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.

Psalm 101 – The Ethics of King David

I will sing to you, Lord!
    I will celebrate your kindness
    and your justice.
Please help me learn
    to do the right thing,
    and I will be honest and fair
    in my own kingdom.

I refuse to be corrupt
or to take part
    in anything crooked,
    and I won’t be dishonest
    or deceitful.

Anyone who spreads gossip
    will be silenced,
    and no one who is conceited
    will be my friend.

I will find trustworthy people
    to serve as my advisors,
    and only an honest person
    will serve as an official.

No one who cheats or lies
    will have a position
    in my royal court.
Each morning I will silence
    any lawbreakers I find
    in the countryside
    or in the city of the Lord. (Contemporary English Version)

King David was one serious dude when it came to dealing with wickedness and injustice. He had a zero tolerance policy toward people who were deceitful and proud. David was determined to deal with slanderous and arrogant people. He sought to establish a rule and reign based in his own personal integrity and practice of being a king who seeks after what is right and just.

And so, David refused to take a second look at corrupt people and things which degraded and debased others. He gathered around himself officials who genuinely care about kindness and justice.

David was not about to put up with anyone in his court who had personal agendas of power and privilege at the expense of the powerless.

For David, a diligent and conscientious application of God’s just and right law was absolutely necessary to a benevolent reign in which everyone felt secure and were able to enjoy the Promised Land. Corrupt officials had no place in the kingdom and would be summarily dealt with.

Unfortunately, there are far too many leaders in our world today who create cultures of fear, insecurity, and walking on eggshells. They are crafty and deceitful, actually using organizational codes of morality and ethics to hide their damaging and destructive effect on people.

We may not be kings like David, yet we can share his stance of not avoiding the evil in front of us and dealing with corruption, dishonesty, and disingenuous behavior from others, especially those in positions of power and authority. Toxic authority figures actively isolate us, making us feel stupid and incompetent and afraid to share our struggles with others, so that they can maintain all of the power. 

How, pray tell, might us lowly persons take on those with leverage and power over us, whether they be job bosses, church pastors, local politicians, or family members?

  • Do everything from a place of integrity. Seek the Lord in doing the right thing. Ultimate power belongs to God, not some puny person who is master of a small world.

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out. (Proverbs 10:9, NIV)

  • Refuse to play their game. Don’t resort to gossip, backbiting, or displays of your own supposed power. Be just, kind, wise, and, most of all, humble. Virtue will serve you well. Vice will not.

Gossip is spread by wicked people; they stir up trouble and break up friendships. (Proverbs 16:28, GNT)

  • Keep in mind that niceness is often used by corrupt leaders to keep others under their thumb. Dishonest and deceitful people are not necessarily bullying. They’ll use whatever means they can to get their way.

Flattery is nothing less than setting a trap. (Proverbs 29:5, CEV)

  • It is always our place to love, not judge. King Jesus is the Judge, not me, not you. Loving an unlovable person can only happen if we have a love for God which is able to see God’s image in every person we encounter, including that difficult leader. In the end, they will be held accountable – whether in this life, or in the one to come. Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.” (Matthew 5:43-44, CEB)

  • Watch your back. Yes, we are to trust in the Lord. That doesn’t mean we implicitly trust everyone and/or every organization. Jesus said:

“Listen! I am sending you, and you will be like sheep among wolves. So be smart like snakes. But also, be like doves and don’t hurt anyone. Be careful!” (Matthew 10:16-17a, ERV)

We all, like King David of old, need an unequivocal commitment to a zero tolerance policy toward evil. It is simply unacceptable to flirt with it. Whatever we must do to remind ourselves of righteousness, and whatever boundaries we need to set, is most necessary, because no one who practices deceit will dwell in the Lord’s house.

Holy God of justice, I will make a covenant with my eyes to set before them no vile thing. Help me to be strong in your mighty power so that my daily walk of faith in Jesus is righteous, free of guilt, and enjoyable.  Amen.

Psalm 14 – On the Significance of God

Statue of George Washington, outside the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Godless fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt.
They do disgusting things.
There is no one who does good things.
The Lord looks down from heaven on Adam’s descendants
to see if there is anyone who acts wisely,
if there is anyone who seeks help from God.
Everyone has turned away.
Together they have become rotten to the core.
No one, not even one person, does good things.
Are all those troublemakers,
those who devour my people as if they were devouring food,
so ignorant that they do not call on the Lord?
There they are—panic-stricken
because God is with the person who is righteous.
They put the advice of oppressed people to shame
because the Lord is their refuge.

If only salvation for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice.
Israel will be glad
. (God’s Word Translation)

George Washington, first President of the United States, in his farewell address to the nation in 1796, constructed his encouragements to the American people on the basis of virtue. 

Only a virtuous people, Washington believed, could cause the American experiment to succeed among the family of nations. Virtue, for Washington, could only occur through the twin pillars of religion and morality. He stated:

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

Washington was no fool. He understood that the guiding hand of Providence [God] was necessary to the flourishing of a free and happy people. 

Indeed, the ancient psalmist would agree. When humanity is untethered from their own deep spirituality, they become worthless, heartless, cruel and can rarely do right by others. 

Whatever Washington’s true personal sensibilities were about theology, he most certainly was convinced that belief in God along with the Scripture’s moral guidance were needed for a fledgling nation. The people’s ability to recognize and engraft religion into their lives would be a must for America.

Unmooring ourselves from the moral compass within us and forsaking the Creator leads to vice – whereas enjoining God and paying attention to the divine leads to virtue. 

It is not wise to ignore the God of all creation. From the psalmist’s perspective, through daily attentiveness and devotion to the Lord, moral and ethical ways can take root and produce justice, reconciliation, and peace.

Sovereign God, you rule the nations through your wise and benevolent reign. Help me to participate with you in your grand kingdom enterprise so that I can make decisions consistent with true morality, for the sake of Jesus, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ephesians 2:1-10 – Saved for a Reason

At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead because of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It is not something you possessed. It is not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. (CEB)

Christians are not saved so that they can just sit in a worldly holding tank until Jesus comes back. Deliverance is only one side of the salvation coin. We are saved so that we will engage in good works for in the here-and-now.

Christians know they are saved from sin through the forgiving work of Jesus Christ. It is an act of sheer grace on God’s part. A believer is not born again through personal effort any more than a baby is birthed because of her own doing. Salvation is thoroughly the work of God. Even the faith needed to believe is a gift graciously provided by God.

There is more. The Lord also has some plans and purposes in mind for the people of God. Christians were birthed into a new spiritual community with new commitments to do all kinds of good deeds. It is as if sin were a weight or an obstacle that has been removed so that living a life full of goodness can now move ahead and do its work. To be saved is to be freed for a vigorous moral life.

The great problems of our world are, at their core, spiritual problems which are an opportunity for believers in Jesus to take the lead in agitating for change. Expecting human governments or corporate systems to take the lead in moral transformation is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

Christians, churches, and faith communities can and ought to storm the gates of hell for the lives of women caught in sex trafficking; provide uplift and the tools to a better life for those in grinding poverty and hunger; challenge the idolatry of the American gun culture; speak up and step out for equality and an egalitarian culture; care for the sick and dying; reform morals; hold the world ethically accountable for its actions; and, hundreds of other realities of living in a fallen broken world.

In essence, when stripped to the center of the issue, these problems are not political, social, or cultural concerns – they are spiritual. Mass murder violates God’s command to not kill. Hunger and poverty too often result from greedy leaders in power who covet resources for themselves, violating God’s commands to provide for the poor and needy. Sexual slavery treats persons as chattel property and not as image-bearers of God. 

God has delivered us from the vice grip of sin so that we are free to tackle the immorality of the world around us. Perhaps you have a boss who is nothing more than a master of a small world and bullies and manipulates his employees. Maybe your local municipal authorities turn a blind eye to moral evil and cannot see they are public servants. It could be that within your own family there are problems of addiction which need to be graciously confronted and dealt with. 

Whatever the issues are in your sphere of influence, God has providentially placed us in the places we inhabit for just such a time as this so that we can do good works, both big and small, taking on immoral establishments as well as little acts of kindness. Doing good comes in all sizes, and all of us are to share our lives for the betterment of others.

Saving God, you have only good plans for your world and your people. Use me today and every day to be an agent of blessing and goodness, working for the benefit of others who need the freedom of Christ’s redemption and the power of his resurrection in their lives. Amen.