Sovereignty and Prayer

“Instead of making these great plans as if you have everything under control by your own power, you ought to say what you have been taught:  “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
 – James 4

There are things we pray for already knowing God’s will.   Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Kindness, Self-control, Holiness, Purity, Faith, Hope, Forgiveness, Humility. You don't have to pray, “God, do you want me to have these??!?!”

James warns against "double-minded" prayers, prayers that waver when we doubt that God’s plan for our character is really the best option.

“Purity? Really?  Self-control?  I have to forgive her? I have to love him? That can’t be right. I’ve seen the gods of this world and they are self-indulgent, tough, and certainly not pure.  And look what a good time they are having on Jersey Shore!”

Then there are things we pray for without knowing God’s will: A new job…a spouse….College….. money…. government leaders...vacation plans….business decisions…. amajor purchase…health.

We may not know these with certainty – maybe we’re not supposed to.  We would never have to “step out in faith” if we knew with certainty.  We waver here when we doubt that God is sovereign no matter what we choose.

“How could you have let me do this?  I don't see a why out! Why did you let this happen to me?” 

Do we believe that God is truly in control, or are we confident that our perspective is the one that should win the day?  This prayer of faith is one in which we say, alongside Christ in the Garden, "Not my will, but yours be done."

The Path to Peace

James 4:4-5 “You have committed spiritual adultery against God!  Don’t you know that the love of this world’s pleasures is an act of hostility against God?  Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the corruption of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Do you think that the Scripture was lying  about this, or that the Holy Spirit which dwells in us wants us to envy others instead of being contented with the provision of God in our lives?”

Envy is an ugly thing.  It eats away at our should while tearing apart our community.  It manifests itself in mean gossip, destructive whispering, and petty complaints.  We want and want and want more - often specifically what someone else has.  More often than not, envious people are pretty sure the problem is that they just haven't received what should have been coming to them.  "I deserve better!" may not be spoken aloud, but it is certainly believed.

Here is a transformative principle:  Our community life is connected to our spiritual life. The way I treat people reflects they way I view God.The way I view God will be expressed in the way I treat others. If there is ongoing tension and disruption in church life, perhaps the issue is a spiritual one.

Let’s be clear: some conflicts are genuine and needed.  If there is disagreement about whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, or  if clear issues of moral behavior are right or wrong, then conflict can be necessary and hopefully redemptive. In fact, sometimes the phrase “I deserve better” is true; abuse victims truly do need saving.

This is not what James is talking about when he writes about envy and the role it plays in destroying communities. He is talking about:

the petty bickering,
the simmering undercurrents of hostility,
the unresolved, unending tension that keeps cropping up in church
the feuds that fester,
the rumor that someone won’t let die,
the reputation that keeps coming up to the embarrassment of the one
  who once failed,
the muttered remarks meant to shame those blessed by God with
  obvious success….

We don’t have to actually steal stuff and kill people to take from them what is rightfully theirs and destroy their lives.  We can do it with words, attitudes, and emotions too. James’ words on this subject are hard and demanding: You have a tough time living well in community because something bad has happened to your relationship with God.

But there is good news:

James 4:6-10 “God’s lavish grace enables us to resist the temptations and bear the trials of life with humility and trust, knowing that God’s Holy Spirit has said, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  So, submit yourselves to God; resist the devil (who would tempt you to envy) and he will flee from you; walk closely to God, and God will be close to you.

If you want inner contentment and community peace, there is a way:  resist temptation, repent, live a life of humility, and remain in submission to God.

A couple weeks ago Madonna sang during half time of the Superbowl.  As the last notes faded, the phrase "World Peace" appeared on the field. That's a great goal, but I wonder: does her plan include resisting temptation, being humble, repenting, and submitting to God?

We want peace in ourselves, our families, our church.  That's a great goal too. Does our plan include resisting temptation, being humble, repenting, and submitting to God?

If not, peace will remain elusive. If we are willing to do these things, “The Lord will lift us up.”

The Dangers of Discontent

   I carry with me a device which enables me to:
access the internet
listen to music
fail at Angry Birds
tell time
take pictures
store information in a “cloud”
contact people immediately by sending words through the air
locate myself through GPS
monitor my heart rate
track the stock market
do root canals.
phone other people (weird, right? A phone does that too...)

It’s cracked; sometimes it gets all quirky.  And I just can’t stand it when it takes 10 seconds to obey my commands. Even worse, my smartphone is exposing a really shallow part of my nature. I am easily discontented.

I have a family income that puts me in the top 5% -10% of the world's population (as do most of you reading this, I might add), but I am discontent.  I wish the rooms of my house were larger, the siding was new, the deck was covered, and I had a pool.

I drive comfortable internal combustion machine further in a day than people used to travel in a decade, and I am discontent: it costs sooo much to fix, and the wipers leave a streak, and could sure use better gas mileage and racing stripes, even that would look odd on a minivan.

I am discontent with all these things. Meanwhile, this slow spiritual poison silently kills my attitude, my view of others, and my contentment with the life God has given me.

Discontent with people is even worse than discontent with things, because things don't bear God’s image. When my discontent begins to involve other people, it makes me a jerk.
I resent other people who don’t deserve my resentment.
I take my issues and project them on to someone else.
I resent good health in others when I feel sick.
I resent people who eat whatever they want because I can't.
I  resent those who are more popular or prominent, because if people only knew how smart, cool, and funny I really was!
I resent people whose babies sleep through the night, and whose dog does not jump their fence.

   And somehow in my mind, the idea that I don’t have what I deserve is somehow connected to the people around me who clearly have more than they deserve. They have more money, a nicer house, better friends, more influence and authority, longer vacations, a better vehicle, and a dog that does not want to play fetch at 3:00 in the morning. I deserve that! I might even deserve a better spouse (but none of us have thought that, right?) Or worse: I deserve Tom's house, and Bob's paycheck, and Bill's wife.  That's when life really starts to get ugly.

James has some things to say about resentment and discontent.  At the end of chapter 3 and moving into chapter 4 he notes, “Wherever there is envy and selfish ambition, there is disorder, instability and all kinds of evil practices... Do you want to know why you have so many fights and quarrels in your community?  They come from your desires that battle within you.  You want what you don't have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can't get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them.”

My paraphrase: Do you want to know why you have so many jerks in your community?  Because they are jealous, discontent, selfish, and self-centered. Here's how the thinking works:

Other people get more attention? – “It can’t be because they have something worth paying attention too.  If people only knew what I have to offer.  So, I’ll butt in, dominate the conversation and get the attention I deserve. ”
Other people have more money/things? – “ I’ll overcharge that person – they have way too much already.  Maybe I’ll occupy something….”
Other people are with the person you like?  - “They clearly do not know what they are missing here.  If I can get them to dislike their current flame, then I will be set.”

The discontented are not motivated to change something within themselves and grow in their own character, skill, or integrity. They just try to take it from others in unjust and selfish ways.

Discontent will destroy your friendship with others, your relationship with God, and your ability to appreciate that blessings God has given you.  On the other hand, those who find contentment in their lives discover the beauty of life steeped in gratitude.

Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom

“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said, that He takes of Mine, and will disclose it to you."
John 16:13-15

KNOWLEDGE is the basis for understanding and wisdom.  Knowledge is the accumulation and familiarization with information and facts…and facts are statements of truth.  For us “Christ-followers” --- the Bible is our reference manual. Here are some examples of facts:

  • There is one God 
  • Jesus is the perfect and sinless Son of God
  • Jesus came to earth and suffered and died on a cross for our sins
  • Jesus rose again from the dead and gives new life to all who trust in Him.

Bible facts include people, places, things, concepts, laws, and on and on.  Knowledge of these facts is extremely important! The Old Testament prophet, Hosea, speaking to the Israelite nations says, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (and then he goes on to rebuke the priests for not giving the people knowledge). Knowledge is the stuff upon which our understanding and wisdom are founded.  When God’s people are destroyed and waste away, it isn’t because God has lost either His love or strength.  It’s because His people lack knowledge. Without understanding God and His word, God’s people are destined for destruction.

The world says, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you!”  The Bible makes it clear that what we don’t know will make us miserable, and eventually destroy us.

UNDERSTANDING is the process of working with the information or facts (reading, rereading, meditating, discussing, etc.).  As we do this we begin to see meaning and principles emerge.

  • One writer’s work elaborates on another’s. 
  •  Prophecy bears itself out in stories. 
  •  Stories undergird teachings.  
  • Parables make difficult sayings clear.  

The more we read and consider ideas and instructions found in the bible, the more practical understanding we gain.  Lights begin to come on.  Statements of fact that previously seemed disjointed begin to make sense.

WISDOM is the goal of knowledge and understanding.  Wisdom tells us what to do next, how to apply what we have learned.  Wisdom shows up in the action phase of our growth curve as believers. Wisdom is a gift that remakes us so that we may succeed in life.

Wisdom draws its basis from knowledge of God, coupled with a growing understanding of what He is intends and expects for us and from us.  Those with wisdom know which principle to apply in each situation. Those with wisdom know what to do next; they know which way to go. They do the right thing.  In contrast, there are many who have great knowledge and even understanding, but consistently do the wrong thing.

Wisdom is God’s ability flowing into and replacing our inability.  It is His strength overcoming my weakness.  It is His heart and focus displacing my self-absorption.  It is Him in me!....and it is orchestrated by His Holy Spirit.

 Knowledge and understanding only have eternal value as they result in wisdom – wisdom that shapes our decisions and actions in conformity with God’s plan

Theologies of Poverty and Prosperity

"Every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to use it, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God." - Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 5:19

There is a great conversation in “Fiddler on the Roof” where Perchik is talking with his future Jewish father-in-law, Tevye.  Perchik, as a good Marxist, thinks economic inequality is the cause of all social ills.  His outspoken opinion leads to the following conversation:

“Money is a curse from God.” -Perchik
“May He smite me with it, and may I never recover.” - Tevye

     That line always makes me laugh, but it's actually not the best theology.  Solomon wrote, “Two things I ask: Keep deception and lies far from me,  give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me my portion, that I do not become full, deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Don’t let me be in want and steal, and profane the name of God" (Proverbs 30:7-8).
     Solomon, who is legendary for his wealth, learned a lesson that is hard for those of us without his money to grasp:  money is not the answer.  In fact, money can make us forget the One who brings us true wealth.  On the the other hand, poverty's not that desirable either, because our temporary lack can make us bitter toward the One who is apparently not interested in our wealth at all.  That middle ground of wealth is one of provision without excess; needs without hardship.

     The New Testament does not focus as much on the connection between physical abundance and God's blessing.  In fact, the New Testament clearly establishes that any situation in life can be a blessing. At the beginning of the book of James (perhaps the first epistle written to the early church), we read that wealth and poverty can both be a trial - and a blessing:  "Let the poor who lead a humble life rejoice when they are raised to a higher position; but the rich should rejoice in being brought to a  lower position of humility.  It is a good reminder that riches will pass away like flowers in a field.   The sun rises with his scorching heat and dries everything up, so that flowers drop their petals and the beauty of their appearance perishes.  In the same way rich with all their prosperity will fade away." (James 1:9-11)

 Point #1: If you’re poor and you get rich, awesome.

    I think we instinctively agree with this.  Any time we overcome a trial and come out the other side, that’s awesome.  It doesn’t have to just be money.  It could be working through a difficult situation in your marriage, or having a season where you and your kids find peace; maybe you are finally pain-free, or you reach a point where the lingering effects of your past addictions or sins fade more then ever before. Those are all good things.
    If you were once poor, but are now rich, that’s reason to rejoice.

Point #2: If your rich and you become poor, that’s awesome too.  It’s a great reminder that money is a bad savior.
    This is not so instinctively correct.  Is James serious?  Losing ground is a blessing?  Well, yes.   This falls under the “consider it all joy” category at the beginning of James.  It reminds us that we cannot worship the wrong things.

Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is "finding his place in it," while really it is finding its place in him.  -  C. S. Lewis

    Rough spots in marriage can sometimes be a blessing. Maybe we will start looking to God instead of our spouse to “complete us.”  Pain can sometimes be a blessing – maybe it makes us seek medical help we need, or it reminds us that our bodies are temporary things, and we shouldn’t worship health and beauty either.  In the same way, if you were once rich but you are now poor, you have reason to rejoice.

Wealth is a thing God can give or not give.  A Theology of Poverty (everybody who follows Christ should be poor since money is so bad) is no more biblical than a Theology of Prosperity (everybody who follows Christ should be rich because money is so good).  Neither one sees the message of scripture in its entirety.  

Money and Worship

"It is not persecution of the church in China that I fear. The church has always been able to weather persecution. My fear is love of money in the church."  - anonymous Chinese pastor

   “Your checkbook is a theological statement.“ - Billy Graham

The Occupy movement is getting a lot of press right now.  Their stated purpose is to bring economic inequality  and big bank/government/ Wall Street corruption to light. The official website notes:
“We refuse to be the 1%’s captive citizenry. We stand together to show that the 99% are creating a better world.”
     There is some irony here. Anyone making over $40,000 a year in America is part of the world’s 1%. The average protestor in NYC  makes between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.  The protestors are the world’s economic elite.  In other words, the Occupy movement involves the rich of the world complaining about the even richer.
     There is more irony. The movement protesting greed has shown itself to be very greedy of other people’s resources – restaurants, parks, and stores have been damaged and exploited.  Los Angeles is spending millions of dollars to repair the damage of those who protested exploitation by exploiting things that weren’t theirs.   In New York, the occupy kitchens changed their menu because they were tired of feeding the homeless.  So a group of “the poor” that had no problem helping themselves to the property of “the rich” grows resentful when other people help themselves to their property…
     I say all this not to say that the protesters are all bad people or that their complaints about corruption are wrong.  I give this example to point out that money exposes us.  It shows what we worship.
     Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, 
"You can't follow two gods at once. When you love one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. That’s why you can't serve God and Money both."


 But whoever studies and knows God’s perfect law of liberty that brings true freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard and seen about themselves, but actually changing because of it—they will be blessed as a result of their honesty and obedience.  Real faith, the kind that honors God, expresses itself: it reaches out to the homeless and alone, and works to keep itself pure in the midst of a godless world.         (James 1:25-27)

   Ever watch kids play when one of them makes up the rules as they go along? Their freedom with the rules has robbed the others of the freedom to enjoy the game, and usually of their good attitude.  This in turn robs us parents of the freedom to talk with little Bobby’s mom or day while the kids play.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Ever driven with someone who apparently has no sense of the rules of the road?  Stop signs are pause signs, speed limits are silly, merging is an opportunity to show people you aren’t scared, double yellow lines are mere suggestions, maybe even blood alcohol levels are irrelevant.  Their freedom is robbing others of the ability to drive free from the worry of accidents.  It might rob their family of money if they have to pay a fine.  It might even rob somebody of their life.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Or perhaps you know someone or have experienced yourself what happens when addictive behaviors result from freely chosen decisions.

   When your freedom destroys you and hurts those around you, you need a different definition of freedom.  A true exercise of freedom simultaneously brings life to us and brings life  others.

    As followers of Christ we are freed from the bondage of sin. We are released into the “perfect law of liberty,” not into the perfect lawlessness of liberty.James’s perfect law of liberty does not mean, “Do what you want.  You now have free access to the world without having to think about anybody but yourself. ”  It means you had once been a slave to things that were breaking you down and ruining you and those around you, but God in his mercy has shown you how to be released from that bondage and live in such a way that God is seen in and through you.

I Can See The Moon

My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon. — Japanese poet Masahide

The advice of James in the first century translates very well into a 21st century offers the same challenges. 

     "As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. As an example of patience in the face of suffering, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Or think of Job’s perseverance, and what the Lord finally brought about for him.     There are people teaching you falsely about the character of God as it relates to trials, temptations, and suffering. Don’t be misled and deceived.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.  Every  good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who shines His light on you.  He does not change like shifting shadows.  God gave us life through His word of truth, that we might be the beginning of a new kind of creature – his most important and prized possessions.
    Be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains?  You too should be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return, when you will finally be delivered from all of these hardships.  Stand firm, and don’t give up hope; His coming – and your deliverance and reward - is near."  (compiled from James 1 and 5) 

Persecution around the world is still a very real part of the Christian experience.  2011 was not a kind year. From the LA Times: 

      “At least 21 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in Egypt in a suspected suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers left a new year service….”
“Hundreds of nomadic Fulani herdsmen launched coordinated attacks on three Christian villages—Dogo Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot, just south of Jos—about 3 a.m. Sunday.  Reports on the death toll differed wildly, with some placing it at about 200 and others reporting 528 killed and thousands injured.    The killers planted nets and animal traps outside the huts of the villagers, mainly peasant farmers, fired weapons in the air, then attacked with machetes…”

     In the West, we don’t face this kind of persecution. We are blessed to live in a country where not hearing “Merry Christmas” at Walmart makes the news. That may reflect a change in our culture which may one day bring us to a point of more overt hostility, but it's not suffering. 
     We live in a culture where we face temptation for things that are hostile to our faith.  All around we see and hear compelling stories of lust, greed, selfishness, and rebellion.  This does not make America unusual, but it does make America difficult.  The most beautiful and the most popular among us glorify lifestyles that certainly tempt us to participate.  
     A trial is something in our life that causes us discomfort– physical or emotional.  It is something we have to suffer through rather than enjoy.  These are not things that tempt us to sin, but rather things that can refine us. Trials can be sent by God.  David wrote in Psalms 66:8-12 (NIV):

” Praise our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance

    There are other sources for trials too.  We face the daunting challenge of living in a world in which Satan is like a ravenous lion ; a world in which “all of creation groans as it waits for redemption”; and a world in which we make bad decisions and just have to “reap what we sow.” 
Sometimes, the source of our trials are obvious.  If I need a new car because mine has broken down after 500,000 miles and its just run down or Michigan happens to win a bowl game, that’s just life as “creation groans”.  If I don’t study and I fail a class, that’s  my fault. Sometimes, the source can be tough to gauge. David says he went through prison and “fire and water” because God tested him.

     Here’s where James’ advice to see the big picture is important. I can’t always see the reasons for the situations in my life.  In fact, I might often misunderstand what’s going on.
1)  My car breaks down (bad)…I miss an interstate pile-up (good)
2)  My girlfriend dumps me (bad)…I find real love (good)
3)  I lost my job (bad)…a better job opens up (good)
   James does not spend time talking about if trials and temptations come.  Though he explains why we sin, He doesn’t spend time talking about why we have trials.  That just seems to go with the territory of being alive (for general trials) and being a follower of Christ (for trials we face because we are Christians). The main question is not if or why, but what is God doing in the midst of it?
Our joy will not come from knowing what started our trials; our joy will come from seeing what God can do with them.

The Joy of Trials

James 1:1 "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings."

     Two key cultural events that had a “scattering” effect:  Persecutions had begun, and a major famine had hit.  The persecution had scattered the Jewish Christians, and the famine had hit what has recently been referred to as the “99%”  pretty hard.  James continues:

James 1:2-4  "In spite of what you might think, there is joy in facing the tests and trials of life, as well as dangerous afflictions of many kinds.  When your faith is tested, your endurance has the opportunity to grow.  Endure so that you can experience the full effect of  these experiences, so you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."

So far, James is only referring to difficult situations in life.  Many translations say “temptations,” this verse specifically refers to the testing of our endurance and your faith.  This is calamity of any kind.

  •       Relationships fail
  •       Jobs disappear
  •       Health struggles
  •       People die
  •       Friends go to jail
  •       Spouses leave
  •       Cars breaks down 
  •       House need repair
  •       People gossip

      Sometimes, even the faithful living out of our commitment to Christ puts us in trying situations.

    These are trials. But James says we can find joy in the midst of them if we understand what God is doing.

James 1:13-18  "When tempted to sin, you have to stop saying, “God is tempting me.”  God cannot be tempted by evil, and he doesn’t tempt anyone to do evil.  Each person is tempted when they are lured and then carried  away by their own desires and lusts.  If you nourish the lust conceived in you, you will eventually give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, will bring death to you. Blessed is the one who patiently endures both temptations to sin and trials of hardship because, having passed the tests, that person will receive the victor’s crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who keep on loving him."

    Anything God puts into our life will be good and perfect, intended to accomplish His good and perfect will.  God won’t send temptations to sin, but even when we give in He does not remove himself from our struggles.

     God can bring something good from things that would otherwise destroy us.

   The good that God intends is maturity, completeness, and the “victor’s crown of life,” which seems to carry with it a sense of not only receiving an eternal reward, but finding a place of really living in this life as well.