James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a – A Spiritual Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Byzantine icon of the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus

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 of all 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.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures….

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.

The Apostle James wrote to a church facing all kinds of challenging adversity in their daily lives. Some of the believers responded wisely to their troublesome circumstances. Yet others dealt with their trials and tribulations by being troublesome people themselves. 

It was this breakdown in the church fellowship which spurred James to write his letter. The surface problem was infighting. But James wanted to get down to the root issues below the surface. Like a doctor understanding the pathology of the body, James diagnosed the real problems, and gave a clear treatment plan on how to proceed together in the Christian life. 

His prescription for spiritual health in the Body of Christ was not medication but a lifestyle change. Today’s New Testament lesson answers three diagnostic questions which ailed this ancient church.

First diagnostic question:  Who is wise and understanding among you?

Wise persons live a good life, demonstrated by their humble actions. They have trained themselves in the ways of God through the Scriptures.

Wisdom in the Bible is much like driving a car. You try to keep your eyes on the road and drive defensively while often making quick decisions on the road. You don’t fret about why there is a tight curve or an upcoming stop sign. You don’t try and determine the philosophy behind the mechanics of a stop light. You just try to do what needs to be done on the road to get where you need to go. And as you drive you respond to the road conditions and pay attention to the other drivers. 

Wisdom in the Christian life is more than knowledge; it is also being attentive to the other people around us as we seek to live for God. We respond to every adverse road condition that comes along with a mind dependent on God and a humble heart willing to be directed and re-directed by God’s Holy Spirit.

The unwise person sits and harbors selfish resentment in his heart when he has to wait ten minutes on a train to slowly rumble by on the tracks. The same person then desires to take off like a bat out of hell, freely expressing his road rage at another slow driver in his way.

In his lack of wisdom, the person justifies himself as wise because he believes his destination warrants his way of driving. He has convinced himself that he must drive the way he does. And if pulled over by a police officer, he deludes himself in thinking the officer has a problem for standing in the way of him getting where he wants to go.

Conversely, wise people are characterized by a different set of motivations and practices:

  • Humility and attentive consideration of another’s need.
  • Moral purity and being set apart for Christian service.
  • Peace and harmony, championing the common good of all. 
  • Empathy and an understanding spirit that does not retreat into judgmental criticism or attacking others – putting themselves in another’s shoes and to first understand before trying to be understood. 
  • Submissive to the truth with a teachable spirit and deliberately implement necessary changes to their lives. 
  • Merciful, seeking compassion in action. 
  • Impartial, steady and consistent, with a predictable godly character. Adverse road conditions and selfish drivers do not throw them off. 
  • Sincere, genuine, and vulnerable with a willingness to face their own dark shadows and have no ulterior motives.

God cares as much about why we do what we do and how we go about it, as he does the actual action and its end result. God desires true wisdom, not false wisdom. In diagnosing false wisdom, there is jealous bitter envy and plain old selfishness. The source of the problem is the devil. And if the problem goes unchecked and no lifestyle changes are made, the body will breakdown into disorder and evil destructive behavior.

In diagnosing true wisdom, there is evidence of good deeds done from a good heart devoted to God. The source of the good actions is humility. This results in the good spiritual health of righteousness (right relationships with both God and others) and peace (harmonious relations with both God and others).

Second diagnostic question:  What causes fights and quarrels among you?

After examination, the problem comes from certain desires that act like a disease.  The presenting symptoms are verbal battles and animosities. The cause is “desire” or “pleasure” (Greek: ἡδονῶν) from which we get our English word “hedonism.” 

Hedonism is the belief and practice that pleasure is the chief good in life. It is a consuming passion to satisfy personal wants, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain those wants. The cause of all the in-fighting was hedonism. Certain people wanted what they wanted, and they would do whatever it took to get it.

Hedonism twists our perspective. It skews our judgment. Hedonism calls 911 from the drive through at McDonalds when they run out of chicken nuggets (true story!). Hedonism is a cancer in the Body of Christ. It makes small things big and big things small. Hedonistic desires will do anything it takes to gain satisfaction. A passage in the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis has the Senior Devil giving his understudy, Wormwood, some advice: 

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is God’s invention, not ours.  He made the desires; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced and get them to go after them in ways in which He has forbidden.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

There is an alternative to the no-holds-bar pursuit of hedonism: You do not have because you do not ask God…. And even then, if still holding onto the hedonistic stance through prayer, there will be no answer because of asking with wrong motives. 

Prayer as a cloak for seeking hedonistic pleasure is nothing but spiritual adultery; it is talking to God with a spiritual mistress on the side to meet the needs that God does not seem to care about.

Third diagnostic question:  What does God want?

God wants prayer from a humble heart that seeks to engage the real enemy. Our fight is with our own pride, not with each other. If we have good and godly desires for prayer but find that we do not seek God as we ought; and come to the Scriptures discovering there is a sickness in our soul; then, the prescription is humble submission to God, resistance to evil ways, and drawing near to God.

God wants people to turn from the pride of radical independence and clandestine desires to openly and humbly seeking divine help.

The Apostle James was not trying to be a killjoy when he said to grieve, mourn, and wail; and to change your joy to gloom. He was speaking directly toward the propensity for people to slide into hedonistic attitudes and practices. He was directly accessing the Beatitudes of our Lord Jesus.  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. 

In other words, true joy and happiness comes through humility. When we realize our great need for God and humbly approach as a spiritual beggar, cut to the heart over our own hedonistic pleasure-seeking, as well as all the filth existing around us, then we discover the prayer that God longs to hear.

God’s prescription for us is:

  • Learn and rely on divine promises in daily life.
  • Do the work of peacemaking and expect a harvest of righteousness.
  • Be humble and let grace and lift us up.
  • Put significant effort into resisting the devil so that he will flee from us.
  • Draw near to God; God will come near to you.

So, let us maintain our therapy appointments for developing humility. Let us admit our wrongs and ask for forgiveness. Let go of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Obey the Scriptures. Bank on God’s promises. For in doing so, we will discover the life that is truly life.

O Lamb of God, by both your example and teaching you instructed us to be meek and humble. Give us grace so that in every thought, word, and deed, we will imitate your meekness and humility. Put to death in us all pride. Keep us from falling prey to the many temptations in our path. Teach us your ways and show us how to clothe ourselves in godly humility. Thank you for your Word and help us to see the beautiful truth about humility. Do the good work of making us more and more like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 Samuel 15:13-31 – Unflagging Trust

Stained glass of King David, Fringford, England church

A messenger came and told David, “The hearts of the people of Israel are with Absalom.”

Then David said to all his officials who were with him in Jerusalem, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom. We must leave immediately, or he will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin on us and put the city to the sword.”

The king’s officials answered him, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king chooses.”

The king set out, with his entire household following him; but he left ten concubines to take care of the palace. So, the king set out, with all the people following him, and they halted at the edge of the city. All his men marched past him, along with all the Kerethites and Pelethites; and all the six hundred Gittites who had accompanied him from Gath marched before the king.

The king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why should you come along with us? Go back and stay with King Absalom. You are a foreigner, an exile from your homeland. You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us when I do not know where I am going? Go back and take your people with you. May the Lord show you kindness and faithfulness.”

But Ittai replied to the king, “As surely as the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there will your servant be.”

David said to Ittai, “Go ahead, march on.” So Ittai the Gittite marched on with all his men and the families that were with him.

The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by. The king also crossed the Kidron Valley, and all the people moved on toward the wilderness.

Zadok was there, too, and all the Levites who were with him were carrying the ark of the covenant of God. They set down the ark of God, and Abiathar offered sacrifices until all the people had finished leaving the city.

Then the king said to Zadok, “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.”

The king also said to Zadok the priest, “Do you understand? Go back to the city with my blessing. Take your son Ahimaaz with you, and also Abiathar’s son Jonathan. You and Abiathar return with your two sons. I will wait at the fords in the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” So Zadok and Abiathar took the ark of God back to Jerusalem and stayed there.

But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered, and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up. Now David had been told, “Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.” So, David prayed, “Lord, turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness.” (New International Version)

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s an understatement to say that King David had family drama.

Maybe that’s because he had a lot of wives and even more kids. Or it could be that being a king didn’t transfer well to being a father. And it just might be that his experience was mostly about simply living in a fallen world, full of icky relational dynamics and human conflict.

David seemed to be at his best when at his lowest. His son, Absalom, carefully designed a conspiracy to take over the kingdom. And it was looking as though he might just do it. David, and those loyal to him, fled Jerusalem to avoid being overthrown and killed. They were between a rock and a hard place, to put it mildly. David was literally running for his life.

If we put ourselves in David’s sandals, how would we respond? 

I suppose, at the least, we would likely complain. Who is Absalom that he should dishonor his father in such a way as this? Then, we may try and find ways to maintain power, and get back at Absalom for being a rebellious and destructive son. 

I am humbled by David’s unflagging trust in God. Like the suffering Job centuries before him, David was willing to receive anything from the hand of God, whether for good or evil. He wholesale accepted whatever seemed good to God, without attempting to force anything on the Lord. “Let God do to me what seems good to him,” was the faith affirmation of David.

Yet, at the same time, David was aware and in touch with his emotions as he left the city and ascended the Mount of Olives. He wept and lamented over the situation he and all those with him had to experience. 

A thousand years later, Jesus took the same trek out of the city in great sorrow because of people who conspired against him. Christ faced the agony of the cross through the machinations of sinful humanity who did not want him as Lord over their lives.

Our confidence must rest in the God who is never caught unaware of our situations and always knows how to respond. We must rely on our prayers to the Lord as we navigate the difficulties of this life. 

Humility goes a long way toward letting the will of God rule the day.

O Lord, please turn the plans and the counsel of evil persons into foolishness. Do not let the sinfulness of people have its way and run roughshod over my life.  I trust in you to bend a bad situation toward your own good purpose through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

Colossians 3:12-17 – Wear the Right Clothes

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him. (Contemporary English Version)

New life is fantastic!… Until it isn’t.

Like a new car eventually losing its new car smell, so it is quite easy for the Christian to experience the mountaintop of transformation, only to lug back down and walk through the boring old valley.

And it’s fun to have a new set of clothes… until they wear out, go out of style, or fall apart in the washing machine. the thing about those new clothes we were so excited about when we got them is that they are wearing out.

When I was eight-years-old (a long time ago!) I still remember my favorite pair of jeans. I wore them every day. My Mom had to order me to take them off so she could wash them. Finally, after having several patches sewn on them, having grown too much, and with the material so thin you could see through them in places, that old ratty pair of jeans actually just fell off my body in a heap, as if to say, “Enough is enough, boy!”

Our nice white spiritual clothes, given to us through Christ’s resurrection, are to be our favorites. We need to clothe ourselves in them every day.

Because of Christ’s redemptive events of crucifixion and resurrection, believers can experience new life, free from sin, death, and hell.  Oh, it isn’t that we never need to deal with evil; we very much do. The difference is that we now have a new awareness of our spirituality.  And with awareness comes choices. 

If we aren’t aware of our feelings, our spirit, and/or old nature, well, then, it’s as if we operate on auto-pilot – losing altitude in an immanent descent into tragedy. When we are aware of our inner selves, then we mindfully ascend through the clouds to join Christ.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV

We can make choices about what to wear. With awareness, we look in the mirror and see that the grave clothes need to come off. The old raggedy garments of pride and hubris, greed and immorality, selfish lust, jealous envy, spiritual gluttony, unholy anger, and complacency get taken off and tossed in the garbage. 

We then go to God’s expansive walk-in closet and choose the bright raiment of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and grab the beautiful coat of love which covers it all with such dignity and honor.

It would be super weird to try and put the new clothes over the old raggedy grave clothes. That’s not only gross, but it’s also downright wrongheaded. Practical Christianity always involves two actions: taking-off and putting-on. 

“No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don’t put your wine in cracked bottles.”

Matthew 9:16-17, MSG

Human willpower and/or ingenuity tries to live a virtuous life while ignoring the vices. This will not do for the Christian. The endearing qualities we so desire to possess cannot be obtained without first dealing with the crud of sin which clings to us like so many stinky dirty clothes. To put this in theological terms: the cross and resurrection go together. Sin must be put to death before a victorious life is put on.

Once we have acknowledged sin, let Christ take it all off, and put on the new clothes. Then we’re ready to hit the town in style!  We walk out the door with a tremendous sense of peace, knowing God in Christ has cleaned us up.  We stroll into the world with lips whistling and a song in our hearts – singing with gratitude for what the risen Christ has accomplished on our behalf. 

After all, we just put on expensive clothes and it didn’t cost us a dime.  In fact, we’re so darned thankful that we don’t just talk to others, we sing our words to them – even though we can’t carry a tune.  It doesn’t matter.  Our coat of love compels us.

Almighty and everlasting God, you willed that our Savior should take upon him our clothing of death upon the cross so that all humanity would have the privilege of wearing humility, gratitude, and love. Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of Christ’s life, and also be made aware of our participation in his glorious resurrection, in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 Samuel 10:1-5 – Misunderstood

Sometime later, King Nahash of Ammon died, and his son Hanun became king. David said, “Nahash was kind to me, and I will be kind to his son.” So, he sent some officials to the country of Ammon to tell Hanun how sorry he was that his father had died.

But Hanun’s officials told him, “Do you really believe David is honoring your father by sending these people to comfort you? He probably sent them to spy on our city, so he can destroy it.” Hanun arrested David’s officials and had their beards shaved off on one side of their faces. He had their robes cut off just below the waist, and then he sent them away. They were terribly ashamed.

When David found out what had happened to his officials, he sent a message and told them, “Stay in Jericho until your beards grow back. Then you can come home.” (Contemporary English Version)

Showing mercy, grace, and good faith doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Sometimes people get burned for their genuine gracious overtures. Not only do some folks not return or reciprocate with grace. There are times when someone refuses it and even responds with criticism and judgment.

King David was at the pinnacle of his rule. All Israel and Judah were under his gracious authority. David acted as a godly sovereign when he sought to use his power to show kindness and grace to those in his kingdom, even to those who were related to his former enemy, Saul. (2 Samuel 9:1-12)

Yet when David kept up his gracious ways and sent a delegation to the Ammonites in order to bring compassion to a grieving nation, they not only spurned the kindness but attributed evil intent to it.

Why in the world would they do such a thing? Why did Hanun, the new ruler of Ammon, reject David’s kindness? Because he severely misinterpreted David’s motives, and completely misjudged David’s intentions.

It is important to make wise assessments of others, and not quick judgments about people or their situations.

Being misunderstood is downright difficult to swallow. Yet we can avoid sinful reactions and respond with grace, even if grace isn’t being shown to us:

  • We can be gracious by not always needing to have the last word. Any fool can get easily get sucked into an argument. Know when to stop talking.

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

Even fools may be thought wise and intelligent if they stay quiet and keep their mouths shut. (Proverbs 17:28, GNT)

  • We can be gracious through cultivating a humble spirit. Pride assumes that another can be silenced with the power of words. What’s more, wounded pride typically manifests itself by gossiping to others about our hurt.

Destructive people produce conflict; gossips alienate close friends. (Proverbs 16:28, CEB)

Pride leads to destruction; humility leads to honor. (Proverbs 18:12, CEV)

God opposes arrogant people, but he is kind to humble people. (James 4:6, GW)

  • We can be gracious by developing our capacity for civility and empathy. Often when someone spews their off-base judgments and criticisms upon us, they have a world of their own past personal hurt behind the angry diatribe. We can choose to be gently curious about this, discovering why there is such a visceral reaction to our kindness.

“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)

Show respect for all people. Love your brothers and sisters in God’s family. Respect God and honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17, ERV)

  • We can be gracious through tapping into an inner storehouse of wisdom. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Wisdom is insight into reality. For the believer, it is the ability to take God’s Word and lovingly apply it to the lived experience we are enduring.

Hold on to wisdom, and it will take care of you. Love it, and it will keep you safe. Wisdom is the most important thing; so, get wisdom. If it costs everything you have, get understanding. (Proverbs 4:6-7, NCV)

It is true, of course, that “all of us have knowledge,” as they say. Such knowledge, however, puffs a person up with pride; but love builds up. (1 Corinthians, 8:1, GNT)

One of life’s hard lessons is that bestowing grace and mercy to others does not necessarily mean they will receive it and respond in kind. 

In fact, there are some individuals who refuse grace and give back only scorn and derision. Even the Lord Jesus experienced this like no other before or after him. Christ endured all the foulness and degradation of a cruel cross because there were people who refused to see that he was extending God’s grace to them. He turned scorn on its head by despising shame and enduring pain so that we would be spared of such ignominy. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

In those times when we, at best, scratch our heads, and, at worst, weep uncontrollably over having our genuine love paid back with harsh misunderstanding, it is a good reminder that we are imitating the life of our precious Lord Jesus who knows exactly what shame is and what a profound lack of mercy can do. 

It is in the seasons and events of life which produce frustration that we understand this: Perfect peace will not be found in this life. So, we more fully attach ourselves to Jesus and find genuine grace and the solidarity of faith and love.

Consider what Christ went through; how he put up with so much hatred from those misinterpreting and misjudging him. Do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up from gross misunderstanding.

Loving God, I give you thanks for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus. Christ is the pioneer of my faith. Just as he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at your right hand, so help me to live into the grace you offer through Christ’s redemptive events so that I might persevere with grace through all the unmerciful acts of this world. Amen.