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.

Matthew 5:8 – Blessed Are the Pure in Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.” (NIV)

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” (MSG)

“What bliss you experience when your heart is pure. For then your eyes will open to see more and more of God.(TPT)

“A pure heart means a single heart, a heart in which only one desire lives: love.”

Peter Kreeft

An Impure Scenario

Suppose a young man courts a young woman. They get to know one another, fall in love, and get married. On their wedding day, as they leave the church building and speed away, the young couple reminisce about love and life.

But when the groom begins to speak about a future together, the bride, with a smile on her face says, “Okay, you can pull over now.” The groom, completely smitten with his new bride, does exactly what she asks. The young woman gets out of the car and, blowing a kiss, says, “This was fun. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

“I don’t think this is funny,” says the groom. “Hey, we had a great time, right!?” the perky bride says. “Yes, responds the groom, “and it will last forever.” “Oh, you are such a darling,” the bride says, and with a wry smile, “but I’ll be in touch.”

“Huh, what!?” the confused groom says. “Yeah, I’ll call. We’ll get together,” says the bride without flinching. The groom, now also feeling heartsick says, “I don’t understand. What’s going on?”

“Dear, I just need my space. It’s not like I don’t care! I have other things to do. Other men to see….”

Yes, a ridiculous and improbable scenario. Yet one which is repeated every day, multiple times a day. For the groom is the Lord God almighty; and the bride is the church….

Purity and God

Purity is a big deal to God. The phrase, “pure in heart,” is Christ’s way of upholding the biblical call to holiness. To be pure is to have no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, and no side job of moonlighting with the world while being an upstanding kingdom citizen during the day. It isn’t letting Jesus court us and marry us, only to have us walk away and do whatever the heck we want. It’s not only impure and unholy. It’s plain wrong and messed up.

Through blessing the pure in heart, Jesus was connecting us to the Old Testament ethic of being holy. The book of Leviticus, rarely the focus of any preacher or parishioner alike, is completely given to the topic of holiness. The detailed laws about daily life, including what to wear and not wear, what to eat and not eat, even who to marry and not marry, were given for a reason.

God wanted the ancient Israelites to have daily reminders that they are a holy people. So, there was to be no mixing of fabrics, no meat and cheese together, no impurities introduced into any part of life. Everything about the Jewish lifestyle was to be holy, set apart to God, reminding the people that God is their husband, committed to them with responsibilities on the part of both. It was called a “covenant.”

Leviticus 19 leaves no stone unturned on the activities of life:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’….

Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. Do not defraud or rob your neighbor….

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly….

Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” (Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-13, 15-19, NIV)

Yes, indeed, purity is a big deal to God. The “Holy” Spirit is the Divine Person completely devoted to doing only the will of the Father and Son – never going rogue. The Spirit is the One who effects sanctification, becoming holy, within the life of the believer. Each year we celebrate “Holy” Week, a stretch of days designed to be different than the rest – devoted to journeying with Jesus and not mixing with the fickle crowd who would scream at the end of the week, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Purity and Us

To follow Jesus in true righteousness is to be pure in heart, that is, set apart wholly and completely for him. Purity of heart is a fruit from the trunk of righteousness, which grew up in the soil of God’s grace, with roots of humility and meekness – all watered by the tears of godly mourning.

The pure in heart are those who acknowledge their sin, deal with it, and live with a clear and clean conscience before God and the world. They have an awareness of their wrongs and shortcomings without succumbing to self-criticism because of an equal awareness of God’s grace. They keep short accounts with others concerning what they have done or what they should have done. They are holy. They are sanctified. They are pure in heart.

The pure in heart will see God. They know they cannot make themselves pure, so they keep looking to Jesus for their forgiveness because they hunger for righteousness.

One cannot whitewash a wishy-washy commitment with Jesus and be pure. This blessed Beatitude has to do with our motives and what takes place in our thinking and in our hearts.  What do you think about when your mind slips into neutral?  Is it coveting after things or people, or does thinking go toward what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable?  Sometimes we struggle with purity of heart because we are focused not on Jesus, but on our own performance and perfection instead of letting God fill our hungry hearts.

Purity results from true righteousness.  A stalk of corn might look good, but if you shuck it and it’s filled with worms, it isn’t going to be worth much. Legalistic righteousness and empty promises of doing better are concerned to look good, not to mention they are obsessed with performance, perfection, and possessions. 

But the righteousness of God fills our hungry hearts and makes us pure and holy, set apart for divine use and divine purposes. How, then, shall we live? What will we do?

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob. (Psalm 24:1-6, NIV)

The person with integrity shall see God. Those made pure with the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ will someday stand before God at the Last Judgment and there find mercy and acceptance.

So, for now, until that time, we daily have the opportunity to focus on our one true love with loyalty and commitment, enjoying God’s presence continually. Because the Lord will never leave us, nor forsake us, even when we sometimes forsake him.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-12 – Sin, Sinners, and God

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.
(New Revised Standard Version)

Sin. The word is rarely used anymore in places outside of churches. And when it is used within the church, sometimes it is grossly misrepresented, as if humanity’s identity is sin.

Although everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, our inherent personhood is not sinful. Every human is made in the image and likeness of God. Sin is like a permanent putrid abscess which never seems to go away.

Sin is everywhere – in our hearts, in our world, in our institutions, and in our families. It is on television, the internet, social media, and moves in and out of smartphones. Sin, apparently, is even in our desserts (oh, the decadence of chocolate!). If it takes one to know one, we are all experts on being sinners.

From a biblical vantage, sin is serious business. It is both the things we do (1 John 3:4), as well as the things we leave undone (James 4:17). Sin is both the breaking of God’s commands, and the lack of conforming to the teachings of Jesus.

Christians throughout the ages have generally understood that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and Christ’s law of love (Luke 10:27) constitute a brief summary of God’s holy and moral instruction for humanity.  This is all based in the character of God as both holy and loving. 

Sin, then, might be defined as anything present within a person which does not express, or is contrary to, the basic character of God.

All sin, whether in actions or inactions, has at its root an attitude and activity of self-centeredness. It is a selfish bent of thinking, feeling, and acting. And, oh my, the consequences!

Sinful attitudes bring about an obsession with lust (1 John 8:34; Galatians 5:16); a broken relationship with God (Romans 3:23; Galatians 5:17); bondage to Satan (1 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:26); death (Romans 6:23; 8:6); hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13); and deception (1 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:22, 26) just to a name a few.

Sin lurks in the shadows of the heart, drips from the tongue of the wicked, and lingers in the actions of the selfish and proud. Sin is not something to trifle with, dabble in, or even manage. No, sin, at its core, is a rebellion against God, a stiff-arm to the Lord that claims we know better than God about how to run our lives. 

Sin will eventually break us.  It may initially look good and meet a quick emotional need, but in the end it is like a poisonous snake bite that will kill unless treated.

People are guilty of transgressing basic morality, as well as failing to be ethically virtuous people on any on-going consistent basis. 

Well, that sounds like a total Debbie-Downer. Actually, it’s total depravity. Being depraved people does not mean we are never capable of doing good; it just means that sin has profoundly touched everything in our lives, without exception.

God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, he forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong.

1 John 1:9, GW

When we come to the realization that we are in dire straits, then it is high time we blurt out a prayer of confession along with David. The book of Psalms is the Christian’s prayer book, and there is no better prayer to pray when we come to the end of ourselves than the psalmist’s plea for mercy, based in the steadfast love of God.

The ironic paradox of all this is that experiencing true joy and comfort comes through knowing how great our sin is. 

We can live above sin by being set free from it by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. If a person is to be redeemed from sin, then a provision must be made. Sin has been dealt with once for all through the person and work of Jesus. Christ is our representative, taking our place with the punishment we deserved (Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:9-15; Hebrews 2:17-18; 1 John 2:1).

Jesus Christ is our ultimate substitute (Romans 5:8) which resulted in: our redemption (Galatians 5:13); satisfying all justice (Romans 3:25); and reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10). 

Therefore, the person who believes in Jesus is forgiven of sin because Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to deal with all the effects of sin.  The Christian is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

A genuine prayer of confession asks for mercy based upon God’s character and ability to heal, rather than trusting in the attempted quality of our petition. In other words, neither the eloquence nor the sheer word structure itself is the proper basis for confession; utterances of a broken and contrite heart, submitted to God, trusting solely in his grace to transform, are the only kind of words appropriate for approaching God with our sin. 

Such prayers are not to be few and far between; they are to be a regular regimen, engaged on a daily basis. Just as we take pills each day for all that ails us, so we need to take in the mercy of God through prayers of confession that link us to the true healing power which brings spiritual health and life.

Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me! Please don’t throw me out of your presence; please don’t take your holy spirit away from me. Return the joy of your salvation to me and sustain me with a willing spirit. Amen.

Titus 1:1-9 – Effective Spiritual Leaders

From Paul, a slave of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. I’m sent to bring about the faith of God’s chosen people and a knowledge of the truth that agrees with godliness.

Their faith and this knowledge are based on the hope of eternal life that God, who doesn’t lie, promised before time began. God revealed his message at the appropriate time through preaching, and I was trusted with preaching this message by the command of God our savior.

To Titus, my true child in a common faith.

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our savior.

The reason I left you behind in Crete was to organize whatever needs to be done and to appoint elders in each city, as I told you. Elders should be without fault. They should be faithful to their spouse and have faithful children who can’t be accused of self-indulgence or rebelliousness. This is because supervisors should be without fault as God’s managers: they shouldn’t be stubborn, irritable, addicted to alcohol, a bully, or greedy. Instead, they should show hospitality, love what is good, and be reasonable, ethical, godly, and self-controlled. They must pay attention to the reliable message as it has been taught to them so that they can encourage people with healthy instruction and refute those who speak against it. (Common English Bible)

Paul wrote his letter to Titus so that spiritually solid competent virtuous leaders might be appointed to guide the church on the island of Crete (located in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Greece). 

There was no ambiguity with Paul about the importance of leadership. The Apostle clearly laid out his expectations that church officials must have a good reputation – not bossy, quick-tempered, heavy drinkers, bullies, or dishonest in business. Instead, they must be friendly to strangers and enjoy doing good things. They must also be sensible, fair, pure, and self-controlled.  They must stick to the true message they were taught, so that their good teaching can help others and correct everyone who opposes it.

I find it interesting that very few biblical scholars view this teaching as an ideal to aspire – while many churches and believers think this is the case. There is neither any indication nor reason within the biblical text to think that Paul presented his expectations for the ideal leader, as if no one could really be this way. 

Furthermore, Paul did not provide his instruction as a strategy for getting apathetic people off their butts and into some form of service. No, it’s best to understand that Paul meant what he said. He knew that compromising on the character of leadership would erode and destroy the church.

“True leadership is found in giving yourself in service to others, not in coaxing or inducing others to serve you.”

J. Oswald Sanders

The selection of church leaders is important because just one bad belly-aching non-virtuous apple can upset the entire apple cart. Good people provide good teaching and good wisdom. Selfish people with a self-centered agenda find ways to subvert or manipulate sound instruction to get what they want. 

Everyone in the Body of Christ is to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of God. They are to be wise to all the shenanigans of myopic persons through understanding the commands and instruction of Holy Scripture. This is yet another reason to immerse ourselves in the Bible so that we will lead with confidence.

If a church or faith community feels the need to overlook character defects to fill empty leadership seats, then Houston, we have a problem. Any short order cook worth his salt would never crack open a rotten egg and mix it in with the rest to make an omelet. And any group of people who throw a bad egg into their leadership team had better be ready to get sick and vomit when meetings are called to order.

It is imperative that spiritual leaders possess the following:

  • A good reputation
  • Faithfulness and fidelity to their families.
  • A clear-mind and consistent good behavior.
  • Self-control
  • The moral courage to speak truth with grace.
  • A spirit and practice of hospitality.
  • An ability to communicate well so that people are built up in their faith.
  • Sobriety
  • Humility
  • Respectability
  • Gentleness
  • Patience
  • Generosity
  • Compassion
  • Maturity
  • Sincerity
  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Purity

All these traits are needed for effective and godly spiritual leadership. Compromising on virtue will never end well. Upholding moral character brings blessing.

“The authority by which the Christian leader leads is not power but love, not force but example, not coercion but reasoned persuasion. Leaders have power, but power is safe only in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve.” 

John R.W. Stott

God calls and sets apart individuals for service. The Lord desires to reveal and manifest the divine presence among people through leaders who reflect God’s good attributes. Jesus Christ wants his church to be built up through faithful service. The Spirit seeks to sanctify and empower for effective ministry.

Nowhere do we find in Scripture that a leader’s main job is listening to complaints. That’s because God has a zero tolerance policy toward murmuring, grumbling, and ingratitude. In fact, the New Testament clearly says to do everything without complaining or arguing. (Philippians 2:14)

Neither will you find the church is supposed to operate just like an American form of democracy. Spiritual leaders are not representatives of the people to do their will. Instead, they are representatives of God to the people so that God’s will is done in all things. 

That all means prayer to God and outreach to the world is the major work for spiritual leaders. And it takes virtuous and ethical persons leading to realize love to all kinds of people. So, feel free to exercise leadership. Just make sure that leadership is grounded in the God of integrity and the Word of grace and truth.

Almighty God, the One who gives good gifts to people, may every grace of ministry rest on divinely appointed leaders. Keep them strong and faithful so that your church may prosper in peace. Grant leaders wisdom, courage, discretion, and benevolence so that they may fulfill their charge to the glory of Jesus Christ and in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.