Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a
Following Christ, being God’s friend, is not simply a matter of getting work done and being a busy bee for the Lord. Rather, following Christ holistically is a matter of with what posture and from what core your works emerge.
As my gym-loving partner often reminds me while I run around the house getting things done: lift from your core. Why? Because if you don’t you might throw your back out, leaving your whole body out of commission for days (yes, I know from experience).
Here we are again in James’ centering question with this pericope: Are you a friend of the world or a friend of God? In other words, are you lifting from your core, or elsewhere, which will lead to the body being thrown out of whack? Specifically, the ask from James this week is: Is the wisdom informing your action in the world from above, from God?
How do you know? It comes back to listening to your core and from your core. Etymologically, “core” is more than the center of the body where our physical strength lies. Core is derived from the Old French cor or Coeur meaning heart. Courage comes from the same place etymologically, that is the heart. Discernment begins with the courage to listen to and from your core for the whisper of God.
In your heart, what drives the choices you make? Envy, James asks? Then your wisdom is unspiritual, devilish. Selfish ambition? Your actions betray you as a friend of the world rather than a friend of God.
The damage done from these actions is not isolated to an individual. Remember, James’ ethic is profoundly horizontal as well as vertical. Wisdom is born from above in order to spread healthy and holy ways of being a community. James highlights in this letter the damage done to community when an individual takes action based on wisdom of the world. It throws the whole body out of whack. There will be disorder, wickedness, and even murder. If you covet, your cravings will lead you away from God as well as away from your neighbor. The warning is especially loud and clear in next week’s pericope from chapter 5.
“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (3:13b)
James offers us descriptions of the healing, holy wisdom that can give birth to our actions when we lift from our core. First James says, “Wisdom from above is pure.” But since few things in this world are pure, perhaps we can begin with the second attribute offered to us: Wisdom from above is gentle. As someone with a very loud and harsh inner critic, I can pause and consider an entire sermon on this attribute for God’s wisdom. Choices I make based on my inner critic rarely make for peace, creativity, or beauty. I picture my inner critic as a mean-faced coach with a whistle, blue shorts, white polo, and knee-high white socks—he’s hunkered down, red-faced and yelling at me to do better as I flail about, not lifting from my core. It’s a laugh, I know, but also a very real presence in my life. I think this coach is fueled by insecurity and scarcity, as if I am not doing enough or not taking the path of so and so, thus falling behind in a race for selfish ambition I never wanted to start. Hello, wisdom from below. I’d rather not act on your advice.
But wisdom from above is gentle. I picture a beloved spiritual director, nodding, listening, asking those self-awakening questions that help me to hear the wisdom of God in the core of my being. Gentle. Not coercive. Invitational, not manipulating and bullying. Hello, wisdom from above. Actions and choices prompted by you make for peace, beauty, joy, abundance.
Wisdom from above is also willing to yield. Goodness, how many people in our midst are up for yielding these days? In the words of Ted Lasso, “The wise Walt Whitman once said: ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’” Curiosity is a wise posture born of a willingness to yield. Judgment is not. It leads to defensiveness and may cause us to miss out on an invitation from God to try something new. But I also hear in this verse the idea that God has a willingness to yield to us rather than to love us by control and domination. I see Jesus overlooking Jerusalem, willing to move forward and to yield, lamenting “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37 NRSV)
Wisdom from above is full of mercy and good fruits. These are two ideas, but one can see how mercy allows for good fruit to grow in ourselves and so between one another. This fruit is perhaps the fruit of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control allow for societies God intends and imagines for us. I think it is interesting to consider how conflict or tension born of God’s wisdom in our dealings with one another can be different from conflict born of envy and selfish-ambition. Conflict that at times is willing to yield, be curious, or show mercy is full of good fruits that will nourish society.
Wisdom from above is without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. James already called out his community’s misbehavior, showing partiality for the rich, in chapter 2. How many boards, politicians, and decision makers need to be reminded of the challenge to not have a partiality that betrays our allegiance to God, made known in a poor, rural Jewish man who rubbed elbows with the marginalized? Whose best interests are at the heart of our choices, our actions or inaction as church? This is the challenge of James, then and now.
As you discern for and with your congregation, listen to James and draw near to God. God will draw near to you. Resist the Devil of Selfish Ambition, Envy, and Covetousness. When our actions, including preaching, are born from God’s wisdom, our inner and outer worlds become a friendlier, holier, more peaceable place. When we lift from our core, we find that we have the collective strength to lift what once seemed an impossibly heavy burden to bear.