The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position because he will pass away like a wild flower (James 1:9-10).
Webster defines a paradox as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is true.” The Bible contains a lot of paradoxes, telling us that the ones who give receive, the weak are strong, the empty are full, the slave is free, the cursed are blessed, and that death brings life – all statements which first strike the ear as contradictory, but when we think about them we realize they are true. The pithy Englishman G.K. Chesterton once gave this insightful definition of a paradox: “A paradox is truth standing on its head shouting for attention.” Paradox can be a powerful vehicle for truth, because it makes us think.
The poor person is rich.
The Christian in humble circumstances, the lowly poor person actually has a high position because: poverty enables him to be open to God; and, the pressures of poverty lead him to rely on God’s enablement and provision. Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; when you work hard but struggle to keep food on the table; and, find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God. And it is in this state of humility that the believer in Jesus cries out to God, recognizing his dependence. Trust is no option, but absolutely necessary for survival.
What God deems important is a broken, humble, and contrite heart. God cares about our poverty of spirit. A person can be economically disadvantaged, but, at the same time, be spiritually advantaged. We are loved by God not because of either wealth or poverty, but because we realize we desperately need to trust in him.
The Scripture’s use of paradox calls us to make a choice: Will we pour our lives into things, or into people? Will we look for ingenuity and technical solutions in order to make our personal and church budgets budge, or will we come to God? Will we define success in family and church as worldly wealth, or will we define success as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?
The rich person is poor.
It is difficult for wealthy people to trust in God and not in their riches. Anyone who trusts in things is the truly underprivileged person. A sirocco wind is a weather name given to hot and humid southeast to southwest winds originating as hot, dry desert-air over North Africa, blowing northward into the southern Mediterranean basin. The early believers all knew about these winds that could unpredictably come through their area and wither perfectly good and apparently strong plants. But those plants could not stand a sirocco wind. Trusting in our resources rather than God will not stand in the judgment.
The real issue is one of trust – locating and placing faith in the person and work of Jesus, and not in wealth with the influence and security it brings to life. We live in a time when many church leaders are nearly obsessed with the ability to measure everything from numbers to quantifying spiritual growth and development. Incredible amounts of money go into budgets, buildings, and programs. The book of James in the New Testament gives a pushback on our compulsion with money and measurement. Perhaps declining churches are in a humble state to recognize God; maybe growing churches are in need of better listening skills in order to hear God. Before making new plans or just maintaining the old status quo in the church, several slow and careful readings of James just might give us some guidance and wisdom of where our real efforts in ministry need to be directed.