Honestly, which would you prefer to read: a story about Jesus healing a blind man – or Jesus confronting our failures? Earl Palmer, in his preface to “The Book that James Wrote” (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids Mich., 1997), says: This is the book of plain talk in the New Testament and one of the best cures for religious, political, and social straitjackets that I know. James is an original, and he has written a book sure to offend everyone in some way. But at the same time, his book points us to a good and durable cure for all doublespeak religion or lifestyle.
A fairy tale begins “Once upon a time…” but James grabs our attention with “What is the source of conflict among you” (v. 1)? Facing the truth about our weaknesses or failures is never comfortable, but the alternative is to keep making the same mistakes and suffering the consequences. Instead of patiently waiting for his readers to make excuses or blame someone else, James plunges ahead to state the messes we make come from the “cravings that are at war in our own lives” (v. 1). Then he unravels the destructive pattern of selfishness we all know: “violence spawned by the failure to get your way, the failure to see what is right or good, so you attempt to justify selfishness and see your evil intentions” (vv. 2-3).
Thank God for the compassionate and powerful words of James. He uses the word murder and we may remember King David who lusted over Bathsheba and arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be killed in battle (2 Samuel 11). There is the story of Cain murdering his brother Able, an act of jealousy and anger (Genesis 4). Read the stories of the Old Testament and discover numerous events shaped by resentment, greed and the justification of any means to get what a person wants. Pride and selfishness are expressed by James as “evil intentions” and “your own cravings” (v. 3). At the heart of our sin is the drive to get what we want.
But James does not write to condemn us to a life of spiritual failure and hopelessness. It may be human nature to act out of selfishness, but God offers a very different possibility shaped by his love and grace. In Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul defines our hope: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (NASV). James deliberately explains how one comes to this transformation of heart and mind. First, “submit (your life) to God” (v. 8). To submit is to put someone or something before your comfort or desire. In this context, submitting yourself to God means to see God’s love and will as the way to a meaningful life. You may want what you want, but will the end result bring you closer to God, help someone discover God’s grace or make life better for all?
Hard on that essential beginning, the second key to living as a child of God is to “resist the devil” (v. 7). Selfishness is the alluring whisper that you know best, that your desire is acceptable, that the choice is yours. But your choice may hurt someone else, bring ridicule to the Savior and tell the world faith has nothing to do with life.
Third, James says “come near to God” (v. 8). Because we are born and nurtured in a physical world and our emotions evolve in an atmosphere of conflicting ideas and feelings, it can be difficult to connect with God who seems so “other.” Jesus has changed that by coming into our world as the tangible presence of God and the ultimate example of what it means to trust God in every circumstance. From the first day in Eden, God has continually sought to have a relationship with us. The words of the Bible describe how God has never been stopped in his desire to love us and give us a complete life. In our greatest fears and failures, we can always find God!
Fourth, in God’s grace we can seek cleansing from our sins (vv. 8-9). We moderns do not like that word “sin.” We usually define sin as “missing the mark,” but I think of sin as “thinking I know more than God and I can figure out what to do!” But that has never worked. Study the lives of Jesus’ apostles and the stories of people Jesus healed and blessed. There is a dramatic contrast between what human endeavors and thinking can accomplish, compared to the grace of God embodied in Jesus Christ. God’s forgiveness has much to do with the realization we have failed or we cannot heal ourselves. Our hope is in God’s gracious healing forgiveness.
Fifth, we must humble ourselves (v. 10). A friend once described his salvation as “the day I finally understood there is God and he loves me!” We forget that we may be made in the image of God but we are not God. Every now and then, when life overwhelms me and I need a renewed foundation I go back to Job 38 and listen as God responds to Job’s complaints and questions: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world” (v. 4)? That text reminds me not only that I am not God, but that I barely understand life. Before God I am always humbled, and yet, James says God “will lift me up!” When you allow God to be God in your life, then you begin to live as God intended.
Conflict seems to be everywhere these days, in government and politics, on college campuses, in racial and gender debates and in the religious world. James is certainly relevant as he points to our easy expression of selfishness to some kind of normal or acceptable status. James firmly focuses on the origin of conflicts as “cravings, that are at war in your own lives … you are jealous for something you can’t get” (v. 2). What are the conflicts you face? Can you identify their origin and confront them with a desire to live as a child of God?
Are you willing to seek God’s help, study his Word and look at the words and actions of Jesus in order to change your thinking and life direction? Does the word “humility” represent weakness or failure instead of trusting God to help you sort out your motives and conflicts? Through long years of ministry I learned many lessons more than once. The lessons that most altered my thinking and actions came when I faced my failures and sought God’s help to change my thinking. There is profound hope when you come to the place where nothing and no one can resolve your problem and God is there with open arms to offer a new beginning. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (v.10).
Retired after more than 45 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
The PDF download requires the free Acrobat Reader program. It can be downloaded and installed at https://get.adobe.com/reader.