Today we close out this brief series on James. We haven’t spent just a ton of time in this book, but rather done an overview of the more prominent topics James has to offer. By way of review let’s run through this together quickly.
James is daily wisdom for how to live in the world today. If Paul represents the theory of how a believer is supposed to behave, then James is the practicum. It’s how to apply the theory to everyday situations. We’ve called this series “Applied Theology” because that what it is, applying theology to our lives, taking what we know and putting it into practice.
Some of the major themes in this book revolve around the testing of your faith. James tells us to consider it joy when we endure trials because the trials help to complete us and bring about wholeness. The trials are what change us, scrape off the rust and corrosion and make us clean, useful instruments. From there James reminds us that real faith is putting words into action. Belief doesn’t prove anything. Show me how you live and I’ll know what you believe. Faith without works is dead, it really isn’t faith at all; but show me your faith by how you live.
James also reminds us not to show partiality because everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Indeed, the only standard God uses to judge is the condition of our hearts and since we are all sinners, we all have corrupted hearts. No sin is greater or less than another sin, so we’re all in the same boat anyway. Don’t sin by valuing people above or below others. God is the only judge, he is the only one who gets to decide another’s worth.
As we look at these final two chapters I want to give us an overview of what’s really going on in the world. To watch the news you would think the condition of the world is dependent upon some political party (generally the party not represented on that particular show or station). Listening to these pundits, it seems that until their opponents took office, the world was generally a pretty good place with a strong economy and very little debt. What’s even more amazing is that anyone really buys this stuff. Now, before you flay me with a whip, let me explain what I mean.
It seems obvious to me that the condition of the nation, of the world, has little to do with either political party (although the Tea Party always makes me think of a 4 year old girl with a little pink plastic tea set). If you want to understand the condition of the world you must go way back to Genesis 2 and 3.
We had the privilege of hearing Donald Miller on Monday night at SFA in Nacogdoches. He was with Derek Webb and the Robbie Seay Band on a tour called “Let Love Tell the Story.” During his portion of the night he talked some about the human condition and perhaps why things are the way they are. Using some material from his book Searching for God Knows What he referenced Genesis 2. When you read the creation story a curious thing happens when you get the discussion about man. Moses is writing this poetry about the beginning of mankind and he makes special note of the fact that when man and woman were created they were “naked and not ashamed.” This is rather shocking when you read it for the first time. For most of us it really doesn’t bother us anymore because we’ve heard it a thousand times already, but imagine yourself reading that passage for the first time. Kind of weird.
Why put that statement in at all? What’s the big deal about them being naked and not ashamed? Maybe they just didn’t know any better. That’s what we always assume. Their knowledge simply wasn’t complete. They were just ignorant. Then when they sinned, they gained knowledge and understood that they should be ashamed. That sounds good, right? If we’re not careful when reading scripture we’ll make ridiculous intellectual leaps in order to explain things we might have trouble with. Miller makes the point that perhaps Moses wouldn’t have mentioned this if it weren’t important to understanding the perfection of the Garden. Maybe it didn’t have anything to do their lack of knowledge. Maybe it had everything to do with their source of affirmation. We forget that the one thing that made the Garden perfect was the presence of God. God was in the Garden and walked with them.
If God is supremely good and he wants what’s best for us, then the thing he must give us is himself. Think about that for a moment. If God truly is good (Jesus says there is no one good but God) and he truly does have our best interest at heart, then what he must do is give us himself. Look back at the Garden. The thing that made everything perfect wasn’t the wonderful climate. It wasn’t the beautiful foliage or the abundance of food and water. It was the fact that God was there. God was in the presence of the Garden and he was intimately involved in his creation. If the thing that gave you the most joy and the most purpose was in your presence how do you think you would feel? Do you think you would feel glad? Possibly you might feel whole and complete? Do you think you would lack for anything? Do you think you would feel misunderstood or outcast? Perhaps in the presence of that which makes us complete, we lose all sense of self. If the Creator, the one who made us and gave us purpose was in our midst, do you think you would worry how you looked or what kind of car you drove?
Miller postulates that perhaps this is why Moses mentioned the nakedness of Adam and Eve. They were in the very presence of the one who gave them definition, the one who gave them purpose. They were the least self-aware people in the history of the world. They were unashamed because they had no sense that anything was off. They were in a perfect loving relationship with the one who made them feel whole and perfect. There was no need. There was no shame.
When they sinned, however, it was a different story. Holy God cannot be in the presence of sinful man. The one who made the Garden paradise had to leave the Garden because it had been corrupted by disobedience. When perfection vacates a place, you notice. When the one who had given Adam and Eve purpose left their presence, they at once were ashamed. The relationship had been broken. The one who had given them purpose and definition was no longer connected to them and they felt it. They were ashamed. They became self-aware and recognized that they weren’t complete.
Now we have this horrible existence because we seek for definition outside of ourselves and can’t find it. We look for purpose and meaning but fall short because the one who gave us purpose is no longer intimately connected to us. It’s why we dress the way we do and fix ourselves up the way we do. It’s why we buy the houses we buy and drive the cars we drive. We’re looking for that definition, that meaning in life. We know we’re missing something; we just can’t place our finger on it. We’re ashamed because we’re no longer complete. If you don’t believe me think about little children. In their innocence they run around naked most of the time. They don’t care about anything because they don’t know that they’re supposed to care. And we as adults don’t care because they’re innocent. It doesn’t matter. Even as they get older and want to dress themselves in rain boots, a bathing suit, and a wool coat, it doesn’t matter because their definition, their worth comes from the fact that their parents love them no matter what. Somewhere along the way, though, they cease to be innocent and that’s when it falls apart for them. Then they enter this weird angst-filled existence where the whole world is out to get them and no one really understands.
So the world is a crappy place. We get that. But didn’t Jesus come to do something about that? Aren’t Christians supposed to be different? When we realize that we’re not innocent and we need to be reconciled to our Father, we get a glimpse of what Jesus came to do. The wholeness that we lost we can have back, albeit in a less than perfect environment. Jesus came to reconcile us. This is the great redemptive process that God began after the Fall to draw all men back to himself.
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s cool and all, but how does it relate to James?” I’m glad you asked. We’re stuck in this existence where we’re created to be defined by something outside of ourselves. We’re created with this purpose of union and fellowship with God. Since we can’t find that apart from Jesus, we’re left wandering around in the dark groping for something that will tell us who we are. We long for someone to say “you are this.” If it sounds good to us, we’ll latch onto it and become that. For some people it’s music. For others it is an artistic pursuit or something physically demanding. Whatever it is, we’ll grasp it and say to the world “this is who I am. This is what defines me.” All the while Jesus is saying to us “I define you. I give you purpose. Love me and follow me.”
This is why James is so important. He’s giving us a glimpse into life fully devoted to Christ. This is how life should be. We’re taking all of these truths about God and the world, sin and redemption, and putting them to practical use. Your faith wouldn’t need to grow if it was perfect to begin with. You wouldn’t have to face trials if you didn’t need to change. James is pleading with us to not waste our lives on meaningless pursuits in a futile effort to find satisfaction elsewhere, but instead embrace who we are in Christ and depend on him to give us definition and purpose.
Right away in chapter 4 we are warned against worldliness. James reminds us that our nature is at war with itself. We desire and do not have, so we kill to get. We covet and can’t get so we fight with one another. All of these are things we do in order to be noticed and liked. It’s an indictment on the human condition that if someone has something we want, we’ll just take it. We’ll do whatever we can to get it. And it goes beyond the physical. If someone is getting the attention we desire, we’ll do whatever we can to get it. I’ve seen it countless times with students, but adults do the same thing. I want to be noticed by that particular group of people that I think defines me, so I’ll do whatever I can to be noticed. I crave the affirmation and the definition, so I’ll do whatever it takes.
However, when he who makes us complete is allowed to define us, all pretense fades away. It is no longer necessary. We can remove the outward façade because the inner self is finally made whole. So all the garbage we get caught up in really doesn’t matter. Jesus matters. What he says about us matters. You are a child of the King. Be his child. Put away all pretenses.
James warns us against worldliness because God “yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” We were created by God for God. When we seek definition outside of God, not only do we experience loss and heartache, we experience his displeasure because he’s the one who can make us whole. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” Submit yourselves to God. He is the one you’re searching for. He is the one who can make everything good and right. Don’t pursue your own passions for your own purposes and gain. It doesn’t amount to anything anyway. Instead, humbly submit to God. James says to resist the devil and he will flee, but if we draw near to God he will draw near to us.
We must understand the arrogance we face every day. By not submitting to God, by pursuing our own course in life, we are saying to God that we’ve found a better way, a way that makes us more complete than he does. Since there is no such way, we continue to fall short. We continue to seek that which makes us whole. We continue in our pride. That’s why James says God opposes the proud. That’s why it seems that God favors the poor and opposes the rich.
James then goes into this discussion about tomorrow. We continue in our pride to make plans for the future. As children it’s fun and innocent. “When I grow up I’m going to be a __________________.” As adults, it’s not so innocent. Indeed, it becomes sinister. I’m going to do this and make this much money and then buy this so I can do that and then retire to an island somewhere and never have to work again. It’s just another way for us to find our purpose outside of Christ. You have to get this or what I’m talking about today isn’t going to make any sense. It really does go along with everything we’ve been talking about for the past four weeks. What we ought to say is “if the Lord wills, I will go here and do this or that.” Instead, in our arrogance we sin. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Continuing the thought process, James moves forward into a discussion on wealth, warning the rich to not think too highly of themselves. It’s important to note here that wealth in itself is not a problem at all. Before you get too comfortable, however, we might also point out that God really does seem to favor the poor. The fact is there are people in the world who have the ability to make lots of money. They have no problem accruing wealth. They have what seems to be a God-given ability to make something out of nothing. The important thing to remember is that everything we’ve been given is a tool for the advancement of the Kingdom. If God has given you a creative mind, it’s so you can use your creativity for the Gospel. If God has given you the ability to use words, perhaps in public speaking or in writing, that’s where you should put your talents. And if God has given you the ability to make money, be sure to use it for the Kingdom. Everything we’ve been given is a tool. We must view it as such. What good is a hammer if it hangs on a hook? We can have all the best tools in the world, keep them sharpened and polished, free of rust and ready to go, but if we don’t put them to work, if we don’t use them for their intended purpose, they’re no good. I’d rather find a man who has rusty tools but puts them to use than to have a person who has the best, but does nothing with it.
James warns us to be cautious with wealth, that we don’t use wealth for our own advancement, but for the alleviation of suffering and the advancement of the Kingdom. All of us should be faithful stewards of what we have, no matter how much or how little. What we have has been given to us by God for his purposes, not our own glory.
As James wraps up his letter he returns full circle to the discussion in chapter 1. Consider it joy when you face trials. Have patience in suffering. By way of illustration he tells a story of a farmer who is dependent on the rain for his crops to grow. He can’t make the rain come and he can’t stop up the clouds when there’s too much. He can only be patient and believe that God will bring him through the situation. We also should be patient in our suffering. Paul says our present suffering is nothing compared to the glory we shall enjoy in the future. James exhorts us to remember the prophets and remember Job. They went through extremely difficult times, probably worse than we’ll ever experience, and they remained faithful. They didn’t let the circumstance dictate their response. Trials bring perfection, completeness. Consider it joy to face trials. The disciples rejoiced when they were beaten because they were considered worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ. Consider it joy to suffer. Be patient and endure.
Finally, understand that prayer is a powerful thing. In his final bit of practical wisdom James reminds us to pray always. Whether in hard times or good, pray always. If you are sick or hurting, tell people that they might pray for you. Come to us and let us pray over you as a staff. Confess your struggles to one another that you might be healed, James says. There are people who have been there before you. There will be those who face the same trials after you. Don’t be afraid to share yourself with others. Prayer is powerful and the same God who was accessible to Elijah is accessible to us. Don’t think that the miraculous can’t happen just because we live in 2010. Don’t think that God doesn’t do amazing things anymore. Prayer is powerful. Not only does it bring about healing, but it opens our eyes to the workings of our Father and exposes us to his love and his light.
As we bring this all back to a conclusion I wonder what it is that you’ve been seeking for definition. There are so many things fighting for our attention these days, so many things that sap our energy. It’s easier to be busy today than it ever has been before. We try to fill our lives with stuff so we never slow down and discover how broken we really are, how much we are in need of something to complete us, to make us whole. In the midst of all this is our Creator, the one who loves us supremely, who can define us and give us purpose. This is the one James is pleading for us to know and follow.
Live your life like this. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is how you find your place in this world. This is how you find meaning. This is what real faith looks like, so don’t marvel when you face difficult times, because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Trials help make you complete, help shape your faith.
Your nature wars with itself because it wants what it can’t have, because it longs for what doesn’t fulfill, because it needs to be defined. So grasp what is infinitely good and what makes you complete. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Find your purpose, your definition in Christ, not in other things. Live your life so that others might see who Jesus is. If you want your life to have purpose and meaning, live this way. Do these things. Follow Jesus.