pure religion

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Religion and relationship in scripture actually go together. From the time when people started to invoke or call on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26), right up to the present time when we gather in buildings, and partake of Holy Communion, we participate in a kind of religious service led by someone with a liturgy all its own, even if not liturgical in its emphasis. And we’re told in the Old/First Testament that to know God means to help those in need, perhaps getting more precisely in line with the point James is making here:

“Does it make you a king
    to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
    He did what was right and just,
    so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
    and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
    declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart
    are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
    and on oppression and extortion.”

Jeremiah 22:15-17

James echoes something of both the Old Testament wisdom, and here, of the prophets. To know God is to begin to know something of the heart of God. And God’s heart goes out to the poor and displaced. Those who profess to know and worship God must begin to have the same heart for others. Otherwise their profession of faith is empty. Specifically here in caring for widows and orphans in their distress, which can include and group in the same category today.

James, as he does in this short letter, especially in our chapter 3, really focuses on the tongue, our speech, and learning to hold it in check. If anyone considers themselves religious, James says, but fails to keep a tight rein on their tongue, their religion is suspect at best, in fact in God’s eyes, worthless. And they deceive themselves. We often can say all the right things, but fail to follow through with action. And James will get to that in this letter. But that’s not the point here. Rather it’s about a loose tongue which more often than not is quite destructive. And the rest of the letter, particularly chapter 3 informs what James is referring to here.

We should be known as Christians for what we do in helping those in need, not in what we’re saying, particularly when it comes to issues which can end up being critical and disrespectful of others. And make no mistake, such speech can be right on the tip of our tongues. That’s why James says here that we’re to keep a tight rein on our tongues. We have to bridle as in controlling our tongues, and not let them have their way in words which ultimately will be helpful to no one. And even deceptive to us, perhaps in the sense of putting us on the wrong track when we think we’re in the right, though often we should know better.

And to keep ourselves from being unstained or unpolluted by the world. We have to be aware and beware in this regard. We need to develop a humble ability to see through what the world holds dear, mostly by developing a stronger commitment to keep a single eye and heart on what God holds as important for us, individually and together. In and through Jesus.

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training for godliness

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

1 Timothy 4:7-8

The Bible teaches us that we are born in sin. And that therefore it is just natural to us that something is wrong, and that we are wrong ourselves. Although given the entire story of scripture, it is not naturally human, but tends toward being inhumane. Our humanity recovered in and through the one true human of creation, in whose image we’re remade in the new creation: Jesus.

It is true that when we’re older, what we are has been developed through many days, months, years, even piling into decades of choices. Amidst that there  are hopefully adjustments along the way for needed change, which by the way in themselves are not snap of the finger creations. Usually it takes us awhile to slide into bad habits, and only good habits practiced awhile will get us out of them. A change of heart is always involved, so that we end up in the long run having a new desire entirely, and don’t want to do what we wanted to do before. But before we get there, we likely will have to engage ourselves in some rigorous training, which will involve disciplining ourselves to do what we are not prone to do, and to avoid what we would do, left to ourselves. The self-control which is part of the Holy Spirit’s fruit in our lives, the heart of which is love, and is actually relational (see Galatians 5) figures in prominently here.

I believe it all begins with God’s word, scripture, and with the gospel. We meditate on that, and take it to heart and life. And we make no compromises with sin. And when we do sin, we confess it, and hold on in faith to get God’s help and victory over it. And we make repentance and change of life an ongoing part of our faith, and of growing up together with others toward full maturity in Christ, and therefore full Christian maturity.

We have to be intentional about this, and remember it’s all in the context of love for God and for others. It’s not meant to be lived in a vacuum, and yet there is the aspect of it that is between ourselves and God. But it never ends there. God insists that it is also between ourselves and others. And in the context of the passage quoted above, a pastoral letter, it is about Timothy’s relationship to his congregation of believers and followers of Christ, and how he is to lead them as a pastor. He is to be an example himself, so that they not only learn from his words, but also from his life. And part of that example is the pastor’s commitment to train for godliness, to be in that process. Not having arrived in the sense of God’s work being finished, but stable in a number of ways in the change that God brings in and through Christ.

back to work

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Paul’s words need to be seen in context (link takes you to 1 Corinthians 9 and 10). This was all for the gospel, which is all about reaching people. It means the good news, so that is Paul’s aim given his mission. And by extension it seems clearly that he is calling the entire Corinthian church to the same commitment, of course in their various callings, but this one call directing all of that.

It’s our mentality and attitude up front that is crucial, which is why we’re told that we’re not to be conformed to this world, but instead transformed by the renewing of our minds. Paul’s heart and mind were for Christ and the gospel, and involved in that is not only the message, but the medium for the message which must never contradict the message itself. Paul, and by extension we are that medium. Yes, not all of us are called to proclaim the good news like Paul was as the apostle to the Gentiles. But we are all called to be witnesses to it, which will involve both word and deed. Our lives must line up with what we say, otherwise our words will be empty.

It is utterly crucial for anyone in the ministry to take the hard discipline Paul exerts on himself to heart for themselves. When you read the passage in context (again, see link above) you will note that it’s about the gospel, and with reference to sexual immorality and idolatry. Money, power and sex, not necessarily in that order, have grounded many an aspiring person to follow Christ. Or perhaps it uncovered their true heart. At any rate, we are told in this passage that we all must be careful, and beware lest we fall into the same trap (1 Corinthians 10:1-13).

Yes, we are present to work, to roll up our sleeves and be in God’s work by his grace in Jesus. Whatever form that work might take. What God has put in front of us, what we can do and find joy in doing in that work, we must give ourselves to fully. Rest is good, and must be incorporated along the way. But the work is what we’re called to, and what we must not let go of. And that requires a commitment and the discipline that goes with that. All for the gospel in and through Jesus.

the need for strict, ongoing self-discipline

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9

They say we often eat to feed not really our bodies, but our minds or hearts. That we do so from being troubled. The Christian life contra some of the early church fathers is not meant to be one of harshly treating the body. Not at all! Read Paul’s words in Colossians:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Of course the Christian ascetics did not have such a worldly system in mind in their fasting for the sake of Christ, and for their own spiritual good, so it is different. Yet the sameness might exist in thinking that harsh treatment of the body in itself can do good, as if the body is the enemy of the soul, a neo-Platonic way of thinking which surely infiltrated the church, even probably noticeable in perhaps the greatest of the church fathers, Augustine.

And yet Paul minced no words in the Corinthians passage quoted above. We by grace either discipline ourselves, and specifically our body, or we place ourselves in danger of losing out with reference to all that is ours in Christ. How God rewards in the end, I don’t think we can be sure, though we may have some inklings. But there are certainly some lines we’re not to cross in this life. We must pull out all stops to stop dead in our tracks, and not go past certain lines we might even be rushing headlong to. And we need to work on an agenda in which we are following a different path altogether.

And even if we have failed, that gives us no excuse to excuse ourselves from Paul’s example here. We need to do so all the more. We are weak in ourselves for sure. We need God’s grace to help us through. And we need sheer determination to persevere in that grace and not let up.

They say our brains are one of our most important physical organs. The brain does better with the extra flow of oxygen which comes from good physical exercise. And the mind certainly can affect the body. We surely need to have our hearts and minds set on Christ, and on the things of heaven where Christ is, someday destined to come to earth, and already present now by the Spirit. But we need to take heed of our focus, in order to have the kind of discipline Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians. Paul’s words there should be considered in their context. And interestingly enough, Paul’s warning in Colossians is followed up with the counsel to focus on Christ and might even seem austere by today’s standards. It is referring to a spiritual discipline, but there is no such discipline in which our bodies are not involved. Our bodies are part of our real selves.

And so what we do and don’t do does matter. God has indeed richly given us all things for our enjoyment, so that we’re not to deny ourselves of the good of creation (1 Timothy). But we must avoid counterfeit gods, which can include even our own stomachs (Philippians 3), and sometimes might involve making some major changes. Our goal is to pursue Christ and likeness to him until the very end. May God grant us the grace to do so together in and through him.

 

steely resolve

“Coldy determined. Hard.” That is the online definition that comes up for steely when I googled it. The Christian life and faith at its heart is warm and full of love. But sometimes in this life, we need to be cold and hard against what is evil, and against what is in opposition to the gospel. And yet maintaining a heart of love even toward others who might be cold or worse toward us. Even that takes a steely resolve on our part.

The truth of the matter is that we can’t live in that kind of atmosphere too long, or if it’s necessary, it’s likely a matter of spiritual warfare that we are involved in. God’s mercy and love will break through and help us into his peace in Jesus. Sometimes such resolve is to help us in a way not unlike the physical response of shock to serious injury. Shock sets in to deaden the pain for a time, so that hopefully we can deal with the matter, get emergency help from those in the medical field. In the same way the sense of spiritual numbness can set in to offset our fear or whatever it is that is affecting us, and help us carry on, and find God’s help in the matter.

We live through pain, through weaknesses of all kinds, and we learn to find God’s strength, comfort and help in the midst of all of that in and through Jesus. God gives us the grace to continue on even when every bone in our body would do otherwise. And get through the difficult experience. Always remember: “This too will pass.” On our way toward the ultimate goal in Jesus (Philippians 3).

 

fleeing sexual immorality

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10

This is not a soft and cuddly passage, and you won’t find every passage even from our Lord in the gospels to be what people would call soft and cuddly. There are of course what are called, “the hard sayings of Jesus.” But life isn’t soft and cuddly, either. It is hard for everyone, and it seems, harder for some more than for others. And for many reasons, mirroring the complexity of life and being human in all its wonder and brokenness.

Paul doesn’t mince words and makes no bones about what he’s getting at, nor does he flinch from making the First/Old Testament scripture to have some kind of normative sense for today. He says what is written in them is written to us as examples and for our warning. Ironically, I think that since “Today” is the day of salvation, it is Christians God holds accountable now, withholding the removal of those who are not Christian which ultimately awaits the final Day of Judgment to come.

I won’t echo the words of the passage quoted above. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is a popular kind of precious promise verse, but everyone who has memorized that verse would do well to memorize or just as good, probably better, simply meditate on that entire passage, cited above.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

1 Corinthians 6

This is earlier in the same letter, Paul warning believers to flee from sexual immorality. Quite a bit is said in the passage just quoted above, some of it at least a bit hard to understand, but the point I would like to hammer home some, is that sexual intercourse is much more than just a physical act, though it is certainly that. It is perhaps first and foremost an expression of oneness with each other, the climax and in a sense fulfillment of being one, but carried over into all of life. That is why adultery is so utterly devastating. The oneness in the marriage union is broken. It is little wonder to me that Paul followed up those thoughts with the next passage on marriage, which I will quote only in part.

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”  But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.  The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.  Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  I say this as a concession, not as a command.  I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

1 Corinthians 7

This is not rocket science, yet at the same time involves all the complexities of the wonder and brokenness of our humanity. So that we need God’s grace to follow through and work on these things, and to do so in a way that is honoring to the Lord and a witness to the world.

One of the problems which is a part of our culture (or sub-culture) is the false idea that sex itself is dirty, which comes from the false idea that the body is somehow morally dirty, or less than the ideal or goal of creation. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I think it continues to plague many Christians, and too often there’s a backlash from the culture into a mindset and practice that anything goes.

Last, but not least, we need to adopt the attitude and practice of the Apostle Paul. Even though he was single himself (probably once married, in that he was a Pharisee, and all Pharisees had to be married, but perhaps his wife was deceased), and according to his thoughts in 1 Corinthians 7 (click hyperlink above, to read that), had a gift from God so that he could live happily without a wife, yet Paul himself had to exercise strict self-control, and yes, over his body.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9

Yes, the body is good, and meant for the Lord, and for the right and natural use of it from creation, but no, we can’t allow whatever circumstances we face, or temptations, to detour us from God’s will. That is to be our passion, our drive, so that when necessary, we put the brakes to the inclinations, or strong desires which may come our way. We do so with God’s full revelation in Christ in mind, with the fact that God makes a way of escape for us. Indeed we must, in the words of scripture, flee from sexual immorality.

the failure of character

A couple articles (here and here) recently have called my attention to the importance of character development. Even though giftedness is important, it ends up meaning little or nothing if the person is lacking in character.

When a line is crossed, fallout is inevitable. But what too often is not duly considered is the life which led to that failure.

Of course it is true (Luther has a point) that we are all sinners, even the righteous sin and struggle with it. And so regular confession needs to be made ideally both general in public and specific in private to God and to one’s trusted friend or pastor/priest. And we need to be open to the convicting work of the Spirit as well as to the disciplines needed to keep us from sin. The great sin is always preceded by “small” yet willful sins which all too often are excused or rationalized away so that the person ends up deceiving themselves when they actually know better.

Jesus Christ needs to be front and center and God’s gospel for us and for the world in him. When that is the case we will be regularly confronted with our sin, and fundamentally with who we are. If we’re true followers of Jesus we should indeed becoming over time more and more like him.