Soli Deo Gloria

I have never been completely comfortable in my own skin as a pastor, a clergyman, a man of the cloth … yuk! I hate it when people are weirded out by my presence in a group out in the community, perhaps when someone says something a bit off-color. Suddenly realizing the preacher dude heard that, next follows the obligatory apology, “Oh, excuse me reverend.”  Reverend? I hate that word also and only use it on official signatures like a wedding certificate.

In the Roman church before the Reformation, there was a significant divide between the sacred and the secular, replete with monastic divisions and the grand honor of the priesthood, etc.  On the other hand, the Reformers taught that everything was sacred, that the glory of God was the biggest idea of big ideas. As the most-quoted phrase of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

This totally squares with Scripture, as is evident from this collection of passages …

Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God; Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen. (1 Cor. 10:31; 1 Peter 4:11; Rev. 1:6; 2 Peter 3:1; Eph. 3:21; Rev. 7:12; Romans 11:36)

So we are all full-time servants of God, no matter what is our occupation. I often look out at you folks “in the pews” and envy your lives in the secular world. There you get to be daily around so many people whom you can witness to and live Christ in front of … maybe being used to bring them to a saving knowledge of the truth and into fellowship in the family of faith. I have over the years had to find ways of doing that part-time here and there, doing so through community clubs, coaching, etc.

It all really is all about God … everything. You are in full-time service out there just as much as I am in here, and it could be argued that you are more critical on the frontlines. Embrace that, to the glory of God.

This ends the fifth of five writings on the five summary statements of the Reformation – having celebrated the 500th anniversary of this incredible movement that changed the world. I was pleased and blessed to see how much it was mentioned both in the Christian world and even in secular media.

This also ends our writings on the 2017 For Our City campaign and study of the book of James. Next, we will begin in December a long series on the life of Christ that extends through two Sundays after Easter. The associated writings with this next series called “Footsteps” will have a total of 97 parts through the Gospel of Luke, beginning on Thursday, November 30th.  See you then!

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Reclaiming the Wanderer (James 5:19-20)

One of the most grievous things in the life of a pastor is to see people, even those who have served well at one time, walk away from the values of truth and the things of God. Having done this now for about 40 years, it would not take long for me to make quite a list of sad departures. I often think back upon sweet times together and warm conversations about spiritual truth in the midst of mutual service, and then wonder how that same person could have drifted and dropped so far.

James, the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, writes to his scattered brethren …

James 5:19 – My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

If you know anything about astronomy, you know that the word “planets” means “wanderers” – named such by the ancients as they saw stars that did not stay in place but rather wandered across the sky. That is the exact same Greek word used here, speaking of someone who has gotten off the path and is lost.

When people drop away from a public profession of faith, does this reveal that they never actually knew the Lord with a genuine relationship; or are they Christian family folks who have drifted from the truth due to sin, confusion, poor responses to difficult circumstances, etc.?  Commentators differ as to which of these categories James has in mind of the wandering sinner.

I am not sure we can often know which of these categories a wandering person fits within. In several situations that come quickly to mind of some of our own church-raised youth who have not now gone on to follow Christ, I feel like I saw some very genuine works of Christ in and through them. I have hopes and prayers that they will one day return to the high value of faith that they are now sublimating for some earthly reason. Yet again, people are able to play a role with all of the attendant phraseology that is but a mere appearance of genuine eternal life. We can’t know for sure.

But in any event, the responsibility is the same – to call them back from the error of their way. The need is to love them so much that you communicate that you can’t just let them go on a path toward death and destruction … that they need to return with you to the right path.

This can be difficult to do. It does not always end well. I have both family and former friends who won’t relate with me anymore because I’ve spoken to them about their state of wandering.

But there are those who are (perhaps not even consciously) just waiting and hoping for someone who will care for them enough to come rescue them from a situation where they see no escape.

In either event, the effort is worth it. James exhorts the believers to make this a regular pattern of life in the body. It is the correct thing to do. On one hand, you might have a person angry because you came after them, and on the other hand a person who is irritated because you didn’t. But the rescue responsibility remains as an action of compassion and ultimate caring. The rewards could be truly eternal.

Effective Prayer (James 5:12-18)

The original title for today’s devotional was going to be “Just Don’t Swear!”  Well, working with the book of James is sometimes just about enough to make a New Testament linguist swear. I won’t go so far as Martin Luther did in expressing doubts and concerns as to the canonical authenticity of this writing (much of that because of the complicated works/faith discussion), but I understand the feeling at least a bit.

My original schedule called for a full day given to verse 12 alone …

James 5:12 – Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

Most outlines of James – both in Bible version headings and in commentaries – isolate this lone verse as a single thought and topic onto itself … another bullet point of thoughts in a final list of exhortations by James. But really? Not swearing (in the sense of oath-taking, not in the sense of cursing) is an item that deserves the introduction, Above all?

Yes, James’ older brother Jesus spoke on this also in Matthew 5:34-37 – But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

My sense of this is that people of this time had a particular habit of bolstering their words by giving them the extra surge of authority, attaching them to divine providence … whether this was true or not. How can you argue with that? It is sort of like the way people in our day shut down much debate on the legitimacy of a decision by saying “I just feel led by God to ____.”  How do you argue with that? You are not likely to say in response, “No, God didn’t lead you to do that!”

Here’s my take on this. We should not isolate this verse from what follows with separate headings, but put them together. James goes on to talk about the need for prayerful dependence and yieldedness toward God, and others …

James 5:13 – Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Putting all of this together, I think James is saying, “Don’t be brash and bombastic and self-dependent, rather demonstrate your neediness in all times and situations, especially in difficult times of trouble or sickness. Pray much, and by doing so you will see God’s power and answers.”

A specific time for prayer is in the situation of illness. The sick person has the resource of requesting the spiritual leaders of the church to come to pray for him or her and to be anointed with oil. So this is a get-out-of-the-hospital-free card, right?  Not exactly.

The word used here for “anoint” is not the word used for sacramental anointing. There is another word specifically for that. This verb means to “smear” or “daub” … the idea of oil being used as a medicinal treatment. So the sick person has the resource of prayer and medical treatment. And, the person is urged to confess their sins. If the sickness is sin-related, the prayer of confession and the treatment will result in recovery. But since the word “if” is used, we understand that not all sickness is sin-related, and therefore not all sickness can be guaranteed a healing. If that were true, we’d never die from sickness; we would never get the full healing of life eternal.

Prayer is powerful. The illustration of Elijah’s great prayer is recalled. And we underestimate the power of prayer … always, always. We say we believe it is the most effective thing we can do; but when the time is set aside to gather to bring petitions to God, a small minority actually show up to do it. Hey, why be dependent when there is so much else you can do in your own power? Again, I think being warned against that attitude is the warning that James is giving to the people of his time, and by the Spirit’s inspiration and preservation – to us today. Don’t swear, pray.

Patient Patience, Just Chill! (James 5:7-11)

We are currently the society with the least need to be patient about many things. Imagine going back to life without cell phones and computers. In that scenario, if you are home late in the evening and desperately need a piece of information, but you don’t have the books or reference material in the house to get the answer, there was a time when you would need to get to the library or wait until the morning. Now we can just get the answer in a matter of seconds at any time of the day and in most any place.

Though we may have certain concerns about the execution of full justice in America, we do live in a time and place where the gravest of injustices are not allowed to stand and perpetuate. Certainly not like the scattered Jewish believers to whom James wrote in the first century. Most of them were poor, being taken advantage by the rich. They were abused because of their faith, by both their own Jewish brethren who saw them as traitors and by the Romans in the secular Greek culture. They had to endure much, and thus James encourages them to be patient …

James 5:7 – Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

James 5:10 – Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

He gives three illustrations of patience…

  1. The farmer – Here is a guy who plants his seed and waits a long time for it to bring about a crop to sell. Much can go wrong all along the way. The early season and late season rains (the situation in Palestine) may not come, or may be too copious. Much can go awry before the crop is harvested, but he remains patient and hopeful.
  2. The prophets – So many of the well-known prophets of the Old Testament suffered terribly while simply serving as a mouthpiece for God. It was very unjust. For example, Jeremiah was put in stocks, thrown into prison and lowered into a dungeon, but demonstrated persistent faithfulness. These prophets were a model to follow. The Greek work for “example” is actually the first word in the sentence in this instance (word order in Greek is not as strict as in English, and a way of emphasizing something was to make that word first in a phrase). The term pictures a representative figure of something or someone, particularly to be imitated – a “poster child,” we might say. This same Greek word is used in John 13:15 in the account of Jesus having washed the disciples’ feet, saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
  3. Job – Though we have the common phrase “the patience of Job,” he was not actually a great example of that. But he was a wonderful example of endurance, and he gained back twice of all he lost.

So, fine, there are some exemplary models, but still, why should we wait patiently for justice in unfair circumstances? The answer in the text would point to the soon coming of the perfect Judge. He will set all matters straight. And the picture presented by James is that He is standing at the door!  Imagine the judge about to come out of his chambers, with his hand on the doorknob – that is what we should remember when treated wrongly. That is who we should primarily look to.

We may have a chance to live out these truths more and more. Christians are becoming increasingly the target of hate groups, both around the world and even in our own country. Reviled by the popular culture, devout Christians are even mocked at the very moment when 26 of them are gunned down in a church, because they were praying at the time – obviously stupid to be trusting in God when their prayers were in the process of being ignored.

More difficult times may indeed be just ahead, but remember that the Judge is at the door. “Here come da judge!”  (If you’re too young and don’t know what that last line means, Google it with the name “Flip Wilson.”  I don’t have the patience now to explain it!)

The Folly of Trusting in Riches Alone (James 5:1-6)

My parents who adopted me as an infant (who actually were my grandparents) were scarred for life by the Great Depression. They had been married for about seven weeks when it happened, and they pretty much lost what little bit they had accumulated in life to that point. For the rest of their days, they were fiscal conservatives in every way, spending money only when necessary, diligently sticking to budgets, ever with a sense that what happened once could happen again.

Even so, they were diligently generous toward God, the church, and varied Christian causes – giving a minimum of 10%, even in the darkest days of the Depression. My folks trusted that God would take care of them, and surely He did with more than sufficient supply.

Being rich is not evil. But hoarding riches as your security in life is wrong. James wrote to such a crowd as this, chastising them for their self-centered approach to life, while warning them of the pending doom for not trusting in God alone …

James 5:1 – Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

You’ve probably looked around at TSF and noticed that we don’t have any particularly wealthy people. We do have lots of people who are more than sufficiently blessed, especially by standards of the majority of folks around the world and of the material condition of mankind over the years. We can afford some generosity, even as what abundance we have is not massive nor guaranteed from being totally lost in some downturn. But even in that event, we can trust God to meet our needs.

Over the years you have probably heard or read some of my comments about the little slice of life that I had during my Dallas Seminary years of living among the rich and serving as a staff pastor for an extraordinarily wealthy congregation. There I encountered two types of wealthy folks: those who held onto it lightly, and those who firmly grasped it in fear of loss (during a time that was an economic downturn). The latter of these rich people were not a lot of fun to be with; they were worried all the time and oppressed by having to guard their wealth. The former type were great fun to be with! They were generous and joyful – knowing that it was only because of God’s blessing that they had what they enjoyed; and even when several of them lost most everything in their businesses, their disposition and character never changed. They believed God could prosper them again, and if not, they were fine with that. And this is the attitude to have.

Arrogant Presumption and Self-Sufficiency (James 4:13-17)

We all remember where we were on September 11th of 2001. I was at a Free Church pastors event in Lebanon, PA. There were pastors gathering there that morning from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. We had plans for a two-day event, and some were just arriving as the news broke. One of the men received a phone call from his wife about what was going on, and he shared with the group that an airplane had flown into the Trade Centers. We all imagined it as the mishap of a small plane.

Soon after, another call said that a second airliner had hit the buildings, as well as a crash in Washington. Clearly this was something more significant. Several pastors from the New York City area made comments about congregants whom they knew worked in the Trade Centers. Little did we know at that time that one of the fellows – a classmate of mine from Dallas Seminary with whom I attended church there – would have one of his church members as a pilot of one of the hijacked aircraft.

After a quick round of intense prayer, we broke up and went our own separate ways. While driving home to Maryland I listened to the radio news, stopping in Carlisle for a quick visit with my son at Dickinson College. He already had heard that two girls in the school were informed of deceased fathers. His girlfriend at the time had called in a panic since her brother worked in the Pentagon (he was not harmed, as it turned out).

Clearly, all of life had changed. Some events can do that. A bad doctor’s visit may have some news that changes everything. The phone may ring late at night, or the police may come to the door with news of a relative’s tragic accident. A frayed wire behind the wall in an isolated bedroom might cause an inferno in which all is lost.

This life has no guarantees. We should not act like it does, banking on the future with any certainties.

James wrote to some business people in particular who lived in such a way as to bank on the future without respect to having God in the equation …

James 4:13 – Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

But isn’t prudent planning a good thing? For example, didn’t Jesus use the illustration of a foolish builder in Luke 14:28-30 … “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”

Yes, being wise in planning is a good thing. But it is not a good thing if God is left out of the equation. When that happens, a person is essentially declaring their self-sufficient independence from divine providence. God wants us to trust in Him, to depend upon Him in all things. So plan away, but do so with the concomitant thought that God’s blessing and gracious, providential hand is needed all along the way for success to happen. This prayerful dependence is appropriate and is the opposite of arrogant self-sufficiency.

Judgmentalism and Faultfinding (James 4:11-12)

I can’t believe this idiocy! My word program on my computer is telling me right now that the title word of this devotional – judgmentalism – is not correct. It is underlined in read … ugh … just did it again in this sentence! Don’t tell me this is not a legitimate word, I know that it is!  It can be found in multiple dictionaries. I’ll bet it was some computer geek idiot who is living in his parents’ basement, who as a technology sub-contractor, failed to get this correct in the program. Stupid! Here I am, just a simple pastor of an average church in Western Maryland, and I know more than this ignorant computer knows!

OK, let’s try to forget this and go to our passage for today …

James 4:11 – Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

Oh dear. Maybe I was a bit harsh up above. But I did feel good for a moment by setting myself up to be smarter than the computer.

It is easy to criticize others and allow the imperfections of others to annoy us, while at the same time somehow overlooking our own flaws. And apparently James’ readers excelled in this regard. As with the warning in chapter 2 about them not favoring the wealthy over the poor, this statement is likewise worded in the original Greek language in such a way as to indicate that it was an ongoing problem. It is not just a warning about something they should avoid developing in their midst.

The person who is quick to find fault in others is often a person who thereby feeds within themselves a better comparative feeling about themselves.

Where I have seen this over the years in a church context is something like this: There is a person who is genuinely very serious about their faith and living it out appropriately. They are working very hard at it. They spend a lot of time thinking about rules and obligations, laboring diligently to be holy and disciplined. Certain benefits of righteous living do accrue in their lives. And they can see that they are indeed working harder than most other folks. After a while, they grow a sense that many others are not laboring as intensely and are a bit too flippant about spiritual disciplines and sanctified living. And this sense leads to a feeling that they have a higher ground of vision and understanding about others around them, eventually leading to critical and condescending statements.

But aren’t we supposed to be faithful to confront sin or failure in the lives of fellow believers? Doesn’t the Bible say that we should speak the truth in love? And is there not a godly service done when one confronts and brings a brother back into line? Yes, that is true; and the passage that most affirms this is in the next chapter – “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

But if you just go and run over another person with a judgmental condescension, you violate the law again – that “royal law” reference earlier of loving others as you love yourself. Beyond that, you put yourself in God’s shoes as the judge.

The Apostle Paul wrote of an appropriate balance: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1).

We all have feet of clay. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12)

The Problem of Worldliness (James 4:1-10)

I have never had sheep, though I’ve raised other animals. Like other creatures, I suppose that there are times when the sheep in a flock get to fighting with each other over something stupid, like who gets to graze in a particular spot or which one gets the best place to drink out of the stream. This must drive a shepherd crazy!

I know of another type of sheep who sometimes gets to fighting with each other over stupid things. And it is so irritating to this other category of shepherd. Why can’t they just get along? Why do two people in the same family allow simple bumps and bruises to thwart the larger relationship with one another? This same sort of thing would drive me nuts as a father. One boy would trip and bump another – that other one wrongly believing the contact was aggressive, thereby clubbing the first one, who would utter a blood-curdling scream and retaliation.

The irritation of James is evident in this portion of his letter. At other points he addresses his readers with language like “my brothers.”  But here in chapter 4 he comes right after them with aggressive rhetoric, even calling them adulterous people at one point.

James’ opening question is to ponder what causes fights and quarrels amongst God’s family. The answer comes quickly – it is because his readers were covetous and self-centered. They were interested in their desires being filled, too often trusting in the world for personal satisfaction rather than in God’s provision.

The remedy is to not depend upon satisfaction from the devil’s world; rather, the believer should humbly look to God for His provision for their needs in His timing and in His way.

In the previous passage, there were two types of wisdom: from above or from below. Here there are two opposing ways of seeking life satisfaction: from the things of this world or from submission to God.

Clearly, the one who does not insist upon his own rights and comforts, but who rather depends upon God, will ultimately find God’s blessing and be a person who avoids conflicts with other Christians.

The challenge is to do this, of course. It seems better to take charge of life and circumstances in the material world, fighting for your own rights and fulfillment. This appears to be the straight-line path to personal satisfaction. But it does not work. God’s true “lifting up” of an individual comes only after a time of trust and endurance, but it is true satisfaction.

James 4:1 – What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” [Proverbs 3:34]

7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Two Types of Wisdom (James 3:13-18)

I know of and have dealings with a family that has a number of siblings who are all successful adults. Each is blessed with an abundance of talent and abilities. But one of them excels beyond the others and is the natural leader of the family. He is not the oldest, nor absolutely the most successful. And he is certainly not the most aggressive and bombastic. In fact, he is likely the quietest and most sedate. Yet this is not because he is weak in mind or conviction, quite the opposite. He is the epitome of strength under control; and when he at last speaks within the group, all the others listen and follow.

It is such a person who is pictured by James in our section of his letter today. He writes …

James 3:13 – Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

The wise sort of person that James introduces here is a seasoned individual who is truly deep in “understanding” – an interesting word that in the original language was defined as one who is “intelligent, experienced, one having the knowledge of an expert.”  We all want to be this sort of person and demonstrate that in the way we live. James says this ability comes from the “humility” that is the byproduct of wisdom. Here is another interesting word that is used 11 times in the New Testament – always translated as either “humility” or “gentleness.”  But that doesn’t give the full flavor of the term, as we don’t have a single English word to translate this. It pictures something very different than a merely soft-spoken meek individual. Rather it is a bottled-up strength that is completely controlled and bridled – in fact this word was used to speak of a horse whose strength was fully broken and under the control of a bridle.

So how do we become such a powerfully gentle individual? It relates to what wisdom we choose to deploy – the wisdom of this world, or the wisdom that comes from above. The former is spoken of in verses 14-16 …

James 3:14 – But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

James says to watch out for a “winning at all costs” sort of attitude and action. The picture is of a zealot who is contending for a cause, and that is the way of the world. Get to the top and don’t worry about those stepped-upon; it was their own fault that they didn’t get out of the way. We might even draw to remembrance the situation between Cain and Abel, as these attitudes had an early start in the human condition.

When we think of zealously contending for a cause, our minds rather quickly go to the wrangling we see politically in our culture these days, so often evidenced by harsh verbiage in social media or on network news. So it is actually humorous to discover that the word in verse 16 for “disorder” would be used by Greeks to describe anarchy and political turmoil – Luke doing exactly that in Luke 21:9. So that’s where human wisdom of watching out for #1 will take you.

But there is another type of wisdom. Here then is the sort of wisdom that gives a genuine, quiet strength …

James 3:17 – But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

This heavenly wisdom is free from any wrongful agenda and is clean and sincere. If you want to harvest anything, that crop will have to grow in the correct environment and conditions. This is true for an outcome of righteousness. You reap what you sow. Success comes from a healthy process. To grow a garden, you can’t be trampling on the crop all summer and hope to have a harvest in the fall.

There is an interesting story of an African-American man named Daryl Davis who has spent the past three decades befriending white supremacists and Klansmen. He goes to where they live. Meets them at their rallies. Dines with them in their homes. He gets to know them because, in his words, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? Look at me and tell me to my face why you should lynch me.”

He says, “It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting. I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’ I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated. They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them.”

Overcoming evil with good. Using the wisdom that comes from above. It can make you an expert in living life.

Controlling the Tongue (James 3:1-12)

With this sermon series, our friend Chris Wiles has resourced all the churches involved by making study notes available – involving both the text of Scripture and illustrative materials as well. So today’s devotional draws directly from his writing.

It’s easy to say that “sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” but our experience tells another story altogether. In fact, we can easily see that much of our social division stems from the way we speak to—and about—one another. According to political scientist Thomas U. Berger, “we live in an age of apology and recrimination,” and this is verifiably true even if we only look at our social media accounts (!). Words have power. Positive words offer encouragement, but negative words can impact and shape our futures—as well as the world around us.

James tells us three things about the power of speech:

  1. Words have power (3:1-5)

James 3:1 – Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

James 3:3 – When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

So important is speech, according to James, that not everyone should aspire to being “teachers”—and yes, the word here refers to Christian leaders and pastors (verse 1). James cautions that people in such positions “will be judged with greater strictness,” a teaching common in ancient literature and affirmed by Jesus Himself (Mark 12:38-40). In verse 2 James continues this same thought. The phrase “we all stumble in many ways” echoed similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature, which also encouraged teachers to remain silent to avoid the possibility of wrongdoing.

James then offers three distinct illustrations that emphasize how something so small as the tongue could have powerful, large-scale effects:

  • A bit in a horse’s mouth (verse 3)
  • A rudder on a large ship (verse 4)
  • A small fire that sets ablaze a forest (verse 5)

James will expand on this final metaphor in the next section. His larger point here is that words have tremendous power, and the impact of our words cannot be underestimated.

  1. Words can hurt (3:6-8)

James 3:6 – The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Secondly, James observes that speech can have a destructive effect. Jewish readers would have been greatly familiar with the image connecting tongues to fire (verse 6), for similar imagery is found in Jewish literature both inside and outside the Bible.

The destructive nature of human words is made worse by the fact that—unlike everything else in creation—no one can hope to control the tongue (verses 7-8). James is emphasizing that human speech is wild and destructive, and controlling it is preferable to the effects of seeing it “burn” out of control.

  1. Words reveal a lack of integrity (3:9-12)

James 3:9 – With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Finally, James reveals man’s divided character. We cannot use words to “bless” God and then “curse” men (verse 9). Why not? James emphasizes that because human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), to curse men is to disrespect the character of God. In verse 10, James states his central point: that God’s people should not have the kind of divided character that would produce blessing and cursing from the same mouth.

James then offers three word pictures to emphasize the point—all posed as questions to which James expects an emphatic “no:”

  • “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (verse 11)
  • “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives…?” (verse 12a)
  • “[Can] a grapevine produce figs?” (verse 12b)

James answers his own initial question in verse 12c—No, such things are impossible. James’ point is clear: just as it is unnatural for a fresh spring to produce two kinds of water, or for plants to produce different kinds of fruit, so it is unnatural for Christ’s followers to produce both blessing and curses.

So let us be introspectively thoughtful about our lives and our communication. There are enough fires out there already, we don’t need to be adding to them.