My favorite Christmas carol is “Silent Night.” I love it because it is so peaceful. “Silent night, holy night. All is calm; all is bright. Sleep in heavenly peace.” I even love the “Silent Night” Christmas card pictures: a little cottage surrounded with deep snow, warm yellow light spilling out of the windows, smoke curling gently from the chimney, with the stars twinkling overhead. I know it bears absolutely no resemblance to the real Christmas story, but I love it just the same. It just gives me a sense of peace—one I crave in this crazy world of ours.
But real peace isn’t something we can experience by looking at a pretty picture or listening to a familiar song. Those things can give us a moment or two of calm, maybe. But true, lasting, bone-deep peace can only come from God. And it comes to us when we live our lives according to God’s wisdom rather than what passes for wisdom in the world around us.
In this chapter of James, James continues with the theme about how what we are, what we value, what we believe and, now, what we want on the inside will show on the outside. True faith that is concerned with loving God and neighbor shows in what we do. A spirit filled with the love and grace of God is revealed by the words we speak. And a heart that desires what God desires and is guided by God’s wisdom will be a heart that is able to both experience the peace of God and to make peace in the world.
We don’t know much about the communities James was writing to. In the beginning of the letter, he addresses the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” That could mean the Jewish Christians who were literally dispersed throughout Palestine. Or it could mean any Christian who understands that we are merely sojourners in a place that is not our ultimate home. But, whoever and wherever they were, they were struggling with a problem we still struggle with: that being perfected in love doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. When we claim Jesus as our Savior, we are given power over the sinfulness that remains in us, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any battles left for us to fight.
Like James’ first readers, we live in a world that encourages us to divide people into “us” and “them,” and rewards us when we make it into the “in” crowd. It applauds us when we fit in and rolls its eyes at us when we don’t. It defines us by what we have instead of who we are. The ancient Christians were struggling with the same issues. Like us, they were “double-minded.” They were torn between their desire to live the way they knew Jesus wanted them to live, but they wanted to fit in to the world around them too.
The world—theirs and ours—is especially adept at creating envy. Isn’t that exactly what is behind so much advertising? Car commercials really nail this. How many of them show the new car in the driveway, or idling at an intersection, as jealous neighbors or other drivers look on? Or how about clothing? How many commercials have you seen lately where a woman walks down the street as other women watch, then immediately grab their phones to order the same purse or shoes? Even commercials for the phones they use to place their orders are advertised in such a way as to create an envy of the person with the phone that’s newer, faster, and more powerful.
Envy isn’t limited to just material things we want but don’t or can’t have. We also feel it when a co-worker gets the promotion we wanted, or another team member gets the MVP award we think we (or our child) deserved. It can be rooted in deeper desires: envy of a person who is healthy when we’re not, or the family that seems to have everything when ours is mired in problems, or someone enjoying the company of a loved one when we’ve been deprived of that through death or illness. Envy can crop up whenever we want something that someone else has.
This world-driven envy was as much a problem in ancient times as it is today. Socrates called it an “ulcer of the soul.” Isn’t that a great description of a feeling that just eats away at us? And, unfortunately, envy is easy to succumb to. It happens when double-mindedness sets in, as the world draws our attention away from God.
When our double-mindedness gets the better of us, we can find a black cloud of envy following us around. Envy prompts some not-so-pleasant responses. We bark at our families, our co-workers, and our classmates. We fire off an irritable email or post. We eagerly spill out bitter words and eat up the ones we hear—all in an effort to soothe our own bruised egos or fill up the empty space inside us.
James warns that it can get even uglier than that. He says that when we want something and don’t have it, we’ll commit murder in order to get it or to punish those who have what we don’t. When this plays out on the world stage, actual murder and mayhem can and do result. In our own lives, though, we may think that James is going a little overboard. But maybe he’s not. Maybe our cravings lead us to commit murder of a different kind. Envy can lead us to kill relationships or reputations. We can kill community spirit. To those who are looking to us to show them what it means to be a Christian, we may even kill the very beginnings of faith.
This envy born of double-mindedness makes it impossible for us to live peacefully. We can’t relax when we’re feeling the burning of that ulcer of the spirit—when our relationships are in turmoil or our friendship with God is disrupted. We’re like the princess trying to sleep on a mattress with a pea under it: we just can’t settle down because there’s something preventing us from having the peace we desire.
So, how can we find and live in the peace we want and need? James has some suggestions. First of all, he challenges us to take a long, hard look at ourselves. At first, we may think, “The people James is describing—that’s not me. I don’t do any of those things he’s talking about!” But when we look at ourselves with brutal honesty, we may find that we are harboring envy and selfish desires in our hearts. If that’s the case, James says, don’t pretend those feelings aren’t there. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not—yet. Make sure you’re not praying for the wrong things, or praying for the right things for the wrong reasons. This whole sanctification thing is a process, and it can’t proceed if we’re not honest about what we’re struggling with.
Once we’ve identified our challenges, we need to recognize them for what they are. We need to acknowledge that our feelings are the result of listening to the so-called “wisdom” of a society that judges us on what we have rather than who we are. We need to see those peace-stealing feelings for what they are: “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.”
Then, James says, “Submit yourself to God.” Redirect your gaze from the things the world tells us we should want to the things God wants us to have. He reminds us to remember who we are, and where our value really comes from. He tells us to wash our hands of actions that aren’t consistent with our faith, and to purify our hearts by recommitting ourselves to a Christ-like way of life.
Near the end of our passage, James makes this lovely promise: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” We draw near to God when we rely on God’s wisdom. This is wisdom that is pure. It has no sinful attitudes or motives mixed in. It is holy; it has the kind of purity we associate with Jesus. It’s the kind of wisdom that allows us to live with a clear conscience.
The wisdom from above is merciful and compassionate, gentle and willing to yield. If you have a New International Version of the Bible, it says that this wisdom is “considerate and submissive.” But this isn’t a doormat type of submissiveness. It’s a willingness to stop focusing on the letter of the law and instead to act out of gentleness and kindness and consideration for others. It’s the exact opposite of insisting on our own way, our own preferences, our own desires. It’s a readiness to put others’ interests and needs ahead of our own.
The wisdom from above has no hypocrisy in it—no double-mindedness. There is nothing in this godly wisdom to tempt us away from what is good. It keeps us focused on what God calls us to be—not what advertising says we should be, what friends expect us to be, or what Satan tempts us to be.
I saved the best for last, although James rightly puts it near the top of the list. Wisdom from above is peaceable. God’s wisdom is peace-able: able to create a deep peace in us. In turn, we become peace-able—able to create peace in the world. We become the fertile fields where God’s peace is sown, and a harvest of righteousness will be our reward.
We need this kind of peace—the kind that comes when we get off the merry-go-round of insisting on our own way, our own preferences, and our own turf. We need the kind of peace that comes when we stop grasping for the things that give us a fleeting sense of calm and instead start resting in the knowledge that God loves us—not because of what we’ve done or what we have but simply because we are God’s beloved children.
This kind of “peace” is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition of shalom. The peace of shalom is that of wholeness and reconciliation. It is a characteristic of the kingdom which the Messiah brings about. In that kingdom, peace within and between its citizens is an obvious and visible part of life. It’s not only something we feel, but an action we do and a relationship we make, with God and each other. The phrase we know so well—“Blessed are the peace makers—can also be read as “Blessed are the peace doers.” We might say, “Blessed are the peace-able—those who are able to experience peace with God and able to make peace in the world.
In the coming months, all of us in the United Methodist Church will have an opportunity to show what it means to be peace-able. Our special General Conference will be held from February 23-26 of next year. Its sole focus will be on how the UMC can offer a faithful witness to Christ amidst changing ideas about human sexuality, especially around issues such as our understanding of homosexuality, ordination, and marriage. I don’t have to tell you how emotional and divisive these issues are, not just within our denomination but throughout our nation and the world. Faithful Christians of all denominations differ in their opinions and beliefs.
Our General Conference has the potential to be a great blessing that shows the world how United Methodist Christians of differing viewpoints can be peace-able. To be that blessing, we will need the wisdom that comes from above to help our conference delegates make good decisions and to help us respond in peace-able ways.
How do we gain God’s peace-enabling wisdom? We pray for it. James tells us back in Chapter 1, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” Our God wants us to have the wisdom that leads to peace. God wants us to have a peace that passes all understanding. God wants us to be peace-able. And God will give us the wisdom that produces that peace, generously and ungrudgingly. All we have to do is ask.
The Council of Bishops has asked each of us to be part of a prayer initiative leading up to the General Conference. It’s called “Praying Our Way Forward.” Since the Conference begins on February 23rd and ends on the 26th, they ask that we set our alarms and pray every day from 2:23 to 2:26, a.m. or p.m. or both, as it suits your schedule. The bishops ask that we pause and pray for our church’s mission and the way forward. They ask that we pray for the bishops and delegates from around the world, for the General Secretaries, the members of the Commission on a Way Forward, the Commission and staff of the General Conference. As we pray for the wisdom from above for our own lives, we can pray for that same wisdom to guide our denomination into a peace-able witness to Jesus Christ in the world.
Every day we are offered two kinds of wisdom. The world offers a “wisdom” that is guaranteed to rob us of contentment and peace. God offers us wisdom from above—a wisdom that embodies the very nature of God and offers peace to our souls. When we want on the inside the wisdom and peace God wants for us, God stands ready to give it to us, generously and freely. When we live according to this peace-producing wisdom from above, it will be visible on the outside. The world will see that we are peacemakers. The world will see that we are peace-doers. The world will see that we are the peace-able people of God. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young