James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Is it safe to assume, since we’re all gathered in church today, that we’d like a closer walk with God? A deeper faith? Right?
A husband and wife who had been married for 20 years were riding down the road. As they rode along, a young couple passed them. The young woman was snuggled up against the young man. His arm was around her shoulder. And her head was on his shoulder.
The wife turned to her husband and said, "We used to be like that." And then with an accusing tone she continued, "Why don't we snuggle up to each other in the car like that?" The husband smiled, gripped the wheel and said, "I never moved."
Of course, when we’re feeling distanced from God - it’s because we’ve moved - not God. God has been here all along. You and I are the ones who move... and it stands to reason that if we want a closer walk with God, we need to move back. Or as James said, "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you." (4:8)
Of course, that's not all James tells us. It’s one thing to say "Draw near to God" - it’s another to actually do it. So, James takes the time to warn us about some of the things in life that cause us to pull away from God, and feel distanced from God, in the first place.
And he starts by asking a question; innocent enough question, I suppose: "Who is wise and understanding among you?" (3:13)
Now, we’re all intelligent people. Most of us can read a cereal box and follow the instructions on a can of condensed soup! Many of us have college educations. And those of you who don't make more money! We’re a fairly intelligent group of Presbyterians! I’ve sat in on Bible Studies and Sunday School classes (and even taught a fair number) and I’ve heard a lot of profound insights from members of this congregation.
But, sometimes wisdom and intelligence (as good, and beneficial, and necessary as they are) can become a stumbling block in our life of faith. Paul warned that knowledge puffs up a person (1 Corinthians 8:1). Sometimes people who consider themselves “smart” look down on others. This is even true in the church. There are some Christians who think they are better or holier that others because they know the Bible better - or they’ve experienced some epiphany - or have a better understanding of church tradition and history. But when that happens... our pride starts showing... and when we allow ourselves to feel “better than” - we find ourselves wandering from God.
This same kind of worldly wisdom (or pride) can lead to envy and coveting (which is one of the big ‘Thou Shalt Nots’, right?). Coveting causes us to believe that “more is better.” If you have more than me, then you must be better than me! It's all about keeping up with the Joneses. It's about having the newest car, the fastest computer, the biggest house or the greenest lawn. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, in-and-of-themselves. But when desire grows from envy that leads to pride... it will never draw us closer to God.
James then adds... that this kind of worldly wisdom is what leads to conflicts. People desire what they don't have - and sometimes even go so far as to kill to get those things. We’ve all heard it on the evening news: An inner-city student kills another for a leather jacket or a pair of tennis shoes. A suburban mom plots the murder of one of her daughter's friends so her daughter can become captain of the cheerleading squad. One country invades another to get at the natural resources in that territory.
There’s a very real connection between worldly wisdom and self-centeredness, and envy. And it's not surprising when you look at the commercial culture of our nation. Everyone is living for the "good life." That is "good" being defined materialistically. Whether they admit it or not, and most won't, many today live by the motto "The one who dies with the most toys wins." But what good will all those toys be, in the end. You can't take any of it with you. The way of earthly wisdom leads to death.
Even our faith can be tainted by this world, and the “wisdom” of this world. James says that we ask, and then do not receive because we ask with the wrong intentions. Most people pray for the things they want without regard for using those things to serve God. They pray for money and power and things, only so that they can indulge themselves; so they can keep up with their neighbor. They appear to be righteous because they pray... but even their prayers are based on the ways of worldly wisdom that leads to death.
But isn’t it wise to put yourself first? To protect yourself and look out for number one? From the world’s perspective, yes. From God’s, not so much. Didn’t jesus say that in order to find life, you must lose your life? Didn’t Jesus say, in the Kingdom, “the last shall be first, the first last?” Of course, it seems reasonable that good hard working people should have the best things. It makes sense that God would want to give his children only the best that his world has to offer.
But, in the end, doesn’t that make our Faith just another means of getting what we want? When we pray for things... for the things of this world... to build bigger and bigger barns, to hold more and more stuff... INSTEAD of praying as Jesus taught, “give us this day our daily bread” (what we need)... our prayers and our faith run the risk of becoming self-centered, self-focused, self-serving. When, of course, our calling is to be Christ-centered, Christ-serving, Christ-focused. Like Jesus prayed, “If it be YOUR will... not my will... by Thine be done.”
So how do we avoid this wrong way that leads to death? First we choose the way of humility instead of the way of pride. James says, “Show your wisdom by works of gentleness born of wisdom.” James is echoing his familiar theme or demonstrating our faith by our actions. But there it’s more than that. If we actively humble ourselves before God... it affects the way we think, as-well-as the way we act.
He also says "Submit yourselves to God." And that’s where the “rubber meets the road” - isn’t it? That is the point. Who’s calling the shots? Are we seeking what we want or are we surrendering ourselves to God and seeking His will?
There’s a bumper sticker I still see from time-to-time that reads, "God is my co-pilot." While I appreciate the sentiment in that, it actually demonstrates our willful, prideful, worldly condition. The co-pilot is there to help the pilot, right? But the pilot is in charge. The Pilot outranks the co-pilot and gives the copilot orders. Maybe it would be better to say, “I am the co-pilot and God is my pilot.” He is the one calling the shots, and I’m here to help, to submit.
Who is the pilot in your life? Are you trying to call all the shots? Are you led by the worldly wisdom of self satisfaction and gratification? Are you experiencing envy and jealousy? Do you find yourself striving for and coveting things you don't have?
Or are you led by wisdom from above? Is your wisdom demonstrated by a life of humility? Does your life show the kind of purity, gentleness, mercy and good fruits that James says come from above? If it does then you are on the right road.
If not, then heed James' warning. Submit to God. Resist the devil. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. That’s a promise from God’s Word.