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 73:21-28 – God Is Near

When my thoughts were bitter
    and my feelings were hurt,
I was as stupid as an animal;
    I did not understand you.
Yet I always stay close to you,
    and you hold me by the hand.
You guide me with your instruction
    and at the end you will receive me with honor.
What else do I have in heaven but you?
    Since I have you, what else could I want on earth?
My mind and my body may grow weak,
    but God is my strength;
    he is all I ever need.

Those who abandon you will certainly perish;
    you will destroy those who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, how wonderful to be near God,
    to find protection with the Sovereign Lord
    and to proclaim all that he has done! (Good News Translation)

Sometimes we put our foot in our mouth. We know how it feels saying rash words that we later regret. And we also know what it feels like to get dumped on by another who has some choice words for us.

The psalmist, Asaph, records an encounter with God. Asaph was upset. He gave God a piece of his mind. Then later, after reflecting on the experience, Asaph admitted that his soul was embittered and let his base nature take over.

The human brain is a complicated organ. We process information in different parts of the brain. The neo-cortex (the rational part of the brain) allows us to engage in logical analysis and complex decision making. 

Another part, the limbic system (sometimes referred to as the “reptilian brain”) processes information very quickly, largely by instinct. When we become scared, surprised, upset, or angry, adrenaline gets pumped into our limbic system so that we can quickly react to the perceived threat, danger, or injustice.

Having our brains flooded with adrenaline when there is real danger is necessary. There are life-threatening circumstances in which we need that quick response. Yet, if our brains remain on high alert and are continually fearful and upset, even when there is no real problem, we don’t calm down, and the result is less than stellar behavior. 

So, what is the answer to this situation? Asaph said God holds his right hand and guides him with wise counsel. Being near to God brings the brain chemistry to appropriate levels so that we can relax and trust.

God is with us always in the person of the Holy Spirit. There is never a time, place, or situation where God is absent. As we learn to rely on God’s presence, and remind ourselves of it on a daily basis, we can restore more rational thoughts to our lives. We can live knowing God is in control and continually vigilant to watch over us.

Gracious God, I have no one in my life like you. My flesh and my heart may fail, my brain might become overwhelmed with irrational fears, but you are my strength and the Rock of my salvation. Thank you for your continual provision and help each day through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 125 – Mountain Theology

Photo by Saulo Zayas on Pexels.com

Everyone who trusts the Lord
    is like Mount Zion
    that cannot be shaken
    and will stand forever.
Just as Jerusalem is protected
    by mountains on every side,
the Lord protects his people
    by holding them in his arms
    now and forever.
He won’t let the wicked
rule his people
    or lead them to do wrong.
Let’s ask the Lord to be kind
to everyone
    who is good
    and completely obeys him.

When the Lord punishes
    the wicked,
he will punish everyone else
who lives a crooked life.
    Pray for peace in Israel! (Contemporary English Version)

Psalms 120-134 comprise a collection of short songs of ascent meant to guide Jewish pilgrims on their communal trek up to the city of Jerusalem, and ultimately to the temple mount. 

Ascending to the Light by Alex Levin

The rhythm of the pious ancient Israelites centered round particular festivals, seasons, and Sabbath. Taking the annual pilgrimage to the Holy City was an especially anticipated time of year. This yearly cycle brought both increased faith and needed spiritual stability to the people. It reminded them that, like the mountains themselves, God cannot be moved. God will always be there.

Robust understandings of God are good solid mountain theology. Mountains make up about one-fifth of the world’s landscape and 12% of the world’s population live on them. They are more than imposing and impressive statues of rock. About 80% of our planet’s fresh water originates in the mountains.

So, when the psalmist likens God to a mountain, it is a reference not only to protection and strength; it is also pointing us to the source of life. With God, every need is met and satisfied.

On a mountain, Noah settled, Moses was given the law, Jesus preached and died – and the beans from my morning coffee were grown. I have everything I need in the mountainous God of all.

The most fundamental truths about God is consistency and constancy in the divine nature. God is forever present with people. 

If God seems or feels aloof or unconcerned, it is not that the Lord is avoiding us or is distracted with other important matters of running the universe. It simply means God chooses to reveal divine character and the divine will whenever the appropriate time ensue, for our benefit.

A mountain looks like it never moves. Yet the slow but steady rains, the creeping of tectonic plates, and undiscernible changes within the earth shift mountain ranges over time. The Lord is most certainly responding to us, our movements and changes, in a way we cannot perceive with the naked eye.

Our responsibility in the entire affair is to engage in consistent rhythms of spirituality which place us in a position to receive grace when God decides to give it. If we are still, we can feel the movements of grace enveloping us with life.

Perhaps we need to become adept at being spiritual mountain goats, using our wide cloven hooves of faith to negotiate the immense crags and rocks of God. After all, we will spend an eternity getting to know God and never exhaust the exploration.

Therefore, we must not despair but anticipate meeting with God, just as the Israelites of old looked forward and upward to their annual worship at the top of the mountain. The truth is that God surrounds people, even when we do not always perceive it to be so. 

The sturdiness of God is able to handle and bear the weight of our heaviest burdens.

Throw all your anxiety onto him because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, CEB)

If we will but look up, there is abiding help for the most vexing of problems.
I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
    Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the maker of heaven and earth.
God won’t let your foot slip.
    Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job. (Psalm 121:1-3, CEB)

There is peace and settled rest when we call upon the God who surrounds us.

I call out to the Lord,
    and he answers me from his holy mountain.

I lie down and sleep;
    I wake again because the Lord sustains me. (Psalm 3:4-5, NIV)

It is through trust that we become mountains ourselves – strong in faith and giving life to those around us.

Ever-present God, there is no place where I can go where you are not.  Help me to so intuit your presence that it bolsters my faith and resilience for daily life in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Ephesians 6:10-20 – Spiritual Combat

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So, pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. (New Living Translation)

When I think of the Apostle Paul, I think of a guy who had a bucket load of boldness, who did not sidestep tough situations, but who fearlessly stepped into the world with the good news of God’s grace in Christ. 

Maybe Paul was that way because of prayer and the prayers of God’s people. Maybe what stands in the way of people knowing Jesus and believers maturing in faith is a profound lack of intense, consistent, and sustained prayer. Maybe too many of God’s people have been duped by the enemy of our souls to retreat in a bubble of fear, unable to effectively engage God’s big world with confidence.

Paul told the Ephesian Church what kind of practical and vital obligations were needed to put aside fear and flourish as Christians….

Be strong in the Lord because we are in an invisible war.

There is an unseen world all around us. We serve an invisible God, and we have an invisible enemy. Satan and all his wicked spirits exist. They are organized for war with methodical schemes and strategies designed to blunt our spiritual development and the expansion of God’s benevolent kingdom. The enemy seeks to render us ineffective in our walk with Christ, unproductive for God, and all knotted up inside in a broken mess so that we are weak, not strong.

The names of our invisible enemy in Scripture tells us the kind of diabolical and methodical work he is doing to snare us: 

  • Satan (the adversary who opposes us)
  • Lucifer (the shining one who comes looking like the light but only delivers darkness)
  • Beelzebub (lord of the flies, who is a false god promising protection and help apart from God)
  • Belial (the evil one, who seeks to have us engage in sin instead of righteousness)
  • Tempter (offering alternative plans to the will of God)
  • Accuser (the false judge, using criticism to bully people into shameful submission)
  • Prince of this world (the architect behind all systemic evil)
  • Devil (the diabolical one who engages in spiritual guerilla warfare against God’s people)

The unseen wicked spirits of this dark world pull out whatever technique they can to turn us from knowing who we are in Christ and how we are to really live. They seek to distract us from our mission, to keep us busy fighting among ourselves, so that we will put our ultimate confidence in anything or anyone but Christ.

Put on the armor of God and prepare for spiritual battle.

Satan is a defeated foe. The nails that crucified the Lord Jesus, and the power of God that raised him from the dead, ensured Satan’s doom.

Although we stand in the victory of the Lord Jesus, the world, the flesh, and the devil still dog us at every turn. So, we must discover and dislodge every threat to our spiritual growth and the mission of the church to step into the world with the gospel of grace. 

Jesus said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against us. The picture is not one of the church being defensive and only responding to threats, but of a church pushing forward and storming the gates. 

The promise we have is that we can engage the enemy to the point of hell itself – and will not be burned by demonic enemy fire. Therefore, we are not to hunker down in self-protective foxholes; we are to engage the enemy with our spiritual armor on.

  • Put on the belt of truth. We need to combat the demonic lies. The truth will set us free. Lies will place us in bondage. Shame will keep us in the dark shadows. We are to embrace Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is that we belong to God. We are not to fight demonic fire with fire. Instead, we fight Satan with the waters of baptism, remembering who we are in Christ. Just as the wicked witch of the west was killed with water, so we are to fling our baptismal water in the face of the enemy and watch him melt away.
  • Put on the breastplate of righteousness. It protects our heart as we push forward and engage the enemy. Satan is aiming for our hearts, so it is vital that they are well-guarded. Our hearts belong to God. Before we chose God, God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4).         
  • Put on the gospel shoes of peace. Satan and his minions are trying to cause chaos, unrest, and division.  We are to be ready for his methods through embracing God’s peace and harmony with others. We are to use our shoes, both for digging in and standing firm, and stepping forward into situations as peace-makers. Those who ready themselves with the gospel of peace live differently, openly, with grace and integrity.

Take up your spiritual weapons and do battle.

Whereas the spiritual armor is protective, giving us a solid defensive posture, our spiritual weapons help us to go on the offense and walk into the struggle.

  • Take up the shield of faith. Extinguish all the nasty flaming arrows of the evil one. The Roman phalanx was a rectangular military formation where the army took their shields and connected them together for protection and the ability to push forward, engaging the enemy. This tactic helped the Romans to conquer most of the known world of the time. It was based not on individual ability but on the strength of the entire army working together. The devil seeks to divide and conquer. Yet, there is strength in numbers, that is, as long as we work together!  Linking our shields together through unity, fellowship, and encouragement is absolutely necessary if we are going to win the battle.
  • Take up the helmet of salvation. Active transformation through the renewing of our minds enables us to avoid retreating and going back to old sinful patterns of thinking. We need mindfulness, not mindlessness, aware of who we are in Christ and actively occupying our thoughts with God’s Word.
  • Take up sword of the Spirit. This is the word of God. The written word is to be the spoken word. Our primary offensive weapon in the battle against the evil one is God’s Word. It needs to be read, memorized, meditated upon, learned, talked about, and, used by speaking it aloud.

Be alert and pray.

Prayer is to undergird everything we do. The early church was effective and successful through prayer. They all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14). They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31).  The early apostles re-arranged their busy schedules so that they could give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Believers in Jesus pray.

Whenever prayer takes a back seat to everything else, believers end up fighting the wrong battles with the result of a lot of friendly fire where people get spiritually and emotionally hurt. Our battle is not with flesh and blood human beings; it is with Satan and his wicked spirits. Fight them, not each other!

Conclusion

The spiritual forces we are up against are wicked, evil, cunning and do not observe any kind of Geneva Convention rules when it comes to war. They are out for blood. Therefore, we must be ready and put on our spiritual armor, take up our spiritual weapons, and move forward with the word of God and prayer. This present darkness requires that we be at our best. Our very lives depend on it.