The Garden of God
The Garden of God
Text: James 3:13-18
A Hollywood personality made a strong moral statement last week. I know that surprises you, coming from Hollywood. But there are some moral people there, and some Christians. In fact, as I recall, there had been a report not long before that this particular personality had become a Christian. Moments after he made his statement, the bullies came out of the woodwork, calling for him to be fired from his job, declaring that he was an intolerant bigot. The insults and abuse continued until he issued an apology, declaring that he regretted his “misinformed” statement. He would try to be nicer and more tolerant from now on.
I bemoaned his lack of backbone.
I have made it a policy to protect myself from accusation by never counseling alone, particularly when the counselee was female. I know too many pastors who have found themselves in compromising positions or having to defend themselves against false accusations. I have done all my counseling with my wife present in the next room, with the office door ajar so that she may enter at any moment. I am uncomfortable giving a ride to a woman alone, aware of even the appearance of potential misconduct, and I know of situations where a woman had accused a man of rape or attempted rape where there were no witnesses to defend him. But when the vice-president made the same statement, that he would not dine alone with a woman, take a woman alone on a trip, or allow a female reporter to accompany him alone, he was accused of being misogynist, chauvinist, bigoted, and whatever else he might be accused of. Fortunately, he has a backbone and refused to bend to the bullies.
But I have noticed that far too many Christians are more influenced by the culture than by the Scriptures. They are often quick to surrender the moral high ground and apologize for being different, for believing things out of the mainstream of the culture. For several decades, pollster George Barna has chronicled the state of the church, comparing it with the culture at large. From a moral standpoint, the church differs very little from society - with adultery, divorce and teen pregnancy about the same; abortion only slightly lower in the church; drug, alcohol and pornography use about the same; and other moral markers varying only slightly. The church, in many places, has adopted an entertainment model for worship, bring in light shows, smoke machines, and rock bands to lead “worship.” And the mega-churches seem to vie for the greatest entertainment value. We divide up politically, with some believing on both sides that you can’t be both a Christian and a Democrat, or a Christian and a Republican. The evangelical church is accused of overlooking the sins of their chosen candidate, as is the liberal church. We equate our political stance, on both sides, with our faith.
The point is that we have adopted the wisdom of the world. We are not just in the world, but we have allowed ourselves to also be of the world.
In James’ millieu, the Jews were highly politicized as well. Some wanted open rebellion – the Zealots believed that the only way to be free was armed revolt on the model of the Maccabean revolution of two centuries earlier. I’m sure that James could well see the futility of that approach against the Roman legions, and the inevitable destruction that would follow such an uprising. Some thought that one should compromise – go along to get along – and the Sadducees advocated a strategy of appeasement to maintain nationhood and peace with Rome. That sort of philosophy inevitably leads to moral compromise: one could not be fully Jewish and fully Roman at the same time, for to be fully Roman was to offer sacrifices to the “divine” Caesar. Others felt that God would honor them and somehow miraculously free them if they returned to strict observance of the Law – for “righteousness exalts a nation.” The Pharisees rejected compromise with Rome, but James could likely see the outcome of that sort of “pie-in-the-sky” idealism, pinning one’s hopes on some messianic figure coming to rescue the nation. A fourth group, the Essenes, decided that it would be the best way to preserve the nation to simply retreat into the wilderness and establish a new nation out of reach of Roman interests. I suspect that James would have rejected isolationism and withdrawal from society as counter-productive to real faith.
The point here is that James’ own culture was one that had, in one way or another, adopted the wisdom of the world. And, I might add, there are Christians today, and pseudo-Christian cults, who have adopted one or another of those same ideas. Some arm for rebellion, or survival. Some we call “dooms-day” cults. Some become highly legalistic, while others sort of melt into the shadows of society, barely distinguishable from the world around them.
This short section in James is reminiscent of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and an occasional Psalm. It does the same as they do, comparing and contrasting worldly wisdom, which the writer of Proverbs calls foolishness, with Godly wisdom, which Paul tells us the world considers to be foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Paul wrote, Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. ... For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20-21, 25).
Likewise James contrasts the sort of worldly wisdom that exalts ambition, boasting, and pride, with the sort of wisdom that comes with humility. Actually, he says that humility comes from wisdom; that is, those who are truly wise are fully aware of what they don’t know and how prone they may be to mistakes that arise from their ignorance. One might say that wisdom comes dressed in rags.We know the opposite quite well – the ones who boast of their experience, or who, because of their Google search, proclaim themselves experts with whom you dare not argue and shout you down with curses if you dare to disagree. We know those who append their names with a string of letters - “alphabet soup” - to demonstrate their intellectual superiority, who insist upon being called by a title. It is right for us to address them with respect; but it is arrogant to insist that because we’ve earned some title or degree that we must always be addressed by that title. It is probably necessary, sometimes, when people protest your right to speak on a subject, that you might append your name with your degree so that people know you do have the right and the knowledge to speak. But humility demands that, just because you’ve earned a degree, you should acknowledge that you don’t know everything there is to know, even in your area of expertise. We ought, for example, to listen to our doctor because he’s had to learn a lot to earn the MD. But a wise doctor will admit that his MD did not confer complete and exhaustive knowledge of all matters medical. He will still study, and occasionally admit ignorance. Sometimes the wise answer is, “I don’t know” or “Let me look it up and get back to you.” That even applies to pastors.
In fact, James goes so far as to suggest that the worldly wisdom that exalts ambition and envy is unspiritual and even demonic. Arrogance is not just un-Christ-like, but is demonic. It is sin because it sets self up as the measure of wisdom. “If I don’t know it, it’s not worth knowing.” Or, “because I have this degree, you have to take my expert advice.” It is in that place, the place of arrogance, that you find disorder and every evil practice. People skirt the law because they think they know better. People do stupid and reckless things, like texting while they are driving, because they think they are smarter, more careful, more aware than other folks are. They can do it, even if no one else can. Accidents only happen to other people. Embezzlement – other people get caught; I’m smarter and more careful than that, so I won’t get caught. Gossip – for you it’s a sin; for me it’s a prayer request. And we could go on, couldn’t we.
I don’t like criticism without a solution. If something’s wrong, it’s not enough to point out that it’s wrong. You need to offer corrections, a way to make it right. And James is the same. He doesn’t stop with pointing out the danger of worldly wisdom; he goes on to show us what Godly wisdom looks like.
The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure. The word is from the same root as the word translated “holy”, not in the sense of belonging to God, but rather as something that comes from God. It is thus untainted. It is the opposite of the arrogance of human knowledge or wisdom, or the pride of learning. It is godly, in some sense even God-like. There is no “sinful attitude or motive” according to one commentary. This godly purity is the essential character of real wisdom, and everything else flows from this.
Then, this wisdom is peaceable, or peace-loving. It is calming, as compared to the bitter contentions and competitiveness of the “learned” and the experts, as they trade and dispute their opinions and quote their sources. This characteristic of godly wisdom is sorely lacking from so much of our social media conversation.
Godly wisdom is then considerate. One translation is “forebearing”. There is a gentleness about it that takes into account the humanity of others. One could say it is “mannerly”, deferential, willing to listen, willing to admit that one is limited in knowledge and ability. I could be wrong. I have been wrong. And even if I am right in what I say, I may be wrong in the way I say it. I could be right in fact and wrong in attitude. I could be right and tactless, rude, or cruel.
This wisdom is submissive. The word also means “compliant”. That is, there are people smarter and wiser than I. I have a lot to learn, and can learn even from those with whom I disagree. It is not obstinate and self-willed, but willing to yield to those who are wiser, and maybe to know when to simply walk away. You know, there are some people who are so invested in their ideas, for some reason or other, who so identify with something – you aren’t going to talk them out of it. This is knowing when to walk away from an argument, for the sake of peace. Sometimes all you do is plant a seed, create a doubt, start a line of thought. It may or may not bear fruit, and that’s okay.
This wisdom from heaven in merciful, full of mercy and good fruit. May I suggest that is also something lacking in much of our social media conversation. We don’t give space. We are merciless. When someone is wrong, as we often are ourselves, we tend to keep beating them over the head. We won’t offer a way out, a way to save face. And we are not good.
Godly wisdom is also impartial and sincere. James has already talked to us about favoritism and about taking sides. And it troubles me, as I imagine it would trouble him, that we are so willing to overlook the same sins on our side that we so soundly condemn on the other. “I would never insult people like that ugly so-and-so.” The word for sincere here is the word that actually means “not hypocritical.” Not two-faced. Not outraged over someone’s sin that we excuse in ourselves. Wisdom is both fair and honest.
James finishes by switching to the metaphor of a garden, with a sower seeking a harvest. The harvest we desire is righteousness, in ourselves first of all, in the church, and ultimately in the world around us. But gardeners know that some things are necessary for a garden to grow well - good soil, water, fertilizer, of course - and one thing more: the right climate. Not to cold, not to hot - somewhere in between. For this crop, we can’t have a climate of conflict, dissension, bitterness, anger, arrogance. The only climate in which our crop of righteousness will grow is in a climate of peace. And the gardeners must be peace-makers, people who desire peace, who live in peace, and who work to create the conditions of peace. People at rest with God, at rest within themselves, try to create peace wherever they are. And those who sow in peace reap the desired harvest of righteousness. If you desire godly wisdom, if you desire righteousness, if you want to be known as a child of God, sow peace. Plant your garden with peace.
Let there be peace on earth - and let it begin with me.