January 21, 2021

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Twelve


Wednesdays with James
Lesson Twelve: Wise Up!

We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The second theme James discusses has to do with wise behavior in the congregation — we’ve called it “Wise Behavior Makes Peace and Speaks No Evil” (3:1-4:12).

In chapter one, James made the point that the one thing we need from God in times of testing is wisdom, that we can get it from God, and that God is always ready to generously bestow this good gift (1:5). In today’s text, the author describes this divine wisdom, which comes from above — what it looks like and what it doesn’t look like.

Who is wise and discerning among you? Such a person should, by their upright behavior, display their works in the humility of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and contention in your hearts, don’t boast and tell lies against the truth. This isn’t the wisdom that comes from above. It is earthly, merely human, coming from the world of demons. For where there is jealousy and contention, there you will get unruly behavior and every kind of evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from above is first holy, then peaceful, gentle, compliant, filled with mercy and good fruits, unbiased, sincere. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

(3:13-18, KNT)

Few conflicts burn as hot as religious conflicts. With various combatants claiming to hold the Truth™ passions get overheated and any compromise is seen as a betrayal of the faith. Stress fractures can turn into wide chasms. Congregations split, and new churches and denominations get formed. Some people even leave the faith (or at least the gathered church) altogether. Folks don’t mind their tongues and reputations get dragged through the mud.

Battles for “truth” are rarely fought with the weapons of wisdom.

We don’t know all the specific issues the congregations reading James’s epistle were facing.

  • We do know that his audience was made up of mostly poor folks, suffering under richer merchants and landowners who were taking advantage of them and using the system to keep them down. Some of the believers were attempting to alleviate these pressures by discriminating in favor of the rich.
  • We know that unbridled speech was a problem, and that some were eagerly grasping teaching positions, perhaps to advance their own agendas.
  • We know that a number of them were focusing on things that led them to neglect the poorest and most vulnerable in the community, and that some were justifying this by defending their level of faith and spirituality. But in James’s eyes they were failing the test and not practicing true religion (1:26-27).

James names it all here for what it is: bitter jealousy, contention, selfish boasting, lying against the truth, unruly behavior, and evil practices. That is the mirror he holds up before them. “You want truth?” James writes, “Here’s the truth.”

If they were truly seeking wisdom from God, he goes on, they would be seeking peace, treating others with gentleness and care, forbearing one another and putting others first. They would be exercising mercy, doing truly good things to benefit one another. They would be speaking honestly and carefully, from hearts of humility and sincerity. They would seek to treat others justly.

In short, they would be peacemakers.

How sad it is that we as people of faith have contributed so much to the stereotype of Christians as a contentious lot, proud, insensitive, rude, and seeking our own way.

Who is wise and discerning among us?

• • •

Wednesdays with James
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  1. A mild irony; the book of James itself has been a considerable source of contention among the faithful.

    Then there are the Christians blogs – such as my own [ click on the link]. Are they unifying?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > considerable source of contention among the faithful

      Indeed, it has been a stumbling block to those desiring to create grand theological structures. Are grand theological structures often associated with humility and forbearance? It is a text I imagine many theology-types would be glad to be rid of – it calls them out.

  2. David Cornwell says

    Powerful words and thoughts for this political season. Which of J Caesar’s spiritual descendants do we want to lead us? Although important to nations and to the world, as followers of another King, we should refuse to let either of them divide us. We should be grieving over some of the words said by those who claim to follow Jesus. And I point first to myself. Deserving targets are so near, and so tempting.

    And I love that photograph. Very peaceful and calming.

  3. They shall be like God, knowing good from evil. That is the fundamental block. That’s where it all started. Yet in the last days they shall call evil good and good evil. I think it is typically a simple distinction between contentiousness and peace, bitterness and kindness, generosity of spirit and covetousness. There is though a whole other world of murkiness between the two and that is where I pray not to be deceived. Sometimes it’s tough to tell and sometimes it isn’t an either/or.

    • –> “Sometimes it’s tough to tell and sometimes it isn’t an either/or.”

      Made even more difficult by theological posturing.

      Your “it isn’t an either/or” statement is so true. I’ve learned that most clashes over theological rights and wrongs are actually just philosophical differences of opinion. People tout their stances as Biblical truths, but most often they’re just philosophical beliefs having nothing to do with God. (I’ve seen this over and over at my church, when people get bent out of shape over something and say, “God doesn’t want this, He wants THIS.” I now try to convince people that there is no “right” or “wrong” in most situations, it’s just that they don’t like what’s happening and using God and “truth” as a trump card.)

  4. Ronald Avra says

    Whenever I think of peacemaking, I’m repeatedly confronted by the idea that it is both a time and energy consuming conduct. It has to be prepared for, and time has to be readily available to be expended on short notice and at inopportune occasions. The peacemaker must have a personal reservoir to draw on, with the patience to employ it. Peacemakers truly have to be centered on others and attempt to avoid constructs in their professional and personal lives, i.e. climbing the career ladder; continually moving for the promotion, that would prevent them from being rooted in the faith community. Paul felt that he needed to be content with food and clothing to focus on his converts; a similar attitude might be required of the peacemaker.

  5. James tends to walk a fine line between railing and ranting. Jesus never crossed that line but I keep a wary eye on James as I do myself. The only folks Jesus had a harsh word for were religious leaders who not only didn’t get it, but actively opposed the Spirit of God. James is a little broader in his targets tho basically on the same page. But sometimes with James I want to say, Dude, the wisdom that comes from above is first holy, then peaceful, gentle, compliant, filled with mercy and good fruits, not yelling and finger pointing. But maybe with some people yelling is appropriate and the only thing they understand. I yelled at my cat this morning for waking me up squalling, but then later I discovered I had let his water bowl go dry. It’s a fine line. I wish James would talk more about God’s Holy Spirit when he talks about discernment. We tend to think about discernment in terms of intellectual acuity, and thus our many denominations opposing the Oneness of God, right on down to the Denomination of Me and Mine.

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