James 4:8-17 – Make Wise Spiritual Resolutions

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.

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 is able to 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. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (New International Version)

Resolve to Come Near to God

God is longingly looking out the window watching and waiting for us to come home (Luke 15:11-32). And when we are seen, God will run and come near to us.

We can come to God morning, noon, and night; when things are good and when they are bad. God gives generously to all without finding fault if we will but come near. (James 1:5)

When my oldest daughter was a small child, her bike was stolen. When she discovered it was gone, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God and prayed. I barely finished praying, we both looked up, and a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The officer rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?” 

We hopped in the back of the cruiser and the officer took us to a place where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson to both my daughter and I that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life doesn’t always work that way, yet we can be assured God listens, hears, and will respond.

Resolve to Wash Your Hands

We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We need to come squarely facing our guilt and shame. God wants us to admit our guilt, confess it as such, receive forgiveness, and deal with matters of restitution, reconciliation, or making amends.

Look at what this very experience of godly sadness has produced in you: such enthusiasm, what a desire to clear yourselves of blame, such indignation, what fear, what purpose, such concern, what justice! (2 Corinthians 7:11, CEB)

Resolve to Purify Your Heart

Whereas the previous resolution was more external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands (repentance) our attitudes need cleansing, as well. 

Our hearts cannot be devoted to two masters. Double-minded persons need to become single-minded with pure, not mixed, motives.

“The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.”

African Proverb

Resolve to Grieve

God blesses those people who grieve. They will find comfort! (Matthew 5:4, CEV)

Any significant change or loss creates grief. And it is necessary to grieve. Grief is not an event but a process. Everyone’s grief is intensely personal and has its own timetable. It is not crazy, selfish, or unspiritual to grieve.  In fact, it is biblical.

The only way to get on the other side of grief is by telling your story. Sharing with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing emotion is important. There cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.

Resolve to Mourn

Mourning is the emotional response to how terrible our fallen world is and can be, and how much we really need God.  It is to see that sin in all of its foulness and degradation is horrible and destroys everything it touches.

People who do not or cannot mourn are hard-hearted. They need deep spiritual transformation. By his wounds we are healed.

Resolve to Wail

We are actually commanded to cry – more than cry – to wail.  Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing is more public.

I believe one of the greatest tragedies in today’s modern church is that Christians can become so focused on victory that they end up crying alone. Nobody should ever have to cry by themselves. Weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst likeminded brothers and sisters.

Resolve to Change

In the face of immense human need in this world, there must be change. We cannot turn the clock back to a more bygone idyllic era. We are here, now, together on spaceship Earth. We must come to grips with the kind of change needed to live above petty human degradation.

I once had a discussion with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we first started conversing, she expressed the desire to be in the place that had the better party going on. By the time we finished talking, 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 sin’s gravity, it completely undid her.

Resolve to Be Humble

Humility is the path to intimacy with God and one another. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and experience God. Through suffering there is glory. Being last makes us first.  Entering through the narrow gate brings us into the broad open space of eternal life.

Resolve to Not Slander One Another

To slander means to “speak against” or “speak down” to someone. Slander always contains false information based on bogus observations and misinterpretations. To intentionally tear-down another person either to their face or to other people is slander.

People sometimes believe they have a right to speak against another person. That really says more about the slanderer than the slandered. Slander is a spirit of retaliation and revenge. It is being self-righteous and acting as the judge.

Resolve to Not Be Judgmental

A critical and condemning spirit breaks the biblical law of love and declares itself the authority. It wrongheadedly believes it knows best for everyone.

When we put our focus on others and do not deal with our own critical spirit, we play God. That is not our job. 

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
    I will pay them back,”
    says the Lord.

Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
    If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
    burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you but conquer evil by doing good (Romans 12:17-21, NLT)

Resolve to Have God in Your Plans

Some folks plan and map out their lives without a consideration of what God wants. They hold back on God, only giving partial effort and resources. And this can happen to any of us. We may not all have money and power, but we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

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

Money and making plans are good. Yet, the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

So, resolve to embrace the virtue of humility – considering both others and God in making plans and decisions. For if we fail to do what we know we ought, our guilt will eventually catch up to us. Better to rely on God’s grace and make necessary changes.

Holy One, you are eternal, ever-present, and boundless in love. Yet there are times when we fail to recognize you in our daily lives. Sometimes shame clenches our hearts, and we hide our true feelings. Sometimes fear makes us small, and we miss the chance to speak from our strength. Sometimes doubt invades our hopefulness, and we degrade our own wisdom. In the daily round from sunrise to sunset, remind us again of your holy presence hovering near us and in us. Free us from shame and self-doubt. Help us to see you in the moment-by-moment possibilities to live honestly and to act courageously, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a – A Spiritual Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Byzantine icon of the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures….

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

The Apostle James wrote to a church facing all kinds of challenging adversity in their daily lives. Some of the believers responded wisely to their troublesome circumstances. Yet others dealt with their trials and tribulations by being troublesome people themselves. 

It was this breakdown in the church fellowship which spurred James to write his letter. The surface problem was infighting. But James wanted to get down to the root issues below the surface. Like a doctor understanding the pathology of the body, James diagnosed the real problems, and gave a clear treatment plan on how to proceed together in the Christian life. 

His prescription for spiritual health in the Body of Christ was not medication but a lifestyle change. Today’s New Testament lesson answers three diagnostic questions which ailed this ancient church.

First diagnostic question:  Who is wise and understanding among you?

Wise persons live a good life, demonstrated by their humble actions. They have trained themselves in the ways of God through the Scriptures.

Wisdom in the Bible is much like driving a car. You try to keep your eyes on the road and drive defensively while often making quick decisions on the road. You don’t fret about why there is a tight curve or an upcoming stop sign. You don’t try and determine the philosophy behind the mechanics of a stop light. You just try to do what needs to be done on the road to get where you need to go. And as you drive you respond to the road conditions and pay attention to the other drivers. 

Wisdom in the Christian life is more than knowledge; it is also being attentive to the other people around us as we seek to live for God. We respond to every adverse road condition that comes along with a mind dependent on God and a humble heart willing to be directed and re-directed by God’s Holy Spirit.

The unwise person sits and harbors selfish resentment in his heart when he has to wait ten minutes on a train to slowly rumble by on the tracks. The same person then desires to take off like a bat out of hell, freely expressing his road rage at another slow driver in his way.

In his lack of wisdom, the person justifies himself as wise because he believes his destination warrants his way of driving. He has convinced himself that he must drive the way he does. And if pulled over by a police officer, he deludes himself in thinking the officer has a problem for standing in the way of him getting where he wants to go.

Conversely, wise people are characterized by a different set of motivations and practices:

  • Humility and attentive consideration of another’s need.
  • Moral purity and being set apart for Christian service.
  • Peace and harmony, championing the common good of all. 
  • Empathy and an understanding spirit that does not retreat into judgmental criticism or attacking others – putting themselves in another’s shoes and to first understand before trying to be understood. 
  • Submissive to the truth with a teachable spirit and deliberately implement necessary changes to their lives. 
  • Merciful, seeking compassion in action. 
  • Impartial, steady and consistent, with a predictable godly character. Adverse road conditions and selfish drivers do not throw them off. 
  • Sincere, genuine, and vulnerable with a willingness to face their own dark shadows and have no ulterior motives.

God cares as much about why we do what we do and how we go about it, as he does the actual action and its end result. God desires true wisdom, not false wisdom. In diagnosing false wisdom, there is jealous bitter envy and plain old selfishness. The source of the problem is the devil. And if the problem goes unchecked and no lifestyle changes are made, the body will breakdown into disorder and evil destructive behavior.

In diagnosing true wisdom, there is evidence of good deeds done from a good heart devoted to God. The source of the good actions is humility. This results in the good spiritual health of righteousness (right relationships with both God and others) and peace (harmonious relations with both God and others).

Second diagnostic question:  What causes fights and quarrels among you?

After examination, the problem comes from certain desires that act like a disease.  The presenting symptoms are verbal battles and animosities. The cause is “desire” or “pleasure” (Greek: ἡδονῶν) from which we get our English word “hedonism.” 

Hedonism is the belief and practice that pleasure is the chief good in life. It is a consuming passion to satisfy personal wants, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain those wants. The cause of all the in-fighting was hedonism. Certain people wanted what they wanted, and they would do whatever it took to get it.

Hedonism twists our perspective. It skews our judgment. Hedonism calls 911 from the drive through at McDonalds when they run out of chicken nuggets (true story!). Hedonism is a cancer in the Body of Christ. It makes small things big and big things small. Hedonistic desires will do anything it takes to gain satisfaction. A passage in the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis has the Senior Devil giving his understudy, Wormwood, some advice: 

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is God’s invention, not ours.  He made the desires; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced and get them to go after them in ways in which He has forbidden.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

There is an alternative to the no-holds-bar pursuit of hedonism: You do not have because you do not ask God…. And even then, if still holding onto the hedonistic stance through prayer, there will be no answer because of asking with wrong motives. 

Prayer as a cloak for seeking hedonistic pleasure is nothing but spiritual adultery; it is talking to God with a spiritual mistress on the side to meet the needs that God does not seem to care about.

Third diagnostic question:  What does God want?

God wants prayer from a humble heart that seeks to engage the real enemy. Our fight is with our own pride, not with each other. If we have good and godly desires for prayer but find that we do not seek God as we ought; and come to the Scriptures discovering there is a sickness in our soul; then, the prescription is humble submission to God, resistance to evil ways, and drawing near to God.

God wants people to turn from the pride of radical independence and clandestine desires to openly and humbly seeking divine help.

The Apostle James was not trying to be a killjoy when he said to grieve, mourn, and wail; and to change your joy to gloom. He was speaking directly toward the propensity for people to slide into hedonistic attitudes and practices. He was directly accessing the Beatitudes of our Lord Jesus.  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. 

In other words, true joy and happiness comes through humility. When we realize our great need for God and humbly approach as a spiritual beggar, cut to the heart over our own hedonistic pleasure-seeking, as well as all the filth existing around us, then we discover the prayer that God longs to hear.

God’s prescription for us is:

  • Learn and rely on divine promises in daily life.
  • Do the work of peacemaking and expect a harvest of righteousness.
  • Be humble and let grace and lift us up.
  • Put significant effort into resisting the devil so that he will flee from us.
  • Draw near to God; God will come near to you.

So, let us maintain our therapy appointments for developing humility. Let us admit our wrongs and ask for forgiveness. Let go of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Obey the Scriptures. Bank on God’s promises. For in doing so, we will discover the life that is truly life.

O Lamb of God, by both your example and teaching you instructed us to be meek and humble. Give us grace so that in every thought, word, and deed, we will imitate your meekness and humility. Put to death in us all pride. Keep us from falling prey to the many temptations in our path. Teach us your ways and show us how to clothe ourselves in godly humility. Thank you for your Word and help us to see the beautiful truth about humility. Do the good work of making us more and more like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 1 – Choose Real Happiness

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds
.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed. (Common English Bible)

True happiness happens when we conform to disciplines of a good life and eschew practices that go against the grain of goodness. That statement might be a bit difficult to accept. Frankly, it is for me, and I wrote it.

You see, I’m not much of a conformity sort of guy. I like creatively doing my own thing, man. Bucking the system and questioning the rules is just something I do. Conformity tends to have a negative connotation with me – like a group of unthinking lemmings running off a cliff to their death.

Yet, the truth is that, although there is a wide range of creative choices we have for most everything, we as humans best function and discover happiness when we are in sync with our Creator. So, we can choose to ignore our foundational human hard-wiring, or we can live into it as the unique individuals we are.

Those two ways of shaping our lives are the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked. The way of the righteous leads to human flourishing, relational connection, and a vast spiritual life. Alternatively, the way of the wicked leads to human degeneration, disconnection from others, and spiritual death. It is to be out of sync with who we are as people.

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks. Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer of the sixteenth-century, Martin Luther, framed the two opposing ways as the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross of Christ is G-d’s attack on human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. It is the narrow road of grace.

A theology of glory is seeking to be radically independent – to rely primarily, perhaps even exclusively, on our own laurels and personal way of doing things. Although these might appear to be outwardly fine, they feed and water themselves from a wicked stream, devoid of grace.

Whenever we place our complete trust in self and forsake faith in something or someone outside of ourselves, it is a highway to the grave.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works and to do good so that others will observe our goodness, rather than doing them out of the good soil of being planted in ancient and wise instruction.

Embracing tried and true practices of righteousness; delighting in G-d’s law; meditating on sound instruction; privately pouring over the large body of wisdom we have available to us; and diligently seeking to put it all into action is the way of good people who shall surely realize human happiness. They will yield gracious fruit. They will know blessing.

Joyful are people of integrity,
    who follow the instructions of the Lord.
Joyful are those who obey his laws
    and search for him with all their hearts.

Psalm 119:1-2, NLT

Serving only to be seen; seeking public accolades and personal recognition as a sole motivator; and disrespecting others to prop up individual respect is the way of the wicked. They don’t bother to consult the ancient ways of happiness. Instead, they pridefully believe they know what is best.

“You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” (Matthew 23:27-28, MSG)

Abundance, generosity, gentleness, and grace marks the righteous because G-d is abundantly gracious and generous. Jesus is the gentle shepherd who mercifully and lovingly leads anxious sheep to the quiet pastures of settled happiness. Indeed, the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Only looking out for number one, stinginess, withholding good, hoarding, and angry criticism identifies the wicked. They have judgment in their future because they add no value to the great needs of humanity. Unhappiness is their lot.

We have choices. We can choose conformity to established patterns of godly instruction and happiness – or we can choose to rely solely on our own ingenuity and/or brawn to eke out a morsel of satisfaction.

Choose wisely, my friends.

O Holy Wisdom, direct us on your path. Make us worthy of your teachings and open our hearts to accept your embrace, that we may serve you in peace and grace. Amen.

Proverbs 30:1-10 – Live Wisely and without Envy

These are the solemn words of Agur son of Jakeh:

    “God is not with me, God is not with me,
    and I am helpless.
I am more like an animal than a human being;
    I do not have the sense we humans should have.
I have never learned any wisdom,
    and I know nothing at all about God.
Have any ever mastered heavenly knowledge?
    Have any ever caught the wind in their hands?
    Or wrapped up water in a piece of cloth?
    Or fixed the boundaries of the earth?
Who are they, if you know? Who are their children?

“God keeps every promise he makes. He is like a shield for all who seek his protection. If you claim that he said something that he never said, he will reprimand you and show that you are a liar.”

I ask you, God, to let me have two things before I die: keep me from lying and let me be neither rich nor poor. So, give me only as much food as I need. If I have more, I might say that I do not need you. But if I am poor, I might steal and bring disgrace on my God.

Never criticize servants to their master. You will be cursed and suffer for it. (Good News Translation)

These are the raw expressions of a man who has awareness of his own envious nature. He realizes his profound lack of wisdom. The man, Agur, discerns how helpless and pathetic he really is, apart from wise living.

The wise person knows that a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Possessing too much or too little tends to awaken the eye of envy within us. Agur wants to avoid thinking that people, even God, owes him. He is concerned he might slip into the disposition of what the Lord and others can do for him, rather than vice versa.

“The secret of success is that it is not the absence of failure, but the absence of envy.”

Herodotus

Today, envy manifests itself in moving-on to another church, or friendship, or marriage, or job when perceived needs and wants are not met. Certainly, ties need to be severed in the case of abusive treatment. Yet, when we simply do not like something, and aspire to more and more hoarding of emotional and spiritual resources, there is little to no awareness of the shadowy places in our hearts.

Perhaps, through the difficulty, the Lord was attempting to reveal something important to us or working to bring about positive transformation. However, we bailed from the situation too quickly, not wanting to deal with the pain or inconvenience of it all. And, all the while, our real motivations remain hidden and unaddressed.

It is necessary to see envy for what it is – not just a common predilection everyone has – but a malady of believing I deserve things no one is giving me. It’s the age old endemic problem, much like Adam and Eve’s original sin, of grabbing a forbidden fruit in the belief G-d is not providing everything I need. And we then cannot, or will not, see all the vast resources and blessings already possessed.

Gratitude is a spiritual practice, when engrafted into a daily spiritual walk, provides a strong antidote to keeping envy at bay. Instead of wondering why G-d is not blessing my life and work in ways I think it should happen, perhaps we ought to identify and count the blessings we already possess and enjoy. 

Some of the greatest joys around us are the simple pleasures of everyday life – holding and sipping a hot cup of coffee; a quick kiss good-bye to my spouse on the way out the door; the opportunity to curl up with a good book on a rainy day; these and many more are blessings given to us by a heavenly Father who cares for us deeply.

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

Aesop

It might be a good thing to spend some intentional time saying and/or writing out many of the blessings currently existing in your life. 

For example, rather than wishing a loved one would not have to endure disease or surgery and envying healthy people, rejoice that he/she is with you, that you enjoy one another’s love and companionship, whether it is in times of health or in seasons of illness.

And instead of envying the rich or worrying about becoming poor, give thanks for this current place in your life. Simple thanksgiving to G-d for every meal, each possession obtained, and even all things lost forever, fortifies the spirit for resilience over the long haul of life.

Much of our life on this earth comes down to mystery. We simply do not know, and are not privy, to the myriad ways G-d is working in the world. We may never know why we must face and deal with our particular and personal pains, disappointments, and sorrows.

So, when we pray, much like Agur, it might be wise to ask for continual help with never-ending problems, rather than constantly praying for deliverance from unwanted situations. It is best we pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)

“I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”

The Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:11-13, MSG)

Wise persons know the frailty of their own hearts. Prayer, for them, is an organic practice arising from vulnerable and forthright discussions with G-d about doubt and disbelief. Indeed, people come to know the Lord not through speculating or imposing their own personality on G-d but by daily calling upon the Divine Being for practical help at the neediest points of life.

Blessed Lord, take me to the place where I am saved from my pride and arrogance and humility takes center stage, where I’m lifting up clean hands and a pure heart to you. Take me to the place where I’m no longer looking at the mountains I face but looking down upon them, where I can clearly see, and my decisions are flooded with your light, truth and justice. I bend my knee and receive your truth. I open my ears to receive your counsel. I open my heart to receive your eternal wisdom. Amen.