Enter for a moment the world to which James wrote. It is probably sometime in the middle 40’s CE, just a few years after Jesus had lived and died and was resurrected. It is a difficult time for Jews. Not only are they continuing to deal with the external oppression of the Romans, but now their internal division is becoming clearer. When Jesus came, he came to speak a new truth, and while he may or may not have had in mind to divide the Jewish faith, that is exactly what was happening. There are some Jews who believe that Jesus was the Christ, and begin to follow a Jewish sect that proclaimed him as Lord. Quickly, they become targets for the more traditional Jews who think this was utmost heresy. So, this new group, this Jewish sect known as The Way, was trying to figure out exactly what the message of Christ means in their context. The Church was trying to figure out what it meant to be Church. As a result, any number of controversies arise, questions about how one can be Jewish and Christ-followers at the same time.
• Did followers of the Way have to become Jews first? In other words, did they have to become circumcised and follow the religious laws of the Jewish faith? Who was allowed?
• Did they have to follow strict Jewish food guidelines? Specifically, did they have to abstain from eating any meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols, like the other Jews did?
• Did women have to stay silent in the church? Was their new-found freedom in Christ a license to say whatever they wanted to, or was it better for them to listen and learn first, since they had never been afforded the opportunity to receive teaching like the men?
We know that all of these controversies were rearing their ugly heads because Paul wrote about them. Every one of these controversial topics comes up more than once in the writings of Paul. Paul’s tack was to talk about them and help the churches that he had started to navigate through them.
Guess how many of these controversial topics James talks about? Guess how many hot-button issues he addresses?
We conclude our series today on Right and Wrong. Often, when we use these words, we use them in the context of the controversial topics of our day. We say, “it’s a matter of Right and Wrong!” And the next sentence is usually “and this is how I am right and you are wrong.”
This is not the case with James. For James, Right and Wrong means something entirely different. Now, I don’t think that James would say that these issues were irrelevant, or not important, or not something that we need to talk about. He just seems to be saying that there is something bigger going on here. Bigger than the hot-button topics of the day. I think if James walked through our door today, he would likewise not talk about gun control, or race, or the presidential election, or abortion, or affordable housing. Again, I don’t think he would say that these issues are irrelevant, or not important, or not something that we need to talk about. But he would say that there is something bigger going on here. Something more existential. More foundational.
You will not hear James watering down the notion of Truth, or giving up on the idea of Right and Wrong. But when James talks about these concepts, he is talking about the basic way that we look at reality. For James, his duality, his Right and Wrong, comes down to:
a) The world’s view of reality, or
b) God’s view of reality.
You can’t have it both ways! A couple of weeks ago, we talked about James’ language of this duality as the difference between friendship with world vs. friendship with God. Now, we are back to the beginning, and the same duality is there. Wisdom of world vs. wisdom of God. That is the difference between Right and Wrong for James.
Even in these first few verses, James gives us a hint about the rest of the book – in a practical, yet existential duality of Right and Wrong:
a) The world says that if you are suffering, dealing with trials, it’s your own fault. You’re a loser. It’s because of your mistakes, your sins. You blew it.
b) But God says that if you are suffering, you are blessed! James proclaims that you are blessed when you suffer, when you have trials. Because they are opportunities for God to make you stronger!
Wrong. And Right.
a) The world says that if you are poor, it’s your own fault. You haven’t worked hard enough. You haven’t put enough stock or time or energy into the most basic, foundational principal of all: “the one with all the toys wins!” In other words, acquire all that you possibly can because money and stuff are the only things that will make you happy.
b) But God says that if you are poor, you are blessed! James says that those who are poor are blessed because “the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.” Those who are in a lowly position in the eyes of the world are in an exalted position in the eyes of God.
Wrong. And Right.
a) The world says that if you are tempted, it is because you are weak. Those who suffer from addiction, to alcohol or drugs, or those who are tempted by suicidal thoughts and depression, or anyone dealing with mental illness for that matter. The world says that they are weak. God tempts all of us, and those of us who are strong have figure out how to overcome such weakness, says the world.
b) But God says that if you are tempted, it is not God doing the tempting, but brokenness of the world God gives good gifts and only good gifts. He is not out to trip you up or see if you can get the right answer. God brings healing, not temptation!
Wrong. And Right.
James begs us to understand the difference here. In the first 27 verses of the book, he uses terms for knowing, perceiving, or understanding seventeen times! He is begging us: “You have to understand this. This is the key to everything else!” It is no wonder that he puts it into the first chapter of his book. Understand this duality, or nothing else will make sense.
Biblical Scholar Douglas J. Moo – who, by the way, gets the award for the best named Biblical scholar ever – says that this core message of James is one of integrity, or what he calls singleness of intent. It is the faith message that Jesus claimed as the greatest commandment, the Shema found in Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Whole-heartedness. Singleness of intent.
That’s why James starts here, instead of by tackling the hot-button issues of his day. Because those issues will not be controversial in a generation. How many blogs have you read today about whether or not we should eat meat sacrificed to idols? But when James and Paul wrote, this was a big deal!
But the question of integrity. Of whole-heartedness. Of singleness of intent. Of friendship with God. Of Godly wisdom. That question will still be relevant. Tomorrow. Next year. To the next generation. In the next century.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” If we try to divide our souls by seeking both friendship with the world and friendship with God, we end up frustrated, confused, and restless. But we lose so much of that inner conflict when we “will one thing,” when we live a life of integrity and singleness of intent.
Ever the master of metaphor, James uses the metaphor of water and waves. I did a run for the first time last week at Wyandotte County Lake. And it was Monday, the day where the wind was gusting at 30 miles an hour, and the waves on the lake were fierce. And they were cool. I love big waves! I love to look out on the choppy water and see the churning. This summer, when Kimberly and I went to Maine, we saw Acadia for the first time, and I marveled at the huge waves crashing up on the big rocks. Waves are cool!
But James ways waves are the wrong metaphor for spiritual integrity. Instead of crashing and bouncing waves, our life of faith should be like that of a calm pond. Perhaps you have seen a pond at sunset, protected from the wind, the surface just like glass reflecting the clouds and sun. That’s what our spiritual integrity should look like, says James. Not splashing around, taking on every way of life the world tells us to have. Not rising and falling with the things that the world tells us to rise and fall with. But living a life of clear, calm, spiritual integrity.
But let me explain something that James does not seem to mean.
When I was in high school, my youth minister did a 6-month series on the book of James. That sounds interminable, but if you think about all the pearls stashed here and there in the book, it kind of makes sense. And it was life-changing for me. James became for me a practical guide to Christian wisdom. How to live a Godly life. And I did my best to internalize James’ teachings. “be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” I wrote on a piece of paper that sat on my mirror “Be quick to listen. Slow to anger. Slow to speak.” And I internalized this phrase from the first chapter: (we) “must believe and not doubt.”
And then I went to college. And I heard new ideas about life. And the world. And God. And faith. Was taught new and challenging and intimidating ideas by religion professors who also went to my church and taught my Sunday school class and had a faith that I admired. Even later I went to seminary and that continued to challenge my preconceived notions. And I began to doubt some of the assumptions that I had made about life and the world and God. And it was terrifying. There was a part of me who wanted to go back and hide behind James: “believe and do not doubt! New ideas scare me!”
But now, these many years later, I ask “is there room for doubt? Is there room to ask new questions and to have new ideas, or do we need to be lock-step with the same things that we have always thought?”
And the more I read and understand James, the more my answer is: “Absolutely!” James is not saying that we should not grow, or challenge ourselves with new ideas, or develop behind the faith that you had when you were 17! That’s not what he means when he says “do not doubt.”
Instead, he is referring to this idea of integrity. Of keeping this singleness of intent. In fact, the Greek word that he uses for doubt is “dipsychos,” which literally translated means, “double-souled.” Do not be double-souled. Do not live a life of multiplicity of intent, but singleness of intent. Do not live a life of putting on faith like you put on clothes, changing it for whomever you are talking to at the moment. But instead live a life of integrity.
That is what I think James is talking about when he says not to doubt. And, in fact, I would argue that when you will that One Thing, when you have that integrity, then new ideas or challenging intellectual notions about faith or God should not terrify you. In fact, when you have that whole-hearted core, then you can allow the Spirit to transform and change your mind in creative and powerful ways. You can handle intellectual doubt and questions, because you have singleness of intent that lies at the center of who you are. Like the Buechner quote in the bulletin: “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”
I think that Buchner – and James – would say that this singleness of intent can bring about a world of wisdom and creativity and transformation and ability to deal with new ideas, all the while keeping a singleness of purpose, devotion, intent. And friendship with God.
Some of you have likely seen the movie Gran Torino. In this movie, the Clint Eastwood character Walt begins the film stuck in a world that is changing faster than he can understand. He is a veteran of the Korean war, where his bravery and his sacrifice was honored and cherished. But now, living alone in the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck, everything is changing. His quiet, mostly white, community is becoming a neighborhood with a racial and socioeconomic diversity that he doesn’t quite know how to handle. At first, he reacts with fear and control. He yells at his Hmong neighbors, berating them more or less for being different. They look like the Asians that he had fought against, and he finds it difficult to see them as anything but enemies.
But somewhere along the way, something begins to transform for Walt. He starts to get to know his neighbors and understand them as people. And before long, he has reached out to them, visited them. His heart goes out to the teenage son of the family, who is being pressured to join the local gang, though he is working hard to stay straight. But because he won’t join, the gang shoots up their house and attacks his sister. The old Walt would have left well enough alone, but something has changed.
Here is an example of some who holds onto a singleness of intent, even as he doubts his old assumptions and allows his old ideas to be transformed. He is a man of courage, of valor, and of sacrifice. That’s who he was on the battlefield, and that’s who he is in the gruff streets of Detroit. But that doesn’t mean that he is not open to facing, even struggling with his doubts about his changing views of race and assumptions that he had held for his whole life.
In the powerful final scenes of the movie, Walt goes to confront the gang members. The neighbors all gather anxiously on their front steps to see what will happen. With the neighbors knowing Walt and his gruff ways, everyone is expecting him to go down shooting. But as he reaches in to his jacket pocket, and the gang members begin to gun him down, we realize that he was only pulling out a cigarette lighter. And the gang members have just committed murder of an unarmed man in front of dozens of witnesses. As the gang members are all arrested, leaving his neighbors and their family in peace, we see a man who has made a final, whole-hearted sacrifice.
He has allowed himself to doubt his assumptions.
But not change his singleness of intent.
May that be our challenge today, as well!