James 1:17-27 – Be Good because God Is Good

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (New International Version)

God is Good – All the Time

And all the time – God is good. That statement is a bedrock foundation for Christian faith. Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hardship and difficulty in life. Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that God does not care about my problems.

The trials and tribulations of life are intended by God to be watershed experiences that prove the genuineness, or lack thereof, of our faith. When life is good, it is easy to say God is good. However, when it isn’t, we may slide into a belief system that thinks God is the source of our trouble. And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from to help us.

God is good, and not mean. Every single good gift there is in this world comes from God. Nothing evil comes from God. God’s grace is constantly around us. If his grace were not here, it would be like living inside a dystopian novel, or a zombie apocalypse, where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen. Although evil exists, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for divine grace and goodness.

“This is true faith, a living confidence in the goodness of God.”

Martin Luther

God is immutable, that is, God’s goodness is ever-present. On this earth we are constantly subjected to changing light as the sun rises and sets, and as the clouds come and go. Yet, God does not change like shifting shadows. God is not fickle or capricious. God’s goodness is always at high noon, standing like an eternal sun in a bright blue sky radiating unbroken grace to us.

God’s goodness has delivered people from sin, death, and hell. God’s grace has given us new life. God created the world and pronounced it “good.” God formed you and called you “good.” And God has forgiven you, in Christ, and says it is “good.”

God gave us a good word for us to accept and live by.

Hurry Up and Listen

There is a great need for listeners today. Precious little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state airing their opinions. They talk over and on top of each other because they’ve already made-up their minds about how things really are and what should be done. Nobody is listening.

Bible reading is a primary source for listening to God. Yet, although many people own multiple Bibles, and Scripture is freely available through digital sources, far too many persons simply don’t read and listen to it.

Slow Down and Speak

God has given us two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk.   

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

A loose tongue and constant opining happens because of faulty listening.  An inability to listen leads to a lack of understanding because we do not take the time to get the whole story. It’s easy to pronounce verdicts with little information, and offer bad advice, when there is little listening.

Have a Long Fuse

Be slow to anger. A fool speaks without thinking, which stirs up strife. Slow to listen and quick to speak leads to anger flares. An angry spirit is an unteachable spirit, unwilling to listen to both God and others. 

Rash words said in anger produce an ugly unrighteous life. Selfish opinionated anger produces harsh bitter words and kills God’s plan for a good life.

We are to accept the Word of God. Throwing labels at people only de-humanizes them. They become objects of anger and scorn, and not people made in God’s image. Nothing good comes from ignoring God’s Word and giving-in to bitterness. It destroys good people.

Get Rid of Evil

Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent. The unwillingness to listen, a loose tongue, and unrighteous anger are moral evils. Evil is not only perpetuated by serial killers, terrorists, and other people different from us. In fact, the face of evil rarely comes to us in the form of red horns and a pitchfork.

Evil also resides as soft-core wickedness – common ordinary evil. The demonic can work in an almost ho-hum manner, subtly questioning whether anyone can really live up to the precepts of God’s Word, and generally undermining all that takes place to the glory of God.

The face of evil is neither hot nor cold, but “meh.” It is the bitter slow-cooked seething anger bubbling just underneath the surface which comes out in a plastic smile while offering up a morsel of slander based on a lack of listening well. It comes out in fake gestures of niceness while being quick to make judgments with little to no information.

Put away the “meh.” Receive God’s Word. Take a teachable posture. Stop and listen to what God’s Word has to say.

Be a Doer of God’s Word, Not Just a Hearer

The Word of God is not truly received until it is put into practice. 

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:13, NRSV) 

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28, NIV). 

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He cannot stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes. And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.  Profession of faith means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.  Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

Pay Attention to the Person in the Mirror

A person looks at himself in the mirror. He clearly sees all his flaws. Yet he does not respond, likely because he doesn’t like what he sees. It’s silly to look into a mirror, see a major bedhead, and just do nothing about it and go to work as if everything were fine. We look. We examine. We hear. We see exactly who we are. And we can’t even identify ourselves in a police lineup.

The person forgets what he looks like because he does not really want to face himself. This isn’t a clueless guy. It is one who sees himself as he really is and chooses not to do anything about it.

Forgetfulness happens because of inaction. Remembrance, communion, and hope all occur through active participation. God blesses the one who looks hard into the mirror of God’s Word, then intentionally makes changes based on what he finds.

Obedience to God’s Word brings freedom, not bondage. Listening, seeing, adjusting, and changing is a freeing activity. That’s because it’s how we are designed to live.

Holy and good God, give me grace to see you, others, and myself clearly so that I will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Amen.

James 3:13-18 – Living Wisely

Geschftsmann muss sich bei einer Weg-Gabelung entscheiden

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (NIV)

The great challenge of life for everyone is to respond to it rightly – to handle the people, situations, and responsibilities of life well.  We all need wisdom.  Wisdom is doing right and just things in the concrete actual situations of life.

Wisdom is much like driving a car.  There is a certain body of knowledge that you need to drive. Driving is much more than knowing the driving manual and passing the driving test.  The purpose of knowing the laws and how to drive a car is so that you can drive well on actual roads under all kinds of traffic and weather situations.  Driving wisely means you keep your eyes on the road and are mindful of all that is going on around you and even within you.  You do not fret about why there is a curve in the road or a stop sign in a certain location.  You do not try and figure out the mechanics of a stoplight, or the philosophy behind the engineering layout of the road system.  You just try to do what needs to be done on the road to get where you need to go by responding to the conditions as they come.  In Midwest America where I live, if you drive a car, you will face snow and ice conditions; you will have to respond to a deer in the road; you will have to deal with other drivers and practice wise defensive driving skills.  And you must come to grips with your own road rage when getting from point A to point B when it does not go as you think it should.

Wisdom in the Christian life includes and is more than knowledge. The Bible is not a three-ring binder that covers every single life situation that you can simply look up and follow the three steps.  Rather, Holy Scripture has a body of knowledge contained in differing kinds of literary genres to give us wise guidance for all of life.  Like driving a car, Christian wisdom involves being attentive and mindful of the people and circumstances around us as we move through life by responding with gracious practical knowledge to everything and everyone.  So, then, wisdom is the practical application of biblical truth to all of life.

Wise people possess two distinguishing marks: a good life, and a humble life. 

A wise person is the same inside and out, with integrity between the inner attitude and outward behavior.  The motive for being good springs from a disposition of meekness and gentleness.

The distinguishing mark of the unwise person is hidden agendas. 

The unwise are continually doing something, which on the surface seems altruistic and good, yet something else is driving them: bitter envy and selfish ambition. If we want to live the good life, it begins with identifying the envy that will sometimes arise within us and the selfish ambition that goes with it – then choose a path of true wisdom by embracing the good gifts and abilities of others and delight in them.  At the same time, we focus on our own gifts and abilities and are at peace with them, able to express them.  There is real beauty when this happens.

False wisdom (selfish pride) is earthly, unspiritual, and evil.  It relies on tactics of manipulation, power politics, parking lot conversations, and passive-aggressive behavior. Having good intentions but utilizing bad methods to get it is false wisdom.  Having an evil intention but cloaking it in good words is demonic. Our words and our behavior both need to be good.

The unwise person has a pathological progression occurring within them:

  1. Envy over not having something someone else has or losing something that was once possessed.
  2. Devious plans for dealing with it.
  3. Using pious language to cloak that plan in religious garb.
  4. Strife, division, and disharmony to get what they want.
  5. Unhealthy practices and habits of life which damage others.

The wise person, in contrast to the unwise, possesses seven characteristics which enables them to live well and enjoy a good life:

  1. Pure. There are no mixed motives with purity – no hidden agendas, no secret desires that are self-serving. It is a purification through repentance of the old unwise person and embrace of the new through the cross of Jesus.

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

  1. Peace-loving is more than the absence of conflict. Peace is to embrace harmony, to work well together, and to enjoy full relational experiences. Wise and godly people are healers, active in bringing unity and integration.

“Blessed are the peace-makers for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.  Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:13-14).

  1. Considerate of others is to be flexible, open to reason, level-headed in anxious situations, gentle, non-combative, non-retaliatory, and generally understanding. It is the wisdom to make allowances for the weaknesses and shortcomings of others and takes the kindest possible perspective.

“Remind the people… to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone” (Titus 3:1-2).

  1. Submissive attitudes and actions are a choice. If a person is coerced into submission, that is slavery, not submission. To submit means to willingly place oneself under someone else’s authority. The submissive person is teachable and humbly receives correcting wisdom.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

  1. Merciful. Mercy is compassion in action. It is to empathize with the needs of others, and then do something about it.  There is always good fruit that results from mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

  1. Impartial people are without favoritism. It is to be the same person toward everyone. They are steady, consistent, and not swayed by the crowd; and, do not act one way with a certain group of people, and then act different with another group. Impartial people have a passion for justice and despise injustice, believing that all people’s needs must be met with equity.

“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15). 

  1. Sincere hearts are without hypocrisy. The sincere person is the same both inside and out, having no ulterior motives and no skeletons in the closet.

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for you brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 5:22).

The telltale signs of false wisdom are envy and selfishness – resulting in disorder and all kinds of unhealthy practices.  Conversely, the signs of true heavenly wisdom are good deeds done from a devoted heart to God and a humble attitude – resulting in righteousness and peace. This, my friends, is the good life.

Heavenly Father take me to the place where I am saved from my pride and arrogance and where Christ’s humility is center stage, where I am lifting clean hands and a pure heart to you. Take me to the place where I am no longer looking at obstacles but looking down upon them, where I can see clearly, and my decisions are flooded with your divine light, truth, and justice. I bend my knee and receive your truth. I open my ears to receive your counsel. I open my heart to receive your godly wisdom through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Galatians 5:16-25

            The Christian story of how life works is that God created the world, humanity fell into sin and disobedience against God, but God is redeeming the entire world back to himself through the person and work of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.  That, in a very small nutshell, is the overarching narrative of the Bible.  If we take a low view of any of those elements of the story, then life is not going to work right.
 
            Humanity’s fall was hard, deep, and pervasive.  Sin is such an ingrained habit amongst us people that it is our default response to much of our circumstances and events.  This is why “the Spirit and your desires are enemies of each other.  They are always fighting each other and keeping you from doing what you feel you should.”  In other words, the follower of Jesus must be trained to live a different way than giving in to selfishness. 
 
            We all have an idea in our heads of what the good life is, and we orient our desires and our habits toward that image.  Our hearts and our love are aimed toward attaining that life.  A continual life of sin betrays our image of what we believe the good life really is; and, the heart that is pointed in the direction of having a spiritual life of following Jesus will result in making us “loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.”  The way to kill our selfish feelings and desires is to have the right picture in our minds and hearts of what the truly good life is.
 

 

            Gracious God, you have sent your Spirit to train in the ways of genuine flourishing in this life.  Help me to heed your teaching and avail myself of your power so that the name of Jesus is exalted and your church is edified.  Amen.

The Good Life

 

The human spirit has within it an irrepressible longing for a better life.  We were originally intended to live in a garden paradise and enjoy God every day forever.  But when our ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God the world was plunged into sin.  As a result, we often have an odd hybrid within ourselves of genuine spiritual longing and just plain selfish desires.  We are primarily motivated by our vision of what the “good life” is.  For example, if we believe that power, control, and recognition constitute the good life, we will seek to gain whatever titles and positions we can to leverage and live that good life.  If we believe that health, safety, and security are the best means of the good life, we will work hard to make as much money as we can in order to pad our bank accounts for the feeling that all is well in my world.  If we believe the good life centers in faith and family, we will make sacrifices on behalf of church and family members in order to have some sort of satisfaction of a life well-lived.
 
            All of these options concerning what we understand as the good life motivate us to do what we do, and say what we say.  However, in the process of pursuing our vision of the good life, we might discover we been pursuing a pipe dream that has not produced what we thought it would.  What is more, in order to achieve our vision of the good life we may have did or said some bad things that have left us ashamed and holding secrets that we hope no one will ever know.  Our lives can feel like some sort of prison where we are locked behind bars of shame and despondency.  Deep down we know there is more to life than paychecks and obtaining more and more stuff.  We feel the sense that there really has to be something more than just sitting in a church pew.  There has to be more to rolling my eyes at family re-unions.  We might feel trapped in routines and rhythms of life that only re-enforce our constant ruts and habits.
 
 
 
            Actual prisoners, probably more than anyone, feel the longing for life outside the penitentiary which is the reason for prison breaks.  In the history of failed prison breaks, maybe the one that ranks as the worst attempt was a prisoner years ago at the old San Quentin prison.  His plan for freedom involved hiding in a dirty laundry bin, and when the laundry company came to empty the bins they would empty him along with the laundry and he would drive right through the prison gates in the laundry truck to the outside world.  There was only one problem with his brilliant plan:  the laundry trucks never left the prison property; they just shuttled back and forth between the prison buildings.  After a stinky ride, the prisoner went back to his cell and continued his sentence, having gotten nowhere.
 
            We might think we are going somewhere in our pursuit of the good life only to find that we are still imprisoned, locked away in a cell of shame, doubt, and fear, afraid of what others may think if they knew our past or our current struggles.
 
            But what if someone really did break out of prison?  And what if that someone not only broke out but came back as a liberator?  God in the person of Jesus Christ became a prisoner with us.  He entered this world with all of humanity’s misguided ideas and failed attempts at the good life.  Jesus talked about a different place, a beautiful kingdom in which there was love, forgiveness, and healing – a garden paradise of peace and satisfaction.  And he didn’t just talk about it – he lived it.  Jesus actually loved unlovely people, forgave sins, and healed people.
 
            But then something horrible happened.  This Jesus who provided his followers with a beautiful vision of the good life was sent to the electric chair.  All the talk of breaking out and taking them with him just died, literally.  This is exactly how the disciples felt in those three days after the death of Jesus.  Their dreams of the good life were dashed, and they didn’t know what to do.
 
            But that isn’t the end of the story.  With complete humility in facing death was an equal authority over death itself.  Jesus rose from the dead!  The prisoners can hardly believe it; he’s alive!  There really is new life beyond these prison walls of sin, evil, shame, and death.  Broken lives can be healed!
 
            The whole wonderful story hinges on three words in our English translations (Matthew 28:6) – he has risen (which is actually one word in the original Greek).  One little word has completely changed the course of history – and of our individual lives.  There is freedom in Jesus Christ!
 
            It meant freedom for people like Mary Magdalene.  Mary was delivered from seven evil spirits (Luke 8:2), and had lived a life far from God and was imprisoned in shame and dishonor.  The deliverance she experienced changed her life.  It was Mary who was there when Jesus died.  It was Mary who was there early Sunday morning at the graveside of Jesus.  Two women and no one else were there (Matthew 28:1).  Why them?  Because God wants to prove once for all that he relates to us all by grace and not by our achievements.
 
            The power of the resurrection means that broken lives can be restored; no one need live in a cell of shame and insecurity any longer.  There is a little Mary Magdalene in all of us; we all carry secrets that we are ashamed of that leave us feeling vulnerable and afraid.  The issue is whether we will let Jesus free us from our prison, or instead go about pursuing our vision of the good life that believes if we just get into a laundry bin we can get outside the prison gates and into freedom by our own ingenuity. 
 
            For spiritual prisoners who have been set free, nothing can prevent God from being with them in the person of Jesus – not failure, not sin, not other people’s evil, and not even death itself.  There is victory in Jesus Christ.
 
            We no longer need to be defined by our past sins.  We no longer need to worry about what other people will think.  It doesn’t matter because Christ’s resurrection has changed everything.  So, let Jesus lead us into his agenda of the good life – a life of unconditional forgiveness and radical openness; and, a life of joyful obedience to all of Christ’s teaching.  It is all possible by giving our lives unreservedly to him.
 
            May Easter be for you and me a powerful reality to live into every day.