Posts Tagged ‘James 3’

JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

“You do not have, because you do not ask.” Is James saying that we can have anything we want just by asking for it? Not quite. He goes on to accuse the readers of asking wrongly “in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” In other words, our asking (and seeking and knocking, to quote Jesus) needs to arise out of and be inspired by a deeper awareness of our true need.

And what do we truly need? Not wealth or power or a competitive advantage over our rivals, but rather a pure heart, inner peace, and sufficient love for even our enemies. Now these are not things we typically pray for – frankly, they are counterproductive to our usual efforts toward self-promotion. And that is precisely the point James is making.

What are we unhappy in life? Why does it seem that frustration, and the insatiable appetite for excitement and accumulation that it arouses in us, is the prevailing temperament of our society today? The answer is deceptively simple: it is because the things we ask for – among them money, sex, and power (the Big Three) – are unable to satisfy the essential aspiration of our nature as human beings, which is to grow into the fullness of our God-given capacities for freedom, creativity, wisdom, fidelity, and love.

How will we ever find fulfillment if we consistently tether the upward realization of our divine potential to the obsessions and cravings of the infantile ego? Resist the devil indeed! It’s not that many or most of the things we “ask for” are inherently evil, but that our inordinate expectations (“This will make me happy!”) put demands on them which they can never satisfy.

JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

As bodies we are biological organisms animated with a life impulse that is billions of years old. Our fortunate evolution has achieved emotional, intellectual, and intuitive levels of such complexity and power, we can easily believe that we have fully and finally transcended the base urges of our prehistoric origins.

However, just because we possess abilities for artistic creativity, city planning, and abstract thought doesn’t mean that we have been liberated completely from the unconscious thrust and reflexes of our animal nature. Indeed, it is exactly this animal nature with all its urgencies that contributes the energy for such higher cultural formations and uniquely human expressions.

If all went without a hitch, this evolutionary adventure of ours would be a happy tale. But there is a hitch, and to some degree for every one of us without exception: our natural animal self-interest is compounded with a self-obsession that grows in proportion to our ego insecurity, which  makes for an often nasty, selfish, and violence-prone personality.

This human fall into selfishness is the original sin from whence spring our ambitions for superiority, dominance, and glory. In the Jerusalem church, a mere twenty years or so after Jesus had left them to carry on his message and mission, the Christians were at each others’ throats, overtaken by animal rivalries for power and position.

JAMES 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

According to the Genesis myth of creation it was the word of God – “Let there be!” – that brought forth light, matter, and the myriad creatures. Rather than reading this story literally we can interpret it as “an ode to the word,” capturing in a narrative portrait the profound power in speech for bringing forth worlds – or destroying them, as the case may be.

As creaturely reflections of God, human beings have the creative capacity in language to call intelligent order from the sensory chaos of experience. And as the agency of communication, the word carries into audible and textual signs the otherwise hidden intentions of our minds and hearts.

Seeing as how much of human culture is really the technical transformation of material energy into structures of meaning, and how totally meaning is a product of language, and finally how much of language is about words and the relationships among words, we begin to appreciate the real insight in what may have seemed like exaggerated warnings in the Letter of James regarding the tongue and its power.

The greatest of human capacities – to create and live within word-worlds of meaning – can be turned in either a godly or demonic direction. It can name and tame the beasts of the wilds, and it can curse, malign, and condemn our human neighbor. We can stand up on Sundays to recite the prayers and historic creeds of the church, but once back home we can pick up again with the destructive family patterns of the things we say to one another as well as the things we tell ourselves.

There must have been a toxic dose of hypocrisy moving about the circulatory system of the early church!

JAMES 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

The science of cultural anthropology marks the arrival of our distinctive human consciousness with the emergence of language. As an evolutionary advance on the primitive signal systems of animal communication where the motivation is for behavioral responses of various sorts (e.g., territorial warnings, courtship rituals, dominance displays, social bonding), human language introduces a capacity for mentally representing the world in such a way that meaning becomes the overarching concern.

What is the meaning of property? What is the significance of love? Such questions reveal a mind that is no longer satisfied with mere animal preoccupations. For the first time consciousness becomes a creator, and constructing a world of meaning becomes its new and everlasting fascination.

Words, then, are not mere signals to elicit behavioral responses; they are building blocks in the cultural cosmos of human meaning. Not only that, words can also serve to break apart and bring to collapse the cultural assumptions and judgments that enforce a particular worldview over rival perspectives and belief systems. At the more personal level, we are each familiar with the power in words to build up or tear down the largely emotional architecture of human relations.

With a single word the confidence of a young toddler can be devastated for years. With mere words we can alternately inspire hope and break trust, praise and blame, forgive and condemn. And it’s all in the power of this little organ, the tongue, and how we control it.