This is what it looks like to stand next to God… (pt. 2)

As some of the more faithful cross-shaped readers might recall, the last post blew you away with my artistic creativity and ingenuity.  Perhaps a quick reminder will refresh your memories and impress you anew.

Click here for Part 1.

Now let’s move from picture world to Bible world and make this all come together.

James emphasizes what I tried to draw using the metaphor of wealth in his letter.  This is a metaphor that likely hit close to home for his audience and does for us today.  Wealth isn’t in and of itself sinful, but it is very dangerous.  To whom much is given, much is expected.  And James takes note of this pointing out that in God’s Kingdom:

(a) the poor are given a high position while the rich are humiliated (1:9-11);

(b) the poor are honored by God while the rich are honored on earth (2:1-5);

(c) the poor will be avenged while the rich will be punished (5:1-6).

James’ rhetorical strategy here is to use power as a uniting concept.  He believes that it is the pursuit of power and wealth (aka stuff) that results in evil (4:1-2).  Think about it – why do people seek power (money, possessions, authority, influence, rank, prestige, etc.) to begin with?  Rarely is it for good ends, but rather this pursuit stems from one of two things: (1) envy and/or (2) selfish ambition (3:14).  It’s like everyone is racing to the top because everyone wants to be on top!

Envy is such a poison.  When it courses through your veins and takes hold of your heart, it has the effect of making you resent God’s goodness in the lives of other people and ignore God’s goodness in your own life.

Don’t resent all of this, rejoice over it!

Selfish ambition is not much better.  This poison cultivates a spirit of entitlement as you climb higher and higher up the ladder and get closer and closer to the top. But fact is, you cannot be grateful for what you feel entitled to.

So the people of God should reject this way of the world (3:13-16) and seek God’s pure and peaceable wisdom instead (3:17-18).  This wisdom makes abundantly clear the misguidedness behind envy and selfish ambition.  As a result, God gives grace to these people (4:6) because they position themselves in a place of humility and dependence, the only position that allows you to draw near to God (4:7-8).  It is a position that cries out in repentance (4:9) and acknowledges that God alone decides who is “on top” (4:10).

So in other words, our lives should be a race to the bottom, not the top.  Right?

Because in the eyes of God, those who race to the bottom, understanding that they are spiritually marginal, are able to do two things: (1) they are able to love those on the margins of society because they identify with their weaknesses and needs and (2) they are able to receive God’s blessing and help because they know that it isn’t stuff that pleases God, but rather your whole-hearted dependence upon him (1:27).

6 thoughts on “This is what it looks like to stand next to God… (pt. 2)

  1. 1) Agree wholeheartedly. No questions.

    2) Agree wholeheartedly. No questions.

    3) Held accountable in what way? If you will be saved because of your faith, does that just mean that God will point out your selfish use of money and then welcome you anyways?

    4) Agreed….I am just deeply suspicious of my own tendency and the tendency of others in my position to selfishly rationalize what fits into “necessary expenses.”

    5) Agree there…the heart can be a deceptive thing. That is my fear as well.

    6) Definitely agree with sufficiency over equality. Great point. Nothing wrong with people having experiences that cost money and stuff. Just seems weird, though, when others don’t have basic needs in terms of food, water, shelter, and hygiene met and are dying from curable, treatable diseases. Seems like in an ideal world, those things would be met before I consume a 1500 calorie burrito or buy DirecTV. That’s the tension I feel. Yet I still have DirecTV, and still will probably eat food from a restaurant tonight with friends, and have a closet full of clothes and my AC set in the mid-70s when it is 95 outside. What to make of felt tension while still living as so (regardless of whether I give 10-15% of total income away)?

    7) Excellent take on that world. On the money. I just wonder what gaps can be jumped to the more nuanced “power” that the average American may have today. Not sure.

    Above all, I feel kind of caught in the trap of a tainted culture and tainted system with no real way out. All attempts to simplify, live off less, give more seem pretty feeble when it comes to what more I could sacrifice and what more I could give. Feels like I’m in quicksand, and if I’m going to be honest, I do find it difficult with this particular issue to trust that God’s grace will indeed cover the inherent taintedness of my and my culture’s use of money.

    When I think like that, I am reminded of this quote of C.S. Lewis that interprets such despair and guilt over particular sins as a failure to recognize all of the either sins in a person’s life that are just as bad. Powerful quote: “There is, of course, always the chance, not of chloroforming the shame, but of aggravating it and producing Despair. This would be a great triumph. It would show that he had believed in, and accepted, the Enemy’s forgiveness of his other sins only because he himself did not fully feel their sinfulness – that in respect of the one vice which he really understands in its full depth of dishonour he cannot see, nor credit, the Mercy. But I fear you have already let him get too far in the Enemy’s school, and he knows that Despair is a greater sin than any of the sins which provoke it.”

    I find comfort in that, and in Bonhoeffer’s view that even our efforts to pursue righteous behaviors are feeble and tainted with sin and with guilt in some way….which just leads one to actually feel what it really feels like to trust in the cross and not the potential righteousness of your own actions. At the end of the day, I realize it’s the cross or bust for me because my own self-sacrificial pursuits are tainted

  2. Great post!

    What do you make of the tension the some may see between God’s favor towards the “spiritually marginal” versus the physically marginal? How much of “seeking God’s pure and peaceable wisdom” involves pursuing marginal physical circumstances in order to give more away, you think?

    James is so very concerned with the physically marginal (end of ch. 1) and so overtly appalled by the physically affluent (James 5:1-6, plus others you sited). I’m always nervous about how I, in my position of affluence and power compared to the rest of the world, may too easily appeal to the “race to the bottom” spiritually while excusing myself of some of the extreme physical ramifications that could and should come from it. Perhaps I’m just overly suspicious of my own rationalizations. What do you think?

    • Keen insight man. You hit the nail on the head. I’m often convicted by my air-conditioning, my cable television, my 1500 calorie burrito, etc. And I’m not sure if any rationalization will ever settle that tension in my gut. These are things I’ll have to answer for some day before the judgment seat.

      A few things that run through my head:

      (1) Money, in and of itself, isn’t dirty or evil or wrong or unclean. Rather, it is how you get it OR how you use it. Thus it doesn’t really matter how much you have as long as you are getting it and using it in the right ways.

      (2) Using it in the right way would be using it in cross-shaped ways – ways that reflect your love for God and other people OVER your love for yourself.

      (3) We will be held accountable someday for every single penny we spend (and everything else we do). Thus, I need to make sure that every single last penny (not just 10%) of my money is being leveraged in cross-shaped ways.

      (4) The Kingdom needs to come and God’s will needs to be done EVERYWHERE. This includes third world and first world countries. I feel called to live and minister in America (for now), thus there are certain expenses that will have to be met in order to do what God wants me to do.

      (5) Some examples of the type of questions that I ask myself about the “extra” things I have: Is the Sabbath (rest, relaxation, and renewal) value of Cable Television or Netflix worth the dollar amount that could be used elsewhere? Is the efficiency and reach that my iPhone brings to my ministry worth the dollar amount that could be used elsewhere? Is the welcoming homieness of a hospitable abode worth the dollar amount that could be used elsewhere? etc. etc. etc. I don’t know. That’s for each person to decide. But each person better remember that God knows his/her heart!

      (6) In our pursuits to conquer poverty/neediness, I think our focus should be on sufficiency, not equality. God gives enough for everyone to be sufficient, this rings true time and time again. But he simply doesn’t distribute equally. The Body of Christ functions more like a partnership, or a family, that reaches out when unlikeable circumstances are present. But not necessarily some sort of socialistic regime.

      (7) For James specifically, I do think he has a particular discomfort with the rich. Probably b/c the majority of wealthy people he has come into contact with in Palestine were not good people. In pre-70 Palestine (and post-70 Palestine) one finds a cultural situation in which the majoirty of the population consists of peasants/farmers living off a small plot of land. As the population grew, land inheritances became smaller and smaller until families were no longer able to provide for themselves from their own property. This would force many pepole into trade or unskilled labor as a last resort. Subsequently, people were continuously exploited by the wealthy landowners who held a vice-grip on all the real-estate. They could name their prices on seed. Or they could mess around with the wages they gave to their hired hands at their own will. These people had no where else to turn. Throw on top of this high taxation my the government and the Temple, and you can see why the average Jew would speak venomously about anybody and everybody with wealth. Someone correct me if I have misrepresented first century Palestine here. James 4:13-5:6 I think illustrates well the cultural climate.

  3. Pingback: This is what it looks like to stand next to God… (pt. 1) | CROSS-SHAPED STUFF

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