Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 1:9-15

1:9-11 – Once again, James launches into a topic with a blast of counter-cultural, upside-down wisdom: it is the poor who should take pride in their position in life, and not the rich. How could this be true? It is common-sense knowledge in our culture that having money is a good thing—it provides security from the stresses and worries of whether you can provide for yourself and your family; it enables you to satisfy your desires in ways that you otherwise couldn’t, and it even gives you the means to accomplish great good in the world, if you’re so inclined to use it that way. If someone wins the lottery, the event is universally viewed as a stroke of undeniably good fortune. But James is basically saying, “No, winning the lottery would be an incredible stroke of bad luck.” The way he describes the condition of being rich—“humiliation” and “fading away”—makes it clear that “humble circumstances” (poverty) are the better position in life. Interestingly, for as much as James’ admonition seems to run against the grain of common sense, it is fairly standard fare for most of the great moral philosophers of the world’s history: Jesus also gave some very sharp warnings about the dangers of wealth, as too did Socrates and Aristotle. The common theme in all these teachings is that the possession of wealth puts you at a decided disadvantage for the attainment of true virtue. And, since virtue, and the good character it engenders, is a treasure of far more worth (and of true eternal value) than the ephemeral comforts of our material world, it is simply good logical sense that it’s better not to be wealthy. In fact, modern science has recently backed up this ancient wisdom. In the very week that I write this, I happened to read an article that cited several rigorous social-science studies, which showed that rich people are more likely to shoplift, cheat, commit adultery, and drink to excess than are poor people. They are also more likely to try to evade taxes, they give proportionally far less to charity than do the poor, and they even appear to be significantly less able to exhibit compassion and empathy towards the suffering. Indeed, there seems to be a very real correlation between the extent of one’s wealth and the extent of one’s vices. This means that we who are wealthy (and, on a socio-economic comparison of our society against almost every other one that has ever existed, this includes most of us) need to take great care to defend against the dangers of wealth. It will rot our souls from the inside unless we set up guards against it, and build into our lives the virtue-engendering habits of simplicity and generosity. The poor then, have a “high position” of which they ought to be proud. By this, James appears to mean that they are at an advantage for living the kind of character-forming life that really matters, that can learn to relate properly to God and which can be a far greater blessing to others than all the golden hoards of Croesus ever could. That’s not to say that being poor means that you are ineluctably destined for a virtuous character, of course; merely that that position offers one greater opportunity for the development of virtue. Further, it’s clear from the whole testimony of Scripture that God has compassion on the poor, the suffering, and the lowly, and that he does not take lightly the injustices of a system whereby the wealthy profit from poor people’s suffering. In this sense, too, the poor are in a high position, since they have the empathy of the Almighty keen to their concerns. The rich, meanwhile, are called to “take pride in their humiliation.” James appears to mean that the rich are a living parable of what really matters in life, illustrating in their own broken mortality that wealth is not a worthy end in itself. Where there are rich people within the ranks of the Christian church, they should keep this very much in mind: the display of their splendor is allowed under divine providence for the purpose of demonstrating the surpassingly greater splendor of those things that persist beyond death’s passage. The wealthy man’s riches like flowers will fade away, but the works of God in a good man’s heart will persist forever.
1:12-15 – Verse 12 is often interpreted as its own, standalone thought, perhaps reflecting back some of the topic of verses 2 and 3 (persevering through the suffering of trials). It may indeed be that it refers to that theme; but it may also be that it connects with the verses that follow it. English translations do not always make this evident, but the very same Greek word is used for both “trial” and “temptation” throughout this passage, which allows for a number of different interpretations. Whether one interprets v.12 as relating to the hardships of life or to temptations is up for debate, but either reading is consonant with both Scripture and tradition: we can affirm that the reward of God is manifest both for those who persevere through hardship and for those who persevere through temptation, and all good Christians are called upon to “stand the test” in both these areas. As the reader moves to v.13, it becomes clear that James now has temptation mainly in mind. While there are Bible passages which indicate that God may introduce or allow trials into a Christian’s life, James is clear that there is never a time when God actually tempts someone to sin. Evil is entirely foreign to God’s nature, and it is metaphysically impossible that his character could ever seek to trip someone up into sin. So James advises his readers that any excuse that adds up to divine fatalism (“God made me do it”) cannot be true. Rather, it is we ourselves who are the main sources of temptation (thus discrediting that other classic excuse, “The devil made me do it”). It is our own “evil desire” that entices us. In the Christian tradition, the doctrine of ancestral/original sin means that human nature itself has been afflicted by a disease of sinfulness which is beyond our own capacity to heal. This disease has essentially wired human nature toward the self-centeredness which is the root of all sinful acts. The old theologians used to say that we were incurvatus in se, curved in upon ourselves. “Desire” is the way we humans experience the warping of our nature. While “desire” is an accurate translation of the word James uses in this passage, I prefer to use the classic Christian term here, “the passions” (not least because “desire” can also be proper and good, particularly where our natural desire for God, based in our creation as his image-bearers, is in view). The passions try to convince us that indulging ourselves is the path to happiness and fulfillment—whether that’s through an excess or improper acquisition of money, food, sex, entertainment, or any of a thousand other things. This sets our sights on the good gifts of God (as food, sex, and material provision certainly are), and tricks us into making them an end in themselves, rather than letting them, in their proper place and scope, direct our joy toward God the Giver. By using God’s good things to make us the center of our universe rather than God, the passions lead us into sin. And, James warns, this is the first step on a journey that leads to death. When we give in to the passions, especially in a habitual way, those choices end up shaping our character. We become less able to say no in the future after we’ve said yes multiple times. This is evident not only from Scriptural wisdom, but from modern neuroscientific discoveries about the way our choices direct the wiring in our brains. The irony here is clear: although giving in to our passions is often portrayed in our culture as an embrace of freedom, of throwing off the tired restraints of narrow-minded religion, the fact of the matter is that it actually limits our freedom. The more we give in, the less able we are to choose differently in the future. Freedom is the fruit of discipline, not of indulgence. And since the shape of our character is what’s at stake, to say nothing of our relationship with God being put in a dangerous place when we give in to sin, the stakes cannot be higher in our battle against temptation. We must, as Basil the Great says, be who we truly are, choosing to act as a ruling being rather than serving the passions like a slave. The passions do not have authority to compel us; we can say no, and, for the sake of what we are becoming, we must. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Nothing shall be my master.” As a final point of clarification, however, I should point out that this does not mean that giving in to a single temptation is the same as falling off a cliff, without hope of ever regaining one’s footing—no, with the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, there is always hope that we can begin to rack up consistent victories in the daily battle against the passions, no matter how long sin has previously held its sway over our habits.