Keeping the right perspective - James 4:11 - 5:6
During the course of this week, I came across some interesting laws from different countries, which although irrelevant to modern life, yet are still officially law in the particular country. England, it has to be said, came out top of the list with the most useless laws still in force. For instance, it may surprise you to know that all English boys under the age of 14 are required to carry out at least 2 hours of longbow practice a week supervised by a local clergyman. I now know how I should be spending my Saturdays. Also for those women among us who like to nibble on a Mars Bar on the bus, please be aware that it is illegal for women to eat chocolates on a public conveyance. It was also rather comforting to discover that in York it is still legal to shoot a Scotsman with a bow and arrow, except on Sundays. However, it is not just England that such bizarre laws exist. In Israel, it is illegal to bring a bear to the beach with you, whilst in Switzerland it is illegal to wash your car on a Sunday. And finally, one for Americans among us which is that it is still possible for American citizens to take possession of any uninhabited foreign island, so long as it contains bird droppings. Well these laws may be funny to us, but of course when they were first written, they were deadly serious. The only problem is, that as the years have gone by, the have become obsolete and useless. And what these laws need is an entirely new perspective on life, a 21st century perspective which takes into account modern life.
Well as we come back to the letter of James this week, we find that what James is urging us to have is a new, God focused perspective on our lives. You'll remember that two weeks ago, as we studied chapter four, we found that James had us on his operating table and he was cutting us open to see if we were guilty of double mindedness, the disease each Christian is prone to, the disease which has us saying we are going God's way, yet all the while going ours. We found James revealed to us the symptoms of double mindedness, the heart of double mindedness, and also the cure for double mindedness. And that cure was to humble ourselves before our God and to repent of our wrong doing. And this week, James gives us three examples of areas of our lives where we are often prone to double mindedness: That is in the area of our personal relationships, our time, and our wealth. And I think the reason James picks on these areas is that it is here that we are in danger of being practical atheists.
You see I guess almost all of us here would say that we believe in God, even that we are Christians. And yet so often, we deny our faith in the way that we live. In practice, we act as if there is no God. So, as we'll see in a moment, we behave to one another in ways which displease God, we plan our lives and fill our diaries as if there is no God, and in the area of money, we spend and save with little or no thought to what God might think. We say we believe and yet in these three areas especially, we are practical atheists, saying we live God's way, but in practice living our lives with little or no reference to him. So once again, James has his surgeon's knife out, examining our hearts. And he's asking us a very serious question: Are we practical atheists in these three areas? Are we being double minded in our attitude to people, time and money? Well if so, we're deceiving ourselves, and we need to humble ourselves again before the Lord. So let's look at these three sections in turn. And we'll see that the Christian needs:
1) A Godly Perspective on Relationships (4 vv 11-12)
2) A Godly Perspective on Time (4 vv 13-17)
3) A Godly Perspective on Wealth (5 vv 1-6)
1) A Godly Perspective on Relationships (4 vv 11-12)
So first then, James says we need a godly perspective on our relationships, verse 11-12: 'Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or
judges him, speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not
keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you- who are you to judge your neighbour?'
Now the problem James is addressing in these verses is the problem of Christians slandering each other. Literally, the word translated 'slander' in our versions means to 'talk against' or to 'talk down'. It's the conversations where we do down someone else, maybe ever so slightly, but enough to make us feel better about ourselves; or the little jibe about some part of their character we don't like; the little piece of gossip which puts someone in a bad light. We're all experts at it, and it seems to have been rife in the congregations to which James was writing. You'll remember from chapter 4 vv 1-3 that there were actually quarrels and fighting in the churches. And it all springs from this slanderous attitude which loves to put others down. So, says pastor James, do not slander one another.
Why not? James gives two great reasons. First because when you slander someone you're elevating yourself above the law. Verse 11: 'Anyone who speaks against his brother and or judges him, speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law you are not keeping it but sitting in judgement of it.' The law James probably has in mind is the law about loving your neighbour, something he has already mentioned back in 2 v 8. You see, when we talk against someone, or do them down, when we let fly that bitter comment, or that unfounded piece of gossip, we're actually judging the law. It's as if we're saying: 'Well, I'm not sure that that law about loving your neighbour is for me. I think I'll choose to ignore it. Quite frankly it's not worth the paper it's written on. I'll decide what's best.' Now of course, none of us would ever say that, but James says that this is what is really going on when we slander another Christian, or anyone for that matter.
And James goes further in verse 12 to give us another reason why we shouldn't slander. Because, the implication goes, you're elevating yourself above God, verse 12: 'There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you- who are you to judge your neighbour?' James implies that when we ignore the law, we actually ignore the God who made the law. It's as if we are saying: 'I disagree with God on this one. His law is rubbish. I don't want to love my neighbour. I'm deciding what is right and wrong. I think I'll take throne as the law giver and judge.' Instead, James says- there is only one lawgiver and judge. God made the law, and he'll judge you by it. And he has the power both to save you and destroy you. So who are you to rewrite God's law?
So whenever we criticise someone behind their back or make a snide comment to someone, whenever we are rude and put someone down, whenever we are short tempered with someone and say something out of turn, then we're actually elevating ourselves above the law and the God who gave us the law. So don't slander one another, he says. Don't be double minded in your relationships. If you say you're a Christian, act like one, and don't slander one another. Instead we're to show the qualities of godly wisdom that James told us about in chapter 3: Of being pure, peaceful, submissive, impartial and sincere. For what kind of church would we have if that were the case in all our dealings with one another?
The story is told of Abraham Lincoln about how on one occasion, in order to please a certain politician, issued a command to transfer certain regiments in the army. When Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, received the order, he refused to carry it out, saying the President was a fool. When Lincoln was told about this, he didn't explode out of anger, like many a President would have done. Instead, he replied: 'If Stanton said I'm a fool, then I must be, for he is nearly always right. I'll see for myself.' So Lincoln met Stanton and the President quickly realised that his decision was a grave mistake and without hesitation he withdrew it. If anyone deserved to have the right to assert his authority, it was Lincoln. But he didn't. Instead he was demonstrating these qualities of consideration and submissiveness, of not putting himself above others. So don't be double minded in your relationships with others. Instead reflect that wisdom from above and have a godly perspective on your relationships.
2) A Godly Perspective on Time (4 vv 13-17)
But then James moves on to the second example of double mindedness, out attitudes to time. And his point is that we must have a godly perspective on time. Verse 13: 'Now listen, you who say: 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a
year there, carry on business and make money.'' James is here addressing Christian business people who are planning their next business deal. 'Why don't we go to Athens next week, they say, or how about Rome? I hear the camels are cheap there at the moment. We're sure to make some money out of those Romans!' Now to our ears this probably seems very ordinary language. What's wrong with it? I mean, we say these sorts of things all the time don't we? We plan what we're doing tomorrow, we plan our summer holidays, we plan our futures. Surely it's all normal, very ordinary, every day language? Well, yes it is, and in fact the Bible urges us to plan wisely. It's not planning as such that James is condemning. The trouble comes in verse 16. These people are actually boasting and arrogant about their planning. They are planning their lives with no reference to God. They assume they are in control. They assume that tomorrow will happen, that they will be around in a year's time. And that sort of assumption is arrogant boasting, according to James. Instead we need to have God's perspective on time so that we don't fall into the same trap. It means two things:
a) Recognise life is fragile (vv 13-14)- First, we need to recognise life is fragile. Verse 14: 'Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.' James says that human beings are fragile. They are fragile in terms of their knowledge. 'You do not even know what will happen tomorrow.' Not one of us knows what is going to happen tomorrow. Anything could happen. So why do we boastfully plan our lives away without reference to the only one who can take care of tomorrow and all it holds, the Lord of Time, God himself. We're fragile too in terms of our lives. James says in verse 14: 'What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.' We're simply mists that are here one minute and gone the next. In the grand scheme of things, our lives are just small dots that last only a few moments. It's like when you boil a kettle- the steam rises up for a moment or two and then is gone. Or like the mist that hangs over the river early on a summer's morning- within a few hours it's gone, burnt off by the sunshine. That's human life! And we human beings need to recognise just how fragile life is. Every funeral I have to take reminds me just how fragile life is. It is said that long ago when Eastern Emperors were crowned on the throne in Constantinople the court stonemason would set before the new Emperor several slabs of marble so he could choose his gravestone. Morbid, but realistic. And James tells us: Recognise life is fragile. We're not immortal, so why do we often act like it? Why plan our lives away without reference to the God who gives us life and keeps us alive? It's just practical atheism.
b) Remember your dependence (vv 16-17)- But James does not want us to become depressed or fatalistic. Whilst the Bible tells us that life is fragile and human beings are like the grass of the field, here today, gone tomorrow, yet James also tells us that there is a God who is in control. So in the light of our fragile lives we are to remember our dependence on the God who made us and sustains us every day. Verse 15: 'Instead, you ought to say: 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.' You see, the trouble with James' business men was that their lives, though they claimed to be Christian, did not demonstrate humility before God, a quality which James urged on his readers in chapter 4. Listen again to what James literally says about these people in verse 13: ' Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, and we will spend a year there, and we will carry on business and we will make money.' Where's the emphasis? On it's on 'we'. That's their problem. They are fundamentally self-centred. They are self confident. That's why James calls them boasters and braggers in verse 16. It may seem strong to us, but James gets to the heart. Because the real problem is that they are not showing dependency on God in their everyday working lives. They've left God out of the picture, which is a very foolish thing to do, given how fragile life is and given that we don't know even what will happen tomorrow. 'Instead, you ought to say: 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.'' Now James isn't talking about simply saying the phrase 'God willing'. The mere repetition of a phrase doesn't mean anything. No, what he is saying is that our attitude should be one of humble dependence on God which acknowledges that all of life comes under his will. Did you notice that even whether we live the next day is dependant on him? 'If it is the Lord's will, we will liveWe are fragile, and life is given to us by God. And it is arrogant boasting to think we can get by for even one day without him and his strength. And so all the plans I make must be submitted to him in prayer.
And so the question we must ask ourselves is this: Are we humbly dependant on our God in all we plan and do? Do we leave God out of the picture in all the plans we make, or is he central to all we do, as he ought to be? Remember it's not planning James is challenging us on: Rather the sort of planning which is simply practical atheism. God is nowhere. And if we plan and fill our lives with schemes with no reference to God, then we are ships adrift in the ocean without rudder or engine. But there is a great encouragement here: That in an uncertain world, where even tomorrow is a mystery, we have a God who is perfectly able to get us through the storms and who is well able to provide for us in every way. So let's trust him, and pray. Let's not be practical atheists, double minded in this area of time. Instead let's have a godly perspective on time.
3) A Godly Perspective on Wealth (5 vv 1-6)
And then lastly, we come to James' third example where we are in danger of being double minded, or practical atheists, in the area of wealth, and so James commands us to have a godly perspective on wealth in 5: 1-6. Now James seems here to be addressing wealthy non Christian landlords who were abusing their Christian workers, and he is condemning their misuse of wealth. And I think the reason James includes this section is because he wants to teach his people about the dangers of wealth and the reality of God's justice. It's certainly a very important lesson for us to learn in the 21st century. We are fabulously wealthy compared to the apostle James, and our society idolises wealth. Shopping precincts are the new churches, advertisers the new ministers, and mail order catalogues the new hymn books. And Christians must be very careful in this materialistic atmosphere in which we live. It's not that James, or the rest of the Bible, has anything against wealth for the sake of it. Rather it is the love of money which the Bible says is root of all kinds of evil. And 21st century Christians are in grave danger of being practical atheists in their use of their wealth. So James warns us about three misuses of wealth in this passage:
a) Accumulation (vv 1-3)- Verse 1: 'Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.' James uses very strong language against these people, doesn't he? And the sin James condemns is that of hoarding wealth. And James' point is that all wealth eventually rots or corrodes. Now the scientists among us will have noticed a strange thing, in that James says their silver and gold is corroded. But of course, the very reason why these metals are precious is because the don't corrode. But in the atmosphere of heaven they do! You cannot take anything with you beyond the grave. All wealth has a sell by date on it, so to hoard it is to completely misunderstand what wealth is for. What does Jesus say? Do not store up treasure for yourselves on earth, but store up for yourselves treasure sin heaven. Wealth is for using, and for Christians it is for using for gospel purposes. Now of course there is nothing wrong with saving, but there is everything wrong with hoarding. We often call it good stewardship, but it may be it is a mask for greed. And James condemns the wealthy for accumulating their wealth, which is all going to rot away.
I was chatting with a neighbour this week who told me about a man who lived in a huge house in Willerby. When he died, the house was found to be in a terrible state, a beautiful house falling into disrepair with no furnishings or comforts. And yet when some boxes were opened they were found to contain fifty large envelopes each with in them: Cash amounting to Added to that were stocks and shares totally hundreds of thousands of pounds. The man was extremely rich, and yet he had hoarded it all, and it did not help him with iota when he died. 'Weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you', warns James. Money is their god, and they will answer of it. We say money isn't our god, and yet we spend much of our time worshipping it. That's the first misuse of money- accumulation.
b) Cheating others (v 4)- Verse 4: 'Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.' These wealthy landlords were doing their workers out of money. These workers needed their wages to live on. The lived hand to mouth. What they earn they spent the same day on food. So when they don't get paid they don't eat. Highly unfair of the fat cats to deprive their workers. But the Lord knows and he stands up for those abused by injustices. The cries of the harvesters have reached the Lord almighty. Do we do the same? Well maybe we do. There's enough food in the world to go round. But millions starve because of the West's affluence. God never turns his ears away from those in need. Maybe there are those on our doorstep or in our church who are in need.
c) Self Indulgence (vv 5-6)- Verse 5: 'You have lived on earth in luxury and self
indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.' The big danger with wealth is that we keep it all to ourselves, as these people did. But they are only heading for judgement, and they arrogantly assume it won't happen to them. It's like the turkey turning to his friends in early December and saying: 'I look really good now I'm putting on a bit of weight!' But such self indulgent use of money and wealth only invites God's wrath. Now let's not misunderstand James here. Celebration and times of festivity are not wrong. Enjoying what God gives to us is not wrong. Wealth in and of itself is not evil. And yet we need honestly to examine our motives about our spending. We need to ask ourselves: 'Do I really need this? Do I really have to have that?' All to often our default is to spend and buy without thinking. The Christian needs to think honestly about how they spend and what they buy. That will prevent us from living in luxury and self indulgence.
Now we might think that these three warnings about wealth have nothing to do with us. I'm not a hoarder, we say, I'm not cheating others, and I'm not self indulgent. But before we ignore James' warnings, can I urge us to take an honest look at the way we use our wealth, possessions and money. What are your priorities in your use of money and possessions? The Bible urges us to sit light to what we have, for we cannot take it with us. And only Christians will support the work of the gospel. Is that a priority in your use of your God given wealth? And even if we think we are OK, we need to beware. Money and possessions are very captivating. It wasn't for nothing that Jesus said it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is never too early to start rooting out the sin of acquisitiveness. For even in the NT some fell because of wealth. Listen to Paul's warning in 1 Timothy: 'For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.' If NT Christians can do it, so can we. So be warned. Don't be double minded in your use of wealth. Don't hoard it, don't cheat others with it, don't be self indulgent. Have a godly perspective on your wealth.
Well once again James has put the knife in. But he only does it because he loves us. He's told us to have a godly perspective on our relationships, on our time and our wealth. These lessons are not easy, and yet as Christians in the world, James warns us: Don't be practical atheists. Don't be double minded. And above all, make sure you not only listen to the word, but do what it says.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.