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James 3:13-4:10

October 2, 2017

What does it mean to be wise? Does wisdom consist of getting ahead through cunning and networking and political skill? Is wisdom demonstrated through the accumulation of power and rewards and access? Or is wisdom something else?

James begins this section of his letter with the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” I don’t think he’s asking for names; he’s asking about how we identify wisdom. For James, wisdom is known through gentleness. That’s spiritual wisdom. In the world “wisdom” is about achieving your ambitions and being able to boast. But James realizes that is no wisdom at all. That’s envy, and it results in disorder.

At the heart of the human problem is selfishness–living for one’s own self. The world doesn’t see it that way. Our own society prizes selfish ambition and greed and trying to “get ahead.” We reward and make famous those who are the most belligerent. Our reality TV shows depend on people who are willing to be loud and obnoxious and insulting and impatient. But prizing those traits is exactly what degrades us.

Where do conflicts and wars come from? They come from selfishness. We crave, we covet, we take. We try to give our wars high-minded aims like freedom and self-defense. In some limited circumstances perhaps they actually live up to those aims. But usually our conflicts and wars are hiding our darker aims: maintaining our power and influence, maintaining our political positions, maintaining the flow of wealth, maintaining a status quo that is hurting others. I recently watched the PBS series on Vietnam. We slipped into that war gradually, partly for reasons that we thought made sense at the time. But for most of the years of that war, we were simply too stubborn to admit we were wrong.

Selfishness has its uses. Sometimes we should all be a little selfish or we become tools for the selfishness of others. The process of evolution has made us both selfish and cooperative since both are ways of preserving ourselves and others. So we should not simply disparage selfishness, nor can we root it out. It’s part of us. Accept it. But we also have the ability to think about it and make choices. We have the ability to nurture a stronger practice of cooperation while limiting the role of selfishness. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is both an acknowledgement of self-orientation as well as a commitment to other-orientation to the same degree. Ultimately, there is no real difference between true love for self and others.

When we look carefully at the source of our conflicts and problems, does it not almost always go back to some sort of one-sided selfishness? Is it not always a fear of losing something that we want to keep, or a drive to obtain something that is not already ours? On the other hand, if we become other-oriented, if we care about the needs of others as much as our own needs, does this not lead to listening and understanding and equal sharing and the resolution of most conflicts? And so, at the heart of the Christian faith is the transformation of a me-orientation toward a we-orientation. Jesus is the embodiment of the we-orientation, which is, I think, the same thing as being filled with the Spirit.

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” This is the core of the good news in a nutshell. But how do we become humble? By resisting one-sided selfishness. (“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”) By drawing near to God. By lamenting. By confessing. Only by lowering ourselves all the way down can God raise us up, lifted by grace alone.

As Moody famously said, “God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves.”

We’ve heard it all before, but do we really believe it? Do we act like it? Do we live in such a way that we are showing we believe that the meek shall inherit the earth? Or is that utter nonsense? The world’s wisdom is that the meek inherit nothing, therefore never be meek. God’s wisdom is that only the meek will see peace.

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