James 4:1-12

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill.You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people,[a] don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us[b]? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”[c]

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands,you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister[d] or judges them 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 neighbor?

James 4:1-12

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Paul’s chronic condition: the thorn in the flesh

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Yesterday I was thinking about the passage I really don’t like to go back to, but find that I should at times, this passage right here. The point I would like to make today for myself, and for anyone who might read this, is that Paul’s condition here was indeed chronic. It’s not like every moment he was tormented, not at all. But that he carried with him some condition which at any moment could be the source of experiencing that torment.

My own “thorn in the flesh” I think is at least largely anxiety. Which is the root of various manifestations. Your’s could be something else entirely different. Sometimes we can’t figure out why we struggle the way we do. Different factors are involved, surely complex. But the reality of our struggle cannot be ignored. We are all creatures of experience. Our life is lived there, of course. Not in thoughts, or things in our head, though they factor in for good or for ill.

Again, Paul’s condition was chronic. He couldn’t wish it away, ignore it, or even pray it away, as we see in the passage. It was present for a reason. The bottom line is that he had to learn to trust God in it, yes, in it. And that ended up being the source of great blessing to and through him for others. Notice too that Paul factored in with that thorn every weakness or problem in his life. Ironically the very problems that could have been his downfall ended up being his strength through God’s grace.

This is an encouragement to me. Instead of resisting it in the form of seeing it as practically choking the life out of me, which I think is at least half my problem, I want to increasingly learn to trust God in it, seeing it in fact as part of God’s grace to me. And not necessarily in the sense of passing through and out of it. Paul surely had that thorn his whole life long. The idea being that God sees us through with it to the very end, bringing good and blessing out of it for others, as well as for ourselves. In and through Jesus.

the thorn in the flesh: my reluctant go-to passage

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

One of my favorite parts of the recent Paul, Apostle of Christ film was their treatment of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and showing how it tormented him all of his life as a Christ-follower. And how that was addressed immediately after he was beheaded. Love is the only way I can describe my reaction to that. What they chose as his thorn in the flesh was a possibility I had never heard of before, and was rather compelling, at least for the film. But the main point is beside the point of what it actually may have been. The fact of the matter is that everyone who seeks to follow Christ will be living in opposition to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we will experience opposition in terms of what is expressed in scripture from the devil, the demonic. And like Paul, these are actually allowed into our lives to keep us from becoming proud, which for reasons far less than Paul’s we are all too prone to become. To keep us humble, and dependent on Christ, and I would add, interdependent on each other.

I am faced with this myself, maybe not as much as in the past, yet it seems to come crashing in on me just as hard, usually in one form in my life. I think there is genius so to speak behind the concealing of what specifically Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him, was. We simply can’t say for sure. There has been more than one reasonable answer. That means whatever it is that torments us as we seek to follow Christ, we can chalk up as something of the same, in fact our thorn in the flesh. Flesh could mean physical weakness, but in scripture it’s most basic meaning is one’s life. It may involve some physical debilitation or weakness, but doesn’t have to, and I would go so far to think, most often doesn’t. What it doesn’t mean is out and out sin. We deal with everything, and especially our sin through Christ’s death for us, confessing it, and receiving God’s forgiveness and cleansing as part of our ongoing walk in Jesus.

Who likes to be tormented? In the film as I recall Paul seems to be frequently tormented in his thoughts, and clearly in his dreams. And yes torment is a good word to capture this experience. I don’t so much dread it, myself, as simply hate going through it. Going through it is a good way to describe what it’s like for me. For Paul it may have been more chronic, ongoing, something present with him all the time. I tend to think so. My weakness which gives rise to this activity in my life is certainly as close to me as the next thought, which could hit me at any time when all was well, or okay before.

It’s the experience part which frankly I hate. Life is hard enough in itself, without having to feel miserable, yes tormented inside. But it seems in part what at least some of us who are believers in Christ will be up against in this life.

The necessity of hanging in there by faith, and knowing that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness is key here. We realize that God is at work in this malady, even when the source of it is from the evil one, the demonic. The world and the flesh in the sense of unredeemed humanity and creation included.

To come back to this passage, and yes, the entire book of 2 Corinthians, but especially this passage is always helpful for me. To remember that the Lord in love is at work in our lives in a way that helps us live as he did, in weakness, even the weakness of the cross (see the end of 2 Corinthians). Not where we want to go, except that there we find the Lord’s power at work in our own lives, and through us into the lives of others.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say to some degree along with Paul that I have learned to embrace my weaknesses at least much more since in them I find Christ’s grace and power, and learn to be strengthened in that awareness and reality. In and through Jesus.

wisdom as skill in living

Put your outdoor work in order
    and get your fields ready;
    after that, build your house.

Proverbs 24:27

Life isn’t easy, nor is it foolproof. It sometimes seems like a crapshoot for sure. There are all kinds of self-help books to help people not only deal with problems, but navigate all different aspects of living. And knowledge is at our fingertips now with the internet.

Proverbs is the book known the most for wisdom in scripture. A significant part of the meaning of wisdom in Proverbs is simply skill in living, as reflected in the psalm quoted above. And we have the phrase, “the wisdom of Solomon,” captured well in what Solomon faced after he had received the wisdom he had asked for from God (1 Kings 3).

Remember that Solomon asked for this wisdom so that he could serve God in carrying out his duties as king, to govern with discernment, and know the difference between right and wrong. And Proverbs tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (used almost interchangeably in Proverbs, basically synonymous there). And also that to know God is to have understanding (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10).

So Proverbs is not at all a self-help book. And biblical wisdom has nothing to do with being worldly wise. I think of Jesus’s words, which I take not to be a rebuke against the righteous, but actually stating that God’s people can gain some wisdom from what unrighteous people do, but within the fear of the Lord:

For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Luke 16

Jesus goes on to speak against the love of money in that context, certainly not holding up worldly wisdom as a virtue at all, but saying, I think, that we can learn something good from them as those made in God’s image. Such is the compelling, interesting aspect of wisdom within scripture, that it is complex, and something we are going to have to keep working on the rest of our lives, all within the fear of God, with faith in God.

James captures this theme of wisdom well, that book of the New Testament considered probably the closest in some ways to Proverbs:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1

We are reminded here that wisdom from God is down to earth, for life, and skill in living. But it is always and forever bound and intertwined with the fear of the Lord. Apart from that one will inevitably drift into again what is called, worldly wisdom, even as sadly, Solomon did.

Let us be inspired by reading and meditating on Proverbs, and the wisdom we find in scripture, learning from God for life, in and through Jesus.

God’s grace received where we’re at

It’s more complicated than that: right? Yes it is. One has to get serious about sins in one’s life which actually violate love for God and for human beings, as well as respect for God’s creation. And yet scripture makes it clear that in and of ourselves, we can’t fix the problem. And yet we’re called to be grieved over it, but not just because of it’s destructive effect on others, as well as on ourselves, but bottom line, because it’s against our Creator.

Sometimes I have been nailed down in defeat, perhaps in part due to a condemning finger pointing at me from the enemy in an actually confusing, unclear way, but strong and relentless, just the same. Or perhaps there is a sense in which I’m undergoing God’s disciplining love over attitudes that I know aren’t right, but seem to have me in their grip, sin seeming to be a power over me at the time, which won’t let go.

It is good, even important to pray to God during such times, to grieve, mourn and wail, as James puts it, as we seek to cleanse our hands (acts) and purify our hearts (attitudes). Even to confess our faults to one another, and pray for each other, so that we might be healed (James 5).

In the end it’s only God’s grace which will prevail in our lives, and make the difference needed. God certainly accepts us where we’re at, but just as certainly, God won’t leave us there. And we have to leave the convicting work of the Spirit in God’s hands, as well as the final judgment of everything. Paul refused to even judge himself, much less someone else. That’s not at all talking about dealing with sin along the way, but probably referring to the final judgment to come, when God will make known all our hidden motives. But along with that thankfully is God’s grace in Christ, so that God does indeed convict and convince us of our sin, so we can confess such sin to God, and receive God’s forgiveness and cleansing. And go on, not at all competent or confident in ourselves, but trusting in God, and God’s promise to us to always meet us where we’re at as we seek to come near to him, in and through Jesus.

James’s warning to rich oppressors

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on 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. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

James 5:1-6

James is aptly compared to Proverbs and is probably the closest New Testament book in line with the wisdom tradition in the First/”Old” Testament, the Hebrew Bible. But in this passage, James echoes the passion and cry of the prophets against wealthy oppressors. The prophets didn’t hold back their warning of God’s judgment to come against the rich who lived it up at the expense of others, especially those who were poor. Wealth in and of itself is not the problem according to the biblical witness. It’s what people do with that wealth. While God has given humankind all things to enjoy, God wants and expects those with plenty to help those who are in need. And we see a good number of examples of that in scripture, such as the story/parable our Lord told of the good Samaritan, who apparently had at least some wealth.

That is not what James is getting at here. Instead it’s a warning to the rich that judgment day is coming, that they are setting themselves up for disaster, even getting themselves fat for the day of slaughter. Instead of laying up treasures in heaven, they are investing everything into this life for themselves. And with a stingy, Scrooge-like heart, rather than a generous giving heart. Jesus’s words are apt here:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,a]”>[a] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,b]”>[b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Matthew 6:19-24

Notice the links in this passage to the following footnotes:

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 6:22 The Greek for healthy here implies generous.
  2. Matthew 6:23 The Greek for unhealthy here implies stingy.

The rich were in service to the god of Money, the love of which, as we read from Paul (1 Timothy 6) being a root of all kinds of evil. God expects people to help others when and as they can, by grace out of a cheerfully willing heart. And God does not look kindly on those who have plenty of wealth even at the expense of others, particularly those who are poor. Judgment Day is coming, and it won’t be pretty. All the evil that has been done will have to be accounted for, when God judges everyone according to their works. In James’s day: unpaid wages, and out and out murder: the innocent or righteous one, and in a sense our Lord himself because of his identification with his people. In our day it could refer to a heartless failure to not love one’s neighbor as one’s self, played out in all kinds of ways in terms of what is done and left undone.

This is not a feel good passage in James. James really wasn’t about giving people a lift, except in helping people to a living faith. This ends up being a word of encouragement to those who were oppressed and suffering, and praying to God for relief. At the same time it could have been a warning that would get not only to the ears, but into the hearts of those who needed to hear it. That they might repent and change their ways, yes, in the fear of God and God’s judgment to come. But James does not refer to any such promise here.

the good wake up call of Psalm 73

This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

Psalm 73:12-17

If anyone really knows me, they will know that I can struggle with depression or toward despair, either one. Sometimes life can seem overwhelming to me, probably too often. Just as recently as yesterday that was the case. But then I thought about our grandchildren and our daughter. My wife and my responsibility to all of them. And what triggered that was probably the psalm quoted in part above, Psalm 73.

The psalmist sees what makes no sense to his faith. Those who have no faith are prospering, and he who is a person of faith is experiencing difficulty, or seems somehow to have come up short. He questions God. One can well say he is struggling in his faith. But he realizes that more than just his own faith is at stake here. There’s the faith of others, specifically God’s children, those who are influenced by him, surely including those who were under his care.

We have to do well. It’s not only our own faith, but the faith of others which is at stake. It’s not like we can believe for them. But they need to see faith, our faith in the midst of difficulty. That we trust God to see us through.

So the fact that we might struggle is not bad in itself. But what we do in that struggle is key. We are to be a model to others, not that they may see us and our faith, but more that they might see God and God’s faithfulness and salvation in their own lives.

In all of this we walk by faith, not by sight, as was true of the psalmist here. But read on in this psalm (the link above), and you’ll find that much more is awaiting that God would reveal to us by his Spirit. That this step of faith we take will be confirmed by God.

And so we must awaken to the faith God has for us in the midst of the trial of our faith. Because it is for the benefit of others. Realizing we need to bless to them can end up blessing us. Just as we are indeed blessed to be a blessing. In and through Jesus.