James 4:8-17 – Make Wise Spiritual Resolutions

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Brothers and sisters do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (New International Version)

Resolve to Come Near to God

God is longingly looking out the window watching and waiting for us to come home (Luke 15:11-32). And when we are seen, God will run and come near to us.

We can come to God morning, noon, and night; when things are good and when they are bad. God gives generously to all without finding fault if we will but come near. (James 1:5)

When my oldest daughter was a small child, her bike was stolen. When she discovered it was gone, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God and prayed. I barely finished praying, we both looked up, and a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The officer rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?” 

We hopped in the back of the cruiser and the officer took us to a place where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson to both my daughter and I that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life doesn’t always work that way, yet we can be assured God listens, hears, and will respond.

Resolve to Wash Your Hands

We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We need to come squarely facing our guilt and shame. God wants us to admit our guilt, confess it as such, receive forgiveness, and deal with matters of restitution, reconciliation, or making amends.

Look at what this very experience of godly sadness has produced in you: such enthusiasm, what a desire to clear yourselves of blame, such indignation, what fear, what purpose, such concern, what justice! (2 Corinthians 7:11, CEB)

Resolve to Purify Your Heart

Whereas the previous resolution was more external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands (repentance) our attitudes need cleansing, as well. 

Our hearts cannot be devoted to two masters. Double-minded persons need to become single-minded with pure, not mixed, motives.

“The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.”

African Proverb

Resolve to Grieve

God blesses those people who grieve. They will find comfort! (Matthew 5:4, CEV)

Any significant change or loss creates grief. And it is necessary to grieve. Grief is not an event but a process. Everyone’s grief is intensely personal and has its own timetable. It is not crazy, selfish, or unspiritual to grieve.  In fact, it is biblical.

The only way to get on the other side of grief is by telling your story. Sharing with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing emotion is important. There cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.

Resolve to Mourn

Mourning is the emotional response to how terrible our fallen world is and can be, and how much we really need God.  It is to see that sin in all of its foulness and degradation is horrible and destroys everything it touches.

People who do not or cannot mourn are hard-hearted. They need deep spiritual transformation. By his wounds we are healed.

Resolve to Wail

We are actually commanded to cry – more than cry – to wail.  Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing is more public.

I believe one of the greatest tragedies in today’s modern church is that Christians can become so focused on victory that they end up crying alone. Nobody should ever have to cry by themselves. Weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst likeminded brothers and sisters.

Resolve to Change

In the face of immense human need in this world, there must be change. We cannot turn the clock back to a more bygone idyllic era. We are here, now, together on spaceship Earth. We must come to grips with the kind of change needed to live above petty human degradation.

I once had a discussion with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we first started conversing, she expressed the desire to be in the place that had the better party going on. By the time we finished talking, she was grieving, mourning, and crying. I never knew what became of her – I even forget her name now. But once she got just a glimpse of sin’s gravity, it completely undid her.

Resolve to Be Humble

Humility is the path to intimacy with God and one another. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and experience God. Through suffering there is glory. Being last makes us first.  Entering through the narrow gate brings us into the broad open space of eternal life.

Resolve to Not Slander One Another

To slander means to “speak against” or “speak down” to someone. Slander always contains false information based on bogus observations and misinterpretations. To intentionally tear-down another person either to their face or to other people is slander.

People sometimes believe they have a right to speak against another person. That really says more about the slanderer than the slandered. Slander is a spirit of retaliation and revenge. It is being self-righteous and acting as the judge.

Resolve to Not Be Judgmental

A critical and condemning spirit breaks the biblical law of love and declares itself the authority. It wrongheadedly believes it knows best for everyone.

When we put our focus on others and do not deal with our own critical spirit, we play God. That is not our job. 

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
    I will pay them back,”
    says the Lord.

Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
    If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
    burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you but conquer evil by doing good (Romans 12:17-21, NLT)

Resolve to Have God in Your Plans

Some folks plan and map out their lives without a consideration of what God wants. They hold back on God, only giving partial effort and resources. And this can happen to any of us. We may not all have money and power, but we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). In God’s economy, money is a tool to be used to meet needs and bless others. However, many persons tend to make audacious plans with money by accumulating debt and presuming they can pay it off; encouraging their kids to get high paying jobs as their highest objective; and, relying on the market economy to provide for them in the end. 

Money and making plans are good. Yet, the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

So, resolve to embrace the virtue of humility – considering both others and God in making plans and decisions. For if we fail to do what we know we ought, our guilt will eventually catch up to us. Better to rely on God’s grace and make necessary changes.

Holy One, you are eternal, ever-present, and boundless in love. Yet there are times when we fail to recognize you in our daily lives. Sometimes shame clenches our hearts, and we hide our true feelings. Sometimes fear makes us small, and we miss the chance to speak from our strength. Sometimes doubt invades our hopefulness, and we degrade our own wisdom. In the daily round from sunrise to sunset, remind us again of your holy presence hovering near us and in us. Free us from shame and self-doubt. Help us to see you in the moment-by-moment possibilities to live honestly and to act courageously, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lamentations 3:22-33 – The Need for Lament

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.
(New Revised Standard Version)

We all face situations, at points in our lives, which cause us to grieve. Grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss. Bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events bringing grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

Grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life, for example, moving to a new house in a new area, an empty nest, getting married, having children, or beginning a new job. These all produce grief, even if that loss and change were chosen, anticipated, or necessary.

The worst way to approach these grief-producing events is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, stuff the feelings down, and just move on. It’s actually unbiblical to take such an attitude because Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses. We have with Lamentations an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim a very unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him, and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile – only compounding Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach. God’s words came true. The people did not turn from their empty worship and wayward lifestyles. And they persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment. The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple. It was only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.

The hope of love, compassion, and new life comes from first lamenting our losses. There are two popular phrases in our culture that need to be jettisoned altogether when speaking with people experiencing change or loss. These phrases, at the least, are not helpful; and, at worst, compound the anger and sadness:

  1. “Get over it!” can short circuit the grief process and puts grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope. Far too many people in the world, and even the church, remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move through their grief because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful – not to mention now guilty on top of it for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. They can’t be strong. We would never think of telling someone with broken bones to have the strength to walk or even drive anywhere without assistance. We understand they need to heal. Yet, we tell this to people with broken spirits, and then can’t understand why they don’t just bounce back from their emotional stupor. That’s because they can’t. Broken spirits, like broken bones, need time to heal.

Embracing lament is the pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person, like Jesus. Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many, if not most, of emotional problems today. 

Jerry Sittser, a Reformed pastor and professor, wrote an important book entitled, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Many years ago, he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on. In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes: his mother, his wife, and his daughter. Sittser writes:

“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Jerry Sittser

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor emeritus at Yale University. In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five year old son to a mountain climbing accident. He has no explanations – just grief. At one point he expressed a profound insight: 

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

Nicholas Wolsterstorff

We all accumulate many losses over the course of a lifetime. Many are small losses; some are devastating losses. The death of children, disability, sexual assault, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament. 

All these changes are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were. We must move through the grief by lamenting each loss. And as we lurch ahead, we cling to the words of Jeremiah that because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed and swallowed whole from grief, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses. We need to avoid superficial responses to significant events. We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to see new life.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution or acceptance. We rarely move neatly through each stage. The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us not just in spite of the suffering but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering. We must sit with our pain. Do not dismiss your loss by saying others have it worse, or that it’s nothing. Year after year, many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments. The result is a profound inability to face pain. And it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved. His message predicted what Jesus faced in his passion. The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks. On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!” But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health. Life does not always make sense. There is deep mystery to the ways of God. The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us. While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating. Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s resetting a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it. Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells. The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden. 

But you have to be willing to wait, in some cases, years. Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan. Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot. They are:

  • More patient with others with an increased capacity to wait on God.
  • Kinder and more compassionate.
  • Lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.
  • Comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.
  • Humble, gentle, and meek. 
  • Able to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but also in the mundane, banal, and lowly.
  • More at home with themselves and with God. 
  • Equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us. Slow down. Let it catch you. Let grief do its deep and powerful work within you.

*Above painting of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

**Above painting of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956

2 Corinthians 7:2-16 – Genuine Sorrow Changes Us

Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.

For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. By all this we are encouraged.

In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me. But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well. And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. I am glad I can have complete confidence in you. (New International Version)

“The only vice that cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy because the repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”

William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

I’m in the soul business. Not in the Detroit Mo-town Aretha Franklin kind of soul business (although that would be very cool) but in the sense of leading human souls to God and building them up in Christ. Key to the Christian life’s soul is the term “repentance.”  To repent means to turn around, to stop going in one direction and start going in another one. It is repentance which makes all the difference in the direction of our souls.

Certainly, no one can really judge the heart of another. Yet, today’s New Testament lesson lets us in on how to truly measure the sincerity of a person’s repentance. 

Worldly sorrow or grief does not lead to repentance, but disconnection and death. People with worldly sorrow beat themselves up but never really change direction. Like Judas Iscariot of old, they just hang themselves instead of admitting guilt to Jesus. 

Godly sorrow, however, leads to repentance, a change of direction. And here is the evidence of the genuine change: 

  • Owning the problem.
  • Eagerness to make things right.
  • Indignation over what has been done or said.
  • Discernment that there is more pain in avoiding the problem than there is confronting it.
  • Desire and energy to do what is best for the person who was wronged.
  • Willingness to accept whatever consequences which might result from the offense.

Crying and weeping might be necessary. Yet the tears can also be a cheap form of avoiding true repentance. 

Whether there are tears, or not, there must be solid action that changes direction and seeks to rectify offenses, as much as it is within our control to do so. 

Deliverance from the power of guilt and shame comes through repentance. There are no shortcuts or easy routes to the soul’s orientation to practical godliness. 

There is nothing romantic about repentance. It is typically messy, usually ugly, and often painful. Yet, there must be suffering before there is glory. Attempting to remove true repentance from personal transformation only eviscerates the Christian life and leaves our souls vacuous and empty.

Instead, we carefully, tediously, and patiently go about the important work of repentance, with all its deep sorrow, regret, vulnerability, challenge, awkwardness, and courage.

Holy God, I confess to you the things which I have said and done, as well as those things I have left unsaid and undone. And, yet your mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. Open my eyes to the ways I have offended others and failed to build them up. Help me to step boldly into repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

John 16:16-24 – There Must Be Suffering Before Glory

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (New International Version)

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come with patience and equanimity.”

Carl Jung

An Unpopular Message

Jesus often said things that were neither expected nor wanted. Jesus consistently told his disciples there must be suffering before glory. The disciples either could not or would not hear of it. They didn’t sign up to follow Jesus into suffering! Trying to get people to pay attention to suffering is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to put their names down on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.”

Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had such a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

A Real Message

Just as a woman experiences terrible pain in childbirth, then ecstatic joy over seeing her child for the first time, so the Christian’s excruciating pain in this life points to the inevitable joy at the end of that suffering. In the scope of eternity, adversity and pain last only a moment. Glorious joy, however, will be forever.

In talking with his disciples about their disappointment, even depression, about Christ’s words of leaving and grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy even in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending.

I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will realize its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, however, we still experience heartache along with the great joy of resurrection and new life. It can be confusing, living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind, the grief is temporary. The despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

A Good Message

Christians serve a risen and ascended Lord. Therefore, we need not wait to be happy, and we need not expect everything must go our way. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family sort of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living days of constant change followed by ever new normal. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of walking with Jesus for the disciples, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.