Discovering What Really Matters
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 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. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4 Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, 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. 12 There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
James wants us to see that the choices we make in life lead to very different places. We can choose the way of the world or we can choose the way of God. The contrast is stark. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” Over and over in his letter, James emphasizes this fundamental difference between secular values and Christian values. Denise Howell summed up the difference best when she said: “It is not who you are it is whose….” The secular world measures people by position, power and wealth and when we believe who we are is most important, our lives are dedicated to achievement, ranking and acquisition. Those things cannot sustain us. Jesus offers a better, if unintuitive, way.
One of my clients a few years ago had received his PhD in mathematics from MIT. His talent and years of hard work had made him a very good mathematician but he was not going to be great. He realized that he had aged out of the period in his life that he was most likely to make a breakthrough in his field. He was disappointed and very depressed. He was thirty three. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with working and aspiring to be the very best, it becomes problematic when our identity is defined by our achievement. For him, his ‘failure’ left him bereft. He could never be who he thought he should be.
In our FIRL discussion there was an almost immediate two fold response, First, what’s wrong with trying to be our best and second how hard it is to avoid comparing ourselves to other people.
In both groups there were protests that there is nothing wrong with seeking to be the best. Of course not. In fact, such aspirations give us the capacity to reach our highest potential. It is probably impossible to know our true limits until we actually bump into them. Ironically, one of the reasons we don’t push those limits is because we don’t want to face ‘failure’. Theologically, we have an obligation to be all that God created us to be. The trouble comes from our constant need to compare and to judge ourselves. We think we should be better than who we really are. We want to be extraordinary—or at least above average.
We can enjoy extraordinary people. We can admire them. We can wish we were one of them but in real life, most of us are ordinary. And for most of us ‘ordinary’ is not enough. We compare and despair. Our worth is in how we measure up. Our behaviors reveal that we really do not believe God or anyone else can genuinely love us for who we are.
In real life it is very hard not to feel ‘less than’ when we discover we do less. Every single human being, if they live long enough, will incrementally be confronted with what they can’t do. It is called aging. An incredibly important task in real life has become living with what I cannot do—especially when I remember what used to be or when I see others doing more than me. I remember all too vividly the days I could run five miles comfortably on my ‘off’ days. Unfortunately, those vivid memories are over twenty years old. Now running one mile is an achievement. It is harder to stay disciplined when I realize that success is no longer improving, success is slowing the downward curve. Instead of living in the present, I live in the woulda, coulda, shoulda world of comparison and self judgment.
When James describes conflict and disputes emerging from our craving, he is referring to our craving to add to ourselves—as if having more would make us more. Such values lead to a zero sum life. If someone advances, someone else falls behind. It is pretty hard to support our neighbor if we feel like we will lose something. If not literal killing, we will backbite and character assassinate those who differ from us. (See almost any comments section on a news feed). If not literal stealing, we will act as if we deserve our place in the world and all to easily allow us to dismiss the needs of others. (If they had worked harder, they wouldn’t be in their predicament.) In real life, our efforts matter but certainly are not sufficient to explain our place in the world. (There is a FaceBook post that shows an African woman on a bicycle with three children, a stack of wood and some groceries. The gist of the caption says that if hard work were sufficient, most African women would be millionaires).
James shifts from the damage we cause to ourselves to the new life that comes from right relationship with God. When we are in right relationship with God, we yield to something greater than ourselves. We cannot explain our lives. “Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” Our job is to do the best we can with what we have been given. We will not act entitled. We will be mindful of those who have been given less and we will suspend our envy for those who have been given more. Our value and worth come from God alone. All else— our achievements and even our lives— will pass.
Such thinking is both terrifying and the door to a full life. Such losses are painful and must be grieved. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. James goes so far as to wish such grief upon us. “Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.” Sometimes the only way to learn what is truly lasting is to grieve what isn’t. My thirty three year old mathematician was beginning to grieve. The question for his future would be: ‘What will he do with the rest of his life? What will he decide makes his life valuable and worth living?
If you want a life that matters and a life that can be sustained, “ Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” None of us know what tomorrow will bring. Live today with what you’ve got and trust that what you do matters. That is a huge faith claim. Often what we do seems pitifully small and certainly does not compare. James reminds us: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes?” Our every claim to self importance will vanish. Self sufficiency is part of life but it is not the way to life. When we view our limits as part of our God given creation—as opposed to boundaries we must overcome—we can enjoy what we have. Facing squarely what we cannot do frees us to do what we can do.
I have started to learn this from my father. He is 96, is nearly blind and has difficulty walking. He is often very short of breath. He has been given an inhaler that he can use twice a day. It really helps— for a couple of hours. He uses a part of his respite each day to walk up and down the hallway. It will not add up to a city block. But he will use whatever he has left. I hope I do likewise.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. Let it be so.