A Brother’s Wisdom 4 – Doing the Good that You Know to Do

No sooner had James challenged us last week with his wisdom about our tongues then we saw Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Video Music awards with a demand that the real winner should be someone else after Serena Williams had verbally abused a line judge at the US Open the previous day. And members of congress are engaged at name-calling and hypocrisy at all kinds of levels. I asked you all to practice “keeping your tongue” this past week (even if it meant literally holding your tongue). So how did that go for you?

This week we move from the spark to the fire, from the rudder to the ship, from the bit to the horse; that is, we move from conversation about our words to a challenge to how we live! Now we must longer just talk the talk, we have to learn how to walk the walk … come on and let’s pay attention to a brother’s wisdom from James 4:

Friendship with the World
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4 Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:1-10).

James continues today from last week’s argument that we are to seek wisdom from above as we encounter the conflicts and divisions within our community and out in the world. Part of what James speaks to in verse 2 is our tendency to provoke violence because we want and covet what is not ours and when we are resisted we sometimes respond with violent words that can lead to violent actions. We remember that Jesus told us that if we are angry with a brother or sister we have already committed murder even if the act if not done – and Jesus tells us we will be held to account for that thought and more especially the words uttered in anger (see Matthew 5:21-26). And then James gets up close with his hearers – the root of these conflicts is that you desire what you do not own. This in and of itself is not the problem. James says the problem lies with asking wrongly for what we want and then using it only for our pleasure (see verse 3). So we are to repent and no longer seek to be a friend to the world … we are called to be friends of God.

Next we encounter a several thorny verses to understand. First, we need to know that in verse 6 James is quoting Proverbs 3:34 which states: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favor.” The second trickier question is what to make of verse 5. Is it (1) God yearns jealously for the spirit that he made to dwell in us or (2) that the spirit God caused to dwell in us is intensely jealous? One way to read the text suggests that God is jealous of his people and another way of reading the same text suggests that human beings have a tendency to be envious. Part of me wants to answer “duh” and say God can have it both ways. Why? Because I am pretty sure about God’s jealous love of us and fully confident of my desire (and yours, if the truth be told) to be envious!

Either way, verse 6 calls us earnestly seek the grace God has to offer. To do that we need to be humble. James is ever-ready to offer us some help about what that humility looks like. The following are James ten challenges to his fellow Christians (4:7-11a). As you hear this list again, I just ask in a confessional way, “how are you doing?”

1. Submit yourselves therefore to God.
2. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
3. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
4. Cleanse your hands, you sinners,
5. Purify your hearts, you double-minded.
6. Lament and mourn and weep.
7. Let your (foolish) laughter be turned into mourning.
8. Let your (empty) joy be turned into dejection.
9. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
10. Do not speak evil against your brother or sister.

Let’s continue to hear James challenging word to his congregation:

Warning against Judging Another
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, 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. 12 There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor (James 4:11-12)?

James moves immediately from listing his challenges to stopping his hearers in their tracks. As I read over that list I tend to think about how others have acted towards me even though I asked you and me to answer in confession “how are you doing” with these challenges. You probably did the same thing and James “stop it!” You are not to judge another because there is one (and only one) lawgiver and judge who is able to save or destroy us! James knew his disperses congregation and he knows us. “Who are you to judge you neighbor?” he inquires. Our answer reveals us to busybodies trying to heap judgment on others while scrambling to avoid God at all costs. It is a game that we cannot win!

Boasting about Tomorrow
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin (James 4:12-17).

James closes the chapter with a pointed comment to the merchants of his day. Even within the church we can begin to think too confidently about how much we are in charge of our lives. First I am going to do this, then I am going to do that, and finally I will have the following in place. Somewhere along the way we join those merchants in forgetting to add “if the Lord wishes” to our pronouncements! When we fail to do that our arrogance will eventually catch up with us. James casually offers one last challenge “if you know what to do and do not do it, you commit sin.” That comment slips in like a thief in the night and drops us to our knees. We want sin to be about what we do wrong, not about not doing right things. James will not let us go! (And that’s why we jump at the chance to make James a “works” letter that we can ignore. This “gotcha” is more than we can handle.)

So let’s consider three possible homework assignments this week:
1. In verse 3 James tells us that “you ask and do not receive, because you ask [God] wrongly.” What is one desire of your heart that you might ask God for? How have you been pursuing this desire on your own? Invite God to lead you in pursuing this desire of the heart in manner worthy of God.
2. The closing “gotcha” verse today says “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” Pray in these moments for the knowledge and wisdom to do the right thing that God is placing on your heart.
3. Memorize verse 10 which states: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Where do you need to learn to be humble in your life? Why is it difficult to let God take over this area of your life? Pray for the courage to “let go and let God” lead you into a new path of humility.