James 4:4-10 – The Jilted Lover

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 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. (NIV)

Apparently, the Apostle James was not trying to win friends. But he was trying to influence people, specifically those who are proud. So, please understand from the outset that James was going tough after haughty persons because it takes a hammer to break a hard heart. And so, his approach ought only to be emulated in the unique context of handling persons stuck in their own destructive hubris. Nevertheless, there is much instruction in these verses to help us all.

Throughout the Bible, a marriage metaphor is used to liken the relationship of God to the people much like a lover. God’s covenant relationship is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture. Whenever people stray from divine promises, God is offended and hurt. 

Yes, God feels pain. God is an emotional Being, which is why we have emotions as God’s image-bearers. One way to view the Bible is that it is a book about God, the jilted lover. The Lord set affection and love upon people, yet many people have spurned their lover’s advance. And this situation pains God. 

When Adam and Eve, decided to find satisfaction outside of God, the Lord was hurt. When people went on to have children and raise them, they did so largely apart from the God who loved them. People strayed so far from God that it caused pain:

The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV).

Yet, God was gracious. The Lord took a group of Noah’s descendants, Abraham’s family, and set a covenant affection on them. God hoped to restore the world to right relationship through the Israelites. However, they too, came to set their affections on others. So, nearly half of the Old Testament is devoted to communicating the Lord’s hurt and disappointment. 

Like a jilted lover, God longed for Israel to remain faithful. The prophecy of Hosea is a case in point. Hosea had an unfaithful wife, Gomer, and their relationship mirrored the relationship between God and Israel. Just as Hosea did not give up on his wife, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so God looked at Israel as a spouse and could not bear to give her up.

Israel spurned their lover’s grace and kindness and actively sought other lovers, causing God anger and agony. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God recounted the history of unfaithfulness:

“At every crossroad you built your platform and degraded your beauty by spreading your legs to all comers. And so, you encouraged even more promiscuity. You prostituted yourself with the Egyptians, your neighbors with the large sexual organs, and as you added to your seductions, you provoked me to anger…. Still not satisfied, you prostituted yourself to the Assyrians, but they were not enough for you either. So, you prostituted yourself with the Babylonians, the land of traders, but again you were not satisfied. How sick was your heart that you could do all these things, the deeds of a hardened prostitute?… You are like an adulterous wife: you take in strangers instead of your husband. Ordinary prostitutes are given gifts, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers. From every direction you even bribed them to come to you for your sexual favors. As a prostitute, you were more perverse than other women. No one approached you for sexual favors, but you yourself gave gifts instead of receiving them.” (Ezekiel 16:25-34, CEB)

Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God extended grace to the beloved spouse:

“I am taking you back!
I rejected you for a while,
but with love and tenderness
    I will embrace you again.
For a while, I turned away
    in furious anger.
Now I will have mercy
    and love you forever!
I, your protector and Lord,
    make this promise.” (Isaiah 54:6-8, CEV)

The Old Testament ends with God still longing for return:

The Lord proclaims: “I care passionately about Zion; I burn with passion for her.” (Zechariah 8:2, CEB)

All this theological awareness was in the heart of James when he wrote his letter to the hard-hearted. He knew they were flirting with the world and wanted them to stop and return to the God who longed to show them grace, if they only would but humble themselves.

God yearns, passionately, for us to find our needs met, and enjoyment found, in the loving divine embrace. Spiritual adultery hurts God deeply, like it would any jilted lover. God awaits with loving patience to show grace and compassion to wayward people. 

Only the stance and attitude of humility can receive grace. Pride and hubris prevent people from receiving God’s good gift. So, the Apostle James rattled-off ten quick staccato commands to remain connected in a love relationship with God.  We might frame these as resolutions to live by. 

  1. Submit to God.

Humble folk willingly place themselves under God’s authority because they are convinced God has their best interests at mind. One temptation when facing adversity is to entertain the belief that no one is going to look out for you except yourself. So, to avoid getting hurt too badly, we might become cynical, arrogant, and callous – self-protective strategies designed to keep the hurt away. This only creates hardness of heart. The alternative is faithful submission to God – knowing that God’s Spirit will protect and living with the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

2. Resist the devil.

Satan is a bully. The way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them. We face down the temptation. Notice that James says we submit to God and resist the devil. We are not to be deceived into flipping it around by listening to Satan and avoiding submission to God.

3. Come near to God.

Like a loving parent, the Lord longingly looks out the window waiting for prodigals to return. Coming to God is the first thing we ought to do. When my daughter was young her bike was stolen. So, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God in prayer. I barely finished praying when a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The policeman rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?”  We hopped in and he took us to where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life does not always work that way, yet we can be assured that God listens, hears, and will respond.

4. Wash our hands.

We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We must come to God squarely facing our sin and disobedience.  We must deal with the wrong we have done without sweeping it under the rug. God wants us to admit our sin, receive grace, and deal with matters of restitution and reconciliation, without trying to save face when found out in a concern for “optics.”

5. Purify our hearts.

Whereas the previous resolution is mostly external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands, our attitudes must be purged of pollution. Our hearts cannot handle two masters. We are meant to be single-minded without mixed motives. There is an African proverb which says, “The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.” 

The next four resolutions describe important emotional responses to sin….

6. Grieve.

Trying to move on without grieving and lamenting is called denial. Grief is not only an event; it is a process which takes time. Grieving is biblical. Sharing our stories with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing ourselves is important. A loving God knows there cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.

7. Mourn.

Blessed are those who mourn (Matthew 5:4). Mourning the emotional response to devastation of sin, and how much we need God.  It is to see sin in all its foulness and degradation. People who do not mourn are or become hard-hearted and need deep spiritual transformation. Jesus offers the remedy: By his wounds we are healed.

8. Wail.

We are to cry – more than cry – to wail.  Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing has a much more public dimension to it. I believe the great tragedy in many modern churches is an inordinate focus on victory and triumphalism. The result: Far too many Christians cry alone. No one should ever have to cry by themselves. We must weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

9. Change.

We cannot turn the clock back to some bygone idyllic era. We are to grasp the type of change which occurs in living for Jesus Christ and above sin. In other words, no casual cavalier attitudes toward sin. I once had a conversation with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we began the discussion, she expressed a desire to be wherever the better party going on. By the time we finished our conversation 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 the gravity of sin, it undid her.

10. Be humble.

Humility sums up all these resolutions. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and satisfied; through suffering there is glory; becoming last is to become first; entering the narrow gate leads to the broad open space of God’s eternal life.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Matthew 6:7-15 – The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord's Prayer

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NIV)

God knows what we need before we even ask him, which means that the Creator of the universe has his ear inclined to listen to us. The Lord desires, even longs for us to pray to him. Since this is God’s disposition every day, Jesus communicated to us a model way of prayer. This prayer exemplifies the values of Christ’s Beatitudes and reflects the priorities of God’s kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer is meant to be prayed often, mindfully, and with flavor.

Jesus gave us six petitions to guide us in our prayers: The first three petitions are priorities of God that set the tone for the next three petitions, which are centered in our problems of living in this fallen world.

Addressing God

Jesus gave us instruction of how to address God: “Our Father in heaven.” All the pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer are plural, not singular. We are to be concerned for both our own individual issues, and for the needs of the community, of the problems and situations of the world.

“Father” is an endearing and relational word. “In heaven” balances the closeness and nearness of our heavenly Father with his sovereign and transcendent nature. Our God is both near and far – a close friend as well as a holy king.  So, we address him with a proper understanding of who he is.

Three Priorities

  1. First Petition: “Hallowed be your name.”

“Hallow” comes from the root word for holiness; it is to sanctify, to set apart. God is concerned that his creatures revere him and treat him as the Holy One.

Notice the use of the verb: not hallowed “is” your name, but hallowed, or holy “be” your name. That is, Jesus guides us to pray that God’s name would be shown as holy through us by the way we live. The world sees a holy God when his people walk in holiness, reflecting his benevolent nature.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the Apostle Peter encouraged a struggling band of young Christians:

So, you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better back then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” And remember that the heavenly Father to whom you pray has no favorites. He will judge or reward you according to what you do. So, you must live in reverence of him during your time here as “temporary residents.” (1 Peter 1:14-17, NLT)

  1. Second Petition: “Your kingdom come.”

We live in a fallen world that has come under the domain of dark forces. The unfolding drama of Holy Scripture is that God himself is on a mission to restore his creation to a benevolent rule and gracious reign. Jesus is the King, we are the subjects, and God’s realm exists wherever his subjects go.  And where his subjects go, they are to pierce the darkness by embodying the good news that King Jesus has overcome the demonic realm and brought us into God’s kingdom. The prayer and proclamation of this good news is of utmost priority to God.

  1. Third Petition: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God’s ethical will has been revealed to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes as the cornerstone of his teaching (Matthew 5-7). God’s will is that Christ’s followers be humble; grieve over personal and communal sin in the world; act with gentleness instead of prideful condescension toward others; hunger after true righteousness instead of legalistic self-righteousness; show mercy; be pure in heart; pursue peace; and, rejoice when persecuted. All of this results in being salt and light in this dark world.

Furthermore, we are to reconcile with others instead of hold grudges; deal with our lust through accountability instead of making excuses for our mental adultery; cherish our spouse instead of taking the easy way out when problems arise in marriage; tell the truth at all times instead of shading it; and, love, not retaliate when personally hurt or insulted. This is God’s will, and if it seems an impossible task, that is because we need divine resources to live our Christian ethic. In other words, we need to pray!

These three petitions are priorities for God. They are three ways of essentially asking the same thing – that the full manifestation of God’s reign on earth be realized.  Thus, our prayers are not primarily to receive goods and services from God, but for us to render service to God. The priority of prayer given by Jesus centers in the advancement of God’s merciful rule, and the doing of God’s will.  These prioritized prayers are a burning desire to see God honored on earth as he is already honored in heaven.

The Lord's Prayer 2

Three Problems

  1. Fourth Petition: “Give us today our daily bread.”

It is our bodies that enable us to do God’s will, and so we must be concerned for them. We must have the necessities of life and daily sustenance to carry out God’s priorities for the church and the world. This is not a prayer for long-term luxuries, but daily needs.

In the ancient world, people were paid at the end of each day. Folks also shopped every day at the marketplace for their food (no fridge!). When there was a flood or a drought, it did not just mean high grocery prices; people faced starvation and death. They needed to trust God for today, and not worry about tomorrow.  Even though we do not always readily perceive our great dependence on God, we still are in divine hands and need faith.

  1. Fifth Petition: “Forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Sin is pictured as a debt. If someone has sinned (trespassed) against us, we must forgive them, thus releasing them from their debt.  To forgive does not mean to forget. Rather, we are not to hold the debt or the sin over someone’s head for the rest of their life.

The simple truth is that the person who is forgiven by God is a forgiving person. Our own forgiveness implies that we have done the hard work of repentance through identifying our sin and renouncing it. So, if we fail to forgive, it demonstrates a lack of change on our part. We cannot, then, be forgiven if we are avail ourselves of the grace which is freely offered.

The practice of forgiveness is of utmost importance to Jesus. Living the Beatitudes of Jesus and being a peacemaker means we are to squarely face our bitterness. Simply sweeping our hurt under the rug and not extending forgiveness only gives the demonic realm a foothold into our lives – which is why we are to pray the final petition….

  1. Sixth Petition: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”

Just as we have real physical necessities we must trust God for, we also have genuine spiritual needs which hinge on the issue of forgiveness – our forgiveness from God through Christ, and the forgiveness we extend to others who have hurt or offended us.

An unforgiving heart is the primary reason for the temptation to hate, seek revenge, and retaliate. If we have spent days, weeks, months, years, or even decades harboring an unforgiving spirit through anger, bitterness, and avoidance of facing our past trauma, we have embraced the dark side and need deliverance from evil.

The path to deliverance is through acknowledging the offense, receiving grace and forgiveness from God, and passing that same forgiveness and grace to those who hurt us. This is not about whether they deserve it or not; it is a matter of what I need to do.

Conclusion

A desire to see God’s agenda accomplished through the first three petitions leads us to seek grace and forgiveness, not giving ground to the devil. The truth sets us free; telling our secrets brings freedom. Apart from naming our shame, we will remain bound and in need of liberation. Tell your secrets to God in the prayer closet, and then tell them to a trusted friend(s). We pray, and we act on what God tells us in prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer. That means we use the six petitions of Jesus to frame our prayers in our own words, as well as say the words in our favorite translation of the Bible.

We are to pray this prayer continually, for in doing so it will shape our everyday lives, serve as a guide for how to live, and provide discernment in making life’s many decisions.  To be the church is to pray. To be a Christian is to pray. So, let us daily and in every way make use of our Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in heaven,

            The One who is both near and far,

May your Name be shown as holy,

            through us, your people.

May others submit to your lordship,

            and become holy, too.

Help us to know your will,

            and to do it.

We need you God,

           so, provide our necessities for today.

Forgive us of our great and many sins,

            just as we forgive those

            who have sinned egregiously against us.

Lead us in paths of righteousness,

            which will shoo the devil away.

For you are the Ruler,

the Mighty One,

full of glory and grace.

Amen!

Psalm 114 – A Mighty God

Mono Crater by Chiura Obata
Painting by American artist Chiura Obata (1885-1975)

God brought his people
out of Egypt,
that land
with a strange language.

When the sea looked at God,
it ran away,
and the Jordan River
flowed upstream.
The mountains and the hills
skipped around like goats.

Ask the sea why it ran away
or ask the Jordan
why it flowed upstream.
Ask the mountains and the hills
why they skipped like goats!

Earth, you will tremble,
when the Lord God of Jacob
comes near,
because he turns solid rock
into flowing streams
and pools of water. (CEV)

I’m a metaphor guy. I like word pictures, analogies, and illustrations. Maybe that’s one reason I resonate with the Old Testament. The Hebrew mind revels in story, symbol, similitude, and even the occasional sarcasm. The turn-of-phrase is something which connects well with me – which is why I like today’s psalm. The language is freighted with metonymy and personification.

This psalm is a poetic response to the Jewish Passover and exodus out of slavery to freedom. It is a brief song of thanksgiving which nicely recounts the Israelite experience from Egypt to the Promised Land. At the behest of a mighty God, the Red Sea parted when the people left Egypt, and the Jordan River stopped its flowing when the people entered the Promised Land.

It’s a whole lot more powerful to say, “When the sea looked at God, it ran away,” than it is to say, “The Red Sea parted.” God is so mighty, so powerful, so large and sovereign that we must use the full extent of language to even begin to describe his wonderful works. A big God with awesome capability needs some wordsmithing worthy of his greatness.

Not only does the sea flee from its place, the river turns back, the mountains and hills shake and skip. To try and somehow capture the immensity of God, the psalmist used language which communicates that even inanimate objects come alive and fulfill his divine bidding.

It is one thing to make a flat statement such as, “Put your trust in God,” and it is quite another matter to open up the tool of language and allow it to picture a divine Being so amazing that nothing nor anyone can possibly stand in his way. And this very same God works for us, not against us.

The Lord God almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, has taken his formidable power and granted us a pinch of it – because that’s all we really need. Jesus, intimately familiar with his mighty heavenly Father, commented:

If your faith is as big as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Dig yourself up and plant yourself in the ocean!” And the tree will obey you. (Luke 17:6, ERV)

For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be removed and be cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. (Mark 11:23, NKJV)

All of creation conspires together to participate in the great liberating and saving acts of God for his people. And if that wasn’t enough, we have been given his Holy Spirit to be with us forever – uprooting trees and moving mountains to accomplish the good and loving plan of God here on earth as it is always done in heaven.

Mighty God you invite us to be with you, to have a place near you. Your presence is joy, light, and comfort. Your nearness is holy, awesome, and wonderful. In the play of sunlight through rainbows, in the sounds of music and laughter, in the beauty of creation and the taste of bread and wine, your presence is known. Your saving presence surrounds us, whether we are fearful or joyful, laughing or crying. You invite us, welcome us, forgive us and renew us with fresh hope and new life. You love us into your presence. We bless and thank you. We praise and adore you. We enjoy being with you, in the name, the spirit and the presence of Jesus. Amen

Psalm 121 – My Help

Mountain landscape

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore. (NRSV)

This is my favorite psalm.  I have read and mulled it over so many times that it is almost second nature for me to draw from its rich theological statement about God when times are difficult.  This is a psalm designed for worship – to be used by God’s people through song and prayer.  A community without Psalm 121 near to its heart is a group of people in danger. Yet, with it, there is a continual sense of security, confidence, and hope.

Psalms are meant to be spoken aloud and repeated. So, here is another version:

I look to the hills!
Where will I find help?
It will come from the Lord,
who created the heavens
and the earth.

The Lord is your protector,
and he won’t go to sleep
or let you stumble.
The protector of Israel
doesn’t doze
or ever get drowsy.

The Lord is your protector,
there at your right side
to shade you from the sun.
You won’t be harmed
by the sun during the day
or by the moon at night.

The Lord will protect you
and keep you safe
from all dangers.
The Lord will protect you
now and always
wherever you go. (CEV)

This beautiful majestic psalm can be used for any and every occasion.  So, I often use it within hospital visits, counseling in a wide array of situations, and for my own personal edification.  It seems to me that one cannot possibly overuse this psalm.  The psalm was originally used for ascending the hill into Jerusalem, anticipating meeting with God.  Just like a lover who looks forward to meeting his beloved and thinking about how wonderful she is, so the psalmist looks with adoring affection on the God he is about to encounter.

I Lift My Eyes to the Hills

Here is yet another version of this wonderful psalm:

I look up to the mountains—
does my help come from there?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth!

He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.

The Lord himself watches over you!
The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.
The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.

The Lord keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.
The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go,
both now and forever. (NLT)

The psalm is rich with a theology of grace, watch care, and loving attention.  This is a God who is powerful and merciful, a God able to help and desiring to do so.  In a world which seems so often distant and unaffected by the divine, this is a psalm to utter repeatedly in every situation of life so that the truth of the Lord is grafted deep into the soul.  In each unwanted circumstance the psalm can be spontaneously used as an immediate prayer, and with every anticipated event it can provide the words to address the most pressing of needs.  Let the words resonate within you as people created in the image of God, connecting with him on both the cerebral and visceral levels of your life in this last version:

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore. (NKJV)

 Amen.