James 3:13 – 4:8
Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
My friend Jon is one of the most wise and gentle people that I know. Whenever I see him, walk into his presence, I am enfolded – both with some of the very best hugs that I’ve ever experienced and with a deep, divine sense of peace. Jon is a poet, so he sort of exudes a certain mysticism in general, but he is also deeply compassionate, gentle, and kind.
I bet that you know people like that – people who seem to exist in the world as islands of refuge, people who make you feel calmer, saner and safer every time you see them. Some of that is personality, I think – some folks are simply gifted with non-anxious presence and loving embrace. But I suspect that some of those people who practice such gracious welcome and impartial kindness do it with deep intention borne of necessity. Some of the most gracious and hospitable people I know are people who have been deeply wounded themselves, people who have chosen to respond to hatred with love, people who have been transformed by grace themselves and are compelled to live as examples of that grace toward others.
The letter of James is all about how we are to live, and how we are to make these very kinds of choices. It is about taming the tongue and believing the poor and ending our never-ending infatuation with money and power. In today’s text, James is talking about an important choice that we get to make in our living.
James likes to talk about the dichotomy of being a “friend of the world” or a “friend of God.” You cannot be both, he says. If you choose to be a friend of the world, then you will find yourself angling for money and power, oppressing your sisters and brothers, doing everything out of envy, ambition, and self-interest. This is the way the world works, James says. If you align yourself with the world, then there’s really no choice: this is how you will live.
“You unfaithful people,” James rails: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy.”
We know, because we’ve been hanging out with James for a while now, that he is uncompromising in his division of the world into GOOD and BAD. For James, there are very few gray areas. He doesn’t seem to know any compassionate rich people, for instance, of acknowledge anything of our contemporary mess of capitalism and culture that makes it so confounding for us to understand how he can be so certain about economics + virtue.
James is also incredibly certain that “worldly” things are demonic. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard an awful lot of bad preaching and bad theology that takes its cue from this idea – that you can’t be friends with non-Christians because they’re too “worldly” or that things like drinking wine or playing cards or dancing will lead to hellfire and damnation because they are concessions to evil. James’ concerns that the church he was writing to had adopted a worldly stance of valuing money, power and self-interest over and above all else has often been turned into an excuse for Christians who are afraid of engaging the world around them.
I do not think that this is what James was preaching. I don’t think James would ever fall for the slippery slope argument that drinking a glass of wine or playing a round of rummy will inevitably lead to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
But I DO think that James is reminding his readers – and us – that we do have a choice in how we behave. We get to decide whether we align ourselves with the world or whether we choose to befriend and follow the God who created us. And the difference between those things is actually not that hard to discern, James says.
Worldly attitudes include envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness, and deceit. THESE are the things that lead to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.” These attitudes are not hard to find – in fact, I find that they are rather hard to avoid in America in 2018. They are, in many contexts, the default behavior. This kind of attitude is so normalized, that it’s often only when someone chooses to act differently that we notice it:
When a business structures itself as a social enterprise, motivated not by a cash bottom line but a communal good, we wonder how they did it, or why they’d want to.
When a person in leadership cedes their airtime or their power to someone else instead of soaking up every bit of spotlight and media exposure that they can, we almost can’t believe it.
When a politician tells the truth – especially when that truth reveals something distasteful about themselves – we are bowled over.
When someone decides to share accolades or rewards with a team of people instead of boasting about how great they themselves are, we notice.
Envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness and deceit are the fuel on which our culture runs. If we removed these behaviors from American politics, economics or society, entire structures would collapse. Instead, we nurture them, stoke their fires, consent to their power and have found ourselves living among the ruins of disorder and wickedness of every kind. We have chosen to befriend the world.
But James reminds us that we have an alternative – in every interaction, in every situation, no matter how pre-determined or impossible it seems. In every moment, we are invited to choose to be friends of God. And recognizing this wisdom from above isn’t hard, either. James tells us exactly what it looks like. Being a friend of God means aligning ourselves with the kind of wisdom and behavior that is:
Willing to yield
full of mercy and good fruits
without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
The line about being “willing to yield” alone made me gasp when I was reading and praying with this text. In other translations, it’s listed as “submissive,” which I can’t quite stomach, given the way that term has been leveled against women over the years. But “willing to yield” or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message, “gentle and reasonable,” might actually be revelatory.
Can you imagine what life would look like if we, collectively, agreed to be gentle and reasonable with one another? If we covenanted to a rule of life that included taking seriously a willingness to yield? If we prioritized mercy and good fruits?
After this week’s Senate Judiciary hearings, with accounts of assault painted across the news and social media and conversations with friends recounting their own traumas, I was desperate for a dose of gentleness. Maybe you were, too.
James tells us that these are the characteristics of the wisdom that comes from above. By choosing to live peaceably, gently, mercifully, without any trace of hypocrisy or partiality, we become friends of God.
And I really do think that these are choices.
My friend Jon, one of the gentlest, most merciful and peaceable people I know, is also someone who carries with him deep pain and trauma. When he was born, Jon was assigned the gender of female. He lived many years as a girl and then as a woman before he found a way to live truthfully as a man. If you met Jon now, you would not guess from his appearance that he once presented as a woman. But I suspect that you would sense immediately, just as I do whenever I find myself in his presence, that he has made very hard and intentional choices to live his life in pursuit of peace, mercy, gentleness and purity. He exudes every quality on this list from James.
I don’t understand what it is to live in a body that doesn’t fit who you know yourself to be, and I don’t quite know how to talk about the idea of being “transgender” as it’s batted about in our cultural conversation today. But I know Jon, and I love him. And listening to him has taught me a lot about this exact thing that James is teaching in his letter.
The last time I saw Jon in person and got one of his amazing hugs was when our Annual Conference was in Greensboro two years ago. That was, you remember, right in the middle of the North Carolina controversy over HB-2, making it illegal for people to use the restroom unless the gender on their birth certificate matched the sign on the door. Jon lives abroad, but he had flown across an ocean to attend the conference in a state that was currently making it illegal for him to use the bathroom. That’s how much he loves our church. And that’s how deeply Jon has chosen to be a friend of God – someone who practices mercy and grace and peace.
Jon shared a bit of his story in a podcast a while ago, about what it was like for him to be a transgender person in the church, about the difficulties and the graces of that, about why he loves the Church of the Brethren and why he stays. He shared this amazing thing that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I heard it: that when he was working to transition from living life as a woman to living life as a man, he got to choose HOW he was going to be a man. Since he didn’t grow up with expectations of manhood forced upon him and hadn’t really fallen into an unthinking pattern of male-ness, he got to make choices about how to be a man.
And for Jon, who has long been a part of the Church of the Brethren, he knew that there was more than one way to be “manly.” He said, in this podcast interview, that having spent time around Brethren men who were committed to things like mutuality and humility, gentleness and service, he had been given a gift of knowing that the “masculinity” projected in the culture and media was not the only way to be a man. He had experienced men who chose differently, men who were kind and gentle and merciful, men who chose not to behave selfishly or boastfully or taking advantage of their power-over others, men who rejected the macho-man worldliness in favor of the willingness to yield that is a sign of divine wisdom.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this reflection from Jon, because I experience his story as an invitation in the same way that James is offering us an invitation. I do not think that the opportunity to choose how we behave – whether it is related to our gender or our class or our race or our personality – is restricted to those of us who make huge changes in our lives like Jon did, but I do think that his experience sheds some profound light on what those choices might look like.
We make these choices about how we behave every day, every hour. We are regularly faced with befriending the world through selfish ambition, envy, deceit and boastfulness, and we are just as often offered the opportunity to be a friend of God – to practice purity, peaceableness, gentleness, a willingness to yield, rejecting partiality and hypocrisy in favor of mercy and good fruits.
James sums up his argument with this: “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Or, in another translation: “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”
We can befriend the world or we can behave like friends of God. But James insists that we get to choose. So, what will we decide?