Psalm 103:1-14, James 4:1-10
April 3, 2011
In the first service, we’ve been looking at the letter of James. And one of the things we can say about James is that he is very practical in his approach to the Christian faith. On one author said that his letter is, “epigrammatic in style, and hortatory in content.” And no, I don’t have any idea what that means! Actually, I sort of do. It means, in simple words, that James is succinct and to the point, and that what he said encourages us in many important ways! In short, he is very practical!
It’s James, for instance, who said, “Faith without works is dead.” – a statement which has been hard for some people over the years. Some have said that it sounded way too much like “works righteousness.” In other words, “working our way into heaven.” In that debate, they would say that James was the opposite of Paul, who wrote, “It is by faith we are saved, through Grace, and not by our works…” The most famous of such people was one named Martin Luther. Luther called the book of James “an Epistle of Straw!” In other words, it had no real spiritual substance to it! And if you were to look through one of the early Luther Bibles, you would find it contained only sixty five books! Not sixty six. Because the book of James would be missing!
Well, I’d like to say a word in defense of both Luther and James. Most people realize where Luther was coming from. He was living in a time when way too high an emphasis was being placed on “good works.” He objected to that. And of course, one fateful day he nailed a list of his objections to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral, and sparked the Protestant Reformation! But most scholars would say, and I would too, that James and Paul were not opposed! They would say that James took the practical approach. Certainly, we are “saved” by our faith in God’s grace. But that calls us to do certain things. And James would say that if we’re not doing them, maybe we need to question our faith.
James tells us that our faith must affect us, or it is no faith! So he said “be doers of the word, not hearers only.” That’s a great statement that prompts us to ask ourselves, “Which of those are we?” He then takes that further by making what was indeed a bold statement, that “faith without works is dead.” Then, in chapter three, which our guest preacher talked about several weeks ago, he reminded us that, not only what we do is important, but also what we say. Our words have power! And our faith must be lived out in how we use them!
Well, now here in chapter four, he’s telling the people the importance of being “near to God.” I think we’d say that too is pretty important in terms of our faith. James might even tell us that, “If we say we have faith, but don’t live our lives in connection with God, then it is no faith.” Again he’s being very practical. And in that practicality, he tells us about something that he believes has a great potential to “derail” our faith and our connection with God. And that is our “passions,” or our emotions.
I want you to see how he begins this. He starts off kind of “big,” doesn’t he? “What causes wars?” he asks. “And what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions?” Is he talking about us? “You covet and cannot obtain, and so you wage war.” What he’s saying here is that bad emotions, out of control, cause some really bad things. But again… is that us?
I think we need to realize that it is! Our emotions can be a problem if we fail to keep them in check – particularly our negative emotions. James had spent three chapters already, telling us about the pitfalls in faith. And now he’s dealing with what he thinks is the next on the list. And I have to agree with him! Our emotions unchecked do have the potential to cause great problems for us!
Think about it. Think about the problems that arise between us when we get upset. Think of the walls that go up! Think about what happens when we take things personally, or maybe when we start to make assumptions about other people’s motives. “He meant to do that to me!” We know he didn’t mean to. But our emotions make us think like that! And when they do, we start to seek revenge. Or, at the very least, we decide to have nothing to do with that other person. Those are just a few of the things that happen when we let our emotions get the better of us.
Well, James is leading us to an important thought about all this. He’s telling us that this can be a huge obstacle in our relationship with God! He would have been quick to echo the words of Jesus – Jesus who may well have been his brother! He would have agreed when Jesus said, “How can you love God who you can’t see, when you can’t love your brother who you can see?” (Jesus was eminently practical, too!)
My friends, I have to tell you that this is a tough one! If we expect to love God, we must love each other! And I know that’s not an easy thing, especially when emotions get thrown into the mix. As you’ve heard me say before, we live in a society that says “I can’t help what I feel.” And while that may be true, we can help what we do about it! We can keep from treating people poorly because of it. And we can do something about controlling those feelings within us! We can start by controlling what we think. I love the words of Paul where he said, “We take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” That’s a great line!! And what it means is, when we feel a negative thought rising within us, we tell ourselves, “I’m not going to think that!” James would say that is very important – and of course, very practical! But many people don’t think they need to do that, or they’re think they’re not able to do that. And that is hard work! And it’s even harder with emotions!
Ernie Campbell, was once the pastor at the Riverside Presbyterian Church in New York City. And he used to say that we all have our “unanswerable questions” – questions that we’d like to ask God. He said that his was the suffering of children. When his time came to meet God face to face, that’s the big question he was going to ask. “Why does God allow the suffering of children?” Well, I think one of my big ones is this thing we’re talking about right now. Why did God instill in us such strong self-centered instincts, when he expected us to think more about others? Maybe it was that whole “survival instinct.” Maybe it was the need for “self preservation.” And maybe that’s a good thing. But because of it, we humans, when left to our own emotions, will often make decisions based on the self. People have often asked me, “Is human nature basically good or evil?” My answer is, “Neither. Human nature is basically self-centered. Good or evil comes from that.”
I think you’ll agree that emotions can be very powerful. And unfortunately the negative emotions are often the strongest. Too often, the “natural human reaction” is to look for, and complain about, the lowest and worst in others. But our faith calls us to rise above that! We are called instead to “look to and encourage the highest and best in others. And that takes some tough choices. It takes choices to downplay some difficult things, to set aside the difficult emotions, to change our thinking, and to choose to love.
James says that’s a huge thing in our life of faith. How we deal with others, and how we make the tough choices that love often calls us to make, has everything to do with how we love and serve God. In the midst of this, he says, “God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble.” “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” The tempter we talked about several weeks ago, when Jesus was in the wilderness, is glad when our harsh emotions get the better of us. So realize that, and don’t let it happen!
In contrast to that, he brings the focus back to the heart of his message. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” That’s what we’re talking about here. And we need to ask, “How often does our anger, or our selfish desires stand in the way of drawing near to God?” “How often does the way we are dealing with others stand in the way of drawing near to God.” That’s the heart of our faith! Yes, it’s good to learn things. Yes it’s good to grow in our understanding. But “Mr. Practicality” says what we’re supposed to do, above all, is to “draw near to God.” And he’s telling us that it is often our emotions and feelings that get in the way of that!
Lent is a time when we do that hard work. Lent is a time when we get practical in our faith, and when we look seriously at ourselves and see where we stand. And Lent is a time when we seek to “draw near to God.” And I’m grateful to James who gives us this practical approach as to how to go about that. So, be doers of the word, not hearers only. Be careful with your words. Control your passions. Love others. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
Eternal God, you look on our hearts, and sometimes we don’t like what you probably see. Help us, Lord, to live our faith, to use our words to build up and encourage, help us to keep our emotions in check and to use even them to the glory of your kingdom. And help us we ask this Lenten season to draw close to you, and to know you are drawing close to us. These things we pray in the name of our savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.