James 3:17-18 – Be Wise

The wisdom that comes from heaven is, first, pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (New International Version)

All New Testament epistles are letters written by Apostles to problems and situations within certain churches. When James sat down to pen a letter to the Jewish Christian churches in Gentile dominated countries, it was to address the state of their fellowship, their Christian lives, and an unhealthy church dynamic.

The believers faced lots of adversity as Christians. Sometimes, they responded well, and sometimes, they did not. They wavered between faith in Jesus and relying on other things to deal with their problems. James labeled this kind of inconsistent approach as double-minded or duplicitous. (James 1:5-8).

The church vacillated between knowing God loves them and wondering where God was in all their trouble. They investigated Holy Scripture, but then did not do what it says. (James 1:22-25) The church claimed faith in Christ, then schemed about ways to cozy-up to the wealthy so they could have a healthy budget. (James 2:1-4)

People professed faith, then sat on the fence, straddling the sacred and secular, doing nothing. The church was between two worlds of heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom. James sought to knock them off the fence, to quit being in two worlds with one foot in each. He wanted them on a path of authentic faith and true wisdom which would support them in a difficult world. 

James provides a way to navigate this troublesome world. He highlights seven characteristics of godly wisdom needed to face adversity and live well….

Pure

Purity is holiness. It’s morality and ethics. The pure person has a singular devotion to Jesus Christ – they pursue God’s will and seek to follow God’s way in everything, without exception. Purity means there are no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, no secret self-serving desires. 

Those who are pure have experienced spiritual cleansing. The pure know this is a foolish messed-up world; living in it means facing envy and selfish ambition. So, they jump the fence into God’s big meadow of grace. They joyously roll in the green grass of forgiveness. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus said, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8, NIV)

Peace-loving

Someone once asked a gentleman married for fifty years the secret to his marital bliss. He said, “The wife and I had this agreement when we first got married: When she was bothered about something, she would just tell me and get it off her chest. And if I was mad at her about something, I was able to take a long walk. I suppose you could attribute our happy marriage to the fact that I have largely led an outdoor life.”

That’s typically how we think about peace – the absence of conflict. But biblical peace is more than not fighting. Peace is harmony, working well together, and enjoying our relationships. Wise and godly people not only possess peace; they promote peace in all they do and say. Peace-lovers long for a real peace, which is more than keeping people from one another’s throats.

Just because there is no appearance of strife, doesn’t mean there is peace. Avoiding conflict is unhelpful. Jesus said:

“Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9, NIV) 

To enjoy the green pastures on God’s side of the fence means there are fences which have been mended….

“It is better to correct someone openly than to have love and not show it.” (Proverbs 27:5, NCV)

“Avoid saying anything hurtful,
    and never let a lie come out of your mouth.
Stop doing anything evil, and do good.
    Look for peace, and do all you can to help people live peacefully.” (Psalm 34:13-14, ERV)

“Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near.” (Ephesians 2:14-17, NLT)

Considerate

Consideration of others means to be flexible, open to reason, level-headed in anxious situations, gentle, non-combative, non-retaliatory, and generally understanding of another’s point of view. The considerate person puts themselves in another person’s shoes. It’s the opposite of being judgmental and going-off with partial information and quick interpretations. 

To be considerate is to make allowances for the weaknesses and shortcomings of others. It takes the kindest possible perspective. The considerate person avoids jumping to conclusions. I wonder, do you know how another person thinks to the degree you could state their opinions or positions accurately in a way they would say, “Yes that is exactly what I think!” 

The opposite of being considerate is to have a critical spirit. Constant criticism is a clue that godly wisdom will not be coming from the other side of the fence.

Submissive

Submission is a good thing. It’s a choice. If a person is coerced into submission, that’s slavery, not submission.  To submit is to place oneself under someone else’s authority. The submissive person listens and obeys authority. Submissive people are teachable – not concerned with gaining authority so they can call the shots. They humbly receive correction and do what is right. 

“Submit to each other out of respect for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21, CEB)

Full of Mercy and Good Fruit

Mercy is compassion in action. It empathizes with the needs of other, then, does something about it. Goodness results from mercy. Withholding mercy is a tactic of worldly wisdom, not godly wisdom. To believe we are letting someone off the hook or encouraging their bad behavior by showing mercy is completely foreign to Holy Scripture. Jesus said:

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

Merciful people scan the horizon to see whom they can show mercy. King David did this with Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth. While worldly kings on the other side of the fence were killing their rivals, David did the opposite by being merciful. He gave Mephibosheth a permanent seat at his dinner table (2 Samuel 9). David used his position and power to extend mercy. That’s why David was a man after God’s own heart. 

Impartial

To be impartial is to have no favoritism, to be the same person toward everyone. The impartial person is steady, consistent, and not swayed by the crowd. They don’t act one way with a certain group of people and different with another group. The person who sticks their finger to the wind to see which way it is blowing is unwise.

An impartial person is predictable – you never have to wonder if they are going to blow up at you, or not. Genuine wisdom is equitable in meeting needs. Impartiality doesn’t ask all kinds of qualifying questions to discern whether someone should get their needs met.

Withholding needs from others is unjust. God is just and impartial and expects people to reflect this basic approach to others. 

“The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, powerful, and awe-inspiring God. He never plays favorites and never takes a bribe.” (Deuteronomy 10:17, GW) 

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

“Judge people fairly and honestly. Don’t twist the law. Don’t play favorites. Don’t take a bribe—a bribe blinds even a wise person; it undermines the intentions of the best of people.” (Deuteronomy 16:19, MSG)

Sincere

Sincerity means to be without hypocrisy. The sincere person is the same both inside and out; what you see is what you get. They are real, vulnerable, and willing to say what is needed – not what they think others want to hear. 

There are no ulterior motives and no skeletons in the closet with the sincere person. That’s because everything they say and do is above board. 

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

Sincerity creates true biblical fellowship, openness, and honesty in the church.

Conclusion

People dwelling with godly wisdom produce a harvest of righteousness. The sure signs of true wisdom are good deeds done from a devoted heart to God. The source is humility. Conversely, the telltale signs of false wisdom are envy and selfishness. They result in disorder and evil practices.

We must go hard after these seven characteristics of being pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. If we desire unity, harmony, and righteousness, then it’s imperative we pursue godly wisdom.

Be wise, my friends, without being wise guys.

John 12:44-50 – The Light of Christ

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Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So, whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (NIV)

Jesus is the light of the world. (John 8:12)

Jesus told his followers they are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14)

Simple observation: Neither Jesus nor his followers become light. They are light. So, what does that mean?

To be light means we take a particular posture toward the world. It means we have a unique role in society.

Sometimes its important to say what something is not before we talk about what it is. To be light means we are not:

  • The Judge. The incarnation of Jesus was not for the purpose of playing Sheriff in the Old West, riding into the town of this world and gunslinging the bad guys either out of town or into the cemetery. Just because the world shot the sheriff, does not mean they’re off the hook for not shooting the deputy. There is judgment coming. It’s just that you nor I are the judge. “Do not judge,” said Jesus, unless you’re interested in getting judged yourself. (Matthew 7:1-2)
  • Cave-Dwellers. Rabbit-hole Christians. Dorm toads. Or any other metaphor for separating oneself from society and hiding out. Cave-dwellers want to hide out and start little fires that will only warm themselves. A rabbit-hole Christian scurries from hole to hole trying to avoid the world. Dorm toads never leave the friendly confines of their apartment swamp.

Rather than judging and hiding, people of the light possess are:

  • Encouragers. They speak constructive words of edification. Encouragers know there is a bit of light in everyone, so they see through the darkness to the good which can be enlightened and called forth in others. People who encourage have a glow about them which is attractive and winsome.
  • Aware. Being light causes one to see themselves in high definition. Both the image of God and the fallen nature of humanity is seen and held together. People of the light are aware of their identity. They are then able to act with humility, gentleness, and meekness. Since they know they are infinitely loved by God, this brings a great freedom to speak and act with confidence.
  • Believers. Faith begins with receiving grace. It then works its way from an internal truth to an outward expression. People of the light follow in the footsteps of their Lord Jesus. They love, lead, and linger in society as spiritual beings who help illumine the path.
  • Merciful. Since they were once in darkness themselves, people of the light set aside pre-meditated judgment and deal compassionately with those who are spiritually blind.
  • Pure. The light has its way of exposing impurities. People of the light squarely face their own reality and purposely seek purity in all their dealings with society.
  • Peacemakers. Being characterized by the light means we not only possess personal peace; we also make peace through creating and sustaining harmonious relations with others. The light enables us to be spiritual ombudsmen who carefully and effectively bring peace between warring factions.

Jesus is the light of the world. We are the light of the world. That means we do not hide but are present and involved in our families, neighborhoods, communities, local institutions, national affairs, and world problems. Being characterized as followers of Jesus causes a person and a faith community to be visible, to show the world who Jesus is, and what he is like.

The earliest followers of Jesus allowed their light to shine in the world through:

  • Taking in unwanted children, orphans, and babies left exposed to infanticide.
  • Ministry to the sick and dying during times of plague and disease, as well as visiting those in prison without families.
  • Help and kindness to the poor, foreigners, immigrant strangers, and widows, especially when no one else would.

Where light is present, no one needs to remain in darkness. Even a small flickering flame can illumine enough to make a way. And when many small flames come together, there is a great light for all to see.

Our message is not about ourselves. It is about Jesus Christ as the Lord. We are your servants for his sake. We are his servants because the same God who said that light should shine out of darkness has given us light. For that reason, we bring to light the knowledge about God’s glory which shines from Christ’s face. (2 Corinthians 4:5-6, GW)

May the light of Christ, the living Word, dispel the darkness of our hearts so that we may walk as children of light and sing the praises of a merciful God throughout the world. Amen.

Psalm 119:9-16 – How Can a Young Person Live a Pure Life?

How can a young person live a pure life?
    By obeying your word.
I try with all my heart to serve you.
    Help me obey your commands.
I study your teachings very carefully
    so that I will not sin against you.
Lord, you are worthy of praise!
    Teach me your laws.
I will repeat the laws we have heard from you.
I enjoy following your rules
    as much as others enjoy great riches.
I will study your instructions.
    I will give thought to your way of life.
I enjoy your laws.
    I will not forget your word. (ERV)

Pornography is a multi-billion-dollar a year industry and is steadily growing. The younger generation is particularly susceptible in this internet age of easy access and multiple porn websites.

  • 35% of all internet downloads worldwide are related to pornography.
  • Teen-aged boys are the largest consumers of pornographic internet sites. 

The following percentages of children report having seen pornography in some way:

  • 50% of 11-13-year-olds
  • 65% of 14-15-year-olds
  • 78% of 16-17-year-olds
  • 75% of parents believe their children have not seen pornography online.
  • 53% of the children said that they had seen pornography online.

Into this terrible muck of impurity an impropriety enters the biblical psalmist with his ancient, yet truly relevant question for us today: How can a young person live a pure life? 

The answer the psalmist gives is this: By guarding the heart through obedience to God’s Holy Word. The psalmist himself stored up the commands and teachings of Scripture in his heart so that he might not sin against God.

A solid tried-and-true activity parents can do for themselves (the statistics for adult use of porn are staggering) and for their kids in this area of purity is for the entire family to do some old school Bible memorization. Yes, I mean getting down to rote memory work. 

This is to be neither a legalistic practice nor some fetish that will keep evil away. Instead, memorizing verses and large sections of the Bible provides a solid foundation from which to construct of base of operations for the work of meditation. When temptation occurs, there will be something to stand upon in the heat of the moment.

Today’s lesson from Psalm 119 is a great place to begin. Expand to memorize the entire psalm, all 176 verses of it. When faced with the decision of viewing pornography or not, it would be wise to dedicate the time to memorizing Scripture so that there will be a delight in God’s statutes rather than a depressed guilt over another fall into impure thoughts and/or actions.

Now, I can feel the pushback from some folks. You might not have memorized anything your entire life, or so you think. One of the reasons many people can freely quote lines from movies is that they have watched their favorites repeatedly. Ah, so we are on to something, right!?

I have been reading the Holy Bible for over forty years, every day. I have large chunks of Scripture memorized – mostly because of all that reading. So far in my life I’ve read the entire Old Testament around 100 times and the New Testament about 300 times – not because I ever had the goal of doing all that reading but because I need God’s Word.

What’s more, I take the further step of spending some time in reflection and ongoing meditation on Scripture, especially at night before retiring. This might seem over the top to some. However, the reading and reflection of Scripture is about a 30-minute venture for me on most days. The goal is engrafting the message of the Bible into the heart and life. Memorization is simply the means of helping that to happen.

There are some memorization tips I use and have picked up along the way to aid in pressing Scripture firmly into my soul:

  • Sleep on it. Studies show that our brains process and store information while we sleep. Try to review some Scripture just before you go to sleep—even if it’s only for a few minutes—and see if it helps embed the information in your memory.
  • Repeat it. There is no substitute for consistent and repetitive reading or listening to Scripture being read to you. This one practice alone has been key to my own ability to memorize. 
  • Write it out. Writing helps deeply encode biblical truth we’re trying to learn because there is a direct connection between our hand and our brain. To increase recall, speak the Scripture out loud and visualize the concepts as well.
  • Sing it. Singing is what got my middle daughter through school. Songs or jingles use your brain’s right hemisphere, helping us to remember. There are already plenty of songs out there for all kinds of biblical passages. And, of course, you can always try making your own music.
  • Sense it. Use as many of the five senses as possible. Our senses enable us to use more parts of our brains and retain information better. For example, when I read Scripture, I use a physical Bible to hold and often use a pointer when reading (touch); have a cross in front of me (sight); read out loud, sometimes with worship music in the background (hearing); light a candle (smell); and, I always have a cup of coffee to sip while reading! (taste)

The biblical psalms are meant to be prayed. So, using them for that purpose has the effect of shaping our prayers and desires in a good direction, as well as helping us to live into the commands of God to “repeat the laws I have heard from you.” In a world of spiritual impurity, emotional assault, and mental adultery, we need the purifying work of God’s Word to wash our souls clean.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Merciful God, thank you for providing your Word to me so that I might read it, use it, memorize it, meditate upon it, and engraft it into my soul.  Fortify my spirit against the demons of impurity by the power of your Holy Spirit, to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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.