View the Sermon
First Reading = James 4:13-27
13Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
We are still in our series looking at the New Testament book of James which challenges us to have a serious faith. Last week we heard that our words – even our internal monologues – can create life or death.
Next week is our last in this series, and then we’ll be in Lent preparing for Easter. We’re going to have a drive-through Ash Wednesday on February 17 from 4:30-5:30pm. Carol and I will offer a blessing and place the ashes on your forehead or hand from your car. Since we’ll be up close, we’ll have masks and we ask that you do, too.
But this week we’re still in James. In fact, we’re getting to one of the main reasons that James wrote this letter. The church receiving this letter originally was riddled with internal conflicts. James tells us in our text today that the root of the problem was pretty simple: “You want something and do not have it…you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” Different factions in the church wanted things their way. Different individuals within the church wanted things their way. Some wanted to just live however they wanted during the week and get a little spiritual pick-me-up on Sunday. And those factions and individuals were responding to the conflict with personal attacks. James metaphorically calls their actions “murder” toward each other.
In the face of this internal nuclear warfare among the supposed saints, James offers these words.
Sermon Reading = James 4:1-12
4Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
11Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
I want you to imagine with me. We’re going to travel forward in time to when we can have people over to our houses again. For some, that’s easy to imagine. For others, you’re probably getting twitchy even picturing that right now. Go with me to that place and time.
In this imaginary scenario, you get to pick one house guest. Let me share with you their profiles, and you tell me which one you’re going to invite over in this magical future time.
House Guest A is proud of his five-finger discounts (that’s shoplifting by the way). He loves coming over for dinner and then crashing at your house for weeks at a time. Others have said about him, “He’s so hard to get rid of, he’s like a tick!” Another person said about him, “Keep your valuables locked away when he comes over!” Got it? That’s House Guest A.
House Guest B is your second choice. He is known for doing all the dishes for you before going home. People have left reviews that say, “He spoke the most insightful words to me!” And another said, “After this visit, I felt more at peace than at any other time in my life.” Got it? That’s House Guest B.
Which house guest are you going to invite over? Do you want the lying thief? Or do you want the insightful dish-doer?
James says in our text today, “’God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” In the context of the conflict highlighted in this chapter, I would summarize it like this: whenever we handle conflict with hostility in our hearts, we invite the devil, House Guest A, into our hearts. When we approach conflict with humility and grace in our hearts, we invite God, House Guest B, into our hearts.
Which house guest do you want to invite into your heart? Hostility paves the way for the devil. Grace and humility pave the way for God. Which path are you going to pave?
I tried to track down the source of this quote, but I couldn’t find who said it. But it stuck with me whenever I heard it the first time. So someone said, “The sword we thrust in anger always pierces our own heart first.” Let me repeat that: “The sword we thrust in anger always pierces our own heart first.”
Now, I know some of you are thinking, “But Jesus was angry when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple!” Yes! That is correct! Sometimes righteous anger is needed to correct incredible wrongs.
But let’s do a little math. How many times was Jesus faced with a conflict? Dozens? Hundreds? The religious leaders were constantly testing him. He didn’t skewer them with his words. He calmly embarrassed them quite often, but he didn’t shout them down. His own followers frequently misunderstood Jesus. But he didn’t berate them for their small minds and smaller hearts. Surely if there was a time to be angry and fight would be at his arrest and eventual crucifixion. But he stopped his followers from fighting. He healed the one person in the mob who was injured. And “like a lamb who before its shearers is silent, he did not open his mouth.”
Out of dozens – maybe hundreds – of conflicts in the Bible, Jesus had that one obvious moment of visible righteous anger. And that one example wasn’t about fixing the political situation in Israel. And they were occupied by a foreign power! The political situation wasn’t good! That one example of righteous anger wasn’t about taxes – and people were killing each other about their taxes. That one example of Jesus’ righteous anger was about people manipulating faithful people for their own gain as they came up to the Temple to worship the Living God.
So yes, Jesus did have a display of righteous anger. He had ONE! I would have lost my cool way, way, way sooner than he did. We tend to feel justified by our anger drastically earlier than we should. So to play it safe, since we are almost always wrong about our own anger being justified, since the sword we thrust in anger pierces our own heart first, I would err on the side of caution. Approach conflict with grace and humility rather than anger. With grace and humility you’re astronomically more likely to be paving the path for Jesus in your heart rather than paving the path for the devil into your heart.
So in our conflicts, James encourages and challenges us to think about which house guest we’re inviting over. Are we paving the way for the devil with our anger and malice? Or are we paving the way for Jesus with grace and humility?
Don’t Sweat the Details
And I think James hints at one important way we can choose grace and humility. To get to that tool, in honor of Super Bowl Sunday, let’s consider two quarterbacks. I’m apparently in a multiple choice mood today. Just be glad I didn’t give you an essay test!
One quarterback threw for 339 yards, completed 61% of his passes, had 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. That’s a good stat line!
The other quarterback was worse in almost every way. He threw for less yards, completed less of his passes, and threw 3 interceptions! That’s not a great stat line!
The first quarterback was Drew Lock, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, in a losing effort against the Las Vegas Raiders in the final week of the season.
The second quarterback was Tom Brady, quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a winning effort in the NFC championship game last week against the Green Bay Packers.
If I just gave you the stats, you’d rather take the good stat line. But if I gave you the choice between the Broncos season and the Buccaneers appearance in the Super Bowl today, you’re going to the take the Buccaneers, right?
But I believe we often complain to God because our stat lines aren’t good. I believe we often blame God because the details of our lives aren’t what we would prefer. I believe we often are angry because we don’t get things the way we want them when we want them. And I believe that’s like looking at the quarterback stat line instead of looking at whether your team won. That, according to James, was one of the problems in our text today, too.
So that’s the problem. What’s the tool? What’s the fix? James says, “submit yourselves, therefore, to God.” Give the details to God. Let God handle the implementation. God’s stat line is almost never what we would choose if we had a magic wand or a genie in a bottle. God’s path is almost never the path we would choose before going on the journey. But choosing our way, choosing our stat line, choosing our path means we take Drew Lock’s losing effort instead of Tom Brady’s Super Bowl appearance. God’s ways are rarely what we would choose on our own, but they are better.
So let God handle the details. Let God handle the implementation. Because our attachment and craving and demand for things to go just the way we want them? That leads us away from God. That’s our will instead of God’s. That’s our way instead of God’s high way.
Last week my younger son was very tired in the afternoon. And we had to do things a little differently than he preferred. So what does a tired five-year-old do when he doesn’t get his way? He becomes grumpy. That, by the way, is not limited to five-year-olds.
So I asked him to choose a different attitude and be flexible, because we still had good things in store for him. And he told me, “Well my attitude is my choice and you can’t tell me what to choose!”
He thought he had me! I tried not to laugh, because that was some serious sass! But I told him, “You’re right. I can’t make you choose your attitude. But I can tell you what the consequences will be for your choice of a grumpy attitude. And trust me, it’s not going to be as fun.” He had to think about that for a few minutes.
When we choose to be flexible to God’s way instead of our preferences, we get to enjoy God’s surprises. When we choose to be angry and combative when we don’t get our way, we lose out on what different blessing God has in store for us.
So the first tool, the first fix, is to choose to be flexible instead of attached to our preferred plan. It takes a measure of humility to say, “God knows better than I do,” and it’s not always fun, but that kind of humility and flexibility opens our hearts to God’s different blessing.
When I counsel couples prior to their weddings, I tell them about a strange paradox of conflict. When we’re worked up, we want to state our case as forcefully as we can. If we won’t take no for an answer, we tend to frame it as a demand. Now, I usually make it trivial and funny, like, “You WILL pick up your socks and put them in the hamper EVERY TIME!!!”
But the paradox is that we are less likely to get our spouse to do what we want if we frame it as a demand. Because demanding things kicks off a natural resistance in people. Sometimes I want to say no to a demand simply because it was framed as a demand!
If you frame it as a request for help, however, you’re actually more likely to arrive at or near the result you want. Because most humans naturally want to help when asked nicely. You’re going with human nature instead of against it. For example, you could instead say, “My mind feels cluttered when our bedroom is cluttered. Could you please put your socks in the hamper before you go to bed at night? I would really appreciate it.”
Asking for help, nicely, goes with human nature instead of against it.
Another way to improve your approach to conflict is by catching someone doing something close to correct instead of always highlighting where they’ve failed. If you constantly tell your spouse, “You didn’t put your socks away! Again! That’s the third time this week! You know I hate that!” then that generates extra conflict.
If you instead notice when they do put their socks away and thank them, that generates extra peace and what gets rewarded gets repeated. James says in our text today, “Do not speak evil against one another.” The more we point out the negative, the more we cultivate the negative in our relationships. The more we point out the positive, the more we cultivate the positive in our relationships.
Another tool in our spiritual toolbox is prayer. And we can pray in different ways. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Have you prayed for a change in a conflict? Or have you just assumed it’s impossible to change?
And we can pray, James says, for God’s grace. James says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” So pray for God to give you his eyes. Pray for God to give you his heart. Pray for God to give you his grace. I know it’s more fun to pray for divine retribution on your enemies, but have you tried praying for God’s grace and heart and eyes? That paves the path for Jesus into your heart.
I also want to remind everyone about a key principle of conflict that Jesus covered. I won’t dwell on it since it’s not in our text today, but remember what Jesus said in Matthew 18. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Handle conflict in-person. Handle conflict one-on-one. Handle conflict directly. That’s not usually how we do things, right? No, we tend to handle conflict indirectly. We tend to handle conflict by talking to our friends instead of the other person. In the church, I know many complain to a different person, hoping they’ll send it along to the one we’re mad at. That’s not how Jesus told us to handle conflict. Handle it directly, one-on-one, first. That almost always results in less problems and more resolution. I told someone last week that the only thing in the universe that can travel faster than the speed of light is a rumor.
Sisters and brothers, conflict is one area where most of us, most of the time, are not very Christ-like by default. And this has been a problem since the very first churches. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the book of James in the Bible.
But approaching conflict from anger and hostility paves a path into our hearts for the devil. Approaching conflict from a place of grace and humility paves a path into our hearts for Jesus.
If you want to ooch a little closer to Christ-like conflict, there are several tools we talked about today. You can choose to be flexible with the details instead of getting fixated on your preferred implementation. You can ask for help instead of making demands. You can notice when someone does something approximately right instead of always catching them doing it wrong. And you can pray. You can pray for resolution of the conflict. You can pray for God’s grace in your heart. You can pray for the other people in the conflict. And remember to follow Jesus’ command and handle conflict directly, one-on-one.
Pick one. Give it a try. You’ll be paving the path into your heart for Jesus. Amen.