Posts Tagged 'James'

Your Amazing Faith, Part 6

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Last time, we learned that your amazing faith is what makes you an amazing person as you allow the Holy Spirit to empower you and motivate you:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23a | NIV84)

That faith that results in your life producing the fruit of the Spirit was deposited into your heart by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the Word of God:

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 | NIV84)

But your amazing faith isn’t in yourself or other people. It has nothing to do with your dreams or aspirations or your hopes. Your amazing faith has nothing to do with the circumstances of your life, good or bad. Your amazing faith is in a specific Person:

So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. (Acts 27:25 | NIV84)

Faith isn’t a mysterious, impersonal force. Paul discovered the secret of faith:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 | NIV84)

And lack of trials in your life is no indicator that you’re doing anything right. In fact, as we found out, the struggles and trials and persecution we work so hard to avoid are actually the very tools God uses to cause our faith to grow and mature:

These (trials, struggles, and persecutions) have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:7 | NIV84)

Talking about faith in an “academic” environment like this is easy. But in real life, many of us find that there is a disconnect between what the Bible says about faith and what our own experiences seem to teach us. Nowhere is this apparent disconnect more glaring than when sickness is involved. When a close friend or a loved one is hurting physically, and we do what good Christians are supposed to do and that person gets sicker, we shake our heads in confusion and frustration. Here’s the verse we put into practice during situations like that:

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15 | NIV84)

James, the man and his letter

We call this letter “James” after the man who wrote it:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ… (James 1:1a | NIV84)

Throughout the New Testament, there are several prominent men named James. But based on things Paul wrote and on Luke’s history of the Church as recorded in Acts, it is probable that the James who wrote this letter was James, the half-brother of Jesus.

James was an interesting character. He is mentioned twice in the Gospels (Matthew 15 and Mark 6) but he was not a follower of Jesus until after the Resurrection. He was one of the 150 believers gathered in the Upper Room when the Spirit fell. He rose quickly through the ranks of the early Church in Jerusalem due to his ability and faith. He became a prominent leader in that Church and the apostle Paul spent some time with him after his conversion and James was one of the leaders of the Church who dispensed Godly wisdom in dealing with the Gentile influx when the Gospel spread beyond the Jewish community.

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1b | NIV84)

James wrote to Christians, who had been Jews, who had probably been living in Jerusalem but were forced to leave their homes when the heat of persecution got turned up. But other Christians would have read this letter; converts under the ministry of Paul and other missionaries.

It’s hard to know when James wrote this letter, but we can be sure it was written early in the history of the Church. Some conservative scholars would say it was written as early as 45 AD, other put it a little later, but for sure it was written before its author was martyred in 63 AD.

His letter concerns practical Christian living. You won’t find a lot of heady, doctrinal, and theological philosophy in it. As you read it, you’ll discover what a lot of us have: it’s the most “Jewish” book in the New Testament. With its emphasis on godly behavior some scholars see it as the New Testament Christian parallel to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. James is a lot like the Old Testament prophet Amos, who like James, was concerned with things like social justice.

Some prominent Christians had problems with James’ letter. Martin Luther called it “an epistle of straw.” Well, he was wrong about other things too. The great value of James is that he addresses what we might call “real life.” Paul’s letters soared to the heights of theological discourse, but James writes about putting what you believe to work. You are saved by grace and faith, but once you’ve been placed on the highway to heaven by God’s grace, it’s up to you navigate your journey. James is all about that journey.

An odd fact about James and his letter is that he says less about Jesus than any other New Testament writer, yet he sounds more like Jesus than any other New Testament writer.

How you live says more about your faith than what you say

And that’s really the value of James’ letter. Intellectual types may love Romans and Galatians, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s James that gives the most practical advice in the New Testament. For example, here’s what James thinks is important when a believer faces affliction in life:

Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. (James 5:7 | NIV84)

How you act and react during times of stress says everything about your faith. James tells his readers to “be patient.” And you have to be patient when times are tough. James is very practical about this; he knows believers will face problems in life:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. (James 1:2-5 | NIV84)

That’s the most common sense thing you’ll read today. James doesn’t sugar coat anything here. He assumes believers will face “trials of many kinds,” but he knows that those trials – whatever they may be – serve a very distinct purpose: they test the believer’s faith, and that in turn makes them stronger, mature, and complete. But the thing is, when you are in the midst of the trial, you won’t have the proper perspective, that’s why no matter what you are going through, you must ask God for wisdom. And God will give it to you. God won’t judge you. If you lack wisdom during a trial – and you will without question lack wisdom – have the presence of mind to ask God for it. Couple that with being patient, and we a good idea about how you should conduct yourself when times are tough: be patient and pray. The thing you shouldn’t do during trials and times of stress is freak out and and behave in an unseemly way. That kills your witness faster than anything. Be calm and cool; be patient and pray.

That brings us to chapter 5, where James compares believers going through a trial to farmers waiting for his crop to grow. The farmer knows it will happen, but he can’t make a seed grow faster than it can grow. Similarly, when you’re in the midst of a trial, it will run its course, and all you have to do is be patient and pray.

James adds a bit to that with verse 13:

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. (James 5:13 | NIV84)

“In trouble” is a funky Greek word, kakopathei, and it means “afflicted.” When you as a Christian are afflicted – when you are “in trouble” – or when life is treating you well, your highest duty and your greatest blessing is to fellowship with God. In trouble? Go to God in prayer. Feeling good? Praise God. That’s what James is saying here. No matter what’s going on, acknowledge God’s presence in your life by either asking Him for help or by praising Him.

One of many types of affliction is sickness. James could have picked any kind of trouble people find themselves dealing with, but he chose sickness.

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. (James 5:14-15a | NIV84)

Prayer in times of sickness is your duty and your privilege as a believer. It’s unfortunate that most believers don’t have the presence of mind to exercise it as often as they should. James’ advice here is so simple, we usually miss it. As J.B. Phillips put it, “If anyone is ill,” then believers need to take certain steps:

Call the elders of the church. Call your pastor or other church leaders. Let them know what’s going on. This isn’t spiritual advice; it’s practical advice. Your pastor can’t read your mind. He’s not some kind of psychic who knows when you or your loved one is sick! Let him know what’s going on.

But there’s another reason for making the call: It’s exercising your faith. It’s stepping out in faith believing that when the pastor and/or elders get there, they will pray and God will answer that prayer.

Pray over the sick person. That’s actually an interesting phrase. It means literally to “pray standing over the sickbed” and to “pray about” the sick person, referring to intercessory prayer. All that means is simply this: It’s up to the sick person to let the pastor know, and therefor the church, that he or his loved one is sick. Members of the Body of Christ are entitled to know when a fellow needs help and/or prayer. It’s a courtesy, first of all. And second of all, it’s the responsibility of believers to bear one another’s burdens. That can only happen when we know about them.

Anoint the sick person with oil. This is one of those things in the Bible that most Christians don’t understand. It’s so misunderstood, some believers actually think that the “oil” is the Holy Spirit and that when the sick person is rubbed with the oil, the Holy Spirit is at work. I’ll disabuse of that notion right away. Only two times – 2 times – in the New Testament is oil associated with healing. The other reference is Mark 6:13. The word “anoint”  as it is used here in James, refers to a medical anointing, not a spiritual one. During New Testament times, oil was looked at as a medical treatment for all kinds of ailments. It was the aspirin of the day. Headache? Not feeling up to par? Take two aspirins and call your doctor in the morning. That’s the sense which the word is used here. In fact, Moffatt thought James meant to “smear the patient’s body with oil.” That being the case, James’ advice is practical and spiritual. Pray for the sick person and make sure he takes his medicine.

Yet at the same time, there’s a bit more to it than that. “Anoint him with oil,” says James, adding, “in the name of the Lord.” That’s important. Even as you are doing what your doctor tells you to do, don’t stop trusting the Lord! Medicine and faith do NOT cancel each other out! Truth is, no man has the power to heal another. Only God heals. Or put another way, all healing comes from God, whether the healing comes instantly, or from a pill.

So why do I anoint the sick, sometimes, when I pray for them? There’s nothing in the oil at all. It serves as a symbol of God’s presence and of our obedience to His Word and as a point of contact between my faith and the faith of the person being prayed for. It’s an encouragement, that’s all.

And then there’s this:

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15 | NIV84)

First things first. James has already said this:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17 | NIV84)

I’m sure we’d all agree that medicine and surgery are good things. Thank God for modern medicine! But pity the poor unbeliever who only has that. Believers have more: we may enjoy the blessing of medicine, but we also have the power of prayer: the prayer of faith. Divine healing is taught in the Bible; it’s a doctrine we hold to. But, second, notice something important here about the prayer of faith. First, it’s referring back to the prayer made by the pastor. He’s to pray in faith believing that God can heal the sick person. Second, the prayer of faith is made in response to the faith of the sick person and his family. Here’s the thing people miss. It’s fine for the pastor to have faith, but the one being prayed over needs faith too. Now, the fact that they called for the pastor in the first place teaches us that. Third, the result of this prayer of faith is, as the NIV84 says, “make the sick person well.” That’s from all-purpose Greek word meaning to “restore.” That covers any kind of illness, physical or otherwise.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking James is giving us a formula here. There is never, ever any guarantee given anywhere in Scripture that healing will take place. Consider, there are certain laws that govern prayer:

• It must be offered in Jesus’ Name, John 14:13;
• It must be offered in faith, Matthew 21:22;
• It must be offered according to God’s will, 1 John 5:14;
• It must be offered with sincerity and earnestness, Matthew 7:7 – 11.
• Sin can hinder our prayers, Psalm 66:18;
• Disunity can hinder our prayers, 1 Peter 3:7;
• Wrong motives can nullify a prayer, James 4:3.

Then too, God uses natural and human instruments for healing. Remember, Luke was a doctor and Paul suggested that Timothy not pray for his stomach problems, but drink some wine (1 Timothy 5:23).

And then, there are all kinds of people who went unhealed in the New Testament:

• Paul prayed to be healed but God wouldn’t heal him, 2 Corinthians 12:7 – 10;
• Trophimus was not healed, 2 Timothy 4:20;
• At the pool of Bethesda, there were all kinds of sick and diseased people gathered, but Jesus only healed one, John 5:2 – 9;

And, as unpleasant at this sounds, God sometimes allows sickness so that He may be ultimately glorified, which was the case with the blind man in John 9:3 and with Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10. Truth be told, sometimes God can be glorified more as that sick believer remains so, yet in the midst of his condition he seen praising and worshipping God in spite of it.

Yes, your faith is amazing and it can accomplish anything amazing, if it’s God’s will. And that’s the key. Faith never demands that God heal. Faith always bows in reverence in God’s presence, seeking His Will, mind, and purpose. If it is God’s will to heal that sick person, the the Holy Spirit will lead His servants to pray that prayer of faith. But if it’s not His will to heal, then the prayer of faith becomes “thy will be done.”

James, Part 5

Simon Legree

Simon Legree

King Solomon, who knew a thing or two about wealth, wrote this:

The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.  (Proverbs 10:22  NIV)

We know this is true because it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and since we believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture, that verse not only conveys God’s thoughts on the matter, but also the words He would have used had He written personally.  John Milton wrote something about wealth, too.  What he wrote isn’t inspired, but it’s noteworthy:

There is nothing that makes men rich and strong but that which they carry inside of them.  Wealth is of the  heart, not of the hand.

Riches may be a blessing of the Lord, but wealth without the Lord’s blessing is always accompanied by trouble in the form of jealousy, misery, oppression, theft, murder, abuse, and even fear.  A believer may start out with love for God and neighbor, but that love can become love for wealth and money when that believer takes his eyes off God and begins to pursue the things of the world.  When possessing wealth and money becomes more important that possessing God, a believer becomes a friend of the world and an enemy of God.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.  (1 Timothy 6:10  NIV)  

Pursue justice

Wealthy church members need not be offended because James 5:1 – 6 is directed at wealth unbelievers; Christians are not the targets of James’ admonitions.  That comes later on the chapter.

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.  (James 5:1  NIV)

Wealthy people, by the way, are never condemned anywhere in the Bible simply because they are wealthy.  Rather, God always warns against the temptations to which the wealthy are especially prone.  Wealth without God’s blessing, as noted previously, causes problems.  That’s why even the Apocrypha says this:

Lose your money to a brother and a friend, and let it not rust hidden beneath a stone.  (Sirach 29:10)  

James has in mind unbelievers who are in the habit of  hoarding their riches.  Here’s a good example of the power and influence of the Word of God.  It’s teachings are for everybody, believer or not.  James will deal with wealthy believer in a few verses, but here’s his warning to the non-Christian –

Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.  Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.  (James 4:2, 3  NIV)

Unsaved people already live lives that are empty, unsatisfied, and often full of misery and fear, but wealth that is hoarded piles on even more problems.  Wealth takes many forms, but James teaches all forms of wealth, if hoarded, will rot, will get eaten up, and corrode over time.  His more famous half-brother taught the same thing, a few years earlier –

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:19 – 21  NIV)

Nothing in this world is permanent, as much as we may wish otherwise.  When wealth is not used for positive things, like helping other people, it testifies against the person who possesses it.  In other words, that wealth will most certainly harm the possessor, or at the very least, that hoarded wealth won’t do the poor schlub any good at all.

Christians shouldn’t live like that; ungodly people do, but Christians shouldn’t.  Our attitude toward wealth and earthly possessions should be based on the notion that not a single possession is permanent; they are all like the waves of the sea – they come and go.  How foolish is it to build your destiny on the instability and impermanence of earthly riches?  Instead, believers ought to receive God’s blessings with gratitude but then use them wisely, for the glory of God and the benefit of others.  Why is this benevolence and philanthropy so important?  It’s because when we take note of the needs of others and do what we can to help them out, we are reflecting God’s generosity toward us.

But remember, James is addressing unbelievers, and pretty despicable ones at that.  They were guilty of treating other people very shabbily.

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.  (James 6:4  NIV)

James is addressing certain wealthy people, not all of them.  These verses shouldn’t be read with a universal application.  Not all wealthy people and business owners are like this; most of them are not.  God always hears the cries of the oppressed.  He heard the Israelites in Egypt and when any person or people are oppressed or caused to suffer anywhere in the world, God hears them.  He is the great equalizer.  The wealthy who hoard their wealth thus causing others to suffer will themselves be the recipients of suffering caused their attitude toward what they possess.  That’s the Biblical “law of reciprocity” at work.  A person reaps what they sow.  A lot of people are familiar with that so-called law even if they don’t know it’s in the Bible.  But here it is in its full context –

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.  (Galatians 6:7 – 10  NIV)

It’s pretty clear.  When God blesses people, they are to bless others.  This is especially true of Christians.

The last beef James has against these wealthy unbelievers relates to something he wrote back in chapter 2 –

Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  (James 2:6  NIV)

And here James fleshes out what he wrote above –

You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.  (James 5:6  NIV)

It’s not Jesus James is referring to, although you might find some Bible scholars who think that.  Apparently James is addressing a particular incident that happened.  Some wealthy unbelievers had literally dragged at least one innocent righteous man into court and had him executed for no reason.

Rarely does a New Testament writer turn his attention to anybody outside the church, but here James is fullbore accusing these men of a crime.

Be patient

Knowing what we know now, we can easily understand why James encouraged his readers earlier on in his letter.  They were facing persecution – all kinds of persecution including that from these wealthy unbelievers.  The persecution was bad enough, but it seemed to the Christians that these non-Christians were prospering in spite of what they were doing.  That’s a seeming inequity believers in God have long wondered about.

For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.  (Psalm 73:3, 4  NIV)

Believers need to be careful what thoughts they allow to remain in their heads!  If you’re not careful and you dwell on the unfairness of it all, you’ll slip into sin.  Patience is what’s needed.

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  (James 5:7  NIV)

This sounds like a cliché, but it really is the very best way to approach the situation of persecution and suffering, and for two very good reasons.  First, when the Lord returns in glory, the ungodly will be judged.  They will finally get theirs and all their wealth and prestige will be for nothing.  And second, when the Lord returns believers will be completely vindicated in every way.

If we truly believe this, then our attitude should reflect it.

Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!  (James 5:9  NIV)

More good advice from James!   We ought to be careful what attitudes we harbor because those attitudes will dictate our actions.  The Lord who is returning is also the Judge.  That should govern what we think and how we behave.  Lee Strobel comments –

Acrid bitterness inevitably seeps into the lives of people who harbor grudges and suppress anger, and bitterness is always a poison.  It keeps your pain alive instead of letting you deal with it and get beyond it.  Bitterness sentences you to relive the hurt over and over.

Respect the Lord’s Name!

All of a sudden, James takes a sharp turn:

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.  (James 5:12  NIV)

A lot of Christians like to take this verse and apply it globally.  That is, some see this as a complete prohibition of all oath-taking.  That’s not what James is getting at here.  “Above all” is a phrase the NIV uses to tie the admonition of verse 12 to what he’s been dealing with.  In spite of all the persecution, Christians need to be patient because the Lord is coming back and He will make everything right.  Christians should take care to treat all people, rich or poor, equitably.  Christians should keep it simple:  just say “yes” or “no” and stop misusing the Lord’s good Name.  The Christian should be honest in his attitudes, honest in his actions, and honest in his speech.  Using the Lord’s Name to buttress questionable attitudes must never happen.  D.A. Carson made a shrewd observation –

No oath is necessary for the truthful person.

Learn to depend on God

Here’s more good advice for these persecuted Christians who were trying to gain the favor of the wealthy people who were persecuting them:  Depend of God!  Instead of wasting time and effort currying the favor of people harming them; instead of misusing God’s name, these Christians needed to learn how to depend on God through praying properly.

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray.  Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.  (James 5:13  NIV)

Don’t complain, don’t grumble, don’t seek to mollify those mean, nasty rich  people!  Pray about it!  Turn to God and depend on Him.  And if you’re happily living without persecution for the moment, thank God for it.  In other words, God should always be first on the mind of believers no matter what the circumstance.

Included in circumstances one should depend on God is sickness.  James gives Christians the template for dealing with that circumstance –

Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  (James 5:14  NIV)

That’s more good advice from James, an elder himself.  If a Christian is sick, he should call for guys like himself – elders from the church – to come and pray for them and anoint them with oil.  By adding the phrase, “in the name of the Lord,” James is simply saying that both acts need to be done in faith believing that God’s will concerning the sick person will be done.

A word about the word “anoint.”  The Greek word James used, aleipsantes, is not – NOT –  sacramental or sacred anointing, but rather a word that simply means to “smear.”  James is not advising a religious use of oil here.  For example, when we want to fix a leaky door, we don’t “anoint” the hinge with oil, we “oil” it.  That’s what James is getting at.  In the first century of the Church, oil was used by sick people like sick people today use aspirin.  If you were sick during James’ day, you would apply some oil to your hurting body.  Today we take two aspirins and call the doctor in the morning.  What James is getting at here is powerful common sense.  When you are sick (in any age), trust God and call your pastor or an elder to come and pray for you.  But take an aspirin, too. Do both things trusting the Lord will bring about His will for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

James, Part 4

download-4

It’s a classic movie, but it’s wrong. God should be your pilot, not your co-pilot! If He’s your co-pilot, it’s time to switch seats!

The very first thing you notice as chapter 3 ends and chapter 4 begins is the sharp contrast between how one chapter ends and the other begins.

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.  (James 3:17, 18  NIV)

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.  (James 4:1, 2  NIV)

Those were some Christians James was writing to!  Of them, he wrote:  “You desire but do not have, so you kill.”  I hope James was exaggerating.  But you never know.  Worldliness isn’t a problem unique to the American Church of the 21st century.  It’s always been a problem – the elephant in the sanctuary pastors are afraid to confront for fear of offending a member or two.  James, however, wasn’t afraid to address the issue.  And it should be addressed in the strongest possible terms because worldliness isn’t just the polar opposite of righteousness; it’s something that destroys a Christian testimony, makes God look bad, and rips apart churches.  It causes non-Christians to shake their head and roll their eyes in derision when Christians, who know better, are caught displaying worldly attitudes.

Far from being worldly, Christians are called to be righteous and to display the righteousness of Christ through their lives.  That’s a challenge for Christians today, as it was during James’ day.

Controlling your desires

If you think the early church was characterized by peace and harmony, you couldn’t be more wrong.  Just after Pentecost, we are told:

All the believers were one in heart and mind.  (Acts 4:32a  NIV)

But that didn’t last long.  Within a decade, the young church looked a lot like our churches today, filled with quarreling, hard feelings, envy, and selfishness.  In the first verse, James is likely using figurative language but his point is well taken.  Actual killing wasn’t going on, but worldly attitudes were killing relationships and breaking hearts, giving truth to the old saying:

Wars without come from wars within.

How we treat other people starts with our attitude – not about the people, but about the world.  If we set our hearts on the world and what the world can give us, we are in trouble.  When we “covet,” we necessarily end up hurting other people as the object of our desire becomes more important than the person or people in our lives may be.  A.F. Harper observes –

The basic trouble is that you allow unholy desires to possess your spirits.  Those desires if uncleansed and unchecked lead to spiritual disaster.

The Christian is potentially the most deluded person on earth.  They covet.  They desire things contrary to God’s will.  So they engage some prayerful chicanery –

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  (James 4:3  NIV)

The worldly Christian is so spiritually dull he doesn’t know what God’s will is.  He foolishly imagines that his wants and desires constitute God’s – will so much so that he prays for his wants and desires not knowing he’s wasting his time.  Naturally God won’t give him the answer he’s looking for since that answer isn’t His will in the first place!  Deluded and frustrated, this carnal Christian gets the wrong idea of God.  To Him God can’t be trusted and his faith just “doesn’t work,” so why bother?  Having a worldly attitude always results in a ruined spiritual life.

But James is also trying teach us a little something about prayer.  James had wrote –

You do not have because you do not ask God.  (James 4:2b  NIV)

We ought to be asking God for everything in our lives, but our motives have to be right.  The things we are asking for need to be within God’s will and our motives need to respect that will.  If God doesn’t give us what we’ve asked for, we shouldn’t then turn around and covet the thing.

Why is it important to control our desires?  Why is worldliness and a worldly attitude so bad?  It’s not just bad form, it’s a outright sin.

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.  (James 4:4  NIV)

James likens worldliness to adultery.  Straddling the line, as any driver can tell you, is dangerous.  You’re always safest on your own side of the road.  A Christian can’t straddle the line for long, either.  You can’t be a friend of God and a friend of the world at the same time.  James isn’t teaching a new thing.  Jesus said this –

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.  (Matthew 6:24  NIV)

Worldliness is like spiritual adultery.  Of this attitude, one Bible scholar noted –

Worldliness is succumbing to the seductions of a fallen world.  Worldliness is being concerned with worldly affairs to the neglect of spiritual needs.  Worldliness is the state of being directed by the outward influences of the surrounding culture.  Christians must reject worldliness.

The opposite of a worldly attitude

Or what do you think the Scripture means when it says that the Holy Spirit, whom God has placed within us, watches over us with tender jealousy? But he gives us more and more strength to stand against all such evil longings. As the Scripture says, God gives strength to the humble but sets himself against the proud and haughty.  (James 4:5, 6  TLB)

If we belong to God, our worldly attitudes necessarily have to go.  If we, for whatever reason, cherish as friend worldly attitudes, we become – we make ourselves – the enemy of God.  But the opposite to a worldly attitude is that of humility.  Augustine cleverly noted –

It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.

We’re not exactly sure what Scripture James had in mind when he wrote verse 5, but his point is well taken.  God wants our undivided attention.  God has placed within every believer His Holy Spirit, and He is intensely concerned about our attitude.  And the Holy Spirit will help any believer who wants the help to overcome any worldliness that may be lingering in his life.

It may well be that James had Exodus 34:14 in the back of his mind –

Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.  (NIV)

Our God is a jealous God and He allows no rivals; He refuses to share our love with any other so-called god.  It’s our complete loyalty, love, and devotion He’s after because those are the things He has given us.  The best thing we can do to build our relationship with God into a strong and functional one is to humbly admit our worldly tendencies and then allow the Holy Spirit to change us.

A worldly Christian is in love with himself and the world; he is always looking for ways to make himself feel good.  He may go to church, sing in the choir and to everybody appear to be a model Christian.  Yet if he refuses to come closer to God he is condemned by God because of his pride.

Get close to God

In our struggle against worldliness, there are two things we should be doing all the time:

So give yourselves humbly to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.   (James 4:7  TLB)

A great  many Christians want the latter without bothering with the former.  But the truth is, you can only resist the devil IF you first “give yourself” or “submit” to God.  Very simply that means living in obedience to God.  So if you can’t obey God, you won’t be able to resist the devil, hence you will sin, or more accurately, you’ll forever remain in the rut of sin, unable to get out of it.

It seems like such a no-brainer, it’s a wonder all Christians aren’t running around, resisting the devil all the time.  But we know that certainly isn’t the case.  As to why so few are, the answer is found in the word – humbly.  We are supposed to be submitting to God humbly, but since so many of us have problems with that part of the deal, we choose to sin.

Make God part of your life

The theme of the last paragraph of James 4 is a simple one:  Self-centered living produces Christians who ignore God’s will.

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.”  (James 4:13  NIV)

That’s probably addressed to you.  And to me.  We all make plans, and we naturally expect God to fall in line with them.  Dr McGee, in his commentary on the Bible, makes an interesting comment about Christians who “make big plans for the future.”

It has taken me a long time to learn just to play it by ear.

That’s a tongue-in-cheek thing to write, but he’s not wrong.  We all have to  make plans, but in all our planning we have to be very careful not to plan God out of our lives.  God does exist and we need to plan our futures around Him and His will.  Being a worldly Christian doesn’t always mean behaving like the prodigal son or Judas Iscariot.  Sometimes worldliness manifests itself in something as simple as indifference – indifference to God in the form of disregarding His presence and His will.

What is the mark of a true Christian as opposed to a “cultural Christian”?  It’s this:  A true, born again believer in and disciple of Jesus Christ not only believes that God exists, but he lives like he believes He exists.  A cultural Christian believes in God but lives as though He doesn’t exist by never considering His will for their daily lives.

Why is it so important for Christians to  seek after God’s will and to live according to it?  Verse 14 provides the obvious answer:  We don’t know what the future holds.  Human beings without consideration of God, foolishly make plans as if they know what they will be doing or where they will be living years down the road.  We act as though we are secure, but the opposite is the truth.  We are frail.  We are, in God’s long view of things, here today and gone tomorrow.

Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  (James 4:15  NIV)

But really, James was just echoing thoughts of Psalm 102:11-

My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.  (NIV)

And that’s why Christians (and intelligent sinners) shouldn’t live presumptuous lives.  God should always be the “silent partner” in all our plans and work.  He should be consulted and His will followed when He reveals it to us.  As one scholar put it:

The boaster forgets that life depends on the will of God.  The right feeling is, both my life and my actions are determined by Him.

It’s not what we say but how we live that shows the world that we belong to Christ.

 

 

James, Part 3

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The third chapter of James is all about minding your P’s and Q’s. A verse in the Old Testament book of Proverbs gives us the theme of this wonderful chapter:

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18 NIV)

Dr McGee has written a book on James 3 with the provocative title, “Hell on Fire,” describing the nature of “the tongue.” That’s a good title, and I wish I had thought of it first. As Christians, minding our P’s and Q’s should not be taken as putting a limit on free speech. I’m a free speech absolutist, after all. But what James says about the tongue has nothing to do with curbing free speech, but rather he is intent on showing us the power our words have and the responsibility believers have in taking care of what they say, how they say it, and even to whom it is said.

To be fair, the people in James’ crosshairs aren’t just church members, but rather teachers within the church, or wannbe teachers within the church. That being the strict contextual case, however, doesn’t mean the rest of us can just skip James 3. What James has to say about the tongue is applicable to all believers, not just teachers or wannabe teachers. In fact, here in chapter 3, James is picking up on a thought he introduced back in the first chapter:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19, 20 NIV)

And those verses were addressed to all members of the church, not just teachers. True religion should always influence a person’s life, especially what a person says. Donald Burdick in his commentary on James offers the perfect division of James 3:

The responsibility of teachers, 3:1, 2

The influence of the tongue, 3:3 – 6

The perversity of the tongue, 3:7 – 12

Control your speech

Controlling your tongue is part of Christian works, which James had been talking about through most of chapter 2. The mark of a mature Christian is proper control of one’s speech. R. Kent Hughes, pastor emeritus of College Church wrote this –

The true test of a man’s spirituality is not ability to speak, as we are apt to think, but rather his ability to bridle his tongue.

True enough. By introducing the tropic of “teachers,” James is giving us a glimpse into the workings of the early church. We get the impression that some or many of his readers were wanting to become teachers within their particular congregation. Verse one, then, is a kind of warning against that. It’s not that James doesn’t want more teachers within a church, but he wants the right people to be teaching a congregation for the right reasons.

Churches need to have teachers, and the Holy Spirit sovereignly gifts certain people within a congregation with the gift of teaching.

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets,third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28 NIV)

Paul taught that when a church looks for people to fill certain positions, they should choose elders who are “able to teach,” among other things.

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach… (1 Timothy 3:1, 2 NIV)

However, both Paul and James stress that those wanting to teach within the church should understand their motives and recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with such a position.

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (James 3:2 NIV)

In the Greek, verse 2 begins with the tiny word gar, meaning “for.” James is giving us the reason for what he wrote in verse 1. The teacher’s responsibility is heavy because the tongue is so hard to control. This applies to those wanting to teach, but also to all believers. We all have to keep a watch on our speech. All believers will “stumble,” points to the universality of sin. Even the best teacher in a congregation will inevitably misspeak. That’s not an excuse, but a statement of fact. It behooves all Christians, but especially teachers and those seeking to become teachers, to recognize this fact.

The tongue is so important – speech is so important – that if a person is able to control it 100% of the time, then he is a “perfect man.” This is a clever way to say that if a church can find a man who never sins with his tongue, he would never sin any other way, either.

Bridling the tongue

Verses 3 – 5 show us how little things can have far-reaching effects. James brilliantly uses the bridle as an example. A small thing in the mouth of a great big horse is able to control the whole animal. A ship’s rudder is tiny (and invisible) when compared to the overall size of ship, yet it controls where the ship goes. The third illustration is the one James uses to expose the damage that can be done by the tongue.

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. (James 3:5 NIV)

The destructive nature of the tongue

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:6 NIV)

The tongue can either be controlled or it can destroy. Like a fire, the tongue is potentially dangerous and destructive if it is not controlled. Curtis Vaugn wrote this of the tongue –

It can sway men to violence, or it can move them to the noblest actions. It can instruct the ignorant, encourage the dejected, comfort the sorrowing, and soothe the dying. Or, it can crush the human spirit, destroy reputations, spread distrust and hate, and bring nations to the brink of war.

He’s right about that. And as Steve Camp wrote, “The tongue is a fire. It’s an evil that no man can tame.” That’s what James suggests in the following verses –

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7, 8 NIV)

Anybody who has ever struggled with over-eating or breaking any bad habit knows how difficult self-control is. And this is especially true of the tongue. “No man” is able to control his own tongue because it’s motivation to evil comes from powerful impulses originating outside of itself: The tongue is set on fire by hell. This doesn’t mean that God is unable to bring it under control. The tongue can’t be controlled by the person, but the tongue of the saved person can be controlled by the Holy Spirit, who resides in all believers. Fact is, the natural state of the tongue is that of a “restless evil,” that is, it’s always looking for trouble to drag its owner into. Tasker’s observation tells us that the whole tongue problem goes all the way back to the very beginning –

Because of the Fall, man has lost dominion over himself.

I can tell you that never a truer word has been written!

Previously James wrote this in regards to asking God for wisdom –

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:6, 7 NIV)

He picks up this thought of man’s double-mindedness when it comes to the tongue and the worship of God –

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. (James 3:9, 10 NIV)

The problem with a Christian who doesn’t mind is P’s and Q’s isn’t just that he’s probably hurting other believers, but that he’s treating God shabbily indeed. He’s the quintessential double-minded man. And, as James noted, that kind of person shouldn’t think he’ll get anything from God.

A double-talking tongue is out of place among Christians. It’s as incongruous in a believer as a fresh-and-salt water spring in the earth or as a fig tree bearing olives. It’s just ridiculous. In James’ mind it’s as simple as this: A good man speaks good words, and a sinful man speaks sinful words.

Speak and live wisely

Speaking wisely and living wisely require wisdom – the right kind of wisdom. James has already alluded to the fact that believers are probably short on wisdom and that they need to seek it from the Lord. There are all kinds of wisdom floating around on earth; just walk into any bookstore and see all the self-help books on the shelves and you’ll see what I mean. Earthly wisdom is good as far as it goes, but the Christian needs more. He needs wisdom from above.

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. (James 3:17 NIV)

When we are obsessed with our own ideas instead of with the Lord and His, then we will always be finding a way to foist our ideas on people rather than exalting Him. When we are always seeking to advance our wills – like trying to become teachers in church – we can easily get into the nasty habit of using our speech to belittle or otherwise hurt others. Instead of being the peacemakers God wants us to be, we run around leaving strife and anger in our wakes.

Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:18 NIV)

And we assume the opposite is also true. When a believer doesn’t allow the Holy Spirit to reign in his tongue, he’s not only a disturbance to the Body of Christ, he’s a disturbance to himself. He’s like that double-minded man James warned about: A guy unstable in all he does; completely untrustworthy.

James’ warning about the power of speech is important. Our tongues can build others up or tear them down. We may be born again, blood bought children of God, but that doesn’t automatically result in a tamed tongue. Like so many areas of the Christian life, it’s within our power to clean up our speech or not. God won’t do it for us. All believers, from the Pastor to the teacher on down the line, should strive to seek help from God to put into practice the admonitions from James and the words of Paul –

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)


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