James 1:9-16 – The Rich, the Poor, and God

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Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wildflower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. (New International Version)

The social milieu of the New Testament world was a society firmly stratified between the rich and the poor.  There were very few opportunities for uplift with the lower class. There were no laws protecting the rights of workers and the disadvantaged, and the rich often used and abused their power over them.

However, the Apostle James had a different angle, a divine perspective, on the situation.

The poor person is rich

The lowly poor person actually has a high position because their poverty enables an openness to God and leads them to rely on God’s enablement and provision.

Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; struggle to keep food on the table; and find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God. In this state of humility, the believer cries to God. Trust becomes necessary for survival.

God cares about our poverty of spirit – our humble and contrite hearts. A person can be poor, but, at the same time, spiritually advantaged. We are loved by God neither because of wealth nor poverty; we are loved because that’s what God does.

It is possible to be poor, and not humble. Conversely, it is possible to be rich and trust God. Chronically complaining of a lack of funds and always desiring more money – or trying to act like we are not poor (or the rich trying to act poor) – will not get an exalted status with God.

The choice is: Will we pour our lives into things, or people? Will we define success as worldly wealth, or as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

It is quite possible to have very little, but to be rich in faith and relationships. 

The rich person is poor

Wealth is not bad, per se. There are plenty of godly and wealthy persons in Scripture, like Abraham and Job. The problem is people who rely on what they own rather than on God. (Luke 12:13-21) 

Anyone who trusts in things is the true underprivileged person. The lack of faith and humility makes them like a sirocco wind – a hot and humid southeast to southwest wind originating as hot, dry desert-air over North Africa, and blowing northward into the southern Mediterranean basin. 

The original readers knew all about these winds that could unpredictably come through their area and wither perfectly good and apparently strong plants.

The rich person who trusts in wealth is like that plant. It grows up, flourishes, and is beautiful. Yet, the next day, it is completely gone – annihilated by the hot wind. Like a cornfield in a massive hailstorm, or a flower in a severely hot sirocco wind, you can count on the biblical reality that the rich cannot stand in the judgment, if they are looking to wealth for power, control, attention, and status. 

Even though it might seem the rich person is exalted, and the poor person is in a low position, in the end, the rich will suffer, and the poor will be vindicated. Faith determines success – not money. (Luke 16:19-21)

The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord made them both.

Proverbs 22:2, CEB

Blessed is the person who perseveres under a time of trial and testing of faith. God is pleased when we learn to endure hardship and let it mature us into better people. For such people, God promises to give the crown of life.  God sees your hardship and promises life. This hope helps sustain us over those times when we might wonder if the trial will ever end.

Sometimes, however, we face suffering not because of the circumstances which God brings in our lives, but because of our own unwise response to difficulty. We compound our problems by blaming our troubles on others and refusing to face-up to what God is trying to teach us. 

Our bruised hearts can send us desperately looking for someone to point the finger when we are confronted with our own trouble – even God.

“There are two eras in American history: the passing of the buffalo and the passing of the buck.”

Will Rogers

We are sometimes so desperate to justify ourselves that we make illogical and irrational statements, such as: 

  • “I would not worry about the future if I had just a little more money, and no health problems.”
  • “If you knew what I’ve been through, you would know that I could never forgive that person [or God].”
  • “I’ll never be happy as long as _______ is in my life.”
  • “I would be more generous if God gave me more money.”

So, what will it take to stop making excuses, blaming others, and start pleasing God instead of everyone else? What will it take to face down the difficult stuff you don’t like in your life?

Don’t blame God

God cannot be tempted. God hates injustice. It is a moral impossibility for God to even consider attempting to do evil because of perfect holiness. Since God cannot be tempted by evil, God therefore cannot tempt people toward evil.

We blame others because it is a cheap, easy, and pathetic way of absolving ourselves from responsibility, unwise choices, words, and actions. There are only two ways of living with guilt: either we humble ourselves through confession and repentance; or we blame it on someone else.

God tests our faith to improve our character and bring us toward greater spiritual maturity. God does not force us to make bad, immoral, or evil choices because of hard circumstances. God may have very well brought the trial and testing into our lives; but how we respond to it, is up to us.

The source of temptation is us

The real culprit behind temptation is one’s own personal desire or lust for something. It is our own strong intense have-to-do-it, have-to-say-it, and have-to-have-it mentality which is at the root of temptation. 

We all have legitimate needs and desires for love, security, companionship, and to make a difference in the world. Yet we can often seek illegitimate means to satisfy those needs. Temptation lures us to satisfy our legitimate needs in illegitimate ways, and then hooks us like a fish. 

The result of giving-in to temptation is ultimately death

The Apostle James used the familiar language of childbirth to convey the consequences of sinful desires. Temptation, like a smooth operator, comes along and gives us a slick pitch about how our troubles can be taken care of through blaming others, even God.

Then, all of sudden, like a lost and lonely person desiring to be satisfied, we entertain the idea and go to bed with the idea. We sin. Now it is within us. Like a fetus, the small sin grows inside us. Eventually, this pregnancy must end. But instead of giving birth to life, there is the agony of death.

If the result of the person who perseveres under trial and endures the testing of faith is being with and enjoying God forever, so the result of the person who chooses to fulfill evil desires through succumbing to temptation is separation from God – it is death.

Conclusion

Every one of us struggles in some way with temptation. We don’t all wrestle with the same demons, but we all are tempted in some manner. The cycle of guilt and separation from God can be broken through humility and submission to Christ. The good news is that the power of sin can be broken.

Don’t let anyone fool you by using senseless arguments [blame-shifting]. These arguments may sound wise, but they are only human teachings. They come from the powers of this world and not from Christ. God lives fully in Christ. And you are fully grown because you belong to Christ, who is over every power and authority. Christ has also taken away your selfish desires, just as circumcision removes flesh from the body. And when you were baptized, it was the same as being buried with Christ.  Then you were raised to life because you had faith in the power of God, who raised Christ from death. You were dead because you were sinful and were not God’s people. But God let Christ make you alive when he forgave all our sins. (Colossians 2:8-12, CEV)

Matthew 4:1-11 – Facing Temptation

Jesus Tempted by Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a remarkably high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (NIV)

In our most vulnerable moments, the devil attempts to swoop in and offer his demonic delights for us to consider. We call it “temptation.” Indeed, it can be quite alluring to entertain ways of getting what we need and want through avenues other than God.

In the desert, the place of preparation for ministry, Jesus fasted and prayed forty days. If ever there was a time when Jesus would be vulnerable to alternative religion, the devil mused, wringing his demonic hands together with wicked delight, it would be out in the desert by himself. So, Satan tempted Jesus with three whoppers he thought would get to Jesus, for sure. Having tempted Jesus with food and a way to fame, and having failed both times, Satan gave his final temptation.

To us this temptation to bow down and worship Satan seems like a no-brainer. Well, of course, no one would do such a thing as this, especially Jesus. And he did not. But it was still tempting. It really was. Jesus knew very well what was ahead of him. He had just spent forty days in an intense orientation for an upcoming three years of hard ministry with an end of tortuous death to look forward to. 

Satan presented to Jesus an alternative way, a different path to achieve his purpose for being on this earth. Jesus could have it all without the three years, without the hard slugging to communicate the kingdom of God has come. Most of all, Jesus could circumvent the cross and establish his rule over all the earth – all pain free! The temptation, yes, was very tempting. Become King Jesus now with no suffering.

This has always been one of our great temptations, as well: Take the easy path. Get what you want, what you deserve, now, with no hardship. 

The values of God’s kingdom include trust, patience, and perseverance. Temptation insists we need none of those hard things to be successful. Satan is the original slickster, marketing his quick and easy wares for people to buy into the notion that life can lived without pain and hardship, and with wild success, right now. The scary thing about it is that Satan can deliver… but it will cost us our very lives. Slavery to sin is the price we pay for hitching our hopes to the quick and easy.

The Christian season of Lent is a time for the slow, patient, deliberate development of the soul in attachment with the Lord Jesus. Engaging in spiritual disciplines is hard. It is difficult to fast and pray. Growing in Christ is slow and takes a great deal of learned perseverance. Far too many of us are tempted to circumvent the hard work of discipleship and simply have a spiritual professional distill everything we need into one hour on Sunday morning. Or we fabricate our own religious practice and beliefs, picking and choosing what fits our lifestyle, as if convenience and comfort are the summum bonum of life, instead of worship.

Christ was able to face down temptation because the desert strengthened him. Yes, he was vulnerable. But he was not weak. If we want to handle temptation, it will take Lent to help us. It will take the desert to spiritually form us and prepare us for godly ministry that puts the devil in his place.

Lord Jesus, you are the king of all creation. Just as you chose the hard path of God’s kingdom, so help me to persevere with faith and patience. May my life reflect your words and ways, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Mark 1:9-15 – Desert Spirituality

Welcome, friends! We begin the Christian season of Lent through recognizing that the desert is a very necessary part of resisting temptation and becoming strong in faith and patience. Click the videos below and let us together follow Jesus…

Mark 1:9-15, Pastor Tim
Advent Birmingham is a diverse group of musicians who lead worship services in song on Sundays at Cathedral Church of The Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. They also write and record modern hymns of their own and set ancient Christian hymns and songs to modern settings.

Sin is defeated. So, may we become the people we were always meant to be,
by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Temptation in the Desert

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:9-15, NIV)

We are in the season of Lent. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we take a forty-day journey, leading to Holy Week and Easter. Jesus spent forty days in the desert being tempted by Satan. So, the church remembers this event with the season of Lent. This is the time of year in which Christians are to give awareness of the temptations we face on a regular basis. We intentionally seek to fast or give up something for six weeks so that we might see how much we attach ourselves to other things and rely on them, instead of trusting in God.

Just as it was important and significant for Jesus to be in the desert, it is necessary for us, as well. Jesus retraced the steps of his ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered in the desert for forty years. They had an extended time in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land because they needed to re-connect with God after having failed in their faith. Their trust had to be strengthened and developed before they could ever be ready to receive God’s promises.

Jesus faced down the devil and overcame temptation in the desert. The forty days were a necessary preparation for the upcoming three years of ministry that would culminate in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But before any of that could happen, Jesus had to experience the desert.

We, like Jesus, need to have a desert spirituality. If we are not formed into followers of Jesus through learning to overcome temptation, then we are at risk to be shaped into followers of Satan. God desires to strengthen our faith. We, like Jesus, need to face down the devilish temptations which would impede our spiritual development.

In every sport, weightlifting has become a necessary part of athletic training. Athletes now know their muscles must be properly developed for their respective sport. Through weight training the muscle fibers are broken down with stress. Then, with proper hydration, nutrition, and rest, the muscles are re-built as better, stronger, and more agile. 

Christ in the Desert by Julie Lonneman

As Christians, the desert becomes the gymnasium where we are broken down through the stress of temptation so that we might become spiritually stronger in our faith. Without this kind of spiritual training, we become vulnerable to satanic accusations and become easy targets to demonic seduction.

After the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit “sent” him into the desert. The word is perhaps better translated as “thrown” or “hurled.”  It is an extraordinarily strong word conveying that the Spirit flung Jesus out into the desert.

Being tossed into the desert demonstrates how important spending time there was for Jesus. It was in the desert he learned to resist temptation in his ministry. There was real danger in the desert, wild animals, and vulnerability to the elements. Yet, put in that situation and having come through it, Jesus was able to deal with the crafty pursuits of Satan to distract him from his mission. 

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, after tossing demons out of people, Jesus would tell the unclean spirits not to tell anyone who he was. Part of what was happening is that Satan wanted to tempt Jesus to gain fame and power through popularity and accolades. And that was not the way of Jesus. Our Lord was not going to bring in the kingdom of God through the usual avenues of careful marketing and brand recognition.

Another practice Jesus kept up throughout his ministry was to seek places for solitude and prayer. The needs Jesus daily saw and dealt with were large and vast and never ending. Jesus resisted the temptation to continually work without any rest or guidance in prayer. It was through solitude and prayer that Jesus connected with his Father and would move from place to place traveling and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.  Jesus never gave in to the temptation to settle in one place and build a petty kingdom of his own, apart from the Father.

As Jesus went about the countryside telling people to repent and believe the good news, he often spoke in parables designed to encourage thought and reflection. He did not succumb to the temptation to always be black and white about everything, giving just the bottom line of his teaching to people. 

Jesus did not teach to get immediate results or to let people know which side of the fence he occupied concerning the issues of the day. Instead, Christ understood his business – a ministry of building something permanent that would far outlast his mere three years of ministry. Because of the desert, and through his Father’s affirmation, Jesus lived a unique three years on this earth that has never been equaled before or since.

Some years ago, I went on a leadership retreat in the Canadian wilderness.  We were so far out in the sticks that we needed special first aid training before leaving because if someone got severely injured it would be hours before any medical attention could be received. There was no cell phone service, no towns, no anything except mile after square mile of wilderness. We had to be continually vigilant to not attract bears. The wilderness can be a dangerous place. On one of the days in that week, we were each dropped off on our own personal islands for an entire day, alone. Being face to face with yourself can be hard to deal with, which is what a desert experience does – it exposes the idols of our hearts and the ways in which we are tempted.

A person need not be in the Canadian wilderness or in a real desert to experience the effects of desert life. The Holy Spirit has a way of throwing us into the desert through changes of circumstances so that we will flex our spiritual muscles to get into spiritual shape.

The top three temptations of people today are worry, procrastination, and gossip. So, how do we face down those temptations (and others) and retrace our steps back to the path of God?  Here are some lessons I have learned in my own wilderness experiences through God’s Word:

  • Know your weaknesses. Know yourself. Know the temptations of Satan. The three temptations just mentioned all come from a tendency toward perfectionism. We worry about the future and not saying or doing something perfectly. We procrastinate saying or doing things for fear of screwing up and not being perfect. And we gossip to others about their faults and weaknesses because it maintains the illusion that our perfectionism is intact, at least as compared to others. However, perfectionism is slavery. 

We have freedom now because Christ made us free. So, stand strong in that freedom. Do not go back into slavery again. (Galatians 5:1, ERV)

  • Understand the importance of timing.  When are you at your weakest, at your most vulnerable time? What triggers you to sin?  We know that when our kids and grandkids act up, we first wonder if they are tired, hungry, or have some other need. It is the same with us. Carrying a massive sleep debt, skipping meals, or eating poorly because we are constantly in a hurry will set us up for temptation.

Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, CEB)

  • Look to God and others.  Do not rely solely on your own willpower or think you ought to resist temptation all by yourself, all the time. Even Jesus looked both to his Father and his disciples. During a time of intense stress, Jesus said:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:38-41, NIV)

  • Have a plan. Flying by the seat of your pants will not always work. One of the major ways I personally resist temptation is by having a daily plan of worshiping God, praying, and reading Scripture at set times throughout the day.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. (Proverbs 22:3, NLT)

  • Overcome evil with good. If we apply this to the top three temptations people face, that means the worrier will love his/her enemies and pray for those who persecute. It means the procrastinator will take intentional steps of faith and risk, being real and vulnerable with others through accountable relationships. It means the gossip will seek to speak words of encouragement that build others up.

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21, NRSV)

  • Realize you are never alone.  Angels attended Jesus. Even the Son of God was never on his own.  Whatever you are facing is likely not unique to you. Others face similar struggles. Our brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of problems when they seek to walk with Christ.

Let the desert shape and strengthen your faith. If the Holy Spirit has thrown you into a dry place, learn all you can about resisting temptation so that you can come out the other end a stronger, more faithful follower of Jesus Christ.