James 4:4-10 – The Jilted Lover

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

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

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Testament ends with God still longing for return:

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

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

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

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

  1. Submit to God.

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

2. Resist the devil.

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

3. Come near to God.

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

4. Wash our hands.

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

5. Purify our hearts.

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

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

6. Grieve.

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

7. Mourn.

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

8. Wail.

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

9. Change.

We cannot turn the clock back to some bygone idyllic era. We are to grasp the type of change which occurs in living for Jesus Christ and above sin. In other words, no casual cavalier attitudes toward sin. I once had a conversation with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we began the discussion, she expressed a desire to be wherever the better party going on. By the time we finished our conversation she was grieving, mourning, and crying. I never knew what became of her – I even forget her name now. But once she got just a glimpse of the gravity of sin, it undid her.

10. Be humble.

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

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

James 4:11-16 – On Planning Well

Brothers and sisters do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who can save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. (NIV)

Listening is both art and hard work. A few years back I spent a week at a prayer retreat. It was time intentionally set aside to hear God. It was hard work. I stayed in a little one room hermitage in the woods surrounding by God’s creation. On the first morning, I was in bed and at dawn I heard this loud thud on one of the windows. I woke up and heard it again, and then again. Outside there was a big male robin going at the window like there was no tomorrow. He did it about a dozen times before finally flying away. I laid there a bit frustrated with this stupid bird waking me up, and yet also wondered about that robin. Since I was there to connect with God, I started asking the question: “God, what are you trying to teach me through that stupid robin?”

I did not get an answer to my question. Then, the next day it happened again. Mr. Robin came by and took about a dozen hard tries at my window before flying away. However, this time I finally realized what was going on. Mr. Robin was perching just outside the window and looking at his own reflection. All he could see was a big rival robin staring back at him, on his turf, and he was going to tear into that interloper. Little did the birdbrain know that he was fighting a losing battle, against himself. 

“God, what are you trying to teach me through this robin?” Now, I had my answer. I was a Pastor tackling the issues and problems of others in the church and the world. Yet, I came to understand that I was only tackling myself, seeing my own reflection and struggling in a losing battle. I investigated the face of the enemy, and the enemy was me.

We are our own worst enemies. Much of life is determined by whether we plan for and with God. The natural temptation of us all is to view the landscape of human problems, assign enemies, and then fail to see that our greatest enemy is staring at us in the window’s reflection. Another temptation is to believe that when things are going well, it is because of our own doing – as if somehow, we can live and move and have our being independent of God in the equation. So, I ask, is God in our plans?

That is a big question. Here is just a smattering of what Jesus said about living for him: 

“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” (John 8:31)

“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 10:62) 

We are not called by God to control other people or events; we are called to practice self-control and listen to God as we determine the course of our lives in both the big and small things of life.

The Apostle James had to deal with some birdbrain robins. They were only looking at themselves and not doing the good they knew they ought to do.

The Actual Situation

Some of the people James addressed were planning and mapping out their lives without consideration of what God wanted. They neither looked to God before beginning their planning process nor intended on including him in their dealings. These certain businesspersons were independent minded. They viewed their time and money as their own. In their minds, they give God an hour on Sunday, and the rest of the time is their own; they make their own money and no one can tell them what to do with it; they make their own plans, and maybe ask God afterward to bless it all.

The actual situation was that people were holding back on God, only giving him a certain portion of their effort.  And this can happen to any of us, with anything we have.  We may not all have money and power, yet we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

One of the many things God taught me at my prayer retreat was through all my business and busy-ness that I was holding back in some ways. Yes, I could compassionately connect with people but was guarded with it. Having my armor up was coming from a fear of not doing something perfect, or at least not doing it really well; and, if I would give myself completely to compassionately connecting with others, I might get hurt (because I’ve been hurt before). I wonder if you can resonate with this.

God just wants us to show up, be present, and not be perfect. We are to do the best with the gifts and abilities given us and leave it all on the playing field so that it cannot be said of us that we did not do the good we knew we should have done.  Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with being afraid.  In fact, true courage involves fear because real bravery is doing what is right when it is scary to do it, no matter what the consequences might be.

The Analysis of the Situation

Life is truly short – like a mist that appears for a little while in the morning, and then vanishes. Thus, the scheming we might do to make money and guard our investments; the posturing to make ourselves look good; the power-plays we engage to get our way; and, the anxiety which prevents us from the things we know we ought to do amounts to nothing at the end of our lives.

I have talked with far too many people over the years who crucify themselves between the two thieves of regret over yesterday’s missed opportunities, and fear of what will happen tomorrow. I have observed far too many people who made lots of money, patented inventions, and won awards, yet had no one at the end of their lives to be with them. They were not there for others, and so others were not there for them. 

Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). In God’s economy, money is simply a tool to be used to meet needs and bless others. Yet, we tend to make audacious plans with money through accumulating debt and presuming we can pay it off; encouraging our kids to get high paying jobs as their highest objective; and, putting faith in the market economy to provide for us in the end. 

James was not saying money is bad and making plans is wrong; he was saying that the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and that God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

The Alternative to the Situation

The alternative to making plans independent of God is to plan carefully for God to be in everything – to find and do his will without trying to impose our will upon the divine.

This requires listening well. It is easy to rush and keep busy and then are unable to hear what God might be saying. When things are rough, we may work so we do not have to stop long enough to feel what is really going on inside of us. James encourages us to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  Listening well enables living well.

The Audacity of the Situation

Some people in James’ day were boasting over their accomplishments.  Like Kings Nebuchadnezzar and Herod of old, they made plans and did what they wanted with delusions of grandeur. They believed they were the ultimate sovereigns of what could and should go on in the world of which they controlled. They had to learn the hard way that they were only masters of small worlds.

Boasting merely sets us up for a higher fall. We need God, and we need each other, and whenever we lose sight of that truth, we are on a one-way road to implosion. Whereas some might call it independence, God calls it evil.

The Awfulness of the Situation

The tragedy of independent planning and acting is that God is left out due to purposeful ignorance. Like the deceitful husband and wife duo, Ananias and Sapphira, there were certain persons who withheld their money and their resources so that they could look good to the rest of the community and influence happenings within the church (Acts 5:1-11).  It did not end so well for them.

Conclusion

Doing more with greater efficiency may help, yet it misses the point. We are to take the time and effort to relate meaningfully with God so that we can plan with confidence and make faith-based decisions on what we believe the Lord wants us to do.

Let us not find ourselves repeatedly flying into a window. Instead, let the Lord shape life in such a way that conforms to his purposes, so that we will then know genuine lasting joy and peace.

One mark of the mature person is that he/she has the same benevolence and character whether they are rich or poor. Since we are all rich in faith, let us continually demonstrate it by living for Jesus Christ, loving one another, and planning to reach a lost and unjust world with the good news of God’s grace.

Matthew 18:1-5 – On Humility

At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (NIV)

God’s benevolent, gracious, and ethical realm is accessed and rests upon humility. Wherever there are humble hearts, there is change, transformation, and new life. Where there is the presence of pride, there you will find posturing, positioning, and peacocking – nothing changes.

Humility enables a person to see beyond the end of their nose. A humble posture allows an individual to observe the wounds and pains of those with little power and low societal status. A preoccupation with being great and believing we are indispensable is to amble down a blind path.

In the ancient world, children were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were mostly looked upon as potential adults – little people who would someday contribute to the welfare of the family business and the community. Until then, kids were expected to begin learning their future trade with full submission and obedience. They had no power or leverage over others.

So, when Jesus told his disciples to take the lowly position of a child, he was not talking about innocence or cuteness. Christ meant for his followers to divest themselves of prideful positioning for greatness and embrace the helplessness and vulnerability of children. For Jesus, a child was closer to God’s rule and reign because they existed in truly humble circumstances, whereas an adult had too much concern with looking good and seeking every advantage possible.

Life is more upside-down than we sometimes realize. Adults have more to learn from kids than kids do from adults. To listen to a child is about as near to hearing the voice of God as you will get.

Let us consider how pride and humility work out in our daily lives. For example, when down and hurting, maybe you have had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you. In their pride, they ignore that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all. 

Invalidating a person’s state of being or feelings does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility. Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach. He fails to really listen to you. He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take. You are left sitting there while he is off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I am not giving doctors a hard knock. I work in a hospital and have great respect for medical professionals who provide wise care plans. Yet, it is likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of him/herself with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility. No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life.  That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow his Master Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interaction with one another is grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Therefore, caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering your opinion or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself.  The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker. The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it is not currently happening.

Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right and teaches them the way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, God saves and heals, not you or me.  That God chooses to use us to bring care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Lord God let me have too deep a sense of humor to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your serious consideration. Amen.

Psalm 133 – The Blessing of Unity and Harmony

Ascend to Jerusalem by Dan Livni
“Ascend to Jerusalem” by Dan Livni

Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is
when God’s people all come together as one!
It is like the sweet-smelling oil that is poured over the high priest’s head,
that runs down his beard flowing over his robes.
It is like a gentle rain from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.
It is there that the Lord has promised his blessing of eternal life. (ERV)

Unity, solidarity, and harmony are a beautiful blessing. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are an ugly curse. Within all families and faith communities are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.

Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ascended the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.

The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The gentle rain or the dew pictures the giving of life to a parched landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.

People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss. True community requires unity and harmony.

To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life. We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV).

Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings, then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think. In whatever you do, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too (Philippians 2:1-4, ERV). 

If we desire the enjoyment of blessed relationships we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and equal dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.

Yes, we are to work at unity and harmony because we can have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is true, and of others what is not so good.  We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.  Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves.

For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and, 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

College professors were just as biased about their abilities – 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) had this to say:

“If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches.  In Christ there is no rich or poor.  Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith.  If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure.  If you think you are a great person, then think others are also.  If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

We cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.  Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied.  Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in shared experiences of loving and caring for others.

My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  We are to embrace community.  We are to do life together.  We are to view everyone as my brother or sister. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.

So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.