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Thursday, May 23, 2019

James, Day 22: James 5:1-6 - What Are the Dangers of Being Rich?

What Are the Dangers of Being Rich?
James, Day 22


Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
- James 5:1-6, ESV

As a pastor, I am always a bit suspicious when someone's feedback on my sermon focuses on how much some other person needed to hear what I was saying:

"If only my husband had been here . . . "
"I'm going to get a copy of that for my sister."
"Let me know when that's available online. I'm going to send it to my son."

Now, most of the time, these kinds of comments are sincerely intended in appreciation and with love in mind for the other person. But I often want to respond, "And what was God saying to you through His word this morning?"

The danger of a passage addressed to "you rich" is that very few of us think of ourselves as being rich. Studies have shown that even many of those who fall in the Top 1% of household incomes in America (earning $421,926 per year or more) do not think of themselves as being rich, because they still need to budget their income and spending. The fact is that, if we back out of the American framework to the wider world, if you earn $32,400 per year, you're in the Top 1% of all income earners. That's most of us, isn't it?

One of the marks of how wealthy the American evangelical church is can be seen in how blind we are to our own wealth and its spiritual pitfalls. We may hear sermons on tithing and giving, but we don't hear very many messages like the opening verses of James 5, which probably strike us as being more than a bit extreme, if we're honest.

Yet having wealth does make us seriously blind to certain realities in our lives and the world, just as extreme poverty can also be blinding. In Proverbs 30, Agur senses the problems that come with poverty and riches, and so he prays a wise prayer:

Two things I ask of you;
    deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.  (Prov. 30:7-9, ESV)

Riches can lead us to deny the Lord, and, according to James, that sometimes looks like denying the poor workers who are made in His image. We can become so focused on getting what we want - perhaps even what we think we need - that we don't think of the real cost of our wealth. We don't think of the poor who have been oppressed or denied justice to give us what we have.

It's harder in our world because we live so distant from the lives of those who supply us with our goods, and we don't know how they live. At one time in the not-so-distant past, many of the Christmas tree lights sold in America were being made by Chinese political prisoners who were not being paid anything for their labor. China has just recently opened massive prison labor compounds to "re-educate" Muslims and Christians through forced labor, and many of the goods they make will probably find their way to our store shelves.

What can we do? We're not directly oppressing these workers, and we have no real way of knowing who is being oppressed and who is not, do we? Well, we can still do some specific things:

1. We can seek to be less wasteful and also seek to give as much as we can to help relieve the suffering of the poor.
2. We can be more thankful for what we have and more mindful of how we're investing it for God's kingdom purposes.
3. We can stop being judgmental toward the poor and arrogant about our wealth, which we're all guilty of doing at times, if we're honest.
4. We can stop thinking that being rich is better than being poor and that having more money would solve our deepest problems. Wealth often creates more problems than it solves.   

Our material possession are blessings given by God. Like all blessings from God, they can be turned into idols by our sinful hearts. We need to remember who gave us our wealth and why He gave it to us: All of our God-given blessings are to be used for His glory and the good of others, with humility and thanksgiving.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

James, Day 21: James 4:13-17 - Is It Sinful to Make Plans?

Is It Sinful to Make Plans?

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
 - James 4:13-17, ESV

What makes something sinful? Is it just because it breaks one of a list of rules? Do we only sin when we intentionally violate one of the Ten Commandments? Could it really be sinful just to make plans for the future? That seems to be what James is saying in today's passage, or is it? 

Jesus Himself said it was a good idea to count the cost before beginning a project (Luke 14:28), and counting the cost involves making plans, to see whether or not we can afford something before we begin it. Proverbs both recommends making plans according to wisdom and also acknowledges the limitations of the plans we make. "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." - Proverbs 16:9, ESV  

So, our plans have limited effectiveness, for God can always overrule them, but surely making plans is not in itself a sinful activity. So, what is James saying is evil about them? Well, what is evil is not the act of making plans, but the arrogance of making plans as if God does not exist. 

For us to confidently boast about what we are going to do and what we are going to gain from what we do is to live and make plans as if God were a mere figment of our imagination. It is to effectively nullify in our lives everything we say about God in our worship. It is not a light, small matter. 

But it is also not enough to simply add the words "Lord willing" or "If the good Lord is willing and the creek don't rise" in some empty, quasi-superstitious sense. Rather, we must, in sincere faith and true humility, submit all of our plans to the providence of God and confess that He is Lord, and He is free to do as He pleases with our plans. If they please Him and He blesses them, then we praise and thank Him. But if they don't please Him and He doesn't bless them, then we praise Him still, for He is always wise and good. 

To fail to do this is sin, because it is a profound lack of faith in God. As Romans 14:23 says, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." So, let us trust the Lord and submit our plans in faith to His providence. He never fails to act in wisdom and love toward His children. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

James, Day 20: James 4:11-12 - Why Do We Judge Each Other?

Why Do We Judge Each Other?

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
- James 4:11-12, ESV

I was waiting for my van to be serviced - getting new front brakes, I think. On the television screen was a daytime talk show. You know the kind, one where people with big problems from very poor life choices were paraded in front of a gasping studio audience. As I asked the customer service agent for the remote, I thought, "Why do people watch this garbage?" And in thinking that thought I answered my own question.

We love to feel morally superior. Many daytime talk shows have been built on the foundation of gasping self-righteousness: "Can you believe she said that?" "How can people live like that?" "And I thought my life was messed up -whew!" Somehow, if we can find someone who is clearly morally inferior, we can then feel morally superior. The viewers of these shows do it to the people on the shows, and I was doing it in my own mind toward the people who watch these kinds of shows.

Our natural human tendency toward self-righteousness causes us to be quick to judge and condemn others. But God did not give us His law so we could use it as a weapon to assault others. He gave us His law so we could do it. And since we always fail to be doers of the law as we should, the person whose failure to measure up to God's standard should concern us the most is us. When we focus on doing the law, instead of using the law, we are confronted by our own failure and driven to seek God's mercy. We are humbled and made more dependent on God's righteousness and grace.

"There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy." This is the heart of the issue: We can either submit to God or we can try to take His place. Just as we are completely unqualified to save ourselves, so we are completely unqualified to judge others. If we know we need salvation from God, then we must entrust all judgment to His hands as well.

To be clear, James is not forbidding us from teaching what the law says. He is not saying that we should have no moral standards. If God is the one moral lawgiver and judge, then His standard is the only standard we can embrace for our own lives and the only standard we can teach to others. Yet teaching is not judging, and faithfully proclaiming, "Thus says the Lord," is not condemning our neighbors or our brothers. We are to speak the truth in love and leave the judging to God.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

James, Day 19: James 4:6-10 - Why is Humility the Key?

Why is Humility the Key?

James, Day 19



But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
- James 4:6-10, ESV

What would you say is the most vital key to real spiritual growth as a Christian? Bible knowledge? A vital prayer life? Active church involvement? Obviously, all of these things are important elements in the spiritual life and growth of believers, but one virtue is the underlying key to real growth in all of these areas and more: humility.

The great Puritan pastor and theologian Thomas Watson said, "Let us carry ourselves as God’s children in humility. . . It is a becoming garment. Let a child of God look at his face every morning in the glass of God’s Word and see his sinful spots. This will make him walk humbly all the day after. God cannot endure to see his children grow proud. He suffers them to fall into sin, as he did Peter, that their plumes may fall, and that they may learn to go on lower ground."

Why is humility so important? In part, it is because humility breaks us of our addiction to ourselves. By nature, we tend to rely on ourselves, trust in ourselves, listen to ourselves, and serve ourselves. This is the worst kind of idolatry, and it is as natural to us as breathing and sinning.

Humility says no the tyranny of self and turns our gaze to the Lord instead. We cannot open our hands to receive good things from God until we let go of the selfishness and pride we're already holding so tightly.

Think about it: You don't really grow in Bible knowledge if you think you already know the Bible. You have to confess you don't know and you need to know. You don't grow in prayer if you think you can handle life on your own. Prayer moves from an obligation to a true dependence only through humility. And we are never really committed to serving others as long as we think we should be served.

Pride is the root sin, and humility is the key virtue. James 4 puts humility is the context of spiritual warfare, because pride is the language of Satan, and humility submits to God, who then gives us power to resist the devil's selfish lies, so he flees from us in defeat.

One of the best ways to grow in humility is to approach God through His perfect law, especially as Jesus unpacked it in Matthew 5. God's law shows us our sin in the light of God's perfect righteousness. Stripped of our self-righteousness and exposed to God's righteousness, we are ready to confess our need and weakness in true humility.

Monday, May 13, 2019

James, Day 18: James 4:4-5 - Why is God Jealous?

Why is God Jealous?

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?
- James 4:4-5, ESV

Oprah Winfrey very famously gave up on her childhood Christianity when she thought about the idea that God is a jealous God. She reasoned that any God who was jealous of her couldn't be worth worshiping, and she gave up her profession of faith in Him. Since then, she has been her own god, and her most recent religious crusade is to encourage women to be proud of their abortions.

What Oprah missed, that we all need to see, is that God never says He is jealous of us (as if that were possible!), but He is jealous for us. Imagine that: The God of the Universe, who framed the worlds with His word, is jealous for us. James tells us why.

James tells us that Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” Rather than being a quote of a specific Scripture verse, James 4:5 is a summary of the teaching of the Bible on the theme of God's jealousy. James is telling us what Scripture teaches, rather than giving us the exact words of a particular verse.

Understanding that worldliness is idolatry and that idolatry is spiritual adultery is key to grasping this truth of the nature of God's jealous longing for His people. In the beginning, God created people in His image and breathed His very breath of life into us, making us living spirits, or living souls. This set us apart from all other creation, All other creatures were spoken into existence by God, but people were made by the hands of God (Adam from the ground and Eve from a rib of Adam) and then breathed to life by the breath of God. This makes us uniquely, preciously His.

For believers, our spirits have been resurrected from the spiritual death we inherited from Adam. So, not only were we created by God in His image, but our spirits have been raised from the dead to breathe spiritual life again. How? By His Spirit working in us - that is, by His breath blowing upon us. (In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same.)

And what did it cost God to be able to resurrect us from the dead and give us eternal spiritual life, so that our spirits will never die again? It cost Him the life of His one and only precious Son. God loves us so much, He was willing to pay an unspeakably high price for our redemption, to buy us back to Himself.

So, we are doubly His, by unique creation and by costly redemption. And so He yearns jealously over the spirit He Himself has made to dwell within us. He is jealous for us, as a loving father and a devoted husband. It is a compelling and powerful love, and we are unfaithful to that love whenever we love the world. If we understand how much God loves us and how jealous He is for us, how could we casually embrace the spiritual adultery of worldliness?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

James, Day 17: James 4:1-4 - What Are the Consequences of our Selfishness?


What Are the Consequences of our Selfishness?
James 4:1-4
James, Day 17 



What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
- James 4:1-4, ESV

"What difference does it make?" These words can be a legitimate inquiry into the possible consequences of an idea. But they can also be a callous covering for a knowingly selfish and foolish choice, but one we want to make anyway. Parents hear these words often from their children, but if we're honest, we think them in our hearts ourselves too often. 

James 3 ended with a compelling picture of the difference between worldly wisdom and heavenly wisdom. Worldly wisdom is characterized by selfish ambition and bitter jealousy and is unspiritual and demonic. "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." (James 3:17) The contrast between these two kinds of wisdom could not be more stark and clear, but what difference does it make?

James 4 opens by telling us in very clear terms what difference it makes. Receiving and living according to God's wisdom is no abstract matter. Why do God's people so often experience quarrels and fights? It is because of our covetous desires. Does that sound like selfish ambition and bitter jealousy? Absolutely! Just because we've turned to chapter 4, don't leave the context of chapter 3 behind. Our passions war within us because we're living according to that worldly, unspiritual, demonic wisdom and not the pure and peaceable wisdom of God.

When James says, "you murder," he means the kind of hating others that Jesus said was murdering them in our hearts. (See Matthew 5:21-22). Verse 3 is then a strong rebuke to the worldly, materialistic perspective of the prosperity Gospel. When God gives good gifts to His children, it's not for our selfish passions, but for His glory and kingdom. 

In the end. James says in verse 4 that all of this worldliness in the lives of God's people is spiritual adultery and hatred of God, enmity toward God. What difference does it make? James puts it clearly and bluntly: "whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." Ouch! 

I am too easily tempted to think that my selfishness hurts no one but myself and concerns no one but myself, but God clearly and strongly says otherwise. On a human level, it causes quarrels and fights, leading me to hate my brothers and sisters. More importantly, it is spiritual adultery and, by my worldliness, I make myself an enemy of God. 

Lord, have mercy on me for my selfishness and my covetousness. I need Your heavenly wisdom. I need to walk in Your ways of purity and peace, of gentleness and humility. By the power of Your Holy Spirit in me, change my heart. In Jesus' name, Amen. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

James, Day 16: James 3:13-18 - What Help Do We Really Need?

What Help Do We Need?

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
- James 3:13-18, ESV

When I was young, I remember trying hard to loosen a bolt only to have my dad point out that I was trying to turn it the wrong way and was actually tightening it. That's that day I learned, "Lefty loosy, righty tighty.  Once you stop trying to do the wrong thing, you can start doing the right thing. Later in my childhood, I remember trying to saw wood and getting frustrated, only to learn I was putting too much pressure on the blade. "Let the blade do the work," was the lesson I learned that day.

Last time, we saw that James 3 is not telling us that we should tame our tongues, much less giving us direction for a self-help program of tongue-taming. So, once we stop trying hard to tame our tongues, a frustrating and unfulfilling task, we can turn our attention to what James 3 is teaching us: We need heavenly wisdom to free us from ourselves.

Much more than a self-help program, James 3 gives us a sharp contrast between two competing types of wisdom, one from the world that is unspiritual and demonic, and the other from heaven and which leads to true righteousness. What James calls us to do is to live a life which displays in meekness, in humility, the true fruit of heavenly wisdom.

In other words, in humility, we need to realize that we can't tame our tongues and speak great words of wisdom and understanding. What we can do is humbly confess our need and receive from God His wisdom, the wisdom that comes from above, and live our lives in harmony with it. So, what does this wisdom look like? Well, James tells us first of all what it does not look like: It is not characterized by bitter jealously and selfish ambition.

Rather than a self-focused orientation, the wisdom from above is "first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." This kind of wisdom comes only from God, and He must write it on our hearts by His Holy Spirit. We must, in humility, seek it from Him and then seek to live according to it.

If we live by God's wisdom and not by our own selfishness, we are given a precious promise: "And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."  We will reap a harvest of true righteousness when we make peace according to Gods wisdom, which is first pure and then peaceable, and reject the worldly ways of selfish ambition and bitter jealously.

What we can see is that we need so much more than just learning how to say the right things. We need deep heart transformation and a divine infusion of heavenly wisdom, May the Lord be pleased to do this work in us, for the glory of His name in our lives!