Reading: James 4: 1-10
There are very few films I’ll watch again and again, but A Few Good Men is one of them. It stars Tom Cruise as a military lawyer, who defends two marines facing a court martial for killing one of their comrades.
It’s clear they did it. But Cruise’s legal team are convinced they were following orders from their Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson. But proving that isn’t easy. The Colonel is one of the most respected people in the US military. He’s just been offered a very senior post. And he has no time for office types like Cruise.
Cruise reckons if he can get the Colonel on the witness stand he’ll get a confession. He gets him all wound up before demanding to know if he gave the order. The Colonel takes the bait. He says ‘You want answers?’ to which Cruise responds ‘I want the truth.’ To which Nicholson responds with one of the great lines in modern cinema…
You Can’t Handle the Truth!
As I hear those words from James this morning, is the same challenge being issued to me.
Can we handle the truth James offers today?
Before Christmas I started preaching through the book of James. It’s a short letter towards the back of our Bibles, written by a man called James, who many believe was the brother of Jesus.
It’s a small, often overlooked book, but it contains some very challenging passages. I say this every time I talk about it, but today is no exception.
Some of the language in today’s passage is really strong. He’s writing to followers of Jesus but warns them about becoming ‘enemies’ of God. He even calls them adulterers.
James does not hold back. We might struggle to handle his truth.
But this morning I want to suggest not only do we need to handle it. James tells us how we can.
The first truth is the faith community is not perfect.
Where do all these fights, quarrels, conflicts and disputes come from? he asks.
It would be bad enough if James was talking about the world generally, outside the church. There’s no shortage of conflict there.
But that’s not James’ concern. I left two words out of his opening sentence. He asks where do all these fights and quarrels among you come from.
He’s talking about the church.
Bear in mind James isn’t just writing to one particular church. He’s writing to groups of believers scattered all over the place. But he writes to them all, confident that such quarrels and disputes will exist amongst them. He might not know what they are, but they’ll be there.
He’s not saying they’re always fighting, or in the midst of a dispute. But he knows there will be times when peace amongst them is broken.
Cos that’s community.
Where 2 or 3 gathered, there is plenty of scope for arguments.
Church is no exception.
But he’s not done. He’s asking where these quarrels and fights come from.
And we might not like the answer.
Oh, we know the answer we want. Whether it’s not doing their bit, being awkward and obstructive, or just being idiots, it’s other people isn’t it? From childhood it’s one of our first lines of defence. He started it. She hit me first.
It’s very human to look for someone to blame, and very human to blame somebody else. Anyone but ourselves.
But by now it’s probably no surprise that James won’t let us off quite so easily. James won’t let us point the finger, unless it’s to point inwards.
It’s about desires or wants that emerge within us.
It’s about us not getting what we want.
Now, hear him properly. James is not saying they’re entirely right; you’re totally wrong. He’s saying deal with your own stuff first. Examine your heart. Your motives. Your actions. Your part in the dispute
One thing we all probably agree on is when you’re in a quarrel, it’s really not pleasant for us or others. But it’s also true that there’d be a lot less of it, if we stopped long enough to examine our own hearts, to recognise our own part in it, rather than just how right we are.
That’s no easier for me to hear than you.
We might struggle to see our differences as seriously as James is describing here. Yet how often do big arguments spring up over relatively minor things. Oh at the time it seems crucial. But in time we look back and think really? And, trust me, if we don’t others probably will.
James very much agrees with Jesus. Ages ago we worked through the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about murder and adultery. We focus on the end product, but Jesus and James start much further back. With the angry thought. With the lustful glance. With stuff that goes on inside each of us, but goes unchecked and reaches a disastrous conclusion.
I’m not saying there’s never a time to stand for something. But still, if we took James’ advice and examined our own hearts, motives, actions, if we dealt with our own stuff, we’d be so much better placed to recognise that when is arises.
By the way, in verses 1 and 3 James is not saying we shouldn’t have desires, enjoy stuff, find things pleasurable. It’s a particular word he uses, which in the Bible is always used in a negative way. It’s the word Jesus uses when he tells the story of the sower and he talks about the thorns which spring up and choke the seed. It’s about when things become too important and get in the way of our relationships with others and with God.
That’s quite relevant to this passage, as we come to our next truth we might find it hard to handle.
These things that cause quarrels and fights to spring up, they come not just between us and each other, but between us and God.
It’s a good sign that what I want is not good for me when I’m reluctant to pray about it. But often it’s more subtle than that. This is not a complete answer to why all prayers aren’t answered as we would like. But it’s still possible to pray for stuff that really isn’t good for us. A good parent won’t give their child what might harm them.
It might be obvious in prayers like Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. But even stuff that on the surface seems so good and honourable can have dangerous motives underneath.
I might pray our congregation triples in size this year. That we have to roll back these doors to fit everyone in. That we just fill the baptistry every Sunday cos sure someone will come to faith and want to be baptised.
But is that prayer really about wanting to see Jesus transform people’s lives, or about me being seen as a ‘success’?
Is it about God’s glory or me wanting to look good amongst my peers?
God’s not an idiot. We may fool others and even convince ourselves. But God knows our hearts, our motives.
But the language James uses to describe how this comes between us and God is really strong. He talks of us being friends of the world and enemies of God.
Let’s be clear. James isn’t talking about having friends who aren’t followers of Jesus. He’s not telling us to avoid playing a constructive, active role in our communities and world.
We use the same word ‘world’ in different ways. So did Bible writers.
It describes our planet. James isn’t saying it’s wrong to care for our planet, to be a friend of the earth.
It describes the people of the world. James wasn’t saying we shouldn’t love others or have friends outside the church.
But there’s another way they used the word ‘world’. It was about how the way the world works so often is contrary to how God would have it run. Jesus prayed that though his disciples were ‘in the world’ they would not be ‘of the world.’ He told his disciples how rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over others. Then he said ‘don’t be like that’ and offered them a model of serving one another.
But often it’s more subtle than that. We don’t realise just how much we’re shaped by our culture. It’s so normal, like the air we breath. It’s affecting us, we just don’t notice. From waking up, to going back to sleep, from ads, TV, music, we’re being told how we should look, live, drive, how much we should weigh, how often we should have sex…
As Brene Brown says ‘We’re exposed to over 3000 ads a day. Yet, remarkably most of us believe we are not influenced by advertising. Ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be.’
Those messages can muffle God’s call on our lives. And we don’t notice. We live on autopilot. We drift.
And the truth that’s hard to handle is that James says when we do that we are setting ourselves against God and what he wants for us.
It’s not that God feels enmity towards us. James is not speaking of God’s attitude to us. It’s our attitude towards God. From God’s perspective he wants to live at peace with us. Jesus gave his life to declare peace between us and God.
But when we drift ever closer to how this world entices us to live, we’re drift, however unconsciously, farther from God.
And God jealously longs for us to live in relationship with him.
Can I just say our church bible translate verse 5 really badly? In part it’s because no-one actually knows what scripture James is referring to.
In our church Bibles it reads
Don’t think that there is no truth in the scripture that says ‘The Spirit that God placed in us is filled with great desires.’
A much better translation of the second half is ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit he has made to dwell in us.’
God longs for us to live in relationship with him. Not like a king to a subject, or a master to a slave. According to the Bible the relationship God longs to have with us is like a marriage. So much so that when we drift from God, James and other Bible writers liken it to adultery. That’s a strong, emotive word.
And so is jealousy. That’s not a word we like to use, but within a healthy relationship there is an appropriate use of the word.
Say for example next month I were to send my wife a Valentine card. She opens it up and I’ve written the following message. Of all the women I love, you are right up there!
How do you think she’d feel?
She has a saying for just such an occasion, should it ever arise. Try it. See how that works for you!
There is an appropriate jealousy. That says if this relationship is to work, I ain’t sharing. You have to commit, not leave your options open.
That’s the relationship God longs for us to have with him. Not because he wants to control us. Because he is the one who longs for our greatest good. He is the one prepared to give himself for us.
For all the truth that may feel too hard to handle, James has one more to offer.
God hasn’t given up on us. God still yearns for us.
And God’s grace is greater than our sin.
But we can’t receive it until we realise we need it.
And to realise that we need to face and handle the truth.
It’s very easy to drift through life, not examine ourselves too deeply, and fail to notice the sin that we so easily fall into. If we take James up on the challenge to resist the devil and draw near to God, one of the first things that will come into view is our sin.
That can be hard to handle.
But is also helps us recognise our need of grace.
And that’s when we are able to receive it.
Rob Bell tells a story of how as a young pastor someone encouraged him to visit and observe their Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. As he sat through it he was aware there of something very different, that he hadn’t experienced elsewhere, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
Then it struck him.
It was the honesty.*
No-one was pretending to be better than anyone else. No-one told their stories to make themselves seem better than they really were. They owned their stuff. There was a reason they were there. They’d faced the truth about themselves, however hard it was to handle, and reached out for help, in a safe space to name it.
What if church was like that? What if we truly believed we were a hospital for the broken, rather than a museum of saints.
How safe do we make it to own our stuff?
That what James longs for in this passage. That we face the reality, that we listen to the truth about who we are, rather than hide behind the façade of respectability. That we actually feel the weight of our sin, and own it.
But here’s the important bit. Not so that we can be left utterly desolate, but so that we can be aware of the grace we need and know and experience the grace which lifts us up the humbled.
That’s the grounds of James’ call to submit to God, to resist the devil and draw near to God. Because when we face the truth, however hard it is to handle, that’s the start of the healing process.
It is grace that makes the truth possible to handle. It’s his grace that makes us safe to face the truth of ourselves, to grieve and wail…
…and know that even the worst parts of us arestill loved.
Even in our worst state, we’re invited to draw near. In the Old Testament that invitation was only extended to a high priest. God was seen as too holy to encounter us. Not any more. Through Jesus that door’s wide open to all of us.
When we draw near to God we discover that whatever we’ve done, his love is not beaten. However bad our motives have been, however unfaithful we’ve been to God, God never falters. He’s tirelessly on our side. Whilst we were still his enemies, Christ died for us.
However bad we feel we are or have been, his grace is stronger and greater. His resources are never at an end. His patience is never exhausted. His initiative never stops. His generosity knows no limits.
And as we do that, as we face the truth, we find ourselves able to handle it, cos God is bearing the weight. And we find ourselves being purified, wanting to live differently.
It takes time.
All relationships do.
It’s not a one time thing.
It’s a lifelong process in which outer life and inner life are transformed.
But it begins with handling the truth.
Which isn’t easy, but made possible because of the grace of God. Who yearns for the spirit he caused to dwell in you. Who wants a relationship deeper, stronger and more satisfying that you can imagine.