Upstream–In a Swift Current

Migrating salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Katmai National Park, Southeast Alaska
Migrating salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Katmai National Park, Southeast Alaska

Sitting out on my deck in the morning is not as serene an experience as it once was. There is a massive construction project underway across the street, so at the crack of dawn the morning’s quiet is fractured by the growl and clang of heavy equipment and the insistent beeping of machines rolling in reverse. I understand 3,000 people will be employed here, and I’m sure it will be a very attractive space. (It will also increase the value of our property, which I view as a good thing!) Progress has its price, and the noise is  only temporary.

The noise was not loud enough to keep me from noticing something in the Gospel of Mark this morning, however.

In Chapters 1 to 3, Mark arranges the material in such a way that it’s fairly easy to notice this upstream quality.

In 1.4-45, Jesus cleanses a leper. He could have simply said something that would have cured this man; instead, he stretches out His hand and touches him–an unthinkable act contrary to every convention, given the nature of this dreadful disease and the stigma attached to it.

The next healing Mark records (2.1-12) is that of a paralytic. Jesus prefaces the healing of this man, who was brought to him by four devoted friends, by telling the man that his sins are forgiven. Immediately, the Scribes view this as blasphemous, since only God can forgive sins. Jesus demonstrates His power to do so by asking, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?'” To display His deity in an unmistakable way, Jesus then tells the paralyzed man to do just that.

Calling Levi, a reviled sinner in the eyes of the Jews because he collected taxes for the Romans and gouged his own people in the process, Jesus stops at his house for dinner and eats with a collection of ne’er-do-wells the likes of which could only be expected to gather in the home of a man like Levi. Again, the Scribes and Pharisees complain to Jesus’ disciples about his unsavoury companions. Jesus reminds them that He came to heal the sick, not the righteous. (2.13-16)

Jesus’ disciples do not fast when John’s disciples fast. (2.18-23) Again, the Pharisees and others question why they do not observe this Jewish tradition. Jesus uses several practical analogies to explain that this is unique time and He a unique Person. “Can the wedding guests fast,” He asks, “when the bridegroom is still with them?” The time for fasting will come later, He assures them, when the Bridegroom is taken away.

At the end of Chapter 2, Jesus’ disciples pick some grain to snack on during the Sabbath. This is viewed by the Pharisees as a blatant violation of the Law. After citing David’s receiving shewbread from the priest at the time of Abiathar (1 SAM 21.1-9), Jesus replies to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (2.23-28)

The Pharisees are incensed. But, as Chapter 3 opens, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, again on the Sabbath. Since healing was viewed as the work of a physician–and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath–the Pharisees go ballistic and consult with the Herodians for a way to eliminate Him.

Jesus is certainly swimming against the current. He ignores the medical and social rules related to leprosy and, moved with compassion, touches a leper to heal him. He demonstrates His deity by not only healing a paralytic, but also telling him his sins are forgiven. He enjoys a meal in the home of a wealthy shyster in the company of all the man’s disreputable friends. He allows His disciples to forgo fasting, and then to pick grain on the Sabbath–something that is verboten in the Jewish religious tradition and even prohibited by the Law. To settle the question of His lordship over the Sabbath, the Law, and the Jews themselves, He then heals a man on the Sabbath, right in the synagogue.

In Chapter 3, Mark twice uses the phrase, “…for they were saying…” In vv. 20-21, Jesus’ own family members are saying, “He is out of His mind.” Certainly, to publicly do and say the things He has seems like the work of a madman, someone with a death wish. It is unfathomable, and embarrassing to the family. Recognizing that Jesus’ power is unearthly and refusing to acknowledge His lordship, the religious leaders attribute His miracles to the devil, saying, ,”He has an unclean spirit.” (3.22-30)

Mark demonstrates that Jesus was willing to defy convention and show compassion; to expose religious hypocrisy and exhibit divine authority.

Any follower of His should be willing to do the same.

19 Caught in the Act!


Imagine coming home, walking up the stairs, and finding your spouse in bed with someone else. It happens–all too often–and leads to deeply fractured relationships, divorces, and even crimes of passion.

James tells his readers, after having rebuked them for contentiousness and covetousness in JAM 4.1-3, that they have been “caught in the act”:

“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (JAM 4.4)

In our minds, adultery goes way beyond friendship. But James is pointing out what these Jewish readers have known all their lives. For centuries, the Old Testament Scriptures had been taught in the Temple and in the synagogues. Many times–and especially in the book of Hosea–God compares Israel with an adulterous woman who has scorned her devoted husband to consort with other lovers. This bold, clear analogy illustrated for the Jews–and it illustrates for us–the ease with which we can slip into spiritual adultery by pursuing worldly wisdom (JAM 3.13-18) and pleasures (JAM 4.1-3). Here, James gets at the very heart of his letter by making it clear that abandoning the truth of Scripture in favour of earthly values is adultery of the soul.

Notice that James says, “…whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Adultery is not rape. It’s consensual–a conscious decision to break one’s vows, abandon one’s spouse to lust or misguided affection, and commit an act of defiance against God. But God is immutable–His character doesn’t change and He doesn’t vacillate between one position and another. He is always our Friend–He is the “Friend of sinners”–and is always there waiting for us when we repent and seek his forgiveness for our sins. (1 JOH 1.9)

James tells us why our sin is such a serious matter to God:

“Or do you suppose it is to no avail that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? ” (JAM 4.5)

Jesus, as the Lover of our souls, as the Bridegroom of the Church, yearns for our affection, our devotion, our obedience. In fact, the love between married people is a mirror–albeit cracked and hazy and blemished–of God’s love for us. When we wander, like Hosea, He pursues us and longs for our return to His embrace.

With all we have in Him, it’s a wonder we would ever want to leave.

18 Knock-Down, Drag-Out Religion


Mrs. Ella Sanderson’s wide-brimmed pink hat drops to the floor and is stomped flat by Ms. Florence McHenry’s patent leather pumps with 4″ heels. Florence tries to wrap her arms around the buxom Mrs. Sanderson and wrestle her onto the front pew. For her part, Mrs. Sanderson digs her talons–she just had them done yesterday at Uncommon Nails on Spruce Street–into Florence’s chiffon frock and yanks hard in opposite directions, tearing the dress and drawing blood.

The pastor sputters, “Ladies–n-now, ladies! Please! This is neither the time nor the place…” just as Ella’s husband, Mort (who boxed in the Army) jumps up and assumes a menacing stance. His ham-sized dukes are poised, ready to apply a neat left jab to the thrusting jaw of Florence’s fiancee, Mr. James Quincy Jackson, Esq., Attorney at Law. Mr. Jackson is quoting the criminal code and wagging his finger.

A few rows back, a loud argument gets louder, peppered with language that sounds like it may not come from the Bible. Malcolm DePriest has accused Deacon P. J. Albert of scuffing the left front fender of his new Mercedes last Sunday in the church parking lot. Deacon Albert denies it, and threatens to visit Mr. James Quincy Jackson first thing Monday morning to seek legal counsel. (Please let it be pro bono. I’m a deacon!)

In the narthex, Mike O’Leary has Finn Peters in a headlock. Finn is red-faced and gasping, and Mike is screaming at Heather Gilmour, his hot babe. He just caught Finn and the lovely Heather kissing hungrily in the stairwell of the church. Heather stands aghast in her less-than-adequate attire, with the fingers of one hand entwined in her hair and the other hand clamped over her mouth. She is weeping hysterically, big tears rolling down her beautiful face. Fortunately, her  waterproof mascara is holding.

This is a parody–at least, it is meant to be. But James opens the fourth chapter of his letter with a first-century scenario that reflects the attitudes, if not the actions, demonstrated in the Sunday morning brawl at Peaceable Kingdom Community Church:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (JAM 4.1-3)

Not a lot has changed. It appears some professing Christians in the first century could be as shallow and materialistic as we can be in our culture today. James has just explained how destructive the tongue can be, and how self interest is hellish and breeds “disorder and every vile practice.” (JAM 3.15,16) Now, he gives his readers some examples from their own experience.

Their desires and choices are not only selfish, but also temporal and–in some cases–immoral. Instead of reaping righteousness, they are wreaking havoc. Instead of peace in the churches, there is conflict. While they may not have literally murdered each other–at least not in the Sunday morning service–there is evidence here of heated disputes, assaults, extreme jealousy and envy, and sexual misconduct. Their behaviour was nothing like what James had just described in Chapter 3.

What brought about all this chaos?  James identifies five specific causes:

  1. “Your passions are at war within you.” They are struggling inwardly between their inordinate desires–literally, “pleasures”–and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Who now indwells them. They experience internal conflict between what they want to do and what they know they should do. Too often, they choose pleasure.
  2. “You desire and do not have.” These inordinate desires for what–or for whom–God did not want them to have frustrate them when they remain unfulfilled, and their frustration even erupts in physical violence.
  3. “You covet and cannot obtain.” Their inability to get what they want causes them to be contentious and pugnacious. They cannot see the folly of living for this world.
  4. “You do not have, because you do not ask.” They fail to ask God to provide for them, choosing instead to try to get what they want on their own terms and in their own way.
  5. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Those who actually pray do so with sinful motives, hoping to use whatever God gives them for self-gratification.

James is not being condescending or self-righteous. Remember–Jesus was his big brother. And Jesus never argued with him, never wanted something he had, never beat him up, never engaged in worldly pleasures or even wished He could, and was content with His life even though He had “nowhere to lay His head.” (MAT 8.20) James knows what verses 13-18 of his third chapter actually look like, and what he’s seeing among his readers isn’t even remotely like it.

Is your family, your class, your workplace, your organization–even your church–characterized by conflict? Re-read James 3.1-4.12 and you’ll discover why.

Image is from RECAPO

No Purchase Necessary

Slide1Forgive me while I get something off my chest.

I awoke way too early the day before yesterday. It may have been because my right eye was burning from having unwittingly rubbed it with with fingers that had previous been kneading Lakota Extra Strong  into my wife’s injured shoulder. But my mind was racing with thoughts about my class on Psalms the night before, during which I re-visited Paul’s words:

“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (COL 3.15-17)

We actually only read verse 16, as the focus of the conversation was on Paul’s mention of singing psalms–something that is done very rarely these days in either homes or churches. This observation morphed into a discussion of some of the music we now consider the music of the Church.

I have often heard it said that the Church should redeem the artistic media of the world and offer them to Jesus in worship. I wonder about this statement on two counts: the object of the verb, “redeem,” and the verb itself.

First, the object. Let’s look at the logic of redeeming artistic media. We would all agree that when a sinner is pulled from the depths of depravity, it should be cause for great rejoicing in the Body of Christ. He or she is a trophy of God’s “marvelous, infinite, matchless grace” (Julia H. Johnston, 1911.) And how do we know that? We know it theologically–the Bible explains to us that “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 COR 5.21) And we know it practically, because of one thing: change. The indwelling Holy Spirit produces change in the behaviour and attitudes of the new believer as he or she becomes less and less conformed to the world through the transforming of the mind. (ROM 12.2)

But when we “redeem” an artistic medium–namely, the music–the interesting thing is that there is no change at all. In fact, that’s the whole point–the desire is to change the purpose for the medium, but not the medium itself. A better verb than “redeem” would be, “redirect.”

You might be saying, “It’s not really about the music–it’s about the lyrics.” I don’t buy it. People would not pay large sums to fill an arena and listen to someone read the words. If the same words were sung to a tune by Bach or Martin Luther or Thomas Campbell, people wouldn’t sing them, and they wouldn’t spend their entertainment dollars to hear someone else sing them. Not today.

I’ve seen this illustrated in interesting ways. Toddlers who are too young to understand any lyrics will gyrate to pop tunes almost automatically. They can mimic with eery precision the movements of the entertainers they see on the impossible-to-ignore plasma TV’s, only slightly smaller than Prince Edward Island, that dominates their parents’ living rooms. I have seen these same toddlers move exactly the same way when they hear “worship music.” The response is instantaneous–it’s like someone has flipped a switch somewhere under their sleepers. They’re  not being blessed by the text.

I saw the same phenomenon in Mexico a number of years ago. In a church event for youth designed to “get lost kids in,” teenagers entered a room where refreshments were offered and they sat on the floor to chat before the activities began. In the background, some “worship music” was playing on the sound system. It was playing too quietly to understand the lyrics–but the effect of the music was immediate. Some of the visitors–young people who had never been in a church in their lives–began to writhe and gyrate their upper bodies just as they would have at the club down the street. And not in a manner acceptable for your church’s worship team. The only things missing were the mirror ball, the coloured lights, and lots of sweaty skin. These teens had no idea that what they were hearing was the music of the Church.

Where do we draw the line? Maybe we should have limerick services, in which we transform bawdy pub rhymes into clever adaptations of the Minor Prophets. Perhaps we should redeem pole dancing. Pretty girls could perform to the strains of one of our contemporary songs that has an appropriate rhythm. Or erotic photography. We could ask the Gideons to print New Testaments with pictures of entwined nudes on the covers. That would bring lots of men into the fold–and probably quite a few women.  After all, if God redeems the most depraved sinners, why shouldn’t we redeem the most depraved artistic forms?

I hope you grasp the satire. If these modest proposals offend you, I’ve made my point. The thought of making worship salacious should be repugnant to us. Yet we will “redeem” the same musical forms that incited rebellion against authority and precipitated the sexual revolution–by design–and offer them to God as worship! We will enthusiastically embrace a medium that grew up in the mean streets of urban America in a context of rage and despair; one that very often encourages violence, incest, rape, and promiscuity, with blatant disregard for authority and for the dignity and sanctity of human life. Our performers will mimic the motions, style, intonations, and productions of some of the most godless and shallow people our culture has produced.  I have to wonder why.

How can we be sure God accepts these offerings? Where did we get the idea that redeeming artistic media is something we should seek to do in the first place? The prophet Malachi railed against Israel because they were offering God cast-offs He refused to accept:

“But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the LORD of hosts….But you say, “What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the LORD of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the LORD.” (MAL 1.7b-9, 13)

Finding God’s standards unacceptable–snorting at them–the people established their own criteria for what they offered to God. Not only the nature of their offerings, but also the attitudes with which they offered them are evident in this passage. We must be careful that we do not treat God’s wishes with disdain, and that what we offer Him is what He actually wants.

Now the verb. I looked up “redeem” on the nifty little dictionary on my Mac (admittedly, not the O.E.D.), and here is what I found:

The primary definition is, “‘compensate for the faults or bad aspects of (something)’: a disappointing debate redeemed only by an outstanding speech | (as adj. redeeming) : the splendid views are the one redeeming feature of the center.”

Edging closer to the biblical concept, the dictionary later says, “‘(of a person) atone or make amends for (error or evil)’: the thief on the cross who by a single act redeemed a life of evil. Save (someone) from sin, error, or evil: he was a sinner, redeemed by the grace of God.'”

Only the secondary definition communicates what God means when He uses the word in the Scriptures: “‘gain or regain possession of (something) in exchange for payment’: his best suit had been redeemed from the pawnbrokers...’pay the necessary money to clear (a debt)’: owners were unable to redeem their mortgages...(archaic) buy the freedom of.'”

If we speak of redeeming an artistic medium using the primary definition, my question is, “In what way have we compensated for the ‘faults or bad aspects’ of the medium, when we have not changed it at all?” The fact that we choose to use the medium, unchanged, suggests that we find no fault with it. I submit that attaching religious sentiments–or even biblical quotations–to a death metal song does not change the medium. We do not redeem the form, we simply use it to try to communicate something else.

We really get into trouble if we use the verb, “redeem,” in the biblical sense. First of all, God redeems–we don’t. We are the redeemees, not the redeemers.

Second, redemption in the biblical sense implies previous ownership. When God redeemed us, He bought back something that was already His. Hosea’s experience with his promiscuous wife is meant to illustrate this principle, and does so perfectly. When did the Church own the media it says it is redeeming? We say on Thursday that the artists who grace the pages of People and Rolling Stone need to hear the gospel, repent, and trust Christ; on Sunday we offer their music to God in worship. Am I missing something here?

Third, redemption requires a price. In the salvific sense, that price was the blood of Christ–the most precious commodity in the history of the universe. (I have been disappointed that some otherwise excellent contemporary songs fail to emphasize–or even mention–the real price of our salvation.) It seems our concept of redemption is that there is no purchase necessary. Might it be that we use popular entertainment media in our churches so we can avoid paying the price of being distinct?  And what is that price? Smaller congregations, perhaps. And smaller offerings, which are already small enough. Lack of appeal to the “unchurched.” A perception of cultural irrelevance.

God’s people are not called to fit in, but to stand out. Truth will always change culture, and culture will never change truth. Have we lost sight of this reality?

Ezekiel, in describing temple worship during the coming reign of Christ, writes of the Levitical order, “They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (EZE 44.23)

Maybe we need to start learning that now.

If Jesus Could Change Peter, He Can Still Change Me

painting1This morning I did what I usually do on this day each year. I turned on Handel’s Messiah and I read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ final hours in the upper room with His disciples, His betrayal and arrest, His pathetic excuse for a trial, His crucifixion and burial, and then His resurrection and the days before His return to Glory. Today, I was struck with a single verse in Luke’s account:

“The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” (LUK 24.34)

These are the words of the eleven disciples left after Judas’ suicide, gathered in Jerusalem to marvel together at the news of Jesus’ appearance to Peter (Simon) and to some of the women who followed Him during his earthly ministry. They prompted me to go back and re-read all of Peter’s failings during Jesus’ passion experience:

  1. In the upper room, on Passover, Peter boasts, “Though they all [the rest of the disciples] fall away because of you, I will never fall away,” and, “I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.”
  2. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he falls asleep with two other disciples while Jesus is agonizing in prayer a few metres away.
  3. When Judas kisses Jesus to identify Him to the band of soldiers in the gloom of the garden, Peter draws his sword and lops off the ear of the high priest’s servant. (We’re not told if this is a piece of expert swordsmanship or a failed attempt at homicide–in either case, Jesus rebukes Peter and graciously heals the man’s ear.)
  4. Upon Jesus’ arrest, Peter runs away as all the disciples scatter. He only follows “at a distance” to see what happens to Jesus.
  5. Though he finally does end up in the courtyard of the high priest when Jesus is dragged before a mock tribunal, he denies knowing the Lord three times–to otherwise harmless people–and even punctuates his final denial with an oath.
  6. During the agonizing hours of Jesus’ crucifixion, no mention is made of Peter’s presence at the “Place of the Skull” to keep vigil as the Saviour dies for him.
  7. When Mary Magdalene tells Peter that she has seen the risen Christ, he doesn’t believe her at first. Even when he and John race to the tomb (John gets there first), go inside and see Jesus’ abandoned grave clothes, John tells us that he believes, but says nothing about Peter’s reaction. (JOH 20.8)
  8. He meets with the other disciples and locks the door to the room for fear of the Jews.
  9. He goes back to fishing, and doesn’t recognize the risen Lord until John tells him who it is that has come to speak with him and his companions.

Not stuff I would want on my résumé. But Jesus had made some promises to Peter many months before. He had told him that He would make him a fisher of men, and that He would give him the keys to the kingdom.

“…All the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 COR 1.20) One morning after He has risen, Jesus appears to Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two other fishermen. He asks them if they have any fish, and they tell Him they have caught nothing. Following Jesus’ instructions to cast the net on the right side of the boat (reminiscent of another amazing fishing trip), they net 153 large fish–so many they can’t haul in the net in the conventional manner. Jesus already has fish grilling on the beach, and they add some of theirs to His and have a pleasant breakfast together. After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside. Having been assured three times that Peter loves Him (mirroring the three times he said he didn’t even know Him), Jesus tells Peter to feed His sheep and His lambs. The Carpenter transforms the fisherman into a shepherd.

Acts 2 finds this same Peter–impulsive, boastful, impetuous, cowardly Peter–preaching to thousands of Jews at the Feast of Pentecost. Many of these are the same people who, just weeks before, were raising their murderous fists to Pontius Pilate and shouting, “Crucify him!” Now, Peter boldly accuses them:

“…This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men…Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (ACT 2.23, 36)

That day, Jesus gives the fisher of men a catch so large it cannot be drawn in. Three thousand believe in Jesus Christ, and the Church is born. Years later, Peter writes to believing Jews of the diaspora who are suffering severe persecution,

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 PET 3.13-15)

Quite a transformation.

When I look at my own heart–my sins, my fears, my rash assumptions, my pride–I see a lot of myself in Peter. But then I consider the wonder of the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, and am encouraged to think that if Jesus could change Peter, He can still change me.

“Portrait of a Bearded Man as an Apostle” is by Pier Franceso Mola.

17 “Wise” Is Not a Suffix

7173_tractor-through-the-wheat-fieldOne of my pet peeves is hearing “-wise” used as a suffix.

William Strunk and E.B. White, co-authors of The Elements of Style, (Macmillan, 1979) share my disdain:

Not to be used indiscriminately as a pseudo-suffix: taxwise, pricewise, marriagewise, prosewise, salt water taffywise. Chiefly useful when it means “in the manner of”: clockwise. There is not a noun in the language to which -wise cannot be added if the spirit moves one to add it. The sober writer will abstain from the use of this wild additive.

James grew up with the wisest Man who ever lived–with the all-wise God of Creation, come in flesh. Jesus never made a wrong decision, never regretted something He’d done, never acted on impulse, never exercised poor judgment. Not even as a child–and children are notoriously unwise! In fact, the second-wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, reminds us that “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child…”(PRO 22.15)

James says a significant thing about wisdom in his epistle:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (JAM 3.13-18)

First, he makes it clear that thinking we are wise or saying we are wise–or even using -wise as a suffix!-neither makes us wise nor shows that we are. Wisdom is demonstrated by my conduct, not by my crowing. Wisdom is characterized by meekness, not by arrogance.

Second, James tells us that there is one thing that militates against real wisdom every time: self interest. He describes it as “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition,” two sides of the same coin. Aside from the fact that God hates them, jealousy and rivalry will wreak havoc on our relationships, colour our choices, and make us miserable and discontented. They will lead to “disorder and every vile practice.” We have to realize is that if self interest ever enters into our decision-making, our “wisdom” is not godly wisdom.

What’s the alternative? Well, James says, if wisdom isn’t from above, it’s got to be from below–it’s “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” That’s clear language. If wisdom doesn’t come from the One who made the world, it comes from the one who made a mess of the world. There is no Door Number Three.

And look at the description of godly wisdom. It’s “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” The antithesis of self interest, wouldn’t you say? And the result is different, too–instead of disorder and vile practices, we reap a harvest of peace because the seeds of wisdom are sown in peace by those who desire peace.

So how are we doing, wisdomwise?

Image is from Wallpaper Mania.

16 Hold Your Tongue!

hold_your_tongue_by_gunslingergirlThink of what it must have been like to grow up with a brother who never lied, never sassed His mom, never gossiped, never told a naughty joke, never complained, never tattled, never swore, never reamed anyone out. Ever.

James grew up with a Brother just like that, so he knows exactly what he’s saying when he writes about the control of the tongue:

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (JAM 3.2)


The real evidence that I am in control of my body is not how many reps I do, how much iron I pump, how far I run, how many carbs I eat, how many hours I sleep, how often I floss. It is whether or not I am able to control my tongue.

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. (JAS 3.3-5a)


James goes from controlling my own body to controlling the body of a horse. Although a horse is a large animal, it can be controlled easily by a small device in its mouth. Even a huge ship can be steered by a rudder–a relatively small component of its design. In the same way, James reminds us, the tiny tongue has great power.


From the tongue’s comparatively small size in proportion to its power, James moves to the destructive capacity of this little member. A cigarette butt tossed carelessly out the window of a passing car can ignite a fire that will destroy thousands of acres of forest, burn expensive houses to the ground, kill animals, and even result in the loss of human life. In the same way, my tongue can, with only a few words, set the course of my life–or someone else’s–because of its capacity to destroy. It is like a fire coming from hell itself.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (JAM 3.5b-6)


For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (JAM 3.7-8)

We can control horses with bits and bridles, we can guide enormous ocean-going vessels with rudders, and we can domesticate and train all manner of animals. But without the aid of the Holy Spirit, the tongue is untamable.


With the same tongue we bless God and curse others. A spring does not produce both fresh and salt water, James says. A fig tree does not bear olives, nor a grape vine figs. One cannot find fresh water in a salt marsh. In the same way, the tongue that blesses God ought not to curse people.

With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (JAM 3.9-12)

The tongue will get me into a world of trouble unless I learn to use mine like Jesus used His.