“Who is wise and understanding among you?” James asks in our reading for today. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3:13).
A good life. That’s what we want for ourselves and for others. A life at peace with ourselves and our neighbors, near and far. A good life, a life at peace, full of justice and joy. That’s what our passage from the book of James is about: “A harvest of righteousness… sown in peace for those who make peace” (3:18). The goodness of life for all of God’s creation.
James offers guidance on how to live that kind of life. He writes a guidebook for congregational life, pointing out what to stay away from, in terms of behaviors that hurt a community, and he describes what to cultivate, in terms of a practical spirituality, in order to sustain a community. He centers our attention on how to treat each other because this world is cruel, life is hard, and we need the help of a community, a people, a network of relationships, to do this thing called life—not just to survive, not just to struggle through day after day, but to experience life as good, as a blessing from God.
James knows our tendency to mess up, that we make mistakes, that we’re a bit irrational in our decision-making. We’re at war within ourselves—that’s the language in chapter 4, the self as a cluster of contrary motives, of conflict. We’re always sorting through the voices in our heads, the desires in our hearts. And James confronts us with our temptation to pick those voices, to choose those desires, that sabotage our lives—the way we let envy and covetousness and ambition take up residence inside of us, to let those voices call the shots. Left to our own devices we become our own victims, unable to rescue ourselves out of our own internal conflicts.
We get stuck in our own heads, which only leads to frustrations with ourselves, a vicious cycle of frustration because we’re constantly thrown back into ourselves, thrown into a confrontation with the fact that we betray our best interests all the time, a realization that we’re always wanting what’s not good for us, that we think we need to possess more than what we have, that we take what has not been given to us. For James, apparently he’s seen how these internal clashes with ourselves become external resentments that result in violence, the conflicts inside of us spin us out of control and we lash out at others: “so you commit murder” (4:2), he says.
That sounds a little dramatic to me, the way James jumps all the way to murder. But I can see how he gets there, with this war within us getting to the point of consuming us, of turning us into someone we never thought we could become. No one wants that to happen in their lives. I’ve heard story after story, when I’ve worked with prisoners, of how they never could have imagined what became of their lives, how situations quickly spun out of control.
Here’s the point. James is offering us a diagnosis for all the ways we tend to undermine ourselves, how we sabotage the community that we actually need for our wellbeing. For him, the problem begins with a war within ourselves—the “bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts,” he says in chapter 3, the way we, when we’re left to our own devices, become “false to the truth” (3:14).
We deceive ourselves. That’s the problem. We aren’t very good, when we’re stuck with ourselves, in seeing clearly. We don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We aren’t in the best position to fix ourselves, even though we try and try again, which leads to despair—the fatalism of isolation, of alienation, of thinking that we’re alone, that you’re stuck with yourself by yourself.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” James asks. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3:13)
There are no rule books for the good life. Or, I should say that there are plenty of rule books out there, across the ideological spectrum, so many methods. So many people claim to know the secret, to secret to life, the techniques to unlocking your true self.
I don’t have the secret. Christianity doesn’t offer that kind of secret. Instead, what we offer each other, here as a church, is the gift of gentleness—a commitment to hold each other in a gentleness born of wisdom, to become together a community of gentleness, where we can grow into wisdom together, to learn from each other how to live in God’s goodness, how to draw near to God, as James says at the end of our passage—to draw near to the God who draws near to us.
The promise of the gospel is that we are not alone, that we haven’t been left to our own devices, that you don’t have to figure out your lives by yourselves. Church life is an immersion in God’s grace, a baptism into the life of God, a life we experience with the people who sustain us, who nuture goodness in us, the relationships that allow us to confess that we can’t fix ourselves and instead give us the permission to ask for help: To acknowledge our dependencies as opportunities to be drawn into God’s gentleness, for each of us to reach out with an offer of God’s grace, to learn to see ourselves as alive with the promises of God, each of us as part of a harvest of righteousness, of justice, of peace, of God’s love for the world.