More than Fire: Thoughts on the Epistle of James


Flame before Mountains


Is my life an echo of God’s benediction of creation, “It is good?” or is my life a continual murmur, a complaint, an exception.  I used to see the book of James as some disjointed moralist remarks including, most convicting for me, the call to tame the fire of the tongue.  This time I read it I see it as a united call to speak as God speaks, to submit to his authorship and echo his benediction of peace for creation.

Often when people find out that I have four kids four and under they ask me, “Do your kids fight?”  It strikes me as such an odd question because the answer is obviously, “yes!”  I think the question must come after they give me that look, “poor you” and I say, “they are good kids.”  When they ask more I explain that they are good as I help them to be good; I literally watch them all day long.  I don’t sit at the computer or talk on the phone because when I do they inevitably get into a conflict.  I am trying to teach them to be independently at peace and at times they are (especially when they have slept well!) but the point is that their peace comes when they sense my presence and attention.  It is not only my authority but my suggestions for games, encouragement and delight in their play that sets them at peace.  If I get up to go to the bathroom when they are already tired – there will be blood!  Inevitably one feels threatened since she’s the youngest and lashes out first to ensure her own rights, or the other amuses himself with how his strength irritates his sisters or maybe the eldest lords her age and wisdom over everybody else.  In other words, my absence creates a power struggle.

This is the same with our relationship to God.  Although Christ is absent in one sense from us, when we live in the Holy Spirit anticipating Christ’s return we are at peace.  His law is good and we echo our agreement by living it.  Our response in every circumstance by words and actions is prayer and thanksgiving (James 5:13-16).

When we live as if God is absent we create strife.  The rich especially have to deal with this temptation because their resources allow them to feel the joy of the power of creation.  They can have a desire and speak and gratify that desire.  But whereas God is single-minded we are full of warring desires.  We disagree with others about what is best and we disagree even within ourselves (James 4:1-3).  When we pattern our creations after our own laws, desires and plans our systems will be the cause of their own destruction.  Like a child who constructs a fort that includes too many interesting features and techniques, the structure will collapse on itself.  We don’t ask God for what we truly want, we don’t ask him for the right things because we don’t know what we want and this is why he doesn’t hear our prayers.

We should instead seek God’s will and acknowledge that he is the creator.  We are the creatures designed to imitate him.  When we speak, or create, or desire, we should first humble ourselves.  If we trust that God is present and that he is single minded in ensuring his own glory then we can be at peace.  We do not need to court the rich or become rich ourselves, God has all resources.  We do not need to slander those people who we believe aren’t doing the right things or thinking the right things, God alone is judge.   We do not need to strategize and maneuver within political or economic systems because all of these systems are smoke and vapor, God alone is the sovereign authority.

James paints a haunting picture of the rich.  Have you found a favorite woolen sweater, forgotten at the bottom of a drawer full of tiny holes?  Have you dug your hand into a neglected drawer only to feel the slime and grit of old coins?  This poisonous hording is reminiscent of the wormy manna in the wilderness.  The Hebrews who did not trust that God could give them breakfast the next morning woke up to find that their leftovers were covered in maggots.  It is the same for us.  We have desires, among them a perfectly natural hunger for breakfast.  Do we trust that God will give us what we need and truly want?  Do we wait patiently and thankfully as he prepares it?  Or do we bang our plates on the table and whine that we want breakfast?  Do we kick our sister under the table to distract our hunger pangs?  Do we look under the table for crusty scraps from last night’s dinner?  Do we try to sneak some food off the plate of whoever got some first?  God, even more than a good mother, has a plan.  He wants to give us a feast if we only remember his presence and wait.

Here is the conclusion of the matter.  Here is where the other hard truth of James becomes clear.  If we say that we have faith but do not show our works we have no faith.  Why?  Because if we say that God is king but then seek to strategize and set up our own mini kingdom our words are useless.  We are shown to be the grasping usurpers that we are.  If God’s rule is good then we should echo his benediction with a life of peace that is not only the absence of conflict but the presence of a convincing and beautiful good.

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