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Sunday, March 24, 2019

James, Day 9: James 1:21-25 - Be Doers of the Word: Why and How?

Be Doers of the Word: Why and How?
James, Day 9


Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
- James 1:21-25, ESV

"If it was easy, everybody would do it." I don't know where I first heard that expression, but it has stuck in my mind over the years as a motivation. It's simple and has limited effectiveness, and tends to promote a level of self-righteousness and arrogance when it is effective. I can feel really good about myself and look down on others who do less because I did something that "if it was easy, everybody would do it."

Is that the kind of thinking behind James 1:21-25 and God's admonition to us to "be doers of the word, and not hearers only"? Is God just saying to us: "Look, I know it's not easy, but it's time to buck up and "git 'er done"!"? No, it's not that simple.

First of all, God is challenging us to see sin for what it is, and not to be fooled by the deceptions of our enemy. What is sin? One of the tricks of our enemy is to minimize and justify sin: "Well, it's just a little . . . " And God calls us to identify sin for what it is: filthiness and rampant wickedness. All sin is defiling and evil; it's not some little, light thing.

Sin is deceiving, and when we give in to the voice of sin in our lives, we are deceiving ourselves. We are living a lie. So, James calls us to "receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." This is where we must begin: It's not a simple matter of trying harder. We first have to begin by rejecting deception, including self-deception, and humbly receiving the truth of God to our souls.

But receiving the word with meekness bears fruit far beyond mere head-knowledge. When we have received the word with meekness, our hearts are transformed from the inside out. We then recognize God's moral law for what it is: "the perfect law, the law of liberty." 

What does the world and our sinful flesh tell us all the time? "Sin is freedom, and God's law is restriction and limitation keeping us from that freedom." But that's a lie, isn't it? Of course it is. Sin is the real bondage, and God's perfect law is the real way to a life of liberty!

How do we learn this truth deep down inside? Only by walking in the law of liberty, by living according to the word, by being doers of the word and not hearers only. So, hearers of the word are those who give superficial assent to the word of God, but who don't really believe deep down that God's word is truly the path of life.

Once we receive the implanted word with meekness, really trusting God, we will know from the depth of our souls that this is the word of eternal life, this is the law of liberty, and we will desire to walk in it. And as we walk in it, we will experience the blessed freedom of living according to the word, and we will be even more encouraged and strengthened to walk in the light of His truth.

"If it was easy, everybody would do it." Turns out, that's not really true, because our problem is fundamentally not that God's word is hard, but that we don't really believe it is good and freeing. So, it's not a lack of effort but a heart-blindness to the truth that is our biggest obstacle. So, more that big spiritual muscles, we need clear spiritual sight and humble hearts to see and know and receive the truth, that we may walk in it.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

James, Day 8: James 1:19-20 - Why Doesn't Our Anger Work?

Why Doesn't Our Anger Work?

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 
- James 1:19-20, ESV

I have a confession to make: Sometimes I act like I know better than God. God says certain things very clearly in His word, and I believe His word is truth, but sometimes I live my life as if I think I know better that what the plain Word of God says.

Take today's passage, for example: Could I possibly be the one man whose anger might actually produce the righteousness of God, if I try hard enough? No, of course not. My human anger is as impotent as everyone else's human anger when it comes to producing lasting spiritual fruit. So, why do I get angry at my children and think I can force them to be righteous, not through the fear of the Lord but through the fear of Dad?

So, it's time for me to once again re-read these very familiar verses and confess to God my frequent prideful disregard of them. And it's time for me to hear the wisdom in them afresh. "Every person" includes me and you, all of us. We are called by God to be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

Why quick to hear? Because when we listen, we actually learn new things. We are open to new information and might learn something that would change our perspective a bit or help us grow in empathy or understanding.

We should be slow to speak because, in humility, we should count what others have to say as more valuable that what we have to say. Our words can wait until we have heard the whole story from the other side.

Slow to anger? Yes, we should be slow to anger because our anger is ultimately impotent. It has limited effectiveness to get some things done which have some limited value. Too often, though, it causes more pain and hurt and loss than whatever short-term gain it seems to produce.

Do you know what all of this really requires? It requires eyes of faith to see that God is already at work in the situation that is causing us frustration. The situation may seem out-of-control to us, and we may be tempted to want to lash out and grasp control of it. The truth is, of course, that it's not out-of-control at all, is it? God is always in control, and God is always at work.

For us to listen is to show faith that God may have something to teach us, For us to be slow to speak and slow to anger is to show faith that God's purposes will stand and His hands will hold the situation in faithfulness and love, even when we can't see how. And that's ultimately that call of James 1:19-20. These aren't just verses to shame us into submission, but they're calling us to a deeper trust of God and an abiding peace found only in Him. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

James, Day 7: James 1:18 - Why Were We Saved?

Why Were We Saved? 
James, Day 7


Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. - James 1:18, ESV

Last time, we discussed how important it is in teaching our children to address the question of how. But, of course, we all know that every child's favorite question is not how but why. Each of my three children went through a phase when their mouths often opened with the words, "Daddy, why . . . ?" or sometimes "Daddy, how come . . . ?"

"Daddy, why is the grass green?"
"Daddy, why do birds fly?" 
"Daddy, home come we can't fly?" 

And then there's the loud one in the middle of Wal-Mart, "Daddy, why is that man so fat?" 

As children of God, we often want to ask our Heavenly Father, "Why?" Most of the time, God doesn't answer and we can't even handle the answer. John MacArthur said in a sermon that God trying to explain why to us is like trying to pour the Atlantic Ocean into a Dixie Cup. 

Sometimes God does tell us why, so we'll understand His purposes when we need to know them. James 1:18 answers two different why questions about our salvation. Or, you could say, it answers the question, "Why were we saved?" in two different ways: What was the cause of our salvation? and What is the purpose for our salvation?

So, what was the cause of our salvation? Why were we saved? We were saved not by our own will nor by our own power, but, James says, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth." It was His will that was the origin of our being brought forth to eternal life, and it was His word of truth that actually brought us forth into eternal life. Thus, our salvation is the work of God just like creation was: God willed, God spoke, and it was good.

And what was the purpose of our salvation? Why were we saved? We were saved by God "that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." This one's a bit more complicated. What does it mean? Well, Romans 8 tells us that God is going to redeem all of creation when Jesus comes again, and that all creation is groaning in eager expectation as it waits for this final redemption. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, the firstfruit of the new creation. Then, when Jesus comes again, His trumpet call will raise us to eternal resurrection life. We will be the first thing Jesus brings to perfection, in body and soul. 

How incredible is that? God desired to save us, so He spoke the word of truth to our hearts and saved us. He did this so that He could bring us to eternal life, body and soul, at the coming of Jesus, as an eternal display of His saving power and goodness. Wow! That's a much better answer to the why question than anything I ever told my kids!       

Monday, March 18, 2019

James, Day 6: James 1:12-18 - How Can We Remain Steadfast Under Trial?

How Can We Remain Steadfast Under Trial?
James, Day 6


"Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures."
 - James 1:12-18, ESV

I must admit that, as a father, I have not always been patient and clear in explaining to my kids how to do what I'm asking them to do. I'm usually very clear on what I expect them to do and even on why I want them to do it (which is not always "Because I said so"). Unfortunately for them, knowing what to do without knowing how to do it can lead to a lot of frustration.

Many Christians feel this way about their Christian lives, about living faithfully for the Lord according to the Bible. Many of us often know better what we're supposed to be doing than exactly how we can go about doing it.

Today's passage has a great example of this: "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial." So we know what we're supposed to do: remain steadfast under trial. We're even give some incentive, some motivation: "for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life." That sounds wonderful, but how are we supposed to remain steadfast under trial? Well, the rest of the passage tells us how, if we read it carefully and thoughtfully.

One thing that helps is to know that the Greek words for trial and tempted here in this passage are the same. So, to stand under trial means to stand in the face of temptation. When the time of trial or temptation comes, the first thing we need to make sure we don't do is blame God. We may not do so openly, but if we're grumbling in our hearts against the Lord for His providence, we're essentially blaming Him for putting us in a situation where we've been tempted. And if we're blaming God, that means we won't be looking to Him for help and deliverance in our trial.

So, once we stop blaming God, we need to take a good look at ourselves and see which desires within us are being triggered by the temptation. What longing in our hearts is responding in the time of trial to make it a temptation and draw us away from remaining steadfast? Once we can identify this desire, we can confess it to the Lord and ask Him to help us look to Him to meet that longing.

Next, we need to give thanks to God for His goodness. In the midst of every trial, God provides good resources for us, things to help us or strengthen us. Sometimes intentionally giving thanks for our blessings opens our eyes to the good things God has given us.

So, we don't blame God, we identify and confess our desires, we give thanks for our blessings, and we look for God-given resources. Then, we remember that it is God's power that has saved us and His power which will keep us.  We remember and we openly confess, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." We didn't save ourselves through our words; God saved us through His word. He who saved us will keep us, so we can bear fruit for His glory.

So often, in the hour of trial, I am tempted to be self-pitying and complaining. I feel sorry for myself and I quietly accuse God of wrongdoing in His providence. If I am going to stand strong, I must learn to reverse this sinful reaction to trials and instead give thanks, seek help, remember the goodness of God, and accept responsibility for my own sinful foolishness. When I look to the Lord in these specific, practical, honest ways, then I stand strong and remain steadfast under trial, in His strength and never in my own. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

James, Day 5: James 1:9-12 - What Really Matters in the End?

What Really Matters in the End?

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
- James 1:9-12, ESV

When I was a kid, I thought The Dukes of Hazard was great television, and I thought McDonalds was a great place to go out to eat. I didn't know what was really valuable then.

So much of the trouble we encounter in life stems from not valuing what is truly valuable. We tend to be distracted by things right in front of us, by the immediate and the material. Whether it's the tyranny of the urgent or the snare of materialism, our sinful hearts tend to be drawn to things that just don't matter that much.

James tells poor Christians to boast in their exaltation, that God reached down in His grace to save them and lift them from sin and death and give them forgiveness and eternal life. Then, he tells rich Christians to boast in their humiliation, the fact that they are spiritual paupers in the eyes of God, bankrupt and helpless apart from the riches of God's grace.

Why does James tell the rich and the poor to boast in different aspects of their salvation? Because each would be tempted to lose perspective in different ways. The poor would be tempted to think that God was against them because they were poor, so James reminds them of their exaltation. The rich might be tempted to think they were special in God's eyes because they had money. They needed to remember their humiliation without Christ.

Then James gives both rich and poor the basis for the right perspective: All human flesh and human accomplishments fade away so quickly. None of it really matters much for long. James is making an allusion to Isaiah 40:6-8:

A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (ESV)

As temporary as the things of this world are, the crown of life which God alone can give is unfading and glorious. For those who belong to God and who persevere in faith by His grace, we receive the best and most lasting treasure, eternal life with God Himself. And that alone is something truly worth living for. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

James, Day 4: James 1:6-11 - What Does It Mean to Ask in Faith without Doubting?

What Does It Mean to Ask in Faith without Doubting?
James, Day 4


But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
 - James 1:6-11, ESV

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I married a little girl in my neighborhood. I don't even remember her name, but I have some vague memories of the wedding, attended by the neighborhood kids. I think somebody told me I was supposed to kiss the bride and I said, "Eww. Gross" or something like that.

Now, obviously, I didn't really get married as a child. We were just pretending. We had none of the required elements of a real wedding. It was no more real than the guns we used to play Cops and Robbers.

Some people's ideas of praying in faith have about as much to do with the Bible as my childhood wedding had to do with real marriage. So, what does it mean to ask God in faith with no doubting? It doesn't mean that, if you really want something (like a new Lexus or a trip to the Bahamas), you should just ask God for it and truly believe that you have it. That's unbiblical nonsense.

In the context of James 1, James is talking about praying for wisdom, which we saw last time is a deeper understanding of God's will as revealed in the Bible. So, we are to ask God for wisdom in faith without doubting. That means we are to trust God fully, relying on the goodness of His character and the truth of His word, not questioning His goodness or His word to us.

Further evidence that James is not talking here about praying for material possessions, or for any of our outward physical conditions, comes from looking at verses 9-11. Here James instructs those who live in poverty and humiliation to rejoice and to boast in God's love for them, knowing that all external manifestations of well being fade quickly and matter little. Likewise. the wealthy person should boast in his humiliation, that he is utterly poor and needy in the eyes of God in every way that truly counts for eternity, just like everyone else is. 

To pray in faith is to pray trusting in God and confessing God's truth to be the real truth. Part of this truth is that the state of our souls is of infinitely greater importance than the state of our bank accounts. To use "praying in faith" as a tool to try to get more of the passing pleasures and fading riches of the fallen world is to profoundly misunderstand the whole purpose of prayer and faith. We are to see God's way, as revealed in His word, to be the path of true and eternal riches. This is real faith, and this leads to strength and stability in all the changing circumstances of life.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

James, Day 3: James 1:5-8 - Do You Really Want Wisdom?

Do You Really Want Wisdom?

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
 - James 1:5-8, ESV

When I was a kid, I often had no idea what I really wanted. As the youngest of four children, I sometimes just wanted to have or do whatever my older siblings had or were doing. At school, I wanted to be accepted by the other kids in my classes, so I often wanted to do or wear or have whatever I thought might gain me acceptance by my peers. It took me a long time to figure out what I really liked and what I actually wanted. Even then, I later realized that many of my desires were foolish, selfish, and short-sighted.

Living as sinful people prone to foolishness in a sinful world in rebellion against God, one of our greatest needs is for wisdom. When Solomon prayed for wisdom, the Lord commended him and answered his prayer. Here in James 1, God promises to give wisdom to anyone who lacks it and asks it of Him. 

What is being promised here? Is God telling us that if we're ever wondering what we should do, we can just pray to Him and He'll tell us what we should do? Is this a blanket promise for infallible divine guidance, a can't-miss guidance system for all of life's tough choices? No. What's promised here is much better. God will give us wisdom, but we need to make sure we understand what we really need and what we need to admit before we can receive it.

What we really need is wisdom. Wisdom is not "always knowing the right thing to do," as most people think of that concept. Many people want some sort of guidance from God that will always direct them down the right path in life, as defined by their expectation that they would have an easy life with abundant blessings and minimum problems. When they pray, "Lord, which job should I take?" they often mean, "Which job is going to pay me the best, be most satisfying, and have the fewest problems?" None of this type of guidance is ever promised by God, and none of it is real wisdom.

How can I say that? Because if this picture of maximum benefits and minimum problems was the picture of a blessed life of wisdom, then neither Jesus nor the Apostles lived blessed lives of wisdom. They all encountered lots of problems, trials, temptations, rejection, and hardship. In the end, most of their lives ended in poverty and violent death. And yet, they had wisdom and they were truly blessed.

So, what is wisdom? Wisdom is living life in harmony with God's will, living according to God's design and purposes, for His glory and kingdom. Wisdom is living well, not as the world or our selfish flesh defines it but as God alone defines it. 

Do we want this kind of wisdom? Only if we want to live for the glory of God and our eternal joy in Him and not settle for anything less. 

What do we need to admit before we can receive this wisdom? We have to admit that we don't have it and neither does the world. We have to admit that we need the Lord alone to give us this wisdom. And if we begin by refusing to look to ourselves or to the world, we are already on the path of wisdom. 

The path of wisdom is laid out by the Word of God, and we are guided along it by the Spirit of God. By trusting in God and following His word as led by His Spirit, we can grow in true wisdom. And as we grow in true wisdom, we live life as God has intended and we are truly, eternally blessed.