Father of Lights

Two part series from the book of James

 

The New Testament is unique.

It was written by people who walked with the Lord Jesus,

or who came to know Him by revelation.

 

We are going to be looking in this article
at a book which may well have been written
by someone who knew the Lord Jesus intimately,
but who did not come to realise who He really was
until after the Resurrection when the Lord appeared to him.
We are talking about James, the Lord Jesus’ own brother.

 

Father of Lights: the Letter of James

The New Testament is unique. It was written by people who walked with the Lord Jesus, or who came to know Him by revelation. We are going to be looking in this article at a book which may well have been written by someone who knew the Lord Jesus intimately, but who did not come to realise who He really was until after the Resurrection when the Lord appeared to him. We are talking about James, the Lord Jesus’ own brother.

About the man himself we know very little. A second century description shows James as being much given to spending long hours on his knees in prayer. In Acts chapter 15, we find that he is the central figure in the church at Jerusalem, opening the way for Gentiles to be accepted into the Church and sending out a circular letter to the churches to keep them from falling into legalism. He was known as James the Just. The church grew strong under his leadership, which led to the Jewish leaders persecuting him. Eubesius tells us that he was pushed off the pinnacle of the temple in the year 66. That failed to kill him outright so he was stoned to death.

We are going to meditate on a number of key themes that James raises: the need for perseverance and wisdom in the face of our trials and temptations; teachers, tithing and the twin themes of mercy and judgement; the extremely sensitive and important matter of why we need to watch the things we say; and then finally at why some prayers spectacularly answered or not answered and some are not.

The epistle James wrote is one of the earliest parts of the New Testament, written before Paul’s great missionary travels. Whoever James originally wrote his epistle for, it contains teaching and exhortation that relate to the social and spiritual conditions of Christians in every age. So whether you are an established church leader or the youngest convert, whether you are in regular work or not, you are sure to find relevant principles in it for your own life.

It’s not the easiest part of the Bible to study, because it is written in the meditative style of wisdom literature, which anticipates that people will take a small section at a time and then pause to apply it in their lives, whereas modern readers expect to read from cover to cover in a logically coherent whole.

More and more these days, I am finding that I read the Scriptures, or some spiritual book, until I sense the Lord speaking to me. I call this ‘reflective reading.’ Bible study is very important, and should not be skipped, but there are many occasions when I have neither the time nor the energy to do it. At such times I prefer just to read and talk issues over with the Lord as they come up, and to get his marching orders for the day or for some particular situation.

We can do this work of reflection anywhere. Laurie Klein describes how she always keeps a bag close by her at all times with her Bible, notebook and coloured pens packed and ready. Whenever she gets a spare moment, she sidles off to spend time with the Lord, and when the Lord speaks to her she writes what He has said to her down in red. That is something that I think many of us would benefit from doing. You may well find that you get the most out of listening to this overview of the book of James if you pause to pray between the different sections.

It will take some effort on our part, therefore, to see the links between the themes James introduces. You will find it helpful to have the book of James open in front of you now. I would like to begin by taking hold of one particular phrase, and holding it up as a backdrop before we begin our tour of the book. It’s a phrase which beautifully captures God’s unchangeableness:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.’ (1:17).

The sun and moon may wax and wane and perform all manner of complicated eclipses, and, so far as our own circumstances are concerned, constant change is here to stay, but the Father of Lights, who created all things never changes. He is bidding us to come and share in His heart, and to explore His purposes through the people we meet and the situations He leads us to. I love the truth the phrase is pointing to ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above. The text makes a perfect hexameter line of poetry in the Greek a fine rhythmic cadence that expresses a beautiful and powerful concept, that nothing that comes from the hand of the Lord can, by definition, be anything but good.

Perseverance in trials

If you were to ask the average congregation at the moment whether they are going through trials and tribulations. The powers of darkness are making intense attacks against the central beliefs and doctrines of many churches against our loyalty to one another, and against whatever it is that God has promised us. By every means possible the enemy is trying to ruin our spiritual health. To say the least, this is a time for prayerful vigilance rather than for taking the armour off. What do we most need to cope with these trials? Perseverance, says James!

1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

It’s hardly a concept that would automatically guarantee the book a place in today’s Top Ten. Joy in the face of such trials? Our natural reaction is to say ‘Deep joy!’ and to run in the opposite direction. But perseverance, is the opposite of cutting and running. The Greek word for it is, hupomone, which literally means “to abide under the pressure.” Others translations prefer ‘steadfastness’ and ‘patience’ Without perseverance, nothing valuable is ever brought to birth. Jesus Himself modelled it by not running away from doing His Father’s will, even when opposition was coming at Him from every quarter.

There are some people who are only seem to be really happy when they have something miserable to moan about. That is not what James is talking about. He’s telling us that the more we trust the Lord to transform our difficulties and disappointments into His appointments, the less room we give to doubt and despair.

Doubt, incidentally, is very different from unbelief. Doubt is like suffering from a faith-illness, which the Lord understands but wants to heal us of. Doubt and perplexity can actually make us more prayerful, whereas genuine unbelief never serves any useful purpose.

You can probably think of times when you have set out to do the will of the Lord; you’ve had initial confirmations that you are on the right tack but then everything seems to have gone wrong . It feels as though the Lord has deliberately led you straight into the zone of maximum conflict and difficulty. Why such buffetings? Peter tells us not to be surprised when such trails come our way, the shaking and the testing are designed to prove our faith genuine, of greater worth than gold itself. In ways we can’t appreciate at the time, trials develop our faith and perseverance.

If you are currently experiencing great trials, it is either because there is a sin in your life and the Lord is trying to attract your attention, or it is a sign that you can be trusted with them. You have graduated and moved on beyond the lesser ones that plagued you last year, and that you are ready to climb towards greater heights. The more important our work and mission, the greater the threat we pose to Satan’s kingdom and the greater the battle will be.

The more we have had to overcome ourselves, the easier we will find it to help other people through their own trials. That is why it is so important to use the attacks that come our way and the spiritually dry times that we go through as a goad to seek the Lord. Somebody once said that the devil’s attacks had taught them to pray unceasingly in the power of the Holy Spirit. If you look through the records of those who have accomplished much, most you will find that it was often some intense difficulty or suffering which inspired the greatest creativity.

Vigorous prayer and active faith are crucial, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t feel vulnerable and victimized when too many difficulties come our way at once. None of us naturally relishes trials, and yet, if we face them properly, they can tell us much about ourselves, much about the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness, as well as about the world around us. Sometimes we will find that what at first sight appears to be at best distracting and at worst a complete tragedy was in retrospect a stepping stone to new blessings.

R T Kendal’s book, ‘God meant it for good’ is a thought-provoking book that is based on the story of Joseph. IT is a useful reminder that perseverance can enable us, like Joseph to see apparent disasters turn out in the long turn to be utterly beneficial for us. We look back on these trials later on, and thank the Lord that He didn’t allow our wrong hopes and expectations to have been fulfilled because He had something better in mind.

Realistically, there are bound to be times when we find it hard to count it all joy as we battle against the strong forces of sin, secularism and Satan. There is a big difference between attacks of the enemy, which need to be resisted, and trails which need to be endured. Intense times of caring for the young or the old fall more into this latter category. I remember Alex Buchanan saying that the only time he was in serious danger of losing the joy of the Lord was when his children were teething!

What happens when the pressure’s really on? Isn’t it all too easy to say ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me?’ (Is. 49:14) It slips out of our hearts and into our mouths, but we are quite wrong to say it: the Lord has not forgotten us at all. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12, KJV). But “When dreams come true at last, there is life and joy!” (as the rest of the verse says in the Living Bible). There may be a significant time-gap between the hopes being deferred and the dreams coming true — many years sometimes while the vision simmers on the back burner, and the Head Chef appears to have left the kitchen. But He hasn’t forgotten what He is preparing and He will still fulfil His purposes for our lives.

Psalm 25:10 says, in the RV, ‘All the paths of the Lord are loving-kindness.’ All by definition means all. As George Mueller put it, ‘In one thousand trials, it is not five hundred of them that work for the believers’ good, but nine hundred and ninety-nine of them and one beside. But it’s easy to testify when you’re the other side of a trial. Derek Price did something rather different the other day in church, inviting people forward in church the other day to come and share the trials that they are currently in the midst of. People shared their failures and disappointments very honestly. It made you feel as though you knew the people concerned much better and it made you want to pray for them much more as a result.’ No one is pretending that trials are easy to bear, but it’s comforting to remember that we are where we are as a result of His choosing alone. We may not have any idea where we are being led, but we can trust the One who is leading us.

If we meet our trials with steadfast constancy, we will receive the crown of life (1:12). The crosses we have to bear are mercifully for a limited duration only, but we will wear the crown for eternity. As Barclay puts it, ‘The struggle is the way to glory, and the very struggle itself is a glory.’

I heard of one person who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis and who decided to give it a helping hand by setting it free from the chrysalis. What he didn’t realise was that the struggle the butterfly has to go through at this point is what develops enough strength in its wings to enable it to fly.

In Isaiah 51:22 the Lord says, ‘See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger.’ That’s a word of encouragement for some of you, who have emerged from particularly testing times. If you’re going through the mill at the moment, can I suggest that you try translating that verse from Isaiah into the future tense: See, I will take out of your hand the cup that has been making you stagger. Your Perseverance will bear fruit, and you will move on again!

Wisdom in Temptation

If you don’t know what you are doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get His help and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open. (James 1:5-7, The Message)

You will be familiar with the passage from the old hymn, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ – Have we trials or temptations? Take it to the Lord in prayer. It’s good to commit our way to Him and to ask Him questions. He loves to give us answers when we are ready to hear them. A couple of years ago I was agonising about how we were going to meet the expenses for one of our conferences. The Lord said to me very clearly one day, ‘I am giving you this conference as a gift – but what’s the use of My promise if you aren’t willing to believe it?!’ Fears can block our faith, but mercifully, the Lord is bigger than our fears.

If our fears and worries help us to face situations prayerfully, well and good, but we must be careful not to allow them to dominate our lives, because they are born of fear, and fear has a horrible way of breeding further fears that make it hard for us to hear and trust the Lord’s reassurances. Worst of all, when certain longed-for things do not work out as we had hoped for, fear can combine with unbelief to make us cynical. Faith and cynicism are complete opposites. If there is any tendency towards cynicism in our thinking when we are 40, it will most probably have gone deeper by the time we are 50, and be still worse when we are 65. That’s why we have to keep spring cleaning our hearts, to make sure that we continue to operate from a basis of faith not fear. As James puts it,

“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. (James 2:23).

Sometimes it is easier to have faith for what God did yesterday (in Abraham’s day, or on the Cross, or in Wesley’s day – or what He will do at the end of time – than to have faith for today. Praise God the Scriptures do not say Jesus is the same yesterday and forever. They say He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Jesus told His disciples to have faith in God, and He would say the same to us.

The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day (Proverbs 4:18). May the Lord expand the capacity of our hearts to exercise faith in the midst of life’s trials and to receive more of this light.

The Psalmist says that we are to hold His word as a lantern to light our path (119:105). Although the Lord may permit us occasional glimpses of His longer term plans, with the Halogen headlights full on as it were, a lantern is a better way to describe God’s guidance. We have to hold it low and stoop down to see by its light. As we take the one or two steps along the right path, so the Lord goes ahead of us to prepare the way for us.

As James promises us in verse 5, God will give us wisdom concerning the many practical or intellectual problems we grapple with, but wisdom is about more than just providing answers to the questions ‘how’ and why?’ It’s all about living wisely and this can only come from leading a life of prayer and faith.

James is quite insistent that trials are specifically sent our way to build and perfect our character. In this he was following the traditional teaching of the Jewish Rabbis. In the wisdom school of thought, however, the rabbis went on to reason that since God is the creator of all things, then He must also have created the evil impulse in man. By logical extension this would mean that man is not responsible for his sin. James is having none of that.

‘When tempted, no one should say “God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone, but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (1:13-16).

Although we long for good and godly desires, however, it’s all to easy also to harbour wrong desires that the ten commandments specifically forbid. (Before you protest that you are neither an adulterer nor a murderer, remember – it was the commandment not to covet that caught Paul out). A seemingly stray thought comes our way and hooks into some buried hopes or imagination. The more we dwell on it, the stronger it becomes until it succeeds in weakening our will and enticing us away. It is at this point, as we yield to its seducing suggestions, that sin is conceived .

The Jews were well aware of the civil war that is waged within the heart of men. They described these two tendencies as Yester Haton, (the good tendency), and Yester Hara, (the evil tendency). It is quite possible to find ourselves caught up in such a delusion of dualism that we end up in the B.S.E. syndrome: ‘Blame Someone Else!’ We blame circumstances, we blame what others have done to us – or the way we were made – we even end up effectively end up blaming God rather than facing the deceptiveness of our own heart. James has less than no sympathy with all this: there is nothing in the nature of God that we can rightly blame.

He is very forthright in dealing with issues which bring darkness to our soul, and which keep the Father of Lights at bay. Surprisingly, Satan, who really is the source of many of our trials and temptations, isn’t mentioned here at all. James was in no mood to provide sinners with any convenient excuse for not facing up to our own shortcomings.

As Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood and becomes a real killer. The only thing that will really help to keep us free from sin is our love for the Lord. Our fear of grieving Him must be greater than all the other fears and desires that run through our minds. The fear of the Lord is deep and clean. May it extend to embrace every part of our inmost being.

Favouritism and Prejudice

The second chapter of James begins with a strong warning against allowing fashionable public opinion to shape our behaviour. Favouritism and faith in Jesus Christ cannot go hand in hand. We know from countless passages in Scripture that God champions the poor.

It is no coincidence that a huge majority of the world’s Christians are, and always have been, underprivileged and often illiterate. God’s perspective, in chapter 1:9-11 is that the poor can be proud of their exalted position in Christ. You get a feel for the power of this verse when you meet Christians from really poor countries. James goes on to expound what he delightfully calls ‘The Royal Law of Love,’ that is, loving your neighbour as yourself and being willing to show mercy, because mercy is at the heart of God’s heart. It’s precisely because parts of the Church were slow to demonstrate this Royal Law and to express God’s heart of mercy, that evils such as slavery and apartheid developed the power that they did, evils which were only reformed at great cost. There are many things which require active confronting rather than passive watching. It is not hard to think of many such issues today.

I wonder where our own prejudices lie? Test yourself. Float the following places before your inner conscience and see whether the reaction they induce is prayerful or prejudiced. Pakistan, China, Germany, Japan, Mother-in-law, Boss. Now do the same with other denominations and expressions of the faith. Deliberately make a point for praying for strands of the faith that you do not normally associate with. Be bigger than your prejudices!

Faith and Friendship

It has often been claimed that there is a contradiction between Paul’s teaching (‘Believe and be saved’) and that of James, which appears to be ‘Don’t go thinking that resting on your own private beliefs is enough’. James would surely have been familiar with Paul’s teaching. The last thing he was doing was to try to refute it – but he did want to set it into context for those who had misunderstood it and were applying it inappropriately. Paul was writing to new and young Christians whereas James was writing for those who were already established in the faith, who knew that they had been forgiven and who claimed to be in a living and dynamic relationship with God.

James was not saying that we are saved by our deeds but rather that we are saved to do deeds for the Lord. As Paul put it, ‘We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do the good works which God in advance prepared for us to do’ (Eph. 2:10).

Paul and James were teaching complementary not contradictory messages. If our faith does not work itself out in practice then of what substance is it? James is at pains to stress that the poor need clothing as well as praying for. The Lord allows us to experience a wide variety of needs in order that we should do something about them. When spiritual insight is combined with compassion, it always leads to specific action.

‘It is said that Martin Luther was close a friend of another monk. This other monk was as fully persuaded of the necessity of the Reformation as Luther was, so they made an arrangement. Luther would go down into the world and fight the battle there; the other monk would remain in his cell praying all the time for the success of Luther’s labours. But one night the monk had a dream. In it he saw a single reaper engaged on the impossible task of reaping an immense field unaided and alone. When the lonely reaper turned his head and the monk saw his face, it was the face of Martin Luther; and he knew that he must leave his cell and go and help.’ (Quoted in Barclay, The Epistle of James, St Andrews Press).

The Lord usually allows us an alternation between times of intense work and periods in which we can catch our breath and recover. I pray that the Lord will bless and inspire you as you labour in the areas the Lord has directed you to work in. May He give you, and may you be disciplined enough to take, times of rest in order to recuperate, and to receive fresh perspective for the things you are involved in. This is so much more important than just ploughing on into further action out of a false sense that we always ‘need to be in action.’ Neither guilt nor the desire to perform or impress is top be confused with the authentic leading of the Holy Spirit.

But every day does bring fresh opportunities to serve the Lord and I pray that we will be ready to take advantage of these when they come, to do things for His glory.

Teachers, Tithing and the Judgement of God

Why does James begin chapter three by warning that teachers will be judged more severely than other people? After all, he must have been perfectly well aware that the church was in desperate need of good teachers. Teachers rate first in line after the prophet and the apostle, and their responsibility for the spiritual well-bring of the flock is an awesome one. What James was refuting was the arrogant attitude of those who effectively say, effectively, ‘Do as I say; don’t do as I do.’ It’s so easy for those who teach to become proud, because they are the ones who others listen to. Teachers are always at risk of becoming what Shakespeare calls ‘Sir Oracle’: ‘I am Sir Oracle, And when I open my lips let no dog bark!’

By and large, most Christians today have little understanding of the mechanism, if we can put it that way, by which God’s judgement operates. I have written a chapter on the subject in Ravens and the Prophets to help us get to grips with the subject, and to help us realise that there are basically two different sorts of judgement. The first concerns godly chastening, whilst the second describes the woe and destruction that afflicts hardened sinners.

Even Christians who we might have thought were way beyond the need for such treatment often experience great chastisement at the hands of the Lord. The more willing we are to embrace God’s chastening now, the more we will be spared the second type of judgement.

Being chastened may or may not indicate that we have done something wrong. If we have, the Lord will undoubtedly find ways to tell us so clearly. No, the Lord often chastens us simply in order to make us more valuable and useful to Him. You can’t sharpen a knife on a pat of butter! The Lord isn’t afraid to deal strongly with us, just as a gardener prunes the roses right back, because He is wanting them to enjoy more growth in the future. That is why He permits many Christians to suffer ‘thorns in their flesh.’ I am grateful that Paul never told us what his thorn in the flesh really was. Because he was so vague about it, it serves as a sort of umbrella term that covers just about any problem situation which the Lord permits and uses to keep us humble and dependent on Himself. The more deeply the Lord touches our lives, and the more earnestly we seek Him, the more effectively we can pull other people up out of the pits they have fallen into.

James returns to the theme of judgement – as opposed to chastening – in the first six verses of chapter five. He reaches new prophetic heights, using Amos-like language to denounce ‘the misuse of wealth, whether by selfish hoarding or dishonest fraud.’ (Alec Motyer The Message of James in The Bible Speaks Today series, IVP pp 155-156, cf Ezek. 16:49).

James declares that God’s judgement will fall on rich landowners (I suppose we could liken them to top businessmen today) who lead self-indulgent irresponsible lives, hoarding their wealth rather than putting it to kingdom use. The invective is aimed against hardened sinners, but we can apply, the challenge in our own lives too. You may have heard the story of the farmer whose cow produced twin calves: one was brown and the other black and white. He promised his wife that once the calves were well established, they would give one of them to the work of the Lord. Until they decided which one that would be, they would be equally treated. A few weeks later he came into the kitchen all long-faced, ‘Darling, I’m afraid the Lord’s calf has died; the brown one.’ Whoops! I thought they hadn’t decided which was which!

When times get hard, we are always tempted to reduce our giving. Now we are still in the ministry because a number of dear people have overcome this temptation and been incredibly generous and sacrificial in their giving to us. The general trend, however, even amongst committed Christians, is to look out for number one. The things we really enjoy are usually the last that we are prepared to give up – yet these are the things which may be determining the strength of our relationship with the Lord to a far greater extent than we realise.

Given that there are many competing calls on our resources, most of us will find it helpful from time to time to ask the Lord if there is anything we are spending money on that He would rather that we are not, and whether there are particular Christian workers or organizations that He would have us support, or support more generously than we currently are.

The Tongue

If you had to list three attributes of true religion I wonder which you would choose? In 1:26, James mentions the need to keep a tight rein on the tongue. I doubt if that would have been on my list. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you would probably prefer to slide quickly over all that James has to say on the subject because you are so acutely aware of all the hurt and damage your unguarded remarks have caused. For all the deeds that we have done which we would now wish we had not done, there are probably far more words we wish we had not spoken.

Sometimes, when you go to a doctor, they ask you to stick out your tongue. They can obviously tell from this how our general health is faring. It’s not so different with our spiritual lives. We think we’re doing really well — until we look at the things we’ve said, and suddenly, whoops, we’re not doing so well after all.

‘The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity…an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God our Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.’

The tongue is an excellent barometer of where our heart is really up to. John Bunyan created a character called Talkative who was ‘a saint abroad and a devil at home.’ I think we all know how quickly we can change from being cheerful and pleasant to really snapping at each other.

I love doing Bible studies on particular words and themes. Roget’s new Bible Thesaurus makes this easy, but just looking up the word ‘tongue’ in a Concordance would be a good starting point. There’s sure to be plenty of scope here for prayer and repentance for those of us who are given to bouts of foot-in-mouth disease.

Proverbs 6:17 in the Amplified Version says: There are six things the Lord hates . . . a proud look (the spirit that makes one overestimate oneself and underestimate others), a lying tongue, a heart that manufactures wicked thoughts and plans, a false witness who breathes out lies, and he who sows discord among his brethren.’

• Gossiping & Talebearing: Lev. 19:16-18; Proverbs 11:12-13
• False witnessing: Exodus 20:16 23:7
• Whisperers Defamers & False accusations: Jer. 20:10-11
• Slanderers: Romans 1:29, Titus 2:3
• Idle gossip & tattling (being busybodies): Titus 1:10, 1 Tim. 5:13
• Backbiting: Galatians 5:15

If you don’t mind looking a bit further afield, you’ll find some extremely helpful insights in Ben Sirach’s book Ecclesiasticus. Try meditating on 19:5, 22:27 28:13-26. Jude 16-19 describes a group of grumblers and complainers within the church who have very prominent giftings and who make great boasts and flatter people in order to appear important, but who are lacking in love and therefore cause great divisions. Giftings can take people where their character cannot keep them. Character is ultimately even more important than gifting. Listen to what Bob Gass has to say on the subject:

Before Jesus began His ministry, His Father declared publicly that He was ‘well pleased’ with Him. Think about that!” After observing His first thirty years, God was pleased with His character, His excellence in the workplace, His treatment of His parents, His faithfulness in prayer and the study of God’s Word. God knew He could count on Him. Can He count on you?

Some people want to have a powerful ministry, yet they can’t say ‘no’ to their own impulses, pay their bills on time, train their children properly, be faithful to their partner, mow the grass or take out the rubbish. If you can’t take care of your own family, why would God trust you with His? (1 Tim. 3:5) If you can’t control your own flesh, forget about pulling down the demonic strongholds over your city. You won’t be placed in authority in God’s Kingdom until you can put yourself in subjection to the Word and to the Holy Spirit. ‘This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.’ (Gal. 5:16).

God can find talent anywhere; what He’s really after is character and commitment! Instead of looking for great doors to swing open (or kicking them down), why don’t you read the books of Timothy and Titus? Observe the qualities God seeks in those He uses mightily; then you’ll have a pattern by which to build. Your life’s goal should be to have God say of you, too, ‘This is My beloved child, in whom I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:17). (Word for Today, August 18th 1999 UCB).

James isn’t advocating that we should all become Trappist monks, or be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we never open our mouths at all. Far from it. The Lord is always on the lookout for good spokesmen and women — but He is urging us to develop a greater control over what we say. For some of us this is just a matter of trying to avoid an occasional indiscretion and slip of the tongue; for others it represents a serious character weakness, which all too often exposes matters that ought to have been kept confidential.

Some of us, through pride or insecurity, have become really expert at putting others down. This may be the result of a mean or negative outlook on life — or it may represent a generational tendency to quench and discourage people rather than bless and build them up. These are weighty matters.

James spells out the scale of the problem, by reminding us that just a little spark can set great forests on fire. His hearers would have known just what he meant, for fire was an ever present and deadly menace amongst the tinder-dry bushes and scrubland. One spark and there’s just no way to put the flames out. A bad word dropped in the wrong place can spread like a forest fire; especially now that e mail and the Internet can spin rumours around the world in a matter of minutes. A bullet can kill at a considerable distance, but there is no place in the world that the power of tongue cannot reach. That’s why the tongue, like the printed word is such a powerful force for good or ill. There is nothing so difficult to dispel as a rumour. Jesus warns us in Matthew 12:36 that we will have to give account for every careless word that we speak. Small as it is, the tongue is a great boaster, says James.

3:6 The tongue also is a fire, says James, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

The word ‘hell’ here is Gehenna: the great rubbish tip outside Jerusalem. This seems particularly fitting. Satan loves to rootle around amongst the rubbish to find morsels of gossip and slander. He is never happier than when Christians hurt each other by being sharp and caustic towards each other.

James contrasts the untrainable tongue with all kinds of animals that have been successfully tamed. That training did not happen by accident, but by diligent and no doubt costly application with many a bite and a scratch on the way. Why should we expect to be able to train and control our tongues without serious and dedicated efforts? Therefore, says James,

21 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.
22 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 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 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.

‘To look intently into’ (parakupto in the Greek) literally means ‘to bend over for a better look.’ God has planted good desires in our hearts. He wants to give us the desire of our hearts. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights. We can water these seed-thoughts in hope and prayer until they become beautiful and creative works and projects for the Lord. To do this we must still our tongues.

Stilling the Tongue

 In the Lord’s presence we learn gentleness: that is, power that has been rightly harnessed. The entirely understandable temptation we face when we turn to prayer is to rush in and bring all our needs to the Lord – but prayer is about so much more than just the sharing of needs. Matthew Henry said that ‘Silence is the highest form of worship.’ (Don’t worry if you fall asleep sometimes when you try to pray. You probably need it, and it can be refreshing to fall asleep in the Lord’s arms). He wants us to enjoy His presence and to be at home in it. James said in 1:19, My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. If this is true for ordinary life, why should it not apply to our prayer life too? When Mother Teresa was asked about her prayer life, she replied very simply: ‘I listen.’ May it not take some great failure or crisis in our life to drive us to see the value of waiting on the Lord.

If we only take time out to pray in times of crisis, we can only expect short-term solutions and crisis management. But if we seek to become receptive to the Lord day by day and even hour by hour, then we are learning to live reflectively, and we will be more in tune with the Father of lights. Let’s enjoy a moment of stillness now.

Counterfeit Wisdom

The opposite of stillness is selfishness and inner turmoil. James has serious and solemn things to say about this:

 14 But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual (or sensual), of the devil (or demonic, to quote another version).

16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

If you wanted to do a really scintillating Bible study, you might not think of looking up the word ‘envy’ or ‘grudge’ in a Concordance – but I suspect that few things do more damage in the kingdom of God. Have you ever tried to work with insecure people who are envious or touchy? They are eager for glory but envious of the giftings of others, paranoid about being criticised and almost impossible to work with. Lord, keep us from being touchy or envious! Whenever anyone makes any suggestion, they bristle and bridle.

Proverbs 27:4 says, Anger is cruel, and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy? Jealousy is the longing of the heart for what someone else has; but envy, in one sense, is even worse because it resents the fact that anyone has it at all! Envy is bitter and poisonous, spiteful and cold – and grudges are like deep frozen envy.

If you find that you are quick to envy and slow to praise others, and that you weigh out your compliments cautiously in such a way as to remain in control of a situation, it will be helpful to explore the roots of your attitude. They may lie in wounds from the past, or in a selfish stubbornness that needs to be broken. It is a great liberation when we advance not just merely to appreciating people, but to openly admiring them to their face for being able to do things which we ourselves cannot do. This makes people realise that they are special and that what they do really is of value. The more we learn to admire and appreciate people, the more our words will be used to bless and strengthen them.

It is particularly important for us Brits to hear this message. The Americans are much better at it, but we in Great Britain are so afraid of making people big-headed that we go to the opposite extreme and seem to take a perverse pleasure in running people down instead of building them up.

It’s all the wrong way up. How can we possibly lose out by being generous in our praise and lavish in our love? Don’t we just love to spend time with people who are openly enthusiastic, praising and complementary? They are just the sort of people we really enjoy spending spend time with – they refresh our spirits!

James moves on to describe a type of wisdom that does not descend from heaven at all but which owes far more to those lusts and illicit desires which can open the soul to jealousy, party spirit and confusion. The fruit of this wrong spirit can be seen again in the things that we say. Titus 3:2 warns us to ‘speak evil of no one,’ and James urges us in 4:11 not to speak evil of one another. In these instances, this does not mean speaking falsely but speaking against each other. The Greek verb ‘to speak evil’ is blasphemo. This is quite an eye-opener. It means that the sin of blasphemy extends beyond speaking words against God to include those we speak against our fellow human beings.

The Lord Jesus has given us unlimited access and opportunity to do good to each other through our prayers, but our prayers need to be led by the Spirit. It is quite possible to end up praying soulish prayers for people either out of our worry and concern for them, or out of our expectation of what we think they ought to be doing. Derek Prince makes this the substance of one of the chapters in his book ‘Blessing or Curse – You can choose.’ It is important that we ask the Spirit to direct our prayers.

When we grumble against each other we are setting ourselves above the law of God which commands us not to judge and criticise one another but to love and serve one another (see James 5:9 and Matthew 7:1). When we pass judgements on each other (quite apart from the fact that a far greater complaint could be lodged against us) we are always in danger of usurping the place of God. Leaders in particular walk a fine line. They have to make difficult decisions and appointments and to do so they are usually obliged to weigh a person’s track record as well as to consider the Lord’s specific leading. Have you anything to repent of in this matter of ‘blasphemy’ – speaking against each other?

Wisdom from above

 17 The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

A pastor once invited everyone in his congregation who wanted the power of the Lord to come and stand on his right, and everyone who wanted purity to come on his left. Nine tenths chose power before the pastor confessed that he had tricked them. ‘You can’t have the power without the purity,’ he explained.

The word ‘pure’ in Greek is hagnos. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.’ To see God means to know and understand His heart. Such purity is more having a natural predisposition. It is the result of careful cultivation. Incidentally, there are so many parallels in the Epistle of James with the Sermon on the Mount that it is tempting to wonder whether James was actually present at it himself. We know from elsewhere in the gospels that Jesus’ brothers weren’t at all sympathetic to His ministry at the time, but just look at the difference after the Lord appeared to James after the resurrection. He describes himself as the servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, and his whole manner towards Jesus is one of profound respect.

Lord, I ask you to bring me to a greater place of inner purity and deeper authenticity. I long to be free from the distractions and wrong kind of desires which would chain me to the world’s way of thinking. Grant me the inner discipline to come more often and more readily into a place of inner stillness, whereby I can receive Your leading more clearly. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Secondly, true wisdom is peaceable or peace-loving: eirenikos. It speaks of a right relationship between man and man, and between man and God. True wisdom ‘brings men closer to one another and closer to God.’ (Barclay). This is the exact opposite of what we were speaking of just now, when we were warning against speaking against one another. Sometimes close friends can unintentionally strait-jacket and limit us through their own desires and expectations. Even close friends can find it hard to discern the Lord’s particular leadings in our lives. The principle is: if God is leading you clearly, don’t spend all your time looking over your shoulder to see who is coming with you.

Lord, I pray that my heart and my home may be eirenikos — peaceful habitations where You can be seen and treasured. Take all roots of striving and contention from me all that would spread pride or fear, and fill me instead with the Spirit of peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thirdly, true wisdom is epieikes: a word that many versions translate considerate, but which is really almost impossible to translate. Some use ‘forbearing’ or ‘courteous’. Epieikes speaks of a willingness to go beyond what is expected of us: to make allowances and to forgive at times when circumstances might perfectly well justify condemnation — and to realise that there are more important things in life than rules and regulations. In Barclay’s words, it’s about ‘the ability to extend to others the kindly consideration which we would wish to receive ourselves.’ A right word or a kind gesture at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

Lord, teach us more of that considerateness that goes beyond the minimum requirement, and which can make all the difference to a person’s morale – and even to their willingness to continue following You at all.

Fourthly, wisdom is submissive. That means ‘willing to be persuaded’ rather than dogmatic and inflexible. Some translations put ‘open to reason,’ ‘ready to be convinced,’ ‘conciliatory’, ‘willing to yield’.

James had already warned us in chapter 1:19-21 that the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God. Anger rarely accomplishes God’s purposes unless it be that real and necessary but comparatively rare thing: righteous anger. The usual teaching of Scripture is that ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1) When we are calm and reasonable we are much more likely to be able to hear what someone else is saying. When we become angry, we are in danger of making an already tense situation a great deal worse. It is only too easy to nurture our hurt and to allow anger to settle in our hearts until it becomes a deep-seated bitterness. It is so important to face these issues.

If you are having to make some sort of a break with the past at the moment, then, rather than doing so in anger, try to close the door on it as gently as possible. You may just find that you need to walk back through it again some day.

Many people shrink back from surrendering themselves completely to the Lord, because they are afraid of the uncertainties that would be involved in trusting the Lord unreservedly. In consequence, they are leading unsurrendered and hence fundamentally unfulfilled lives. The fact is that we often do not know what is best for us. The very thing that we may so fear and wish to run away from may have been specifically chosen by the Lord to help us grow. That is why James urges us not to try to escape our trials prematurely.

Sometimes we do not receive much from the Lord because we are too preoccupied with our own plans and concerns to hear what God is saying to us.

‘We may want to receive, but we do not want anything to be taken away . . .

Adjust we must, lest we lose our way by clinging to a past which is no longer our possession, or lapse into disillusionment and bitterness. Adjusting is a little like dying. It is saying goodbye to that which is no longer true for us. I has to do with coming to terms with our past while being able to face the future, however uncertain that may be. It involves finding the courage to walk the unknown path.

Just think what would have happened when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac if Abraham had replied, ‘But Lord, You promised me a son, You’ve given him to me; there’s no way that I’m going to sacrifice what You have given me.’ It would have been completely wrong thinking, given that he was so confident that he had heard God asking him to do something so seemingly inexplicable. Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac is a beautiful example of how faith and worship go hand in hand.

`We find service and worship easier than obedience [because…] obedience is responding to what is asked of us. It involves hearing the voice of the Other against ourselves. It involves the call to do what we are not doing. It asks us to be open to change, to adopt new priorities and sometimes to radically reorientate our whole life’s direction . . .

The art of relinquishment does not come easily for us, even when we are long convinced that the time has come to let go or to move on. We frequently languish in the familiar places even when we have heard the distant voice. Obedience is never simply a matter of saying ‘Yes’. That is not its most difficult element. Obedience is also saying ‘No’ to the familiar. While saying ‘Yes’ to an unknown but possibly exciting unknown has the lure of adventure, saying ‘No’ to what is presently ours, even when we no longer fully appreciate what we have, is the most difficult feature of the art of obedience.’ (Charles Ringma, Dare to Journey, Albatross Books, Reflections 13, 92, 95 and 109).

When we go downstairs in the morning, we don’t try to chase the darkness away by our own efforts: we open the curtains and let the light in. We can never lose out by surrendering to the Lord – though pride or fear will tell us otherwise.

I’m sure we are not alone in finding that the Lord keeps challenging us to do things which we just can’t achieve by our own efforts. The Lord does this to keep us from settling on what we have already achieved or allowing any self-reliance to develop. May the Lord give us the grace to keep us reaching out for the highest and not settle for second best.

Sometimes God allows us to face a similar situation to the altogether impossible ones in which we have seen Him work before. He does either to help us face it better than we did the first time round – or to encourage us to know that it really had been Him who helped us the first time and not our own abilities or the happy product of some coincidence. Mind you, as the poster delightfully put it, some coincidences are miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous!

Here’s a good way to start the day: Lord I make myself available to You. Steer me, lead me any way You want to. Help me to follow You willingly and to trust You implicitly, so that all my confidence is in You rather than in myself. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Fifthly, wisdom is full of Mercy and Good Fruits. The ancient Greeks pitied people who were suffering unjustly but the Christian concept of mercy (eleos) is nothing less than a reflection of the pity God feels for people, even when they are suffering (as is so often the case) entirely through their own recklessness or stupidity. This stands in sharp contrast to our instinctive tendency to back away from people who are experiencing affliction, and to judge and scorn them. This, of course, merely leaves them feeling still further isolated. ‘A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,’ declared Job (Job 6:14). Christian mercy always translates itself into action. Are there any afflicted people the Lord would have you reach out to? When we make ourselves available to ‘go out and rescue the prey that Satan has taken captive,’ as Paul and Gretel Haglin put it, then we are fulfilling James’ final instruction, to turn sinners from the error of their ways, and thereby to cover over a multitude of sins. May mercy and good fruits characterise the hearts of God’s people everywhere.

Sixthly, true wisdom is adiakritos – undivided: that is, unwavering. Such wisdom keeps us from turning aside from following the right course, even if it proves costly to implement. It is not clever to maintain an open mind when God has already spoken clearly about something. If we hesitate after God has revealed something clearly to us we give ground to the devil, who loves to see us falling for the lie that he has sown in our hearts. He is much less successful when we are clear in our beliefs and stand on them resolutely. Often and consciously we will have to practice James 4:7 — Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

We ask, Lord, that you will make us less hesitant and more adiakritos. Give us undivided hearts that refuse to swerve from what You have said. As we commit the details of our life to You, may we see many great victories of faith. We stand on the watchtower, looking to You to see how You will send Your deliverance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Seventhly, true wisdom is anupokritos – without hypocrisy. There is no place for pose or play acting in the Body of Christ in order to appear important, or to manipulate events or people to get our own way. To be all things to all people in order to help them know Christ is to be both courteous and wise; to flatter and deceive is not. I love being with people who do not respond in one way in one setting but who undergo a complete character change in another.

We ask, Lord, that our character may match our calling. Make us unambiguous and straightforward, so that people can entrust us with the secrets of their hearts. Show us where we are devious and duplicitous and bring us to back to balance. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

In all this, the crucial thing is to pray for the wisdom of heaven to rule in our lives. 

Feuds and Conflicts

The first ten verses of chapter four are an impassioned plea not to ally ourselves with the world’s way of thinking and acting, but rather to resist the devil and to submit ourselves to the Lord.

1 But what about the feuds and struggles that exist among you? What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires and lusts that battle within you?

2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot obtain what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.

3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity towards God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

5 Can you not see the point of the saying in Scripture ‘The longing of the Spirit He sent to dwell in us is a jealous longing?’ (Jerusalem) ‘God jealously yearns for the spirit which He has made to dwell within us?’ (Barclay).

6 But God gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.

10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.

The Lord reminded me the other day of the verse: ‘You have not because you ask not; you have not because you ask amiss’ or, as the NIV puts it, When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.

We have become used to thinking of conflict in terms of Kosovars versus the Serbs, but James is concerned to highlight those selfish desires and longings which produce quarrels and tensions within the Body of Christ which, can ultimately make us enemies of God. They also nullify our prayer effectiveness.

James speaks of wars and fighting and killing. He uses frighteningly strong imagery to make us realise how serious our selfish longings really are. In worldly terms, the fact that the world hasn’t been destroyed by a massive thermonuclear war should not make us glib or unconcerned about the heart-breaking tragedies of all the ‘lesser’ wars that are being fought around the world. And so far as James is concerned, bad feeling among Christians is just as serious. Alex Motyer suggests that ‘These armed conflicts in the church ought to cause us the same sort of shock and horror that war itself does.’

The more prayerless we are, the more we will find our heart being drawn aside to something or someone else. At that point we may indeed become prayerful, but we ask amiss because we only want to get something for our own gratification. That is to ask amiss — and as we sow, we shall also reap. James is examining our inner conflicts here, which lead to the wars we wage against each other. When someone or something stands in the way of our achieving whatever it is that we have set our hearts on, we come storming out of our corner, determined not only to get our way but also to get even with those who dare to oppose us.

James condemns lust and covetousness, envy, presumption and all manner of evil speaking. Even if we feel comparatively unscathed at this point, none of us can escape the charge of trying to please ourselves. We excuse all manner of wrong passions simply because they feel good to the flesh. That’s why James cries out, in the literal Greek, ‘adulteresses’ – friendship with the world is enmity with God! It’s strong language, but that is because lovers are expected to be faithful.

James highlights many spiritual and personality disorders that the power demons first nurture and then exploit. What are the power demons? Fear, pride, ambition, jealousy, revenge and rejection. They are always looking for opportunities to divide believers’ interests and to sideline them by making them pursue secondary or illusory targets. To say the least, we need to be constantly watchful against these tendencies.

They are all deadly, but pride is always our greatest foe simply because it is at the heart of our enemy’s heart. God has many ways of warning us when pride sets in. He’ll do it privately at first, but it will become more public later on if we fail to heed His warnings. As we considered earlier, it is particularly hard to be a teacher or a worship leader without pride getting in. Richard Williamson amused me once by saying, ‘A worship leader must worship himself!’ It was obvious that he meant that a worship leader must take an active part in the worship rather than just directing it, but some worship leaders do seem to end up perilously close to worshipping themselves. I was amused by what Disraeli said of John Bright, ‘he’s a self-made man who worships his creator!’ Actually, Richard himself has the gift of near invisibility as a worship leader – he just makes room for the Lord to get on with what He is doing.

James is at pains to highlight the overwhelming desire to possess, a desire that in no way diminishes through being constantly foiled in its objective: ‘you crave and yet cannot obtain’. Why do people ‘fight and wage war?’ Because they want to see what’s in it for them. That’s why we need to watch what is going on in our heart. As we say before, strong desires can easily be fanned into flames in our hearts, until what began as a mere imagining in the heart becomes a dreadful reality some way further down the line.

Just as we have a clearly perceived ‘outer’ life, so we have a less well defined ‘inner’ life that consists of our thoughts and desires. The two do not always track together as closely as they should. We might like to pretend that our inner life bears no relationship to what we do and how we are in public, yet we are never more truly ourselves than when we are on our own – and that colours how we appear in public.

If we allow inordinate desires free rein in our inmost being, they will at best leave us feeling profoundly unfulfilled, or in need of ever larger doses to fulfil the craving they have produced in our hearts. ‘It is idle hands for which Satan finds mischief to do, and it is an unexercised mind which plays with desire, and an uncommitted heart which is vulnerable to the appeal of lust . . . No man was ever born without desire for some wrong thing. Desire goes far beyond mere sexual desire, for there are all kinds of desire. But some wrong thing fascinates every man’ (Barclay, The Epistle of James). Since following such desires can only harm us and hurt others, we must let these thoughts, bad as they are, drive us to God, who has both the power and the compassion to set us free.

The more we are living ‘in’ the Word of God the more likely it is that the Lord will be able to warn us ahead of time what the consequences of some action will be. The fear of the Lord keeps us alert to the sins and temptations which are trying to master us. What the Lord said to Cain in Genesis 4:7 is a key verse and a vital truth for all generations: If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.

Whenever we give way to sin, we will still have to live with ourselves in the aftermath. Our conscience doesn’t go away. But most sins will never happen if we learn to think corporately, rather than hiving off to do our own thing in a corner.

The harder we find it to accept ourselves as God has made us, the more likely we are to wish that we were someone else, or somewhere else, and to retreat into a world of fantasy and day dreaming. This ‘dream life’ can become so strong that it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between dream and reality, and we end up speaking out the things that we have stored up in our hearts. Be honest about the things which grip your mind and which fire your heart and imagination. To what extent are they ordained of God and spiritually helpful?

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:16).

Henry Nouwen reminds us that

‘What remains hidden, kept in the dark … can easily become a destructive force, always ready to explode in unexcepted moments. What is kept in the dark ultimately becomes the dark side of ourselves.’ (Henry Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak, p. 169).

What is indulgently nurtured in our inner thoughts finally becomes a part of our being. While with great effort we may be able to bring these unwholesome thoughts under control, we frequently need to walk the road of humility by opening this part of our life to another person. We then need the help of a [minister or trusted friend] who cares for us in ways that go deeper than our public persona. This friend must be able to hear the story of our turmoil, and extend to us grace and forgiveness. (Charles Ringma, Dare to Journey, Albatross Books, Reflections 113,114).

Are you willing to be that honest? If you are, then the power of God will be released to flow freely though your heart and life. It’s great to get free again. But it’s often a battle to get to the phone and to ask for help, whether it is to set you free from your own sin or from some specific attack. Only the other day I was feeling under great pressure and I thought “I can’t possibly share this – nobody would understand it!” But I was sufficiently desperate to go ahead and ring a number of friends. They were all a great support, really on the ball and understood the complicated dynamics involved completely. Even more amazingly, the Lord had already alerted two of them that I was in particular need of prayer that day! It was an enormous help and comfort!

We come then to an injunction for the sick which concerns the elders of the Church.

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 4:14-15).

It was only in the nineteenth century that the Catholic church turned the concept of anointing with oil into the ‘Last Rites’ – that is, a preparation for death rather than anointing for healing. Much better to get involved at an earlier stage and to expect the Lord to use your prayers to see people healed. It is always a privilege to follow the Spirit’s leading. It’s often as simple as having the courage to say, ‘Let’s pray together.’

Prayer can wonderfully bring down spiritual strongholds – but sometimes these things will not change unless we first identify the stronghold. We were praying for a dear friend the other day whose kidneys were poorly. Prayer had not so far managed to help her, so we looked a bit further and discovered that somebody had made some very wounding accusations against her. When we released her from those words and took the necessary spiritual authority she immediately began to get better. Colour came back into her face and energy into her body.

What we often do in these cases is to pray what we call ‘test prayers,’ and see what effect they have. ‘Lord, if this is related to that, then please release this person from it.’ We have seen many such examples over the past few months, setting people free from specific bondages that have been placed on their life by words that people have spoken against them, sometimes deliberately and sometimes involuntarily. That’s why we considered the power of the tongue earlier on.

It should go without saying that different needs require different amounts of prayer in order to obtain release. Clearly, the elders need to be trained and ready as an effective prayer squad! As elders, however, we are often so aware of our faults and weaknesses, and allow our own inadequacies to paralyse us into inactivity. The good news is that the Lord can use us in spite of our own weaknesses. I remember once praying for a number of sick people. I had no faith whatsoever that they would be healed but just prayed ‘duty’ prayers for them. In each case they made a remarkable recovery, one from an affliction of many years standing. It is not how we are feeling that determines the outcome but the power of God being invited into the situation.

Many of us allow the memory of some failure in the past to hold us back from setting out in this ministry. Such hesitation plays right into the hand of the enemy, and effectively denies the grace of the Lord. Remember – we prayed to be more adiakritos – more resolute and less wavering. Why listen to the devil’s taunts instead of trusting God to redeem your failures? Why allow him to rob us of our usefulness? We never know what we may become in the Lord, – and what we can do for Him until we try and try again. The key to overcoming is to believe what the Lord has said to us, and to identify whatever ‘tape or video’ the devil may be causing to be played deep inside our mind, so that we can reject its monotonous lies, fears and suggestions. This really is the heart of so many of the battles we wrestle with.

James urges us to draw near to God and promises that as we do so, He will draw close to us (James 4:8). The order is significant: we must go to Him, rather than expecting Him to come to us in the first instance. The inspiration for this talk came because I chose to give up some free time on a Saturday afternoon to wait on the Lord. It was only a small sacrifice, but the Lord honoured it.

There is always a temptation in our media-hyped world to expect great things of ourselves, of others, of life itself. Longing for the bigger and better can rob us of our ability to enjoy the present, and the gifts which God has truly given us. It is not that we should shrink our expectations, simply that we should recognise that not everything we do will lead to the results we dream of. It is better to act and to love than to daydream of great results. Self-deceit is every bit as bad as serious as any other form of deception.

What arrogance it is to assume that we can achieve our goals by our own abilities and planning.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-16)

As you can see, James does not treat presumption lightly – He considers it to be a serious sin (5:13-16). ‘He sees it as the hard core of vaunting pride which is the mark and curse of fallen man.’ (Motyer). The trouble is that most of us do not instinctively welcome the intense dependency which is the antidote to presumption. Perhaps we find it humiliating, or just too much of a fuss to consult the Lord about the humdrum details of our everyday lives. Yet the Lord is interested in sharing our plans, not just over major things like a career change but the smaller details too, like where to go on holiday, how we spend our leisure time, what we are going to do today, tomorrow and so on. It is so much more exciting and rewarding to stay in touch with God concerning every detail of our lives.

It is worth checking, too, whether we are actively taking our faith into our workplace and business. This is an area where there exist limitless opportunities to develop Christian thought. It is an apposite time to explore this matter – in many ways the world’s ethos is coming closer to the Christian ideal. You can see this especially in that people are eager for ‘servant’ and participatory leadership rather than the hierarchical dictatorial line that has been modelled for so long. I was privileged recently to be part of a group of leading Christian businessmen and women in the south west of this country who were discussing how we can bring a distinctively Christian approach to business. There is much to explore here.

There are times, though, when sensitive people will feel overwhelmed by the state of the world and its need for God. ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ Jesus said, and James tells us specifically that there is a time to ‘Grieve mourn and wail. (4:9) ‘The whole organization of life, the pleasure mania, the money, energy and enthusiasm that are expended in entertaining people, are all just an expression of the great aim of the world to get away from this spirit of mourning that the Bible recommends.’ (Martin Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (i), pp.53-6).

We may find ourselves mourning over any one of a thousand things that are wrong in nation, company, family or fellowship. So long as our mourning takes wrong things to the Cross rather than lodging in our soul then we are fulfilling Galatians 6:2: ‘Carry one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ The Greek word used here for to carry is bastazo, which means ‘to carry off, to cart off.’ If the burdens are carted off by the Lord, they do not need to get stuck in our souls and weigh us down.

Incidentally, mourning has nothing to do with being morose. Sorrowful, to be sure, but not miserable or sullen. To be mournful is by no means to be lacking in faith, or to gloomily suppose that all God’s blessings lie behind us in the past or weren’t destined to come our way in any case. On the contrary, the fact that we are identifying with God’s heart means that we can confidently expect Him break through and change things round. We can look at situations as Jesus does and feel His deep compassion. There was a time in John 12 when Jesus was deeply moved in spirit. That word, terasso. The Greek word ‘terasso means to be deeply agitated.

We have looked at some heavy issues in the course of beginning to open up the book of James. We have seen that trials and temptations will undoubtedly come our way, but that too can be part of the Lord’s maturing of us. He watches our response carefully to see how we will respond to them, and whether we will continue to serve Him during the times when He seems a long way away.

We have seen the importance of not only guarding our tongue from speaking evil but also of stilling it in order to draw near to God. May we win the battle of the bedclothes in the morning; be prepared to switch the television off and to keep other distractions at bay if you possibly can. If that means making the effort to take a few days away, then don’t hesitate to do it. It is good for the soul to be in a stream of prayer rather than just snatching a few hours or minutes here and there.

The Lord honours the concept of pilgrimage, of going away in order to be with Him. Such times pay for themselves richly.

Remember too that God’s angels are always at hand to give us the benefits of their powerful ministry. Hebrews 1:14 tells us that they work hard on behalf of those who will inherit salvation. In other words, they are already exerting themselves before a person comes to Christ. You may be able to think of examples in your own life when you can trace the hand of the Lord at work in your life well before you were in any position to fully acknowledge Him. I can see it very clearly when I look back and see why I chose to do the subjects that I did at school and which led directly to me being at the university that I went to in time to meet the Lord as I did. So when the pressure is on, try to remember that the angels of God are always at hand. They help us to draw close to God in worship and, just when we reach the absolute limit of our ability to endure some trial or difficulty, they come in answer to prayer to keep us from despair and to give us the victory we so need and long for.

Reflect and Pray

 I pray that each one of us will continue to draw near to God, to resist the devil and to be used by the Lord to deliver countless people from their trials and tribulations.

May we will be willing to do whatever the Lord asks us to do, however much other people may dislike or disagree with our choice.

May we be prepared to pray and mourn when others are thinking about advancing there own pleasures and self–advancements.

May we hunger for righteousness when it would be much more convenient just to think about advancing our own self-interests.

Then we will hear the Father of Lights thanking us for our hidden faithfulness and He will reward us openly in His eternal kingdom. All the pain associated with our trials will be washed away and we will be together with our loved ones for ever. 

It will be worth the climb and worth the sacrifice for the joy that is set before us.