Last week, we spoke from the Book of James about doublemindedness; that condition of choosing to see the world through our own understand instead of seeking God’s wisdom. James said that those who are doubleminded are unstable in all they do. James encouraged us to seek God, so that our minds would be made clear and we would become empowered to imitate Jesus in all we say and do. With God’s wisdom, we can make the right choices because we are guided by the right reason.
Right reasoning seems missing today. A poet once satirically observed the behavior of a society without belief in right reason followed this prescription. He wrote:
“We believe that man is essentially good. It’s only his behavior that lets him down. This is the fault of society. Society is the fault of conditions. Conditions are the fault of society.
We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly. The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth. We believe in the rejection of creeds, And the flowering of individual thought.”
And then the poet added this postscript reflecting the result of this thinking. He wrote:
“If chance be the Father of all flesh, disaster is his rainbow in the sky and when you hear: State of Emergency! Sniper Kills Ten! Troops on Rampage! Mobs go Looting! It is but the sound of man worshipping his maker.”
The postscript is the very definition of life lived without right reason and without the wisdom and presence of God. From the Book of James, we heard James make this same point in this manner. “13 When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15). Acts of evil do not come from God, they are simply an expression of man worshipping his maker.
The good news though is that with God, we are more able to see ourselves as part of the larger context of humanity stretching through the whole course of history. With God, we can see that each person truly is made in the image of God. With God, we understand better the destructiveness of sinful thinking and behaviors. With God, we come to realize why Jesus, God coming in the flesh, was the decisive act of God in history and that only God is capable of freeing humanity from the effects of sin. Redemption then from sin, is only possible with God. Redemption is God’s decision for humanity to transform lives and the world to what was intended by God. But that redemption is not just about an abundant and peaceful life on earth, it is about destiny with God now and forevermore. And so, the resurrection of Jesus assures Christians that making the right choices now is meaningful not just in the present but for the immediate future and for all of time. Creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, and the resurrection are themes God revealed through the Old Testament and Jesus fulfilled and are described in the New Testament. Last week, James began his discussion of these themes by encouraging us to seek God first, then assess everything else in our life from the posture of being in God’s presence and surrounded by His love. In this posture, we can find fulfilment and happiness.
I read the other day some words from Augustine, a brilliant Christian writer from the 4th century, whose words still shape much of the thinking of the western world believed that there were two conditions necessary for happiness, peace, and contentment. The first, is that whatever we pursue in life must be the highest good and be more complete than anything else. The second condition is that that highest good would have to be something that could not be lost or taken away. Augustine concluded only God through Jesus Christ met these two conditions. Other things in life may be good, but they are not the highest good. Other things in life may be good to have, but they could all be taken away. Augustine was affirming what Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). This is first condition. Jesus also said, “And this is the will of him [God] who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:33). This is the second condition. From our reading earlier today, James encouraged us all to see what happens when we follow these conditions. James wrote, “16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:16-18). Everything good will come from God and in that, God never changes. He has given us birth, new life, through his word of truth, which is the Bible and his living word, His son, Jesus. Neither good nor God’s Word can be taken from us, and yet both can be thrown away if we wish. James was saying that we must not be deceived into believing that humanity can go it alone and be successful. Do not throw away God, otherwise you will end up worshipping your maker who is marked by violence, lies, division, and chaos.
Now, James’ words speak on a grand scale of God, Jesus, creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, and the destiny of the resurrection and seeking God first. But how do we practically live in this manner? What steps must we take? James turns his attention to those very questions.
James wrote, “19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20-21). Think about James’ words for a moment. “Everyone should be quick to listen.” We must be immediately ready to listen but not with the intention of responding but with the intention of listening. First, we need to listen to God through his word. If we do not read the Bible, if you do not hear God’s word proclaimed through the church, and if you do not pray, then how can we hear God? God once told the Apostles Peter, James, and John. Jesus was His Son and that they must “Listen to him.” We must listen first to God and then with God’s wisdom we can begin to properly listen to one another. Listening is sorely needed today. Then when we have listened, James said we should be slow to speak. We should measure our words towards one another in view of our relationship to God. We should be asking ourselves, “How will my words reflect on my relationship with God? Will my words reflect the love I have for God and for the person I am speaking with?” We, Christians, should concentrate on expressing the distinctive truth that lets us stand apart from what everyone seems to believe to be true of human nature. Finally, James said we need to keep our anger in check. Anger is a secondary emotion; meaning anger is an expression of something else going on. Anger may come because we are frustrated, hurt, or confused by a trial or a trying person. An angry outburst, James said, does not reveal God within us and does not achieve what God desires.
Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger is necessary for our relationship with God. What must we do to have this posture before God? James said, “21 Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent [worldliness] and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you [God’s wisdom]. [But] 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:21-25). James moved from simply meditating on God’s word or reading the Bible or being in prayer. Now, James gave rise to the Nike shoe branding, “Just Do It!” We must act consistent with the thinking we have been given by God. We are two beings in one. We are spirit and flesh. In the spirit, we can listen to God and in the flesh, we can still choose to do what we know is wrong.
The Apostle Paul shared with us the battle between spirit and the flesh. Paul wrote, “15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:15, 18b-20).
James was saying we must let go of the past ways of doing things and be willing to embrace in action living that imitates Jesus. Otherwise, we are no different than someone who looks in the mirror, gets a good look at themselves, walks away from the mirror and has no idea what they look like anymore. There are a couple of ways to think about James’ analogy of the mirror. The one I favor is James was saying, “We look in the mirror and we see the reflection of Jesus Christ. We see that God’s Word has been received into our mind and we are at peace. We like that image and feel close to God. Then we turn from the mirror and begin doing whatever we want whether in anger, or lust, or greed, or brutishness, or gossip, or sowing division. We have forgotten the image we once reflected, and we present Jesus as sinful and ugly. What on earth are we doing? James said though that congratulations are in order for those of us who do not forget the image of Christ present within us and have the desire and strength of character to present that image to others as we do the tasks of life, whether mundane or noble. When we get in the habit of making the right and righteous choices based upon the word of God, based upon the completed work of Jesus, then we acquire congratulations from God.
James then completed his immediate thought on personal actions of being quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, and remembering that God within us has become our outward reflection. He said, “26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” James will have more to say about our tongue or instrument of speech. But it is important to distinguish what James was saying to religious people, like you and me. He wasn’t saying, “When you are religious…” or “When you are preaching…” or “When you are assembled in church…” then it is important that you choose your words carefully. James assumes that our “planned language,” will be suitable. When we plan to be religious, then our speech generally is alright. What James was getting at here was that we must not be deceived. Our language, what we say and how we say it, in our unguarded moments, in our unplanned or unscripted conversations is more revealing about who we are and what we believe than our planned conversation. We must recognize that the setting we find ourselves can alter what we say and how we say it.
A short illustration may help here. To put James’ words into context, we need to think about the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer we know is an instrument that measures temperature. You can take a kitchen thermometer and place it in a hot oven and the thermometer will change to become the same temperature as the oven. Remove the instrument from the oven and place it in the refrigerator and the thermometer is happy to change again to the same temperature as the refrigerator. James was warning us, religious people, not to allow our tongue to be like that thermometer by changing what we say to fit the environment in which we find ourselves; that is don’t change to locker room language just because you are in the locker room. Do not allow yourself to adjust to the environment and adopt the standards of others. Where does the thermostat come in? A thermostat is useful instrument because a thermostat can change the temperature of the environment. When a thermostat is engaged to change the temperature of an area guess what happens? All the thermometers in that environment will change to match the actions of the thermostat. We can be a thermostat by our presence in any environment and cause the thermometers, that is other people, to change. Meaning what we say in all conditions, guarded and unguarded will cause others to change to what we, as believers, set. We would then be sharing the proper perspective as religious people. James said that religion, “27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Our language and our actions bring about peace and hope to others. Our local missional activities to support the most vulnerable in our community cause others to see the God or at least righteousness. Some people see that our words and behavior are congruent, and they seek God in their life. Other just see our words and behaviors, still reject God, but they imitate us by joining efforts to help the vulnerable in our community. Either way, all are changed by our words and behaviors just like all thermometers change at the action of the thermostat. So, are you a thermometer or a thermostat?
James was calling his readers to listen carefully to the word of God. Speak slowly and purely when words are needed and always to act with grace and not in anger. James wanted his readers to understand that such a life is possible and peaceful when we put God first. Our Old Testament psalmist today wrote, “1 I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sit enthroned in heaven” (Psalm 123). Keeping our eyes on God through Jesus Christ brings us into a peaceful understanding of our place in God’s creation, the destructiveness of sin, the grace revealed by God through Jesus, the redemption from sin that Jesus brought and bought, and the destiny of eternity. When we keep our eyes on God, then we no longer forget who we look like and we will be congratulated by God for sharing in his desires for humanity. Let’s pray this week that our eyes remain focused and our words few and our actions righteous. Amen and Amen.