what does it mean to really be a believer in Christ?

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

James 2:1

It was said somewhere recently that many today simply call themselves Christians with little to next to no understanding of what that really means. And one well respected writer, Dallas Willard refers to “bar-code Christianity” by which he means that people say a prayer or whatever to make sure they’ll get into heaven, but their lives are essentially unchanged, or at least there’s no intent to be followers of Christ.

James implies in his words here that to “really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” means much more, and certainly includes not showing “favoritism.” To believe in Christ then is not just passive as in receiving something, but it’s also active, doing what we believe such faith calls us to do. Just as James says in this very same chapter of our Bibles, it is a faith that proves it’s alive by its works.

Faith in Christ then is looking to Christ, beginning to take in what Christ is, and being changed accordingly. Lives changed, actions impacted. So that we want to live according to God’s will in revealed in Jesus, yes, “in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

In and through Jesus.

be careful to do it

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

James 1:22

We need to remind ourselves, but if we fail to, life will. James is a good book to settle into for life, of course always considering the rest of Scripture as well. James and life, life and James together will remind us of the straight and narrow to which Jesus calls us.

It seems to me that a major bent we have is to simply love receiving insight so that our basic stance is to understand. But we often fall short of fulfilling why that understanding is given in the first place. To help us grow and put into practice what we’re told to do. We need to be not just hearers, but doers of the word.

We need a keen sensitivity all the way around. Eager to hear God’s voice and pick up what God is saying to us. And understanding its meaning, how that truth is meant for our lives, for change, that we might confess our sins, repent of our ways, and do not only better, but do God’s will in the matter. However halting and imperfect that may be, so that the difference may become more and more a part of who we are, and of what we do. In and through Jesus.

giftedness versus fruit

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

I am at the age and place in my life where I’m nearly, not quite, but almost allergic to something coming across so wonderfully, so smoothly from a person. Yes, those can be and probably are gifts of God to us humans. But none of it matters one iota if the fruit of righteousness in Christ by the Spirit expressed in love is not present and growing. And all too often, as we’ve seen in recent times, these two don’t necessarily go together.

This was true in Paul’s time as well. The Corinthian believers were oohing and aahing over gifted teachers, and not a few saw whatever weakness was evident in Paul (2 Corinthians 12) as a disqualifier. This is not a sign of maturity, but of immaturity, indicating the need to see what is supposed to be the heart of it all. That is found in the love which comes from the God who is love, worked out into every part of our lives.

I care less and less how I might come across when teaching, leading a discussion, or giving a message. I would much rather come across as weak, and have God’s Spirit working on me and on all of us there, rather than come across as a gifted whatever. None of the latter in itself matters. It’s only a means to the end of conforming us to the image of Christ who is the express image of the God who is love. In and through Jesus.

sins of the tongue

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:5b-8

It seems to me we kind of more or less excuse sins of the tongue, the tongue lashings we regularly give to each other and others. But the Bible is full of warnings against this. And just the relatively short book of James addresses this repeatedly.

What we say matters as well as what we refuse to say. We could even say that what we don’t say is more important that what we actually do say. A lot of our thoughts we should keep to ourselves for good reason. Are they wise, well informed? Are they gracious, merciful? If not, then we don’t need merely some kind of face lift as in changing our habits, but we need to get to what underlies that. We need a heart change. And the book of James addresses that as well.

If we can get a handle on this, and quit minimizing and excusing or even putting up with our sins of the tongue, that can end up helping us immensely. God wants to speak to us and get through to us in this. Not just a one time, or one day change, but an entirely new life. Bringing our disparaging thoughts to God. Refusing to lash out at others, even in our thoughts, but seeking God’s help for us and for them.

In and through Jesus.

one of the devil’s many but most effective lies

Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.
Unbutton my lips, dear God;
I’ll let loose with your praise.

Psalm 51:7-15; MSG

I don’t know why this is not included online, but this is Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message Bible of the ascription given to the psalm, part of the inspired text or not, but certainly steeped in tradition: “A DAVID PSALM, AFTER HE WAS CONFRONTED BY NATHAN ABOUT THE AFFAIR WITH BATHSHEBA.” This may well have been written by David during that time (2  Samuel 11-12). Whatever the case, the psalm itself lends its voice to whoever and whatever. It is general enough, that it includes all who have sinned grievously in big ways, as well as perhaps small yet willful acts which also need repentance and God’s cleansing, saving work.

One of the devil’s big lies, which we need to learn to recognize and reject is the lie that certain sins put people beyond the pale of usefulness to God. I know when a pastor falls there is disagreement as to whether after repentance and time for restoration he or she can be reinstated to their pastoral position. I tend to think so myself, but that’s not specifically what we’re dealing with here. There’s no doubt that such sins can haunt the one who is guilty as is evident in Psalm 51 itself, and that there will be fallout or consequences from it, as we see in the case of David (see 2 Samuel 13-15, also 12:10-14).

But we need to get rid of the notion and again outright lie for sure that such a person can no longer be useful in God’s service in love to others. I know this is old covenant, but David himself was not stripped of his position as king, nor of honor as we see Jesus himself called “the son of David” as not just a fact, but as likely an honorific title. How much more in the new covenant can such a one be restored?! I think of this passage about an erring sinner in the church:

Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you. So I don’t want to come down too hard. What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. My counsel now is to pour on the love.

The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. So if you forgive him, I forgive him. Don’t think I’m carrying around a list of personal grudges. The fact is that I’m joining in with your forgiveness, as Christ is with us, guiding us. After all, we don’t want to unwittingly give Satan an opening for yet more mischief—we’re not oblivious to his sly ways!

2 Corinthians 2:5-11; MSG

We need to get rid of the notion, yes the lie, once for all that when a person sins bigtime there’s nothing left for them, except forgiveness of their sin when they confess it. Surely they should live in deep humility the rest of their lives. But they also need “to inhabit [others’] forgiveness and God’s forgiveness,” to accept that as a matter of fact and reality.

This truth must never be abused to mean that I can do what I please, even though it’s sinful, knowing that in the end full restoration will happen. That is both dangerous to the person doing it, who may in fact not see fit to repent, not to mention the damage that occurs. We can’t have both our way and God’s way. At the same time, we also must not set aside God’s amazing grace for all sinners, including those who have abused this truth, who return to him in genuine repentance, not just sorry about the consequences of their sin, but that they sinned against God and against others.

In and through Jesus.

if John “the elder,” Christ’s apostle were alive today

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Mark 1:16-20

James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”)

Mark 3:17

James, son of Zebedee,

John, brother of James (Jesus nicknamed the Zebedee brothers Boanerges, meaning “Sons of Thunder”)

Mark 3:17; MSG

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.

Luke 9:51-56

I’m wondering if the old, wise, beloved apostle of our Lord were alive today, just what he would say to us here in the United States, specifically what he would say to the believers in Jesus. John changed over time, and as an old man is known especially for a passage like this one:

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

1 John 4:7-10; MSG

So over the next several weeks, I plan to post from at least the first letter of John (maybe the second and third letters as well), and see from them just what in my imagination John might say to us today. I really think he would say much the same as he said originally, of course tailored to our time and circumstances. Theologians have parsed out the meaning, and I don’t intend to get into all of that. But just look briefly at what the elder John, the apostle of love might say to us if he were alive today. In and through Jesus.

not outcomes, but becoming

These court cases are an ugly blot on your community. Wouldn’t it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it? All you’re doing is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice, bringing more hurt to the people of your own spiritual family.

1 Corinthians 6:7-8; MSG

We as people are big into outcomes. Winning can be everything, and cheating is okay to do so, as long as you get away with it. This is an endemic problem. We want to look good, or we think that if we look good, or come across right, then mission accomplished.

Not so on God’s agenda. What we are inside and out is what matters to God. How that’s understood, or sometimes misunderstood is secondary. It’s not whether everything turns out alright, just so, the way we want it to, but how we act in the process, what characterizes us, indeed our character.

It’s not the outcome that we should be focused on, but on what we’re becoming. To begin to see that difference within ourselves. With others in Jesus, becoming more like him.

can the Lord help us through each situation?

There are so many passages of Scripture which could help us. The problem with quoting any one of them here is that we can too easily almost make the passage itself nearly like a fetish by which I mean having power in itself apart from its true meaning. But we need to keep going back to Scripture again and again, because through that we find God’s revelation to us in Christ, and the details surrounding that.

Yes, yes, the Lord indeed wants to help us through each situation. This actually takes hard work on our part, akin to the thought in Scripture that we’re to make every effort to enter into God’s rest. We are so used to doing it our way, so “programmed” or set in that way, it’s so much a part of who we are, that sadly we’re at a loss to give that up. But we need to set ourselves in the straight and narrow of being determined, even if it makes us sick to our stomach, to commit everything to the Lord, and then depend on him. Prayer, talking to the Lord. A little bit of this goes a long way. And I mean a sincere, honest effort on our part. And not wavering, as James puts it, being two-faced, actually “double-minded.”

This has to be our ongoing commitment, and I speak for myself, so that this attitude and corresponding action becomes more and more a part of who we are, what characterizes us. Something I hope by God’s grace to continue to work on. In and through Jesus.

are we being changed into people through whom God might change others?

My son, give me your heart
and let your eyes delight in my ways

Proverbs 23:26

It’s amazing, the challenge of Scripture, and how that can hit you in new unexpected ways. Through my current trek in the Proverbs this hit me, and I stood in wonder. I can see God, the Lord telling us this. But us saying this to someone else? Of course we know full well that Paul tells us to follow him as he follows Christ. We’re to find those kind of people whose lives show the difference Christ makes, and learn to think, act and live as they do.

Maturity in Christ involves becoming people who others can see not as a pain, but something wondrous, beautiful, true, a person that at least they can truthfully say is worthy of respect, and someone that in some way they can look up to. That should never be our goal, to have others admire us, never. But if we can reflect something of the beauty of Christ in our lives more and more, than that could be a way of others finding their way to that same beauty.

We struggle ourselves to find our way in Jesus. But he is there for us. And especially through those who are much further along in that way than ourselves. So that hopefully in turn by and by others through our own struggle and the ongoing help God gives might find their way to this as well. In and through Jesus.

the problem in having “a way with words”

Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!

My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?

Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.

Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

James 3; MSG

Some of us have no trouble talking. I listened to the NIV being read for many years, anywhere from a time and a half to maybe three or four times a year. That translation comes across basically clearly while maintaining accuracy. That’s been my passion for a long time, to communicate. I’m willing to understate and oversimplify things to an extent, just to try to get the main message across.

That’s carried over to maybe some good, but also some things that may not be quite as good, or perhaps not good at all. What I mean is that when we open our mouths, whether literally, or with words online, we need to be careful to take care with reference to the impact that might be made. It’s not like no feathers can be ruffled. Look at the entire book of James itself. James certainly wasn’t afraid to speak hard truth, but he was a pastor, in fact the lead pastor of the early church in Jerusalem. He had authority from God to do so. But even he acknowledges here that he is not infallible or above criticism over what he says. This letter would definitely be an exception since it’s a part of Scripture. And part of the point here is to be wary of our own words, watch our step, and be willing to backtrack and take back some of them when need be. Of course better not to go there in the first place. This is a quandary and a conundrum, or to put it in a way that I prefer, just plain hard, when you think you see danger and want to warn others who think quite the opposite.

All of James’ words so aptly rendered here by Eugene Peterson need to be carefully read, weighed, and taken to heart. What comes across for me during this time is the importance of making sure our lives are in line with what we profess, that we are in no way part of the problem. But according to James, if we say much at all, we’ll inevitably have to remove some part of our foot from our mouths, because we simply won’t, indeed can’t get it all right. That should make us reticent to say much at all, and when we do speak, carefully weigh every word. If what we say isn’t animated by love, and specifically God’s love in Christ, and in harmony with Scripture, especially the main point of Scripture, the gospel, then it is best for us to remain silent, and just pray. Prayer should mark our lives anyhow, just as was the case with James himself, who was called “camel knees” due to his known practice of prolonged prayer. And to work through the hard matters so as to preserve relationships. That comes across to me in these words, though everyone of them matters. Are we caught up in the fire of hell, or are we intent in remaining in the light and love of heaven, even in a world that might reject that? Oh for the wisdom James talks about in this letter, and in this passage. Sorely needed today, beginning with me. In and through Jesus.