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Wishful Christianity

James  1:19-27

We often think of the early church as an ideal state. In fact, it had the same problems we have today - and the same desire to correct them. James begins this section by talking about a problem which is still with us: anger.


(James 1:19-21 NIV) My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, {20} for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. {21} Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Sinful Anger

It must be noted that anger is not always sinful; there is such a thing as righteous anger. The anger that James is talking about is much more common, and it deserves our closest attention.

·         Such anger is positively addictive. We love to think about how we are going to get even with someone; we drive like anyone else who crosses our lane is going to be sorry for it. The point is not just that we "get mad" - we enjoy it, and each time we do it we like it more.

·         Such anger need not be expressed or acted on. Sometimes vicarious anger is all we need. Country/Western music is full of songs expressing our anger at someone in authority ("Take this job and shove it.") Movies portray the hero blazing away at his enemies, screaming furiously. Anger can be vicarious. Sometimes, such anger can be directed at people who are no longer around. Even years later, memory is enough to provoke anger. Do you remember your school class bully?

·         But we do sometimes get to express it at a person. Here we can define the sinful side. We must hate the sin but love the sinner. Sounds hard? Indeed. But consider that you've been doing that for one sinner all your life: yourself. God ("Love thy neighbor as thyself") simply asks that you do likewise for everyone else.

Society's Attitude

Regrettably, our society has changed greatly in the last three generations. Anger used to be a sign of being out of control; now it is a sign of masculinity. You think not? Consider two images of masculinity:

·         Gary Cooper in High Noon, probably the greatest Western ever made. He is afraid, angry at the lack of support he gets - but always in control of his anger.

·         Sylvester Stallone in Rambo (any version) - anger is good, let's go shoot someone.

There is a reason that Indiana Jones lives in the 30's.

Satan's Weapon

James makes a key point here: anger is the weapon of Satan; the Christian must therefore refuse to use it. Did you ever read J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings? You will recall that the One Ring was greatly powerful, but ultimately corrupting - so much so that the wise refused to use it; the powerful were greatly corrupted by it, and only the humble could safely transport it. Anger is like that.

The Command

What, then, is the Christian to do? James gives a two-edged command, as is common in Scripture. You must get rid of one thing (the word literally means "scrape off") and take up another.

·         Scrape off filth and evil (the words in the Greek are generic), which is so prevalent. "Prevalent" actually is a translation of "superabundant" - which shows James lived in a time like ours.

·         Replace it with humble acceptance of the Word.

The Wishful Christian

James now introduces us to one of the sad sights in our church: the Wishful Christian:

(James 1:22-25 NIV) Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. {23} Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror {24} and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. {25} But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.

What would you do if you received a great inheritance? Suppose your long lost uncle in Australia dies and leaves you a fortune. Do you see yourself as the beneficent Christian, handing out money to good causes? Of course, you may say, "That would be great, but for right now money's a little tight…" If you do, you are a dream giver - and probably a dream Christian, a Wishful Christian.

Many of us are at our best in our dreams. If we only had money, we'd be so generous. If our acquaintances were just better people, we'd be so kind. If my wife was a trophy wife, I'd be so loving. The truth is that many of us get our MDR (minimum daily requirement) of adventure at the movies - and our MDR of holiness by going to church every now and then. If you're a Christian only in your dreams that's exactly where God will bless you.


But there is hope! James tells us what to do. We must get out of our dreams and into our lives, being those who do what we are called to do.

·         We have the "perfect law." Any system of rules and regulations will ultimately fall into paradox and conflict, for we are but human. But the Christian is led by the Spirit. Sometimes this can confuse people, for it seems that we are not consistent to whatever set of rules they imagine we must follow. We must be consistent - consistently led by the Spirit, consistently following our Lord Jesus Christ. In all else, we must be as inconsistent as he demands.

·         This law gives freedom. This is a freedom from sin and its ultimate (though not immediate) consequences. To understand this clearly, we must know what freedom truly is. Suppose you capture an eagle. You bind it, take it with you into a submarine, and at six thousand feet below the waves you shoot it out of a torpedo tube. The eagle is now "free." Is it really? It no longer is bound by the ropes you used to restrain it, but it is not capable of being an eagle. Freedom means "able to be what God designed you to be." God designed you to be in fellowship with him. That is the freedom this law gives.

·         To live in this perfect law of freedom we must "look intently" at what God gives us. The phrase in the Greek originally meant the action of a man who looked deeply into a well, peering over the edge, shading the surface so he could see all the way to the bottom. In other words, it's hard work. But is not this true of all forms of freedom?

If you do this, you will be blessed by God. In short, stop dreaming and start doing - get to work.

The Practical Tests

James now gives us three practical tests of the validity of our Christianity:

(James 1:26-27 NIV) If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. {27} 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.

Side Note

Have you noticed the pronouns in these passages? "He" must do this, by "himself." They are personal pronouns, referring to an individual person. There is such a thing as corporate charity, but James is talking about actions which we take as individuals. Does your church feed the poor? Good; do you? This is the test of your faith: do you do these things personally?

First test: your mouth

(Mat 15:18 NIV) But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.'

Think about the things your mouth lets out. Not just anger, but gossip and slander - all the malice the heart can devise. It is the thermometer of your heart. Most of us are not so careful of our tongues that we can effectively disguise ourselves to others - and certainly not to God. It is not just your words; it is the heart they reveal that counts.

Second test: the unfortunate

Job, in conducting his defense of his conduct before his friends, gives us a superb example of doing it right:

(Job 31:16-23 NIV) "If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, {17} if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless-- {18} but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow-- {19} if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, {20} and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, {21} if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, {22} then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint. {23} For I dreaded destruction from God, and for fear of his splendor I could not do such things.

Do you see the point? It is not "natural kindness" that caused Job to bless the poor with his material belongings; it is the fear of the Lord. Today we have around us the "invisible society." They live in parks and in public places; they are politely ignored by polite society - but God knows them by name, they are his children as well as we are. Do we feed and clothe them?

"Isn't that the government's job?" Think about it; should it be? Are they well suited to such a task?

"Isn't that the church's job?" And just who is the church? We are the church.

Not someday; not someone else. Now, by me. For who knows? Christ may come at any moment, and with him the judgment. Are you with the sheep or the goats? You already know how he will divide them up.

Keep from being polluted.

The word "polluted" has an air about it of environmental activists running about spewing out slogans - but the word is a negative one for a good reason. To pollute something is to take what is good and mix it with what is not. Paul enjoins us this way:

(Rom 12:2 NIV) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Transform your mind - but don't leave it blank:

(Col 3:1-2 NIV) Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. {2} Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Drive out the evil in your heart with the righteousness that comes from God. Show that righteousness by what you say - and what you do.

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