and James talk about faith and works and salvation; superficially, they sound very similar in their language, and seem to be addressing the same issues. If you read a little more closely, though, you see that though they use the same words, they aren’t talking about the same things. When Paul talks about faith versus works, he’s talking about “works of the law”—that’s his phrase; his point is that you can’t earn your salvation by keeping the law, because you can’t possibly keep it well enough to satisfy God. His focus is on the most basic level: how are we saved? How do we enter into the life of the kingdom of God?

James, by contrast, isn’t talking about “works of the law” at all—he never uses the phrase. Rather, he’s talking about works of faith. He’s not talking about how we get saved, about how we lay hold of the life of God—rather, he’s talking about what that life looks like, and about true faith versus false faith. Where Paul’s argument deals with what we can do, or can’t do, in order to be saved, James’ concern is with how our lives should look because we have been saved. Like the whole rest of the book, this is about what it means to live the Christian life—to live the life of God in this fallen world. All he’s really doing in chapter 2 is restating and expanding on a point he made in chapter 1: it’s not enough for us to hear the word of God, we need to submit our lives to its authority and do what it says, if we want to call ourselves Christians.

Remember, one of the overarching themes of this book is that there are two ways of life, the way of friendship with the world and the way of friendship with God, and that the truly Christian life is the way of friendship with God. What does it mean to be friends with someone? Well, among many things, it means that you take seriously what’s important to them, and you don’t make a habit of doing things that will hurt or upset them; you spend time with them, listen to them, tell them the truth. If you have a pattern of disregarding someone’s feelings and treating them carelessly, chances are pretty good that your friendship with that person will not survive your behavior. The same applies to our friendship with God. There are differences, of course; our friendship with God is not a friendship of equals—he has a much greater right to expect certain things of us than any human being would. As well, where human friends will only take so much from us before walking away, God will not let go of us no matter what. Still, James’ point is clear, that if we are friends of God, we need to act like it.

This is where his discussion of faith comes in, because it’s by faith that we are brought into this relationship with God, and he wants to make the point that faith in God logically entails a change in behavior. Contrary to what a lot of people think, faith is not simply a matter of intellectual assent. It doesn’t just mean deciding in your mind that you believe certain things or agree with certain statements. Faith is a commitment of your whole person. It’s a difference captured in a story told of The Great Blondin, who used to entertain crowds by crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Supposedly, one time as he came to the end of his show, he asked the crowd, “How many of you believe I could carry one of you back and forth across this tightrope?” There was a loud roar of agreement. Then he said, “Who’s willing to climb on my back?” Dead silence. The former is a kind of belief; true faith is climbing on. True faith is resting the whole weight of your life on Jesus and committing to go with him wherever he goes and do whatever he does. It’s not just giving him your agreement—it’s giving him your life, the whole thing, without reservation and with nothing held back.

This is why James says, essentially, faith works. Faith in God produces action. It’s not enough just to believe that God exists—the demons believe that more strongly than you do, and they’re certainly not saved. Their faith, if you want to call it that, doesn’t change anything for them, except to cause them great fear. True faith, by contrast, changes everything, because it’s not just believing with our mind, it’s believing with our whole being. If someone comes to you—James specifies a fellow Christian—so poor that they can’t even feed or clothe themselves properly, and you say to them, “Go in peace; I have faith that God will provide for you,” what good is that? Is that any kind of real faith? No! That kind of faith is empty, it is worthless, it is dead—there’s simply nothing alive there. True faith produces a response to the needs of others, moving us to step up and meet their needs, trusting that God will provide for us in our needs in turn. True faith produces action in the same way that acorns produce oak trees—it’s simply the nature of the thing. If someone claims to have faith in God but shows no evidence of it in the way they live their lives, that faith is like a body without a spirit: dead.

Now, there are a lot of ways we could go in applying this. We could talk about the importance of looking at ourselves and our lives to see if what we say we believe actually determines how we live. It’s certainly worth asking ourselves if our faith produces works—if we believe it with our hands and feet, not just with our minds and lips. As I was thinking about this passage, though, it was something else that struck me: this understanding of Christian faith is really quite countercultural these days. The idea is widespread in this country, even among Christians, that our faith should be a private matter, between us and God, which really shouldn’t mess up our public lives. It’s fine to be a Christian and go to church and all that if that’s what works for you, but people around you shouldn’t have to deal with that if they don’t want to; out in the “real world,” you ought to go about your business the same way as everybody else.

This is the way of thinking James calls “friendship with the world,” living in such a way as to keep the world happy; and as he makes clear, this is the exact backwards of the way of life to which God calls us. True faith cannot be merely a private matter; it cannot be something we keep restricted to safe times and places when there’s no one around who might object. True faith changes everything we say and everything we do, at every time and in every place, in every aspect of our lives. True faith isn’t concerned with whether we’re telling people what they want to hear, it’s concerned with whether or not we’re being faithful witnesses to the truth and the life of Jesus Christ—who, after all, often made people quite uncomfortable by telling people exactly what they didn’t want to hear, because it was the truth they needed to hear.

Now, this isn’t a matter of trying to work to turn ourselves into God’s friends—that would be works trying to produce faith—because this isn’t something we have done, or need to do. Rather, this is something God has already done and is doing. Remember what I said earlier, that the life of faith is all about the grace of God; it is God who by his grace has declared us to be his friends. We simply respond by recognizing that friendship with God is a far, far greater and more wonderful thing than friendship with the world, and pursuing him in turn as he pursues us, opening ourselves to the work he is doing and plans to do in our lives. It’s a matter of understanding how great and how wonderful is the love and the grace of God—how much better he is than anything this world can offer—and responding accordingly, by learning to desire friendship with God more than we do friendship with anyone else. When we truly want to please God, the rest will follow.

The Law of the Kingdom

(Leviticus 19:15-18; James 1:9-12, James 1:27-2:13)

One of the great temptations we face in this world is the temptation to go along to get along, to compromise and cut our deal with the powers that be rather than standing up against them for truth. We talked about this back in the spring as we were listening to Isaiah, about the temptation for the Jews in captivity in Babylon to give up on being Jews and just become Babylonians. After all, we don’t want trouble, and if you stand out, you’re likely to get trouble—particularly if you stand out because you’re saying “no” when somebody wants you to say “yes.” Much easier just to tell people what they want to hear and let them do what they want—that’s also why so many families are run by the kids—than it is to stand up for what’s right and face them down.

This is, of course, an age-old issue; as long as there have been rich and powerful people, there’s been the temptation for others to kowtow to them in an effort to curry favor with them. From the world’s perspective, that makes all kinds of sense: you do what you can to try to get in good with the rich and the powerful, doing nice things for them in hopes that they’ll do nice things for you in return, or at least not do bad things to you. From God’s perspective, however, that sort of behavior is nonsense; it’s judging people on the basis of all the wrong reasons, out of all the wrong motives, and you end up allying yourself with your oppressors in hopes of shifting the oppression off your shoulders and on to someone else’s. Which is not only despicable, it’s foolish. That’s why James asks, “Why do you favor the rich? Aren’t they the ones who oppress you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court and blaspheme against the name of Christ? Why would you favor them over the poor—why would you join with them in oppressing others?”

Now, I said a few weeks ago that there are two big themes in the book of James. One, there are two ways we can follow, the way of friendship with the world and the way of friendship with God, and they’re mutually exclusive. Two, the way of friendship with God makes no sense to the world; to understand it, we need a new point of view. We need to see ourselves primarily not as people of this world, but as people of the next—as those who belong to God, who are citizens of his country living in this one. In this world, the poor don’t much matter. You can help them, or you can exploit them; one might be more admirable than the other, but in the end it’s no more significant than you want it to be. They just aren’t important to society. The rich, by contrast, matter. They have influence, they have power, they have significance, and so of course you defer to them, and of course you give them special treatment, because they’re the ones who can help you or hurt you. What they think of you matters; what the poor think of you . . . doesn’t.

Such is how much of the world sees things, but it’s not how God sees things; when the church is looking at life that way, something’s wrong, and it needs to be fixed. So James holds up a mirror to them—the mirror of the royal law, which is to say, of the law of the Kingdom of God—to help them see themselves from God’s point of view, from the perspective of faith. We aren’t called to be people of this world, doing what we need to do to get ahead in this world; that’s not what it means to be doers of the word, nor is it any way to live a life that’s even remotely Christian. Instead, we’re called to be people of the Kingdom of God, living out the life of the kingdom in this world, and so bearing witness to Jesus Christ; which means making our decisions not on the basis of what will advance our careers, or make us more money, or give us more enjoyment, or help keep us safe, but on the basis of what Jesus wants us to do and how he wants us to live.

This isn’t easy. We look at the situation James describes, and the fact is, we understand it. Poor people don’t do much for the budget, and they don’t tend to attract people who will, and if you have someone walk in who hasn’t washed themselves in two weeks or their clothes in three—that being the case James is talking about—they aren’t going to be all that pleasant to have around. Most middle- and upper-class folk like the idea of helping the poor—at a distance; sharing a pew with them is often quite something else again. If a rich person shows up, though, that’s a very different matter. After all, if they like you, they just might decide to write you a nice fat check, and boom! your church budget is in the black for the year; and if they really like you, maybe they keep coming, and maybe they bring a friend or two, and maybe all of a sudden there’s money to put in a new audiovisual system, or remodel the basement, or maybe even put up a nice new addition to the building. Granted, that’s a lot of “maybe”s, but still, it’s an appealing vision—one which has sidetracked all too many churches.

To this, James says two things. First, he says, just because these people are poor in the world’s eyes doesn’t mean that’s how they look in God’s eyes, or how we should see them; from the perspective of faith, they’re rich. Why? Because God has chosen them to be heirs of his kingdom. They may not have the wealth of this world, but that’s of no real importance, for worldly riches don’t last; hard times come, and they vanish, or death comes, and they are left behind. “The rich will disappear like a flower in the field,” says James; “in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” The poor and lowly, on the other hand, God has chosen to exalt, partly as a display of his power and partly be-cause the poor have less to insulate them from God. Those who are rich can easily come to believe that they don’t need God, that they can do just fine on their own; poverty tends to strip away such illusions. As such, to honor the rich above the poor will often be to dishonor those whom God has honored, and vice versa.

Second, James tells us, “If you favor the rich over the poor, you’re committing a sin. What does the word of God say? ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ When Jesus was asked to summarize the Law, he said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ And when the Scripture says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ part of what it means is, ‘You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but you shall judge your neighbor with justice.’” Religion that plays favorites, and especially that favors the rich over the poor, is worthless, and no thing of God, for it’s directly opposed to the law of love.

Now, in response to this, the temptation is to say, “Well, it’s no big deal—it’s just one little sin; I’m doing everything else OK, so I don’t need to worry about it.” To that, James says, it doesn’t work that way: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” This is an extraordinary statement, and one which should be taken completely seriously; there is no such thing as being mostly innocent before God. As the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century British saint who was a formidable biblical scholar and medieval scientist, put it, if we practice partiality—if we play favorites between one person and another, one group of people and another—then it’s the same as if we had committed adultery or murder.

The reason for this is that God’s law isn’t just a bunch of disconnected commands, though that’s how we tend to think of it. It isn’t like human laws, where if you get caught breaking a particular law, you’re punished for breaking that particular law, and that law only. Instead, the law of God is a whole, it’s all of a piece—it’s the imperative to love God and others as he loves us, with our whole being—and any sin breaks that whole law. You’ll hear people argue sometimes over whether some sins are worse than others; one side will point to the differing punishments assigned to various sins in the Old Testament, while the other will maintain that we can’t call some sins worse than others because that would mean calling some sinners worse than others. The truth of the matter is, both sides are right; yes, some sins clearly are worse than others, but none of us can claim to be any better than anyone else, because we’ve all broken the law of God, and we’re all accountable for all of it. The weight of the whole law of God rests across all our shoulders, and no strength of ours can lift it.

This is why James commands us, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty, for judgment will be merciless to those who have not shown mercy.” We have no hope, except by the mercy of God; we have no hope, except in the love of God. We can’t satisfy his law on our own, but only by the grace of God in Christ, who took on himself the punishment for our sin; it’s only in Christ that there is anything for any of us save the most merciless judgment. And—here’s the key—we need to see ourselves accordingly, and to treat others accordingly. Our lives rest on the love and mercy and grace of God, which we do not and will never deserve, and so we must show love and grace and mercy to others, whether they deserve it or not. We must treat others with love and serve them with grace no matter whether we think they have it coming, or whether they will ever be able to do anything for us in return, because we need to show others the mercy we have received. To those who refuse to show mercy, there remains no mercy, but only the hard edge of judgment; but to those who show mercy, to those who share the love and grace we have received, mercy wins out over judgment.

This isn’t always easy, because it often runs against the grain, not only of our own expectations, but of those around us. James knew that, and he knew what he was saying. He was in Jerusalem, where he was the leader of the church, but he wrote to Christians across the Roman Empire, living in the Roman culture and playing by Roman rules; and for all the advantages we noted to playing favorites in our society, they were far, far greater in that one. You see, Roman society was completely stratified by wealth; everything depended on your rank—where you could live, what you could do, everything—and your rank depended on your net worth. The law specified what your net worth had to be to qualify for a given rank. The rich and powerful would serve as patrons, and their clients would have to show up at the patron’s house first thing in the morning, every morning, to pay them homage and see if there were any tasks their patron wished to assign them. Thus for the rich in Roman society, their wealth automatically meant they could tell people what to do and expect to have it done immediately; because they were rich, they got what they wanted, when they wanted it, and that was all there was to it.

To buck this, then, as James called the early church to do, meant crossing the expectations of their culture, and of their wealthy members, of how the rich were to be treated; it meant rejecting the values of a society that honored people based on how much money they had, and choosing to honor people instead based on a very different standard, one which their culture not only would not understand but in fact would find offensive. It meant rejecting the expectation that service was a duty to be given to the rich and powerful simply because they were rich and powerful, and to hold up instead the Christian responsibility to serve the poor, the powerless and the needy. It meant rejecting the lordship of the proud and the mighty, and honoring as Lord the humble crucified Christ. It meant turning away from a social order that was all about power—as most human social orders are—and embracing a different order, one which is all about love, and mercy, and service. It meant telling their world, “We don’t follow you anymore—we don’t serve you anymore,” turning their back on it to follow Christ instead, no matter what. May we be just as committed.

The Poem of Your Life

(Isaiah 1:16-20; John 1:1-5, James 1:19-27)

We talked last week about God as the Father of lights, the giver of every good and perfect gift, with no variation, no shifting or change, in his goodness; in particular, we talked about the significance of that for our view of the trials we face in life, that we can be certain that he sends us only what is good for us, and that his faithfulness to us continues even in the hard times. What we didn’t have time to get to is the other way James applies this truth. He says, “Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters; every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” not just to underscore and give reason for his comments about trials and temptations, but also to set up his next comment: “He chose to give us birth”—the Father gave birth to us; this is strange, striking language, designed to catch the ear and grab our attention—“through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”

Several things here. First off, the example James holds up to prove his assertion is—us; or more precisely, God’s creative work in us. Whether this means the physical creation of human beings, recorded in the first chapters of Genesis, or whether it’s intended spiritually, referring to our new birth into new life in Christ, James doesn’t specify; for my part, I’m inclined to think he means both. Why? Well, he says the Father gave birth to us “through the word of truth.” What does that mean? Part of it, obviously, is the word of Scripture, the Old Testament Law and the New Testament Gospel; but the deeper meaning here is Jesus, through whom both our physical creation and our spiritual re-creation were accomplished. Jesus is, as John tells us, God’s Word through whom all things, including us, were created; and he is the Word made flesh, the Word incarnate, through whom we have been re-made, made new, born again from above to new life in him. He is the Word of God made human, revealed to us through the word of God written, the Bible, through whom and through which we have been given birth.

But what about that language, “gave us birth”? We shouldn’t press that too far, as if we might claim to share God’s DNA; one of the reasons the Bible uses male language for God is to keep Israel and the church from moving in that direction. Goddess worship tends to follow that track to its logical conclusion and assert that we ourselves are divine, gods and goddesses in our own right, and there’s just no room for that here—the Scriptures are careful not to leave any room for that at all. And yet, it’s quite easy to fall off the way of truth in the opposite direction, into what we might call the equal and opposite heresy of distancing God from his creation. This is the heresy of modern Western rationalism, which might believe there’s a God in some abstract sense but feels free not to give a rip about him on the grounds that he really doesn’t give a rip about us, either. To this, James’ language gives the lie. How we imagine a father giving birth, I’m not sure, but this makes it very clear that God is personally, intimately involved in our creation, both our physical creation and our spiritual re-creation.

The reason for this is set out in the last part of verse 18: “so that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Literally the first part of the harvest, the first things that could be taken from the fields, and thus the promise of the full harvest to come, the first fruits were dedicated to God under the Old Testament law, and so also came to be understood as God’s special possession. Both these things are in view here. All of us as human beings belong to God in a special way, for we are capable of relating to him in a much deeper way than the rest of the created world; those of us whom he has saved through Jesus Christ are firstfruits of his creation in another way, for we are the beginning of his redemptive work, which ultimately will encompass the redemption and renewal of the whole created order. We are important and valuable in ourselves, but also as signs of what is to come, as the first fruits of the work of Christ on the cross.

Which means that we have a responsibility to live accordingly; and so James says firmly, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” The world tells us, if you want to understand yourself, if you want to know yourself, look at yourself—look at your desires, your impulses, your strengths, your weaknesses, and go from there. But while all of that is valuable, the Bible tells us we need to begin not with ourselves, but with the God who made us. If we have indeed been given birth through God’s word of truth, then to know who we are and how we should live, we need to under-stand that word of truth; which is to say, we need to stand under it, to place ourselves in position to receive and accept it. We must be quick to listen and slow to speak; we must receive and absorb the word of God, chew on it and swallow it and let it change us, rather than spitting it out whenever we don’t care for the taste.

Too often, however, we reverse this—we’re slow to listen and quick to speak. Too often we see ourselves not as the receiver but as the judge, standing over the word of truth to critique it. There are, for instance, those who feel they have the right to disregard or reject the parts of Scripture that say things they don’t like; but really, you can’t do that without rejecting all of Scripture, because the Bible itself won’t let you do that. Once you start doing that, you have rejected the word of God as the word of truth, and have instead set it up as something to be used when convenient to support what you already believe, or would like to believe. Others of us, though we might not go quite that far, still have something of that spirit in us as we read the word—we just resist more subtly, is all.

Now, none of this is to say that we have to believe everything anyone tells us is biblical; clearly, there are a lot of bad interpretations floating around out there along with the good ones. It is, however, to say three things. First, even when confronted with a view of Scripture which we think is false, we should listen carefully, to see if perhaps there’s a grain of truth to it which we haven’t considered; which is often the case. It’s only the arguments opposed to our own, after all, which can show us the flaws in our own views. Second, we aren’t free to resolve our issues or problems by throwing out the Scripture, for to do that is to hush the voice of God in our lives. Third, in all of this, we must be slow to anger, as James says, for human anger does not produce the righteousness of God. Anger over disagreements, anger over being challenged, does not lead to right relationships, either with God or with each other, and must be set aside in the normal course of life. Therefore, James says, we must put aside everything in us that resists the word of truth and receive it meekly—we have already been given it, but we must open our hearts and welcome it, and the transformation it brings.

We’re called to become doers of the word, and not merely hearers. What matters isn’t how much we’ve heard, or how much we know (or think we know), or how good we are at talking the talk—what matters is how much the word has changed us, how much it’s expressed in our lives. This is the first appearance of a theme James will consider in more detail in chapter 2, the connection between faith and works, which will lead him to declare that faith without works is dead. But what does it mean, to be doers of the word? It means that if you say you believe the gospel, and it doesn’t change your life, you don’t believe it. If you listen to the preaching of the word, and you nod your head and say, “Good sermon,” and you don’t go out and put it into practice, you don’t believe it. If you read the Bible, and you understand what it’s telling you, and you don’t do everything you can to live accordingly, you don’t believe it. It’s not enough to say the right things, it’s not enough to sing the hymns, it’s not enough to repeat the Creed, it’s not enough to think all the right thoughts—if you don’t do it, if you don’t live this book, then you’re missing something. You might be saved for later, you might have your ticket to heaven punched, but if all this never leaves your head, if it never reaches your hands and your feet, then you aren’t living God’s life now.

You see, we aren’t here just to think certain things, or even to say certain things; it’s not enough just to know God’s word. That phrase “doer of the word” is an odd one—James here is writing in Greek, but he’s thinking in Hebrew. The Greek verb there is poieo—the noun version, poiēma, is the word from which we get our word “poem”; it can mean “to do,” but its basic meaning is “to make,” and in normal Greek, this would have been read as “maker of words”—in our terms, “wordsmith,” or “poet.” To take the typical Hebrew phrase, “doer of the word,” and just import it into Greek the way he does creates a very interesting bit of wordplay—and a profound one, I think. As Christians, we’re called to be in a very real way God’s poems, to write out his words with our lives, so that people who look at our lives can read his message to them in us.

Put another way, we’re supposed to incarnate the word of God—to make God’s word real in our lives, to wrap the flesh of our lives around the bone of his will and his commands, to become walking examples of his teaching; as we follow Christ, who was the Word of God incarnate, we are called to be “little Christs”—that’s what “Christians” means—to be copies of Christ, copies of the word of God, walking around in this world. The Bible is the word of God written, presenting us with Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh; and our job is to become the word of God acted out, lived out, in 21st-century America. It’s true, as many have said, that you are the only Bible many people will ever read; it’s also true, says James, that that ought to be enough. If you are the only Bible people have ever read, that ought to be enough to tell them who God is, and who Jesus is, and why they ought to follow him. That’s what it means to be a doer of the word, and not merely a hearer of the word. That’s what it means for your life to be a poem for God. That, says James, is what it means to be a Christian.

Now, for our lives to look that way, every part of our lives ought to express the love of God and the grace of Christ and the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit. Those gifts ought to be the guiding and governing realities of our daily lives, and everything we say and everything we do should bear them witness. But how do we do that? If we live like that, what does that look like? It’s all well and good to say, as I’ve said and others have said, that the Christian life is all about being in Christ and following Christ; but being produces doing, and following Christ means going in a certain direction, and at some point you have to put your shoes on and start walking—which way?

This is why James, at the end of this chapter, defines religion very practically, and very concretely; and it’s why he’ll come back to these points later on in the letter to expand and reinforce them. What’s true religion? Restrain your tongue, for starters; keep a tight rein on it, and don’t let it wander off the path. Gossip, backbiting, insults, angry speech, lies, all of that, anything that doesn’t help and encourage and build up the body of Christ is right out. For another, there’s something here, I think, that our translation doesn’t catch. The Greek here is problematic—you can either go with an unusual word meaning, or disregard the grammar; the NIV chooses the latter, but I’m inclined to follow Luke Timothy Johnson and do the former instead. He reads verse 26 this way: “If anyone considers himself religious without bridling his tongue and while indulging his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” I think that makes the most sense of the flow of the passage, because it sets up the turn into verse 27, with James emphasizing that indulging our own desires rather than taking concern for the needs and wants of others is un-Christlike. There’s just no room in that sort of approach to life for the one who traded in the glory and perfection of heaven for the mess and pain of life on this planet, and who then voluntarily submitted to a torture-death he didn’t deserve.

Instead, James says, true religion is to take care of those in need—here again, as we’ve seen before, the emphasis is on the most powerless and vulnerable, the fatherless and the widow—and keep oneself unstained by the world. Rather than falling into the world’s ways of thinking and living, rather than being doers of the world whose lives look just like everyone else’s, we need to hold fast to what Scripture teaches—all of it, properly understood—even when that puts us solidly against the world around us. A religion which conforms itself to the ways of the world, which indulges us in our desires and doesn’t challenge us to control our tongues and watch what we say, is worthless, and no thing of God.

Such a person, who hears the word of God but doesn’t do it, James compares to a man—and yes, he specifically says man here, as in “male human”; the women of the church can make of this what they will—who catches a mirror out of the corner of his eye as he’s walking along, takes a quick glance at himself, and keeps on walking, immediately forgetting what he looked like. Confession time: that’s me, most days, with my mind on something else, so I can relate to that. The thing is, that’s not how we’re supposed to use God’s word. Instead, we’re supposed to look into it deeply, to absorb it and let it shape us.

It’s like the story you may have heard of a boy growing up in New England who saw a face in the mountain, a kind, wise, gentle face, and wanted to know whose face it was, so when the boats came in, bringing people to the village, he would go down and watch their faces, and sometimes ask if they knew whose face it was. All his life he did this, until one day he asked someone getting off the boat if they recognized that face, and the person looked at him and said, “Yes—it’s you.” He had spent so much time looking at that face, it had transformed him. That’s what James calls us to, to spend so much time looking at God through his word that he becomes the vision we have always before us, always fixed in our minds, so that we are transformed.

No Shadow of Turning

(Genesis 22:1-19; James 1:12-18)

I imagine you’re all familiar with the sort of mock awards that label people most likely to do this or that. You know, the section in the high school yearbook that picks the boy and girl most likely to succeed, and then goes on to such things as “Most Likely to Host a TV Game Show.” Well, in my class at Hope, if our senior yearbook had had “Most Likely to Win a Nobel Prize,” there’s no doubt who would have won it: Richard Bouwens. Richard was, to put it mildly, an interesting character. He was sweet-natured and gentle, but completely clueless socially; he had at once the most brilliant and the most narrowly focused mind of anyone I’ve ever met, and while he probably understood physics and its underlying math as well as any of our professors, the rest of his subjects were a mystery to him, as were most of the people he studied them with.

I remember a table full of us helping him set his schedule one semester, and his complete bewilderment at all these subjects, what they were and why he needed to take them; I also remember one of my roommates talking about taking Richard for Sunday dinner at a friend’s house one time and spending the whole meal translating, Richard to English and back again. If you’ve heard the stories about Einstein getting lost walking to work from his house in Princeton, when he could see the campus from his front step—that’s Richard.

As I said, though, he was kind and likeable, and undeniably brilliant in his field, so we all helped him deal with the areas where he was weak; to his math and physics professors, though, he was a real challenge. In particular, there was the problem of how to push him hard enough without completely losing the rest of the class, which is something I don’t think any of them ever solved. I still remember the time—my roommate was in this class and told me about it—when one of Hope’s math professors decided he was going to write a test that Richard couldn’t ace. It didn’t work. Richard still got his A, but the whole rest of the class flunked. I think the prof ended up having to take Richard’s score out and grade the rest on a curve to avoid wrecking their GPAs for the semester.

Now the problem with that test was that the professor got so focused on Richard, and on not letting Richard beat him, that he forgot the real purpose of that test. It wasn’t, properly, to keep Richard from getting an A, but to show the students in that class how well they understood the material (and, of course, to help him quantify that so he could grade them). The proper purpose of that test, like any test, was educational, to help the students see what they still needed to learn. In forgetting that, he ended up producing a test designed not to educate his students but to fail them—which, except for Richard, is exactly what it did. It’s unfortunate the prof only realized that after he’d given it.

Fortunately for us, this is a mistake God never makes. As we saw last week, the purpose, or at least one purpose, of testing is to produce endurance; part of that is that testing teaches us what we can endure, that we’re actually capable of doing a lot more and pushing ourselves a lot further than we think possible. God tests us, stretching us so that we grow, and so that we see ourselves growing; he pushes us to our limits at times, not to find out where they are—he already knows that—but so that we find out where they are. After all, believing we can endure testing is essential to actually enduring it.

This is why verse 12, which both closes the previous section of James and opens this one, says, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial.” Blessed are those whose faith is tried and proven true and strong, for they are the ones who run the race with endurance, taking hold of the eternal life to which they were called, and at the end of their race receive the crown of life from the Lord’s hand. We noted a few weeks ago that the winners of the ancient Olympics would receive a laurel wreath as their prize, a temporary crown that would last only a week or two before withering completely; but those who win the race of faith, who run with endurance, receive something far better, something eternal: the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. This is the gift of true, unending life, the life of God, with God, forever.

That said, no one always perseveres. Trials always bring temptations with them, temptations to yield to the pressure and take the easy way out, and sometimes even the best of us give in to those temptations. When that happens, there’s the further temptation to blame the whole thing on God. After all, it’s well established in the Scriptures that God tests us; we have the definitive example in Genesis 22, where God tests Abraham’s faith about as sorely as it could possibly be tested. (There’s a lot that can be said about that story, about how it foreshadows but inverts God’s salvation—because in the end, he would provide the lamb to take the place of all of us, but that lamb would be his own son; but for this morning, note another critical point in verse 5. Note how Abraham says, “The boy and I are going over there to worship, and then we will come back to you.” He trusted that somehow, some way, God was going to be faithful, and Isaac would come home with him; that was his response to God’s test.) But if it’s God who tests us, then it’s just a short step to saying that it’s God who tempts us; and if we can blame him for tempting us, then it’s his fault if we give in, not ours.

To this, James says, “No. It’s your own desires that tempt you—it’s you undermining yourself. God can’t be tempted by evil; it doesn’t appeal to him at all, and so he has no interest in tempting anyone else.” He allows us to be tempted in order to try to test us; he allows our desires to rise up against our faith, because if he suppressed them for us, we would be worse off in the end; but he isn’t the source of our temptation. For that, we must look within, to our own fallenness and our own weaknesses; and forcing us to do so, to see our dark side as well as our good side, is one of the benefits of the trials God sends us.

To avoid doing so, to refuse to see the darkness we all harbor in ourselves, is to yield to one of the most insidious and deadly of all temptations, that of spiritual pride, which is driven by the desire to see ourselves as holier than we really are. The only antidote to that poisonous sin comes through other trials and temptations; even if God protected us from every other temptation, it would only provide more room for that one to operate in our lives, which would be no gain to us in the long run. We must face our sinful desires directly, and see them for what they really are, if we’re to grow; and for that to happen, in order to see ourselves that clearly, we must be put to the test.

The key point here is that though testing and temptation are closely linked—indeed, the temptation often is the test—they’re fundamentally different. The temptation in itself is a bad thing, it’s the lure of sin and the pull of evil in our lives, and it is not of God; but he allows it in order to test us, and the testing, though difficult, is a good thing. It’s necessary for our growth, necessary for us to build endurance, and necessary to keep us humble. Without it, we end up like the student who coasted through school on challenge-free classes and easy As—lazy, unmotivated, with an unreasonably high opinion of ourselves and our abilities, and utterly unprepared to face any kind of real challenge.

This is important for us to understand, not only for our view of ourselves, but also for our view of God. You see, to confuse testing and temptation, to blame God for tempting us and accuse him of doing wrong in testing us, is to call him the source of evil in our lives as well as of good. Essentially, then, we’re saying that God is inconstant, that he’s good at one point and not good at another—that he’s as fickle and changeable as the weather. Of course, in the weather, that’s not all bad. One of the things I miss about Colorado is the play of light on the mountains—watching the cloud-shadows move, sharp-edged, across the slopes, seeing the peaks light up on a bright morning, and again with the alpenglow at sunset; but while that sort of variation is a beautiful thing in the mountains, it wouldn’t be good at all in God.

We’d be in a world of hurt, literally, if the goodness of God changed with the weather, or the seasons, or the time of day. And so James tells us—and there are a lot of different translations for this, since it’s difficult Greek, but the overall point is clear—that in God there is no such variation. We don’t see shadows move across our lives as God’s light shifts, or changes, or wanes; the world turns, and day comes and goes, but God is the source of all light, and his goodness remains steady. He is always good, and only good, and everything he sends is good, and nothing evil comes from his hand.

This is why we can, as James tells us, consider it joy when we encounter various trials; they’re difficult, yes, but we can approach them with the assurance that God is at work in and through them for our good. God has allowed them in order to help us grow, he’s with us in their midst, and he wants us to overcome them—he tests us because he wants us to pass. He isn’t trying to bring us down, he’s working to build us up, and if we will only lean on him when trials come, he will give us what we need to face them. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10, “No testing has overtaken us that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that we may be able to endure it.” God is faithful, and his faithfulness is great beyond our ability to measure; he allows us to face trials only so he can bring us through them. We can trust this to be true, we can trust his goodness and his faithfulness, because he is the Father of lights, the source of all light, and in him there is no shadow of turning; his light never wavers, his goodness never changes, and he always keeps his promises.