November 23, 2017

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Thirteen

Into the Clouds, Photo by David Cornwell

Into the Clouds, Photo by David Cornwell

Wednesdays with James
Lesson Thirteen: The Two Ways — Time to Choose

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 defined true religion as “visit[ing] orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent[ing] the world leaving its dirty smudge on you.” Last week’s passage made a distinction between “wisdom” that comes from below and that which comes from above.

Like other wisdom teachers — think “the righteous” vs. “the wicked” in Proverbs — James draws a sharp distinction between what it looks like to follow God and God’s ways on one hand and what engaging in selfish, sinful behavior looks like on the other hand. As he puts it: friendship with the world = enmity toward God.

This dualistic perspective comes to a head in today’s text. Like a revival preacher setting out two clear choices and then calling his audience to a make a decision about which way they’re going to go, James brings his argument about God’s ways vs. the world’s ways to a climactic call to action in chapter 4 of his epistle.

Where do wars come from? Why do people among you fight? It all comes from within, doesn’t it— from your desires for pleasure which make war in your members. You want something and you haven’t got it, so you murder someone. You long to possess something but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war. The reason you don’t have it is because you don’t ask for it! And when you do ask, you don’t get it, because you ask wrongly, intending to spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers! Don’t you know that to be friends with the world means being enemies with God? So anyone who wants to be friends with the world is setting themselves up as God’s enemy. Or do you suppose that when the Bible says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us,” it doesn’t mean what it says?

But God gives more grace; so it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit to God, then; resist the devil and he will run away from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Make your hands clean, you sinners; and make your hearts pure, you double-minded lot. Make yourselves wretched; mourn and weep. Let your laughter turn to mourning, and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Do not speak evil against one another, my dear family. Anyone who speaks evil against another family member, or passes judgment against them, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge! There is one lawgiver, one judge who can rescue or destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

(4:1-12, KNT)

One of the earliest writings we have from Apostolic Fathers is an anonymous work called, The Didache. (Here’s a post on IM from a few years ago about it.) Like James, The Didache is filled with allusions and quotes from the Synoptic teachings of Jesus, in particular the Sermon on the Mount. And, in similar fashion, it sets forth two clear ways in which people may live.

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you….

…And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.

Whereas The Didache may have used this technique of “two ways” for the instruction of new converts or baptismal candidates, James is writing to congregations of people who are in the midst of choosing between the two ways of life daily. At the time of James’s writing, in circumstances that we have described as stressful and divisive, many of them were apparently making bad choices. So he urges them — in no uncertain terms! — to get back on track with God, with themselves, with each other.

Now I will be the first to say that this style of black and white, darkness and light, righteous and wicked, heaven or hell teaching is not quite my cup of tea. I prefer the complementary biblical wisdom tradition that questions the black and white and is content to live in the gray.

Nevertheless, I understand that sometimes a pastor, a leader, a teacher, a parent, or someone else who is trying to help people in certain situations must lay it on the line, call those in his or her charge to account, and urge them to make good decisions, right decisions. And to do so with some sense of urgency.

This is not all there is to biblical religion, but it is an integral part of life for all of us.

“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” (Deut. 30:15, KJV)

What will we choose today?

• • •

Photo by David Cornwell on Flickr.

Wednesdays with James
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Comments

  1. You long to possess something but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war. The reason you don’t have it is because you don’t ask for it! And when you do ask, you don’t get it, because you ask wrongly, intending to spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers!

    Just how much trouble have people gotten in down through the ages with these verses?! How does this verse not ask for the kinds of pernicious interpretation that leads to so much toxic spirituality in the church? Taken on face value, is the text even true? I don’t see how you can say it is, without a lot of special pleading and fancy interpretative footwork. To me, it’s an example of an untrue human error right in the midst of scripture, an error with so much destructive effect in the history, and in the present life, of the Church that it’s painful to contemplate.

    • A lot of the time it seems worse than an error to me. A lot of the time it seems like a manipulative lie, akin to a pastor telling his female parishoner, “The reason your husband beats you is because you’re not sufficiently obedient.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “The reason your husband beats you is because you’re not sufficiently obedient.”

        Which is an actual “GOD SAITH!” of the “Complementarian” Movement chronicled at watchblogs such as Wartburg Watch & Spiritual Sounding Board. Which also goes hand-in-hand with the YRR Hyper-Calvinists.

      • Remember, you asked for this…or at least your forefather Adam did…

        etc

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > Taken on face value, is the text even true?

      It is not True – it is rhetoric. And I have no problem with what he is saying; if this is intolerable and non-truth then so are many [most/all?] of MLK’s sermons and JFK’s speeches. You’ll have to throw out and burn great heaps of admired literature.

      > How does this verse not ask for the kinds of pernicious interpretation

      In the hands of a zealot no text is safe. This is the irony of rhetoric – those who cannot read it as such will in their search for ‘truth’ often create exactly what is condemned.

      These are smack-down words spoken to someone who needs a smack-down. It is instructive if read as such. The perspective of the speaker and the recipient are always important.

      Aside: a couple of the most effective sermons I have ever heard have been smack-downs. They are a very bad thing if they become The Norm; but sometimes they are a necessary and healing event.

      • As IMonk and so many others here have emphasized, context is everything. But for many of us in our evangelical and/or Reformed backgrounds, context was almost irrelevant. The Biblical text – ANY biblical text – contains Eternal Truth that can be extracted and applied in ANY context, almost without thought or refection. That is the root problem lurking behind all these posts, not James’ teachings per se.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > context is everything

          Or: without context there is nothing. Because it is nearly impossible to interpret any text without knowing something about its context – which contains the ugly problem of **assuming** context, often without recognizing that is what one is doing.

          > contains Eternal Truth that can be extracted

          Yep. The key is that the Bible is a text; no magick. It needs to be read and studied no differently than any other text is read.

          • –> “It needs to be read and studied no differently than any other text is read.”

            Maybe it just needs to be read and NOT studied. After all, I don’t “study” most of the books I read, I just read them. Maybe it’s the “studying” that morphs it into something it’s not.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            By “study” I mostly mean learning the context – as that is really NOT available in Scripture itself. They did not write it that way. Also when reading an ancient text one does need to keep in mind issues of language; it was not written in English.

            I do not believe Scripture can be read as casually as a 20th century novel. Some studiousness is required. People who casually read Scripture take away all kinds of bizarre notions, found new churches, build bomb shelters, etc…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        > Taken on face value, is the text even true?

        It is not True – it is rhetoric. And I have no problem with what he is saying; if this is intolerable and non-truth then so are many [most/all?] of MLK’s sermons and JFK’s speeches. You’ll have to throw out and burn great heaps of admired literature.

        Problem is, today we read that text as Word-For-Word Literal TRUTH from the Spiritual Engineering Manual and Checklist. “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE!”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        These are smack-down words spoken to someone who needs a smack-down. It is instructive if read as such. The perspective of the speaker and the recipient are always important.

        But all too often used as a Whip to smack down the sheeple so they stay “nice” and quiet and submissive to Pastor (and Tithing!)

        • The Holy Roman Catholic Church used these words the same way, long before the Reformation. Most of the problems in the approach to and interpretation of Scripture, and in the use of Scripture, that have existed in historic Protestantism, and that exist today in evangelicalism and elsewhere, existed in the “undivided Church”.

    • Robert,
      Don’t allow the misuse of Scripture by others to keep you from seeing the truth of it. Remember that James probably had a specific situation in that congregation he was dealing with, and we don’t know exactly what it is. Much of what James writes is against the abuses of the wealthy and powerful, and how many times through history have the wealthy and powerful, not content with what they already have, abused their power to take what is not rightfully theirs ( just in the Bible there is David with Bathsheba, and Ahab with Naboth’s vineyard). How many actual wars have been started because someone or some group wanted to take something from another? And even among the poor and the weak, how many times has envy led to hatred, to fighting, to stealing. The rich and poor alike are both afflicted with greed and selfishness. Can this passage be misused? Yes, but so can many others, but I’m not going to allow the misuse of Scripture to cause me to toss the whole thing

      • Ronald Avra says:

        Ditto!

      • “You want something and you haven’t got it, so you murder someone. You long to possess something but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war. The reason you don’t have it is because you don’t ask for it! And when you do ask, you don’t get it, because you ask wrongly, intending to spend it on your pleasures.”

        It seems to me the problem is that this passage is particularly likely to be misused by both humble and arrogant people.

        A humble, thoughtful person who reads this is likely to think, “Well, I prayed for remission from cancer but I didn’t get it. The Bible says it’s because I didn’t ask right; I was being selfish. I guess that’s true. I should have prayed for other people, not for my own self-centered desires.”

        A crass, arrogant person who reads this (particularly if he is crass arrogant clergy who is put on the defensive by the question, “Why wasn’t my prayer answered?”) is likely to feel that this passage totally justifies him (or her), and to respond as HUG mentions. “You didn’t pray right.”

        Saying “Context is everything” is probably true, but if it applies to everything in the Bible, doesn’t that call into question almost everything IN the Bible? For instance, as CM says, ” James is writing to congregations of people who are in the midst of choosing between the two ways of life daily.” Well, does that mean he’s not really writing to us? What are we supposed to do with these words? (Not directing this at you, CM, but really just asking others what they do or think about this.) Ordinary people like me don’t really have time or resources to sit down with The Interpreter’s Commentary on the Bible or whatever, every time we need to understand what a passage means for our guidance.

        • That’s why I think that Bible reading is, in its essence, more of a “church” thing than a “personal” thing. We hear scripture together and with wise teachers and the tradition of the church to guide us.

          Most of the time we don’t need to get caught up in all the details of the Bible. “God loves us, has redeemed us and set us free to love God and our neighbors” is about any of us need to know on any given day.

        • –> “A humble, thoughtful person who reads this is likely to think, ‘Well, I prayed for remission from cancer but I didn’t get it. The Bible says it’s because I didn’t ask right; I was being selfish. I guess that’s true. I should have prayed for other people, not for my own self-centered desires.'”

          Hmm…that sounds like a bit of an unhealthy view, too, and doesn’t sound like the thought of a humble, thoughtful person to me, just a misguided one. I don’t think God wishes ANYONE to have cancer, and the lack of remission has nothing to do with praying right or wrong or being humble or arrogant, it just IS.

        • Let’s remember that this text, and many others, didn’t start to be interpreted in the service of pernicious goals at the Reformation. Such interpretations existed in the centuries before Protestantism was ever even dreamed of, and were used by a Church immersed in traditions and looking to supposedly authoritative teachers. Do you honestly believe that no pre-Reformation priests or bishops ever used this text to upbraid their parishoners for lacking adequate faith? Please; though I’m not conversant in the subject, I’d be surprised if the some of the Doctors of the Church, and some of the Fathers, didn’t do it.

        • Nor did naive, context-less, proof-texting reading and interpretation of Scripture start at the Reformation. Some pre-Reformation traditions themselves were grounded in just such reading and interpretation of Scripture, for example, Purgatory.

      • I have no intention of “tossing the whole thing”; but, as far as I’m concerned, God’s voice is not in this passage of Scripture. It is an all too human voice that I hear, with no special authority.

        • I think it’s our right and choice to toss the whole thing if we want to, though. Some of it is just not worth redeeming.

          I have very serious doubts about the effectiveness of the gospel or the Holy Spirit right now, especially with knowing who is voting for Trump in this election. That man is a literal anti-christ, the exact opposite of who we are supposed to be emulating. I thought the gospel and the Holy Spirit were supposed to change us away from that type of person towards another type of person. Is it powerless? I don’t know. But it feels like one of those final things that I’ve been holding on to.

          Maybe the gospel IS powerless. Maybe it just brings out the good in some people that was already there. And leaves the rest alone.

          • Demoniacal pundit Ann Coulter has just released a new book: In Trump We Trust. The title says it all; this should be the motto of all the Christian suckers who are getting on that train to hell, with Trump and his Alt-Right troglodytes.

    • [edited for language]

      I asked for plenty.

      I got nothing.

      Oh, but you should also ask for God. Then he’ll give you the desires of your heart. Namely…only God.

      i don’t think i can projectile vomit hard enough

    • If you take James to be presenting a one-size-fits-all formula in which you don’t get what you want if you ask God with wrong motives — and therefore you’ll always get what you ask for if you ask with right motives — then sure, that’s potentially dangerous ground. And a lot of churches and preachers out there are teaching just that.
      I don’t know about you guys, but I have a hard time identifying what my true motives are when it comes to the things I want. Most of the time it seems that I have multiple motives on a lot of different levels, and regardless of how altruistic the object of my desire might seem, there is always some degree of selfishness there in the mix. Sometimes I get what I ask for and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I sense God’s involvement in the matter, and sometimes I don’t. But what’s the use trying to confine God to motive-determined rules of engagement when I can’t even see into the depths of my own heart and clearly define my own motives.
      But I don’t think James is really trying to set some kind of universal formula for positive prayer outcomes. It seems to me that he is telling his readers (directly and unapologetically) that they are obviously much more focused on stuff and money and pleasure than they are on God. He called them adulterers for trying to use God as a means to get stuff and money and pleasure. And if James was a truly honest and introspective sort, I imagine he spent some time after writing this letter asking God to purge his heart of the same adulterous disease.

      • –> “Sometimes I sense God’s involvement in the matter, and sometimes I don’t.”

        I’ve come to the conclusion there are three possibilities for all “bad” things:
        1) God is the reason for the thing (to teach and disciple us).
        2) Satan is the reason for the thing (to muck up what God wants).
        3) Neither 1 or 2, it just is.

        Since I’m pretty sure we can’t tell the difference between whether a bad thing is of God or Satan, of if we DO we’re often wrong, I usually go with 3. It helps with me deal with my anxieties and my bi-polar view of “all things bad” (“I think this is of God, so it’ll be okay…but wait, what if it’s actually Satan screwing up God’s plan?!”)

        –> “But I don’t think James is really trying to set some kind of universal formula for positive prayer outcomes. It seems to me that he is telling his readers (directly and unapologetically) that they are obviously much more focused on stuff and money and pleasure than they are on God. He called them adulterers for trying to use God as a means to get stuff and money and pleasure.”

        I like your perspective here. Since I tend to view all scripture, especially anything in the NT, under the lens of “What’s the Good News of the Gospel here”, then yes…James is saying, “The Good News is we’re all jerks who tend to focus on other things than God, so let’s get back to focusing on the Good News of Jesus!” My main issue with James, or at least interpretations of James, is it’s rarely presented as Good News but more like the club of “you’re not doing enough–bash, bash.”

        –> “And if James was a truly honest and introspective sort, I imagine he spent some time after writing this letter asking God to purge his heart of the same adulterous disease.”

        Yep. I think most of what Jesus said is a mirror for us to look into and say, “Is this me?” Same with the epistles.

        • While I agree there is far too much moral bashing going on in the church — especially from the pulpit — I would have to admit that I have benefitted from an occasion well-meaning and well-timed clubbing here and there during my life. I really needed to be reminded what a lazy, self-centered, unfruitful servant I had become, and a loving kick in the ass turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.
          But I suspect that the positive or negative of it lies in the severity, frequency, and wisdom with which the club is applied. Too many shepherds victimize their flocks in the name of uncompromising moral teaching. Love and mercy and grace should always be applied generously, while the moral club should be reserved for special occasions.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > this passage is particularly likely to be misused

    Yes, it is, because his is using Big Word Rhetoric to make a point; talking about war and such. But we in our culture do that all the time, and Scripture does so frequently. We know how to understand this appropriately.

    > A humble, thoughtful person…is likely to think, “Well,

    I would not describe such thinking as Humble.

    > Saying “Context is everything” is probably true, but if it applies to everything
    > in the Bible, doesn’t that call into question almost everything IN the Bible?

    No, absolutely not, in no way what so ever. People say things like that; they are simply completely wrong. Hearing educated people say that is always startling, because we use context + content to determine all kinds of things all the time every bloody day, and with a high degree of confidence in those determinations.

    > does that mean he’s not really writing to us? What are we supposed to do with these words?

    Think about them, take them from that context and consider them in terms of our context. Not really a problem.

    > …people like me don’t really have time or resources to sit down…

    I agree 110%.

    > every time we need to understand what a passage means for our guidance.

    Do not use passages for guidance; use church teaching for that. Passages for guidance slips back into magical book thinking. Scholars and teachers have been considering these texts for centuries, rely on them, just as you rely on all the scientists and engineers who created the navigational system that safely guides the plane from one airport to another whenever you fly. We engage in some form of intellectual outsourcing nearly every waking minute of every single day; that is not just OK, it’s smart.

    • Amen.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      > this passage is particularly likely to be misused

      Yes, it is, because his is using Big Word Rhetoric to make a point; talking about war and such. But we in our culture do that all the time, and Scripture does so frequently. We know how to understand this appropriately.

      I get ripped into all the time for using over-the-top language and imagery, so I kind of understand this.

      It’s a literary convention, not a checklist of FACT, FACT, FACT.

      (And I once witnessed an encounter between two gamers — one whose favorite expression was “Shoot me if I’m wrong!” and the other who was a nitpicking perfectionist who took EVERYTHING literally. Fortunately the latter was not armed at the time. “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been…”)

      My personal rationale for “Big Word Rhetoric” comes from getting pat-pat-patted on the head and told “that’s Nice…” way too often whenever I spoke up. I had to Maximize the Impact of what I said in order to be listened to. And M Scott Card in People of the Lie also says sometimes you have to bring out the big guns in order to get through.

      • (HUG…Minor correction…M Scott Peck, not Card. Great book.)

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Brain Fart.
          Don’t know where “Card” came from — probably thinking “Orson Scott Card” and put the two names in a blender.

          • That was my guess as to how you came up with M Scott Card, too.

            At least you didn’t say M. Scott Fitzgerald. Or Orson Scott Welles. Or…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Do not use passages for guidance; use church teaching for that. Passages for guidance slips back into magical book thinking. Scholars and teachers have been considering these texts for centuries, rely on them…

      i.e. a (litarally) centuries-long chain of consensus and precedent and experience that gets thrown under the bus by “SOLA SCRIPTURA! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”

      • On the other hand, a message of “don’t bother your little (gray) head about reading the Bible; the Church will tell you what it means” doesn’t really fill me with serenity. Scholars and teachers for centuries have been interpreting passages in very different ways, and now, our churches, some relying on those centuries of scholarship (and some not) also differ greatly in their interpretations.The differences among Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Mennonites will bear witness to that.

        Except for those under the authority of the Catholic (or Orthodox?) church, we Christians pretty much *have to* try to make sense of the Bible. What else is a Protestant to do?

        • And Heather, it’s not as if the Catholic/Orthodox churches didn’t interpret scripture in naive, context-less and proof-texting ways before the Reformation, and since, despite the much vaunted authority of their interpretive traditions.

    • Are you saying that over the centuries Church scholars and teachers haven’t used this passage, and others, in manipulative and exploitative ways, and sometimes made a habit of it? Oppressive, manipulative use of Scripture didn’t start at the Reformation; read how Saint Benedict of Clairvaux, a canonized Doctor of the Church, used his authoritative interpretation of Scripture to preach and advocate the Crusades, and was supported by many other teachers and officials of the Church, long before the Reformation. And this example was no rare anomaly.

      • Apologies: I mean Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

      • When the Second Crusade that he preached turned out to be a “failure”, Bernard wrote that it was the sins of the crusaders that was the cause of this failure.

        Gee, I wonder where he got that idea from?

        • I don’t want to say this too loudly….but I think the good Doctor of the Church probably got it from naive, context-less and uninformed Bible reading…