In the wake of the terrorist attack in his city, Paris Mayor Hidalgo said, “Parisian society is wounded but it can overcome hardships. I ask everyone to abstain from divisive speech and anger.” I not only appreciate the mayor’s sense of optimism, but also I appreciate his reminder about the power of words. James reminds us that the tongue is a fire (James 3:6). Our own experience validates that claim. May God help us control our tongues!
I spent some time reading James and the following passage has me considering the tone of my social media posts. Before I post, I am evaluating what I am about to post in light of these words: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:9-10).
James 3:13-18 NLT
“If you are wise and understand God’s ways, live a life of steady goodness so that only good deeds will pour forth. And if you don’t brag about the good you do, then you will be truly wise! But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your hearts, don’t brag about being wise. That is the worst kind of lie. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and motivated by the Devil. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no partiality and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of goodness.”
The New Testament letter of James provides instruction on becoming spiritually mature (1:2-4 provides a thesis for the letter). In this section James contrasts the “wisdom” of a worldly person versus the wisdom of a spiritual person.
The “wisdom” of the world involves boasting and twisting the truth to make yourself appear to be something that you are not. Deep down in the heart actions are motivated by selfish ambition, jealousy and envy: How will this make me look? What will people think about me? How can I make people think I am better than her? How can I attract more attention than him? Why can’t I have what they have?
The wisdom that comes from God is first of all, pure. That means it is genuine, the real deal. It means the motivation deep down in the heart is unmixed, it is totally about God. Pure means completely sincere. It is not one eye on God and one straining to see how people react. God’s wisdom is not two-faced, it’s pure. And then there is the emphasis of God’s wisdom being gentle, considerate, and peace-loving.
The contrast is obvious. How do you determine if you are maturing in Christ or not? One way is to look at your heart and your motivations. What “wisdom” is controlling your life? Does you life look more like the worldly wise or spiritual wise?
It is at this point that, I am convinced, we make a big mistake. We decide we want to be spiritually wise and so we begin making a checklist of all that James has mentioned in this passage, both positive and negative: envy, selfish ambition, jealousy, purity, consideration, gentleness, etc. And then we try to force ourselves to live in a way where we can check the appropriate boxes.
That’s the mistake. James is not suggesting that we force these qualities on ourselves from the outside in. In fact, if you look closely at verse 13 you will see that James links theology and spiritual wisdom: “If you are wise and understand God’s ways. . . .” Instead of making checklists and forcing behavior, James suggests that we come to know God and understand his ways. That’s theology. And when we understand God’s ways, a holy life will emerge.
Once again I am reminded that theology must come before ethics. And once again I am driven to my knees in worship in order to know this God deeper and deeper. When I love God with all my heart, my lifestyle will follow.
My friend, Chris Goldman, recently published his first book, and it is a good one. Vibrant Faith is a study of James that makes a great resource for someone leading a Bible class or small group study. Chris is the minister of the Cordova Church of Christ in Rancho Cordova, California near Sacremento.
From the back cover: “James demands that we back up our faith with action. This is not so we can be saved; it is because we have been saved. It is because we’ve been “bought with a price” and our bodies are not our own. It is because we have decided to “deny oursel[ves], take up our cross[es] and follow Jesus.” In other words, James writes to a people who are already saved; he just wants to challenge believers to respond as if they really believe.”
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no partiality and is always sincere” (James 3:17).
A couple of years ago Lourene and I had the opportunity to visit a mega church in Southern California. When the assembly was over we spent some time looking around the campus before heading to one of our favorite restaurants, The Claim Jumper. As we supposed, many in the huge crowd at the mega church had the same meal plan.
By the time we arrived at The Claim Jumper (if you are ever near a Claim Jumper location, check it out), the hostess told us the wait would be over an hour. That was no problem, we knew it would be worth the wait. People were standing everywhere while waiting to be seated at a table. Many of them, like us, had just been in a worship gathering that was centered on being like Jesus.
For a while Lourene and I were in our own world of conversation, processing what we had experienced at the mega church. It was an interesting assembly, so very different from what we were accustomed. The assembly featured two songs, one brief prayer, and a 57 minute sermon (yes, I admit, I timed it). They even experienced a technical glitch with their state of the art projection system. After we shared our initial thoughts on the assembly, we then turned to discussing what those initial thoughts revealed about our hearts. The conversation was deep, the minutes were ticking.
When we finally paused the conversation long enough for me to glance at my watch, we realized we had been waiting for one hour and 10 minutes. It seemed there were still a number of parties who arrived before us who were yet to be seated. We had a while longer to wait, but we didn’t care. It was then that I became aware of a family next to us. They, too, had been at the mega church and had arrived just before us. They, too, had a while longer to wait. They cared.
To say they had grown impatient with the wait would be an understatement. They were beyond impatient, they were becoming angry. Members of the party took turns going to the hostess stand to ask, “How much longer?” They rolled their eyes at the young teenager who assured them it wouldn’t be much longer. They sighed. They grumbled. They pressured the hostess. And then a woman in the party said something I remember to this day: “I’m about to lose my church mood!”
When I heard those words, I confess, I laughed out loud. My church mood. What’s a church mood? Is this what church is about – a mood? And what good is a church mood if it can vanish while waiting in line at a restaurant where you know you are going to have a delicious meal prepared for you and served to you? Can we ever expect our Christianity to survive a season of persecution if we can’t even endure a wait at Claim Jumper?
Well it wasn’t long until Lourene and I were seated and the conversation turned to the woman and her church mood. But I have to tell you, we didn’t spend our time bashing her. Lourene and I spent most of our time discussing how I had recognized myself in that woman. I think that’s why I laughed out loud. I wasn’t laughing at her as much as I was laughing at me. How can I sometimes be so impatient? Why do I sometimes fail to practice what I have preached?
The discussion turned to real life changes that I (and to a lesser extent, Lourene, too) need to make regarding patience. As we enjoyed a delightful meal (have I told you how good Claim Jumper is?) we remembered the passage in James 3 about heavenly wisdom. One line seemed especially meaningful – “willing to yield to others.”
How do we become more patient? Training. Exercise. You have to practice doing things to develop patience. Perhaps the best way to begin the training is to choose situations in which you are going to yield to others. Exercise one may be yielding to other drivers by allowing cars to merge in front of you when in a parking lot or on the road. Exercise two could be yielding to shoppers when they are racing to beat you to the check out line. Perhaps we could even allow someone who looks hurried to cut in front of us. Exercise three might be yielding to others in conversation, allowing them plenty of time to say what they want to say before offering a response. Exercise four probably needs to be some act of yielding in a restaurant line, whether letting someone go ahead of you or consciously maintaining your composure when the seating time (or the food) is delayed.
We need the exercise, after all, we don’t want to lose our church mood, do we?