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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!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

James, Day 15: James 3:2-12 - Can Anyone Tame The Tongue?

Can Anyone Tame the Tongue?

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
 - James 3:2-12, ESV

Sometimes the Bible doesn't mean what we think it means at all. For years, I had heard that James 3 taught about the importance of taming the tongue, that James 3 is all about how important it is for you to tame your tongue. I'd even heard people say that James 3 tells you how to tame your tongue. I would read James 3 and be left scratching my head, until I realized something: I'm sure all these people were well meaning and sincere, but they were wrong.

James 3 does indeed tell us much about the power and perversity of the tongue. But it most certainly does not tell us that we can tame our tongues, much less give instructions on how we can tame our tongues. So what does it say?

If we come to James 3 without preconceived ideas and just allow it to speak to us, the message is very clear: James 3 says first, "we all stumble in many ways." And them it says, "And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body." In other words, everyone stumbles in what they say. No one is flawless in what he says. Remember, this is in the context of why not many people should be teachers.

Reading on, verses 3-6 of James tell us about the great power of the tongue. James uses the bit on a horse's bridle and the rudder on a ship to show how great and powerful things can be controlled by very small things.  Similarly, the tongue is very small but has great power. In fact, James takes it one step further and tells us how great forests can be set ablaze by very small fires, and that our tongues can set on fire the entire course of our lives.

After such powerful word pictures, we surely expect James to tell us, "So, make sure you control your tongue so it doesn't set your life on fire!" But that is exactly what James does not say. Instead, he says, "every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

So, the power of the tongue is matched only by its perversity, and in the transition from the tongue's power to its perversity, James emphasizes emphatically that "no human being cane tame the tongue." The restless evil of the tongue is characterized by the fact that "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God."

So, the tongue is incredibly powerful and deeply perverse, and no one can tame their tongue. That's the message of James regarding our tongues. You might be thinking, "How is that helpful?" And this question gets to the heart of the issue: If we approach the Bible as a self-help manual full of practical life advice, we will be sorely disappointed. James 3 does not tell us how to tame the tongue; it tell us no one can tame the tongue.

If we will accept this message, then what James says next is very helpful, but it's most definitely not self-help. Why not? Because we cannot help ourselves. We don't need self-help; we need salvation, and salvation comes from the Lord and not from us. We'll see more of that truth next time.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

James, Day 14: James 3:1-2 - Who Should Be a Teacher?

Who Should Be a Teacher?
James, Day 14

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
- James 3:1-2, ESV

The Constitution sets clear qualifications for the office of President of the United States: One must be native-born citizen, 35 years old, and a resident of the United States for 14 years. Beyond that, to be president, you have to be elected by a majority of the electoral college. Similarly, to play in the NBA, the qualifications are clear: You have to be a really good basketball player, but then an NBA team needs to draft you and sign you to play for them. In both of these examples, the person needs to be both qualified and called or chosen.

In James 3:1, James warns his readers that not many of them should become teachers. James is talking specifically about being a teacher of God's word in the church, perhaps even more specifically about being a teaching elder in the church. The reason for James' warning is clear: Teachers will be judged with greater strictness.

So, who should be a teacher, then? If not many should, who should? Well, similar to our examples of the president or an NBA player, a teacher of God's word in the church needs to be both qualified and called. We have to look elsewhere in God's word to get a clear description of the qualifications, but places like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 tell us that the character and conduct of an elder matters as much, if not more, than the content of his teaching. While James may not be talking exclusively about elders, the same biblical principle applies - the heart of the teacher matters as much as the head, because, as Jesus said, "out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34)

But a teacher should also be called, recognized by a congregation for his character and conduct and competency to teach. If no one wants you to be their teacher, that's good evidence you may not be called or really qualified to teach. Johnny Manziel is an amazingly gifted football player, but no team seems to want him right now, because of his character issues, and so he is not a professional football player.   

James then gives a further warning, that no one is able to so control his tongue that he does not sin in what he says. James says "we all stumble in many ways," indicating that the "perfect man" he refers to doesn't exist, apart from Jesus. So, if a teacher is going to be judged more strictly and everyone stumbles in what they say, what is the answer to this dilemma? Accountability.

Teachers in the church need to be qualified, called, and accountable. A teacher needs a clear standard for his teaching and a group of people who will hold him accountable to that standard. Ideally, the people who hold him accountable should be both inside and beyond his own congregation. We see evidence of this in the New Testament, as letters are written to warn congregations against false teachers and false teachings in their midst.

Teaching God's word to God's people is a high and holy calling, one to be undertaken in humility and diligence. Only those who are qualified, called, and accountable should undertake the task. Thankfully, by His grace, God has been pleased to bless His church with a good number of sound teachers who can build His people up in the faith. If you've been blessed by a qualified, called, and accountable teacher of God's word, give Him thanks and pray diligently that God will guard the heart, mind, life, and teaching of that teacher.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

James, Day 13: James 2:14-26 - What Good is Faith without Works?

What Good is Faith without Works?

James, Day 13

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

- James 2:14-26, ESV

Sometimes getting the right answer depends on asking the right question. And sometimes, if all you have is the answer, understanding its true meaning depends on knowing what question prompted it. For centuries, some people have pitted James' teaching here at the end of James 2 against Paul's teaching on Justification by Faith in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 3 against each other, as though the two teachings contradicted each other.

On the surface of it, this kind of thinking might appear to have some merit. James says "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Paul, in Galatians 3, says, "Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.'” (Gal. 3:11, ESV) And in Romans 3:28, Paul says, "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." 

So, is this a blatant contradiction in Scripture? Not if we understand what questions Paul and James are answering. 

Paul is answering the question of how a person can be justified before God. To counter self-righteousness and legalism, Paul affirms that only faith in Jesus Christ can justify us, not works of the law. No one can ever be justified on the basis of the law, because we are all condemned by the law as law-breakers. So, Paul is focused on the works of the law as a possible basis for our justification. In answer to this kind of question, "one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." 

James has a different question in mind altogether: How do we know if we have real, saving faith or just a dead, imitation faith? In other words, how do we know if our faith is alive or dead, genuine or a mere cheap imitation? In answer to this kind of question, "Faith without works is dead." The kind of faith that does not lead to good works is not genuine, living, saving faith. 

Neither Paul nor James would say that our faith and our works together form the basis of our justification before a holy God. Only the righteousness of Christ is perfect enough to be the basis for our justification. We lay hold of the righteousness of Christ by faith alone. And neither Paul not James would say that a profession of faith that makes no difference in how your live your life is true faith. They would both say such a so-called faith is an empty profession, a lifeless sham. Real faith loves, trusts, and obeys. 

So, what good is faith without works? It's no good at all - not because we need works to be the basis for our justification, but because faith without works is no real faith at all. It's no more than the affirmation a demon can make. Or, as someone else (Phillip Melanchton?) has famously said, "We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith which remains alone."

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

James, Day 12: James 2:8-13 - Are You A Lawbreaker?

Are You a Lawbreaker?

James, Day 12

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
- James 2:8-13, ESV

"Don't smoke, don't drink, don't chew, and don't go out with girls that do." That's the old Southern Fundamentalist credo. An old Rich Mullins song puts the idea somewhat differently: "I don't cheat on my taxes, I don't cheat on my girl. I got values that would make the White House jealous." Perhaps it makes you smile to think that the occupant of the White House could ever be jealous of someone else's values. But what do both of these thoughts have in common? It's the idea that if we keep some brief list of basic rules, that makes us righteous.

It's not without reason that Christians have sometimes had a reputation as self-righteous, narrow-minded prudes. It's not just that we have a moral code we are striving to follow, but we too often have had a very short list that we think we're keeping pretty well and which we think makes us pretty righteous. Meanwhile, we can have huge blind spots to the grievous sin in our lives.

James is confronting this kind of self-righteous blindness in today's passage. He had just addressed the fact that it was wrong to show partiality toward those in the church who had more money. He then says that if you truly love your neighbor as yourself, you're keeping the law and doing well. The problem is, of course, that none of us actually does that, do we? I mean, can you honestly say you care about your neighbor as much as you care about yourself? Of course not.

So, here comes the zinger: If you're keeping certain aspects of the law but not others, that still makes you a lawbreaker. Keep nine of the ten commandments and break only one, and guess what that makes you? A lawbreaker.

Do you think that's unfair? Do you think keeping 6 or 7 of 10 should be good enough. That's not how the law works. The next time you get pulled over for speeding or running a red light, try telling the police officer he should let you go and not give you a ticket because you weren't drinking and driving and you were wearing your seat belt. See what he says about that! Or imagine a bank robber arguing with the judge that he shouldn't have to do any jail time because he never killed anybody while he was robbing the banks - in fact, he never ever hit or kicked anyone; he just pointed a gun at them.

We know that's absurd, right? The law doesn't work that way. Many criminals serving long sentences could make impressive lists of all the laws they didn't break. What got them in jail are the laws they did break.

Okay, so we know we're lawbreakers, what difference does that make? Well, James says it should make a big difference in how we treat other people. We should show mercy, forgiving others as those who know how much we've been forgiven. We shouldn't be harsh and judgmental, acting like we've never broken the law.

The world doesn't need more self-righteous, proud rule-keepers. It needs more mercy, from those who humbly know how much mercy they're received themselves.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

James, Day 11: James 2:1-7 - Is It Better to Be Rich or Poor?

Is It Better to Be Rich or Poor?
James, Day 11

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
- James 2:1-7, ESV

If you had a choice, would you rather be rich or poor? Honestly, all things being equal, I'd rather be rich. But, the truth is, all things are not equal, are they? Because our hearts are not neutral, wealth comes to us with complications. The very same reason why almost all of us would say that, if given the choice, we'd rather be rich than poor, is the reason why being rich is problematic for us.

Why do we want to be rich? Because it would give us the freedom to be able to live as we please, to do what we want. Doesn't that truth expose the basic selfishness of our hearts, the fact that we really just want to have our own way, no matter what? It's that basic selfishness that makes wealth a problem and a snare for us, because it does give us freedom to indulge our selfishness.

Our desire to be rich also tends to cause us to envy the wealthy and to treat them with special honor, hoping they might decide to share some of their wealth with us. In a church setting, pastors and church leaders can be tempted to give special consideration to those in the congregation who have wealth, hoping they'll be generous givers, and thinking we need to keep them satisfied in order to keep God's work well funded.

All of these ways we tend to think about wealth are illusions, of course. It's wrong to give wealthier congregants special privileges. It's wrong to treat anyone differently based on how much money they have or don't have. We know this, but it's hard to resist the temptation to act in a worldly and fleshly way, isn't it?

On the other hand, it would be just as wrong to treat someone poorly and accuse them of wrongdoing just because they had money, wouldn't it? God does bless some people with abundance because He knows they will use it generously to fund kingdom priorities. Many Christian causes have been greatly blessed by the generosity of wealthy believers. So, it would be wrong to read James's correction in today's passage as a blanket condemnation of all wealthy believers.

In the end, the best thing for us is to approach whatever God has given us with a healthy dose of thankfulness, contentment, and generosity. As we thank God for what He's given us, learn to be content with God's goodness, and share generously what we have with others, we gain the right perspective on wealth in the kingdom of God. After all, it's all His, isn't it? 

Friday, March 29, 2019

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

James, Day 10: James 1:26-27 - Is Religion Good or Bad?

Is Religion Good or Bad?
James, Day 10

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
- James 1:26-27, ESV

Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so." Ironically, in our day, many of the same people who would say there's no such thing as an objective standard of right and wrong, but it's all personal and subjective, then turn around and declare that religion is wrong and bad for people and the world. They resent it when religion judges their actions as immoral, but then they turn around and judge religion as immoral. Perhaps it's not only religious people who are capable of hypocrisy.   

But, seriously, what about the accusation that religion is bad for people and bad for the world? Is religion good or bad? Well, the answer to this question is, "It depends." Perhaps the better question is not simply, "Is religion good or bad?" but rather "What makes for good and bad religion?"

James says that if a religious person has an unbridled tongue, he is self-deceived and has a worthless religion. It's sadly too easy to point out examples of this kind of religion: Bitter gossip, slander, half-truths, and self-promotion flow freely from the lips of these religious people. We don't even need to turn on the cable television to see this kind of hypocritical, weak religion. Sometimes all we need to do is listen to ourselves. But we'll talk more about the tongue in chapter 3.

On the positive side, James gives us two key marks of good religion that is right in God's eyes: helping those in need and refraining from the defilement of the world. So, true and God-honoring religion has a positive and a negative aspect, things we commit to doing and things we abstain from doing.

On the positive side, we are to help widows and orphans in need. Those who have no earthly protector and provider, the poor and vulnerable, should receive protection and provision from us, the church. We should meet their physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual needs to the best of our ability. To visit them in their affliction is more than just a little bit of charity from a distance; it is life-on-life, personal care.

On the negative side. "to keep oneself unstained from the world" means to clearly see the filth ad rebellion of the world for what it is and to stay away from it. Sexual immorality, pornography, abuse, faithlessness, profanity, violence, etc. are all pollution of God's good world, and they should break our hearts.

What do these two aspects have in common? Both are rooted in a true knowledge of God. If we know that God is love and that God is holy, and that we are called by Him to "be imitators of God as dearly loved children" (Eph. 5:1), we will seek to walk in love and holiness by His gracious power. Just as all real children admire, observe, and imitate their parents, so all truly religious children of God admire, observe and imitate their Heavenly Father.

So, is religion good or bad? Well, it turns out religion is something like the little girl in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -

There was a little girl,
            Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
            When she was good,
            She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

Let's ask the Lord to give us the grace to make our religion and true and sincere imitation of our loving and holy Heavenly Father.

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.   

Thursday, March 7, 2019

James, Day 2: James 1:2-4 - How Can We Rejoice in Trials?

How Can We Rejoice in Trials?

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
 - James 1:2-4, ESV

Have you ever had an overly chipper Christian shower you with religious platitudes when you were really hurting? How did it feel? Didn't you just wish they would be quiet and leave you alone? One such platitude that well-meaning Christians can thrown around in times of suffering is made up of the first four words of James 1:2: "Count it all joy!"

You lost your job. Count it all joy!
Your wife is diagnosed with cancer. Count it all joy! 
Your teenage driver totals your car. Count it all joy! 

Not exactly the most helpful phrase to hear when you're hurting, huh? So, is this what James is doing in James 1:2? Is this just the Bible equivalent of "Don't worry, be happy!"? No. What James is saying in James 1:2 is much more profound and revolutionary than a throw-away platitude about having a good attitude.

The word James uses that's translated as "count" is a word of command and rule. It can mean to make a judgment or issue a command. James says to take the trials we face and essentially issue a verdict about their nature and purpose. We are to examine these trials by the rule of faith and make an assessment, a judgment: These trials are really good things and in them we can, by faith, find reason to rejoice.

Why? Because they're fun? No. Because they're making us rely on God more, which is making us more stable and steadfast, and that is making us more complete, making us what we're supposed to be.

As believers, we are not supposed to be the helpless victims of our external circumstances. We are not supposed to be happy only when we get lucky and get nice things, and we're not supposed to be dejected and despairing when things don't go our way. The more we rely on ourselves, the more we live exactly like this, and we are unstable and unfruitful.

If we will live by faith, we will take command of our assessment of things. We will not just react emotionally but judge faithfully and always make the verdict that God is good and that He is in control of everything, for His glory and for our ultimate, eternal good. To live this way is not to be glib or trite, it is to be stable and steady in the face of trials because of a willingness to submit to God and assess our situation in the light of His power and goodness. 

It reminds me of taking my children to get vaccinations when they were little. My kids hated the needles and the pain. They squirmed and cried and looked at me like I was a monster for making them submit to such ill treatment. But I knew the pain was for their protection. I knew the trial was making their immunity more complete. I never asked my children to enjoy the needles. That would have been mean. But I did ask them to trust me, and I did reassure them that I loved them. Will we trust God and His love, just as I asked my children to trust me and my love?         

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

James, Day 1: James 1:1 - Who Are the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion?

Who Are the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion?

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

 - James 1:1, ESV

Did you ever read someone else's mail by mistake? We sometimes get our neighbor's mail accidentally delivered to us, and sometimes I don't realize it's not mine until after I open it. It's mostly junk mail, and I've gotten more careful, but it's kind of shocking to start reading something only to realize that it's not meant for you. 

James addresses his letter "to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion." This is very similar to the way Peter opens 1 Peter: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood." These greetings - "twelve tribes in the Dispersion" and "elect exiles of the Dispersion" - are very Jewish greetings. The twelve tribes refers to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Dispersion refers to the Jewish diaspora, the scattering of God's holy nation that began with the Assyrian conquest around 702 B.C. 

So, are the letters of James and 1 Peter written to Jewish people? Are we reading someone else's mail when we read them? No. These letters are written to believers in Jesus, to Christians living among the world. Peter goes on in his letter to remind his readers "you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers," something he would not have written to Jewish people, but to Christians who had formerly been pagan idolaters.

The fact that Peter and James can write to Christians using such Jewish greetings is another of the many indications given throughout the New Testament that we who believe in Jesus are heirs of the covenant of Abraham. We are children of the promise, members of God's chosen people. We are the holy nation of God. 

Why is this important? Because whenever we read any part of the Bible, if we believe in Jesus and belong to Him by faith, we are never reading someone else's mail. We are never eavesdropping on someone else's conversation. We have been grafted by grace into the one olive tree of the people of God, to use the language of Romans 11, and we are heirs of all of the promises of God. 

This is incredibly encouraging because it means that the whole story of the Bible is our story. It also means God's plans and purposes have not failed. It's not that the whole Israel Project failed, and so God switched to Plan B and started the Christian church. Rather, Jesus the Messiah was the plan from the beginning. Israel's story in the Old Testament led up to Jesus, and the church's story in the New Testament continues the story of Israel with every promise fulfilled in Christ.

I remember when I first understood this truth, it opened up previously closed passages in the Bible to me. In the Psalms, when I read of Zion and Jerusalem and Israel, I was now singing these songs as an insider and not just listening in on someone else's praises and promises from the outside. So, if you believe in Jesus, you are part of what Galatians 6:16 calls "the Israel of God." Rejoice! And read the Bible as one who belongs in the story from beginning to end. 

For More on This Topic: 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Hosea, Day 24: Hosea 14 - How Can We Return to the Lord?

How Can We Return to the Lord? 
Hosea, Day 24

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
    for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words
    and return to the Lord;
say to him,
    “Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good, [or: "receive us graciously']
    and we will pay with bulls
    the vows of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
    we will not ride on horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
    to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.”

I will heal their apostasy;
    I will love them freely,
    for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he shall blossom like the lily;
    he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
    his beauty shall be like the olive,
    and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
    It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
    from me comes your fruit.

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
    whoever is discerning, let him know them;
for the ways of the Lord are right,
    and the upright walk in them,
    but transgressors stumble in them.
- Hosea 14, ESV

In 1517, the Protestant Reformation began with these words:
  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
That's the first thesis in the famous 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. 

Luther was right. Jesus calls every believer to a life of repentance. To repent is to return to the Lord. Because we are always sinning and always straying into idolatry in our hearts and minds, we must always be returning to the Lord. But how can we do so faithfully and fruitfully, and not just as a fake reaction in a time of crisis? We all know of people who have called out for help to God in the midst of a crisis and have not really been sincerely returning to Him. How can we do better and return to the Lord rightly?  

Thankfully, Hosea 14 gives us clear instructions on how to return to the Lord, along with loving and compelling reasons to do so. God tells us how to pray:

1. Pray for forgiveness: "Take away all iniquity"
2. Plead for God's goodness: "Receive us graciously" (I'm following the KJV, NASB, and NIV here)
3. Resolve and pledge to obey the Lord: "We will pay with bulls the vows of our lips
4. Turn away from trusting in the world: "Assyria shall not save us"
5. Reject idolatry: "We will say no more, 'Our God,' to the work of our hands"
6. Trust in the goodness of God: "In you the orphan finds mercy"

This is a wonderful pattern of prayer, whenever we come under conviction for sin or realize we have been trusting in worldly things or idols of our hearts and minds. God promises to answer this kind of prayer: "I will heal their apostasy. I will love them freely." 

In all that we have seen of the Lord's goodness, persistent love, gracious kindness and all that we have seen of our own sin and stubborn idolatry through our studies in Hosea, this is a fitting way to conclude. So, let us return to the Lord and rest in His goodness and His redeeming power. 

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
    whoever is discerning, let him know them;
for the ways of the Lord are right,
    and the upright walk in them.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Hosea, Day 23: Hosea 13 - Why is God Our Only Savior?

Why is God Our Only Savior? 

But I am the Lord your God
    from the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me,
    and besides me there is no savior.
It was I who knew you in the wilderness,
    in the land of drought;
but when they had grazed, they became full,
    they were filled, and their heart was lifted up;
    therefore they forgot me.
So I am to them like a lion;
    like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs;
    I will tear open their breast,
and there I will devour them like a lion,
    as a wild beast would rip them open.

He destroys you, O Israel,
    for you are against me, against your helper.
Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities?
    Where are all your rulers—
those of whom you said,
    “Give me a king and princes”?
I gave you a king in my anger,
    and I took him away in my wrath.

The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up;
    his sin is kept in store.
The pangs of childbirth come for him,
    but he is an unwise son,
for at the right time he does not present himself
    at the opening of the womb.

I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
    I shall redeem them from Death.
O Death, where are your plagues?
    O Sheol, where is your sting?
- Hosea 13:4-14, ESV

What is a savior?

Yesterday, the San Diego Padres agreed to pay Manny Machado $300 million to play baseball. Why? Because the team is hoping the superstar player will be the savior of a franchise that has not made the playoffs since 2006. Meanwhile, Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon is being hailed as the savior of the brand-new Alliance of American Football, having invested $250 million in the new league.

In the ancient world, gods were seen as saviors because they were thought to provide the things people needed to live: Baal, the storm god, sent the rain. Ashera, the fertility goddess, provided abundant crops and children. Other gods were seen as saviors because they could stop plagues or locust swarms.

Yet God says to Israel, "I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me,     and besides me there is no savior."  Here's what we need to see: What was true for ancient Israel is just as true for us today.

Believers today are constantly tempted to assign a limited role to God in our lives and our salvation and to look to other so-called gods and saviors for the things we really want and think we need. We'll trust God for the forgiveness of our sins and for our future in heaven, but we will look to the world for money, food, pleasure, entertainment, etc.

The problem for ancient Israel and the problem for us is the same, and it's a two-fold problem:

1. We're confused about what our real needs are. So, we think we need all sorts of things that we don't really need. Modern advertising and our instant-gratification society have only made our natural impatient selfishness even worse.

2. We forget who supplies all of our real needs and who gives us everything good in life and in eternity. So, we think we get some things for ourselves, the world gives us some other things, and then God gives us some eternal, spiritual things - like forgiveness and heaven. But that's not what God says. He gives us everything good, in life and in eternity. We have nothing good but what He has provided.

Ultimately, our biggest needs are for our guilt to be removed and for death to be defeated. The biggest problem all human beings face is death, and death is a big problem because of sin. If we keep this reality front and center in our thinking, it helps bring perspective to our daily concerns and it helps us remember that only God can solve our biggest problems and thus meet our greatest needs. And He has done so gloriously in His Son, Jesus Christ, who is our forgiveness and who is the overthrowing conqueror of death.

The next time you worry or are anxious, remember how much God was willing to sacrifice to solve your greatest problems and meet your greatest needs. Then, reject the false promises of a fallen world and trust every care you have to Him alone!