Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 20, 2015
Taken from James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
This morning, I continue my “faith in action” sermon series taken from the book of James. As I’ve mentioned in the Sundays before, James is a book that is full of straightforward and practical advice on how to live a good life, a life of faith. Faith for James is not just believing in the right things. Faith is doing the right things. Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves,” says James, “Do what it says.” And what are we to do? James mentions many things like looking after orphans, and widows, keeping oneself pure, not showing partiality for the rich over the poor, listening before speaking, and when speaking, being careful with our words. All of these actions can be summed up by the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself.
Throughout this book, James has been dispensing wisdom, and for James, wisdom is not found in our head, but in our behavior. Just as faith without works is dead, wisdom without works is just as dead. Wisdom is not just about having good ideas; it is about living good lives. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James. “Show by your good life,” he answers
What is the good life and how do we live it? In the world today, there is no lack of “wisdom” being dispensed to answer this question. Many times, we hear answers like this: The good life is getting ahead and being wealthy, powerful, and successful. This is a dog-eat-dog world that rewards the survival of the fittest, and earthly wisdom teaches that you have to look out for number one, don’t admit mistakes, don’t show weakness, promote yourself and squash the competition. We hear slogans like, “Have it your way,” “Might makes right,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” We see this earthly wisdom being displayed on TV shows, in political wrangling, in our work place, in our families and even in church. We also see the fruit of such earthly wisdom: disorder, conflicts, and disputes.
Contrast this earthly wisdom with spiritual wisdom from above. James writes: “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” We can spend a whole day going through each description of spiritual wisdom, but for our purpose this morning, I think it is enough to say that the spiritual wisdom that James describes has these characteristics: it is pure or holy, like God. It strives for peace or wholeness in ourselves and in our relationships. Wisdom from above is “willing to yield” or “willing and inclined to obey God.” It is full of mercy or good will toward those who are afflicted, and full of good fruit or good deeds. It is impartial or whole-hearted and undivided toward everyone. It is sincere, and not two-faced and doubled-minded. Bible scholars have noticed the similarity of James’ description of spiritual wisdom and Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Wisdom from above is not just believing or thinking the right things. Wisdom from above is also doing the right thing in the right way, God’s way. Those living the way of wisdom from above will reap a harvest of personal integrity and wholeness.
Purity, peaceableness, gentleness, willing to yield, mercifulness, wholeheartedness and sincerity. These are the qualities of a good life born of wisdom from above. This seems like such common sense. Who would disagree with these qualities? Now, if only other people would wise up and live out these qualities, my life would be so much better!
There once was an old couple who had been married for a long time. The man feared that his wife wasn’t hearing as well as she used to and he thought she might need a hearing aid. Not quite sure how to approach her, he called the family doctor to discuss the problem. The doctor gave him a simple test that he could perform to give the doctor a better idea about her hearing loss. “Here’s what you do,” said the doctor, “stand about 40 feet away from her, and in a normal conversational speaking tone see if she hears you. If not, go to 30 feet, then 20 feet, and so on until you get a response.”
That evening, the wife is in the kitchen cooking dinner, and he was in the den. He said to himself, “I’m about 40 feet away, let’s see what happens.” In a normal tone he asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” No response.
So the husband moved closer to the kitchen, about 30 feet from his wife and repeats, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Still no response.
Next he moves into the dining room where he was about 20 feet from his wife and asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Again he gets no response.
So, he walked up to the kitchen door, about 10 feet away. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Again there is no response.
So he walked right up behind her. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”
The wife turns around and says, “Ralph, for the fifth time I’ve said, ‘chicken’!”
When there are problems, conflicts and disputes, it is so tempting to think that the problem lies with other people. And sometimes, that may truly be. At other times, however, we are the ones with the hearing problems. Instead of trying to change others, it is a better use of our energy to look into our own lives. Perhaps our conflicts and disputes stem from cravings and desires that are at war within us. We want something that we do not have, we covet something that we can’t obtain, so we engage in disputes and conflicts. How many times have we seen small children fight and argue over one toy because both are not willing to let the other have it? Conflict occurs because both covet something they can’t obtain. But when one child decides, “OK, you can have it, I’ll play with something else,” the other child takes that toy and many times quickly loses interest in it. Even when we obtain the object of our desire, we will often find that it does not ultimately satisfy.
Wisdom from above is learning how God can help us to order our excessive desires, to order a cease-fire in the war that is raging inside us to obtain love, approval, worth, comfort, security and acceptance from other people and from our environment. The only way for that war to end within ourselves is to submit ourselves fully to God. If we don’t submit and surrender to God, we will have a devil of a time finding peace and wholeness in our lives.
Last Friday, several members of UBC and I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia’s General Assembly meeting. The theme was “Neighbours” and in the final worship service, we heard from our Baptist neighbor Jennifer Lau, Director of Global Discipleship at Canadian Baptist Ministries in Toronto, Canada. In her sermon, she mentioned Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, professor and writer. Her comments got me to thinking about Nouwen, who taught at Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School in a span of 19 years. However, in 1986, he permanently left academia and went on to work with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto, Canada. Nouwen, this brilliant professor, spent the rest of his life living and learning from people that the world usually discounts and discards. The wisdom he gleaned from his neighbors has been recorded in many books and articles.
One famous Nouwen quote is this: “Our life is full of brokenness – broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives.” In another place, Nouwen also wrote, “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor.’ He said, ‘Blessed are we where we are poor, where we are broken.’ It is there that God loves us deeply and pulls us into deeper communion with himself.”
Wisdom from above is acknowledging that we are broken. We have broken relationships, we have broken promises, and we have broken expectations. Henri Nouwen continues to speak to this reality in his writing. I’ll quote and paraphrase at length from his writings here since I think he speaks directly to this.
Nouwen writes, “At issue here is the question: ‘To whom do I belong? God or to the world?’ Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.
Nouwen continues, “As long as I keep running about asking: ‘Do you love me? Do you really love me’ I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with ‘ifs.’ The world says: ‘Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.’ There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love. These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain ‘hooked’ to the world – trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.”
Nouwen offers us wise words. As I read them, I wonder, perhaps after all that’s said and done, wisdom from above can be boiled down to this: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” Because you see, I can’t love my neighbor as myself, if I don’t love my true self as God loves my true self. I can’t love my neighbor if I’m still using my neighbor to give me the unconditional love that I crave. Only the unconditional love of God can satisfy the deepest craving of my heart, and free me from my anxious insecurities and disordered desires that are at war within me. Only the unconditional love of God can give me the spiritual wisdom from above to live a good life.
I’ll conclude today with some parting thoughts and questions from Nouwen. He says, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.” And so I offer you the questions that Nouwen often asked himself: “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?”
May the wisdom from above draw us near to God and help us answer these questions this week.
 As told in Cathy L. Wray, The Perfect Blend Devotional (WestBow Press, 2014) pages 147-148.