June 26, 2011

Broken From the Inside Out

When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to take a leadership class with a guy who’s really considered a guru in the leadership world.  Under Sid’s tutelage we talked about a whole range of different leadership styles.  The one that stood out to me the most was spiritual leadership.  This was focused not so much on spiritually leading other people, but on the spiritual side of leadership.  Most notably, if a church leader has no connection to the Spirit and is therefore not a very good person, he or she is going to be a terrible leader.  During these discussions, one of Sid’s illustrations really caught my attention and has stayed with me ever since.  Perhaps the reason for this is that it created a pretty funny, if somewhat disturbing, picture in my mind.  He said that leaders (and people in general) are like tubes of toothpaste: when you squeeze them, whatever’s on the inside is going to come out.  The imagery here is pretty simple.  If you were to pick up a tube of toothpaste without knowing what kind it was (and it didn’t have a label…for the purposes of the illustration), the simplest way to figure out the answer to your query is to take the lid off and give it a squeeze.  Now, literally speaking of course, if you want to find out what is inside a person, cutting their head off and squeezing will show you, but not in the way you really want to know.  (And maybe your mind is not so twisted as to have gone there with me, but bear with me.)  Instead, when a person is put in a stressful situation—be that emotional, spiritual, relational, occupational, or any other kind of stress—whatever is on the inside of that person is going to come out.  Stress in this sense puts a megaphone on who we are so everyone can see it more clearly.  Many of us carry around a very calm and collected veneer, but we fall apart when the going gets tough.  The other side of this is that if what’s on our insides isn’t good, there’s no way we’re going to be very good people on the outside.  In this sense, our interpersonal problems happen when our internal junk comes out of us.  Problems with others happen when our insides turn out.

If you can believe it, this problem of our inner selves not matching up with what we would like people to see on the outside did not begin with us.  People have been dealing with this kind of issue for a long time.  In fact, and don’t tell anyone this, the very first Christians were dealing with this same sort of thing.  I know sometimes that we like to read the Bible and pretend that the people who were following Christ within a generation of the crucifixion must have been doing everything right and that the apostles wrote what they did entirely with us in mind, but human nature hasn’t changed all that much from then until now.  (I know people think like this, by the way, because of all the calls we here for a return to the practices of the New Testament church.  Folks, those people were just as or even more messed up than we are.  That’s part of why the New Testament exists!)  And as we continue on our journey through the book of James, the next few verses help to make that clear.  If you will, grab your Bibles and find James 4:1-12 with me.  Let’s dig into these words together this morning.

James begins in v. 1 with, really, a great question.  “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?”  That’s an easy one to answer: the other person.  Isn’t that how most of us think?  I mean, who goes around introspectively seeking to determine what he contributed to the last argument he had?  It’s so much easier to just blame the other person.  Lisa once worked with a woman who had two kids who were not the easiest young people in the world to deal with if you catch my drift.  As a case in point, their school would call the office just about every day with another report of what they’d done.  And do you know what Lisa heard about when the phone call ended?  She heard all about what a terrible school her kids went to, how awful the administration was, how mean the other kids were, how uncaring the teachers were, and so on and so forth.  Here’s the deal, if you’ve had problems with a lot of different people and you just can’t believe how inconsiderate a world you inhabit, guess what.  There is a denominator common in all of your experiences.  I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t the other person.  Problems with others happen when our insides turn out.

So maybe, while we might find the answer to James’ question pretty simple, it’s not so easy as we think.  James doesn’t put up with our attempts at blame-shifting.  Instead he hits us with yet another dose of truth-in-love: “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”  Our problems with other people come from our own passions at war within us and their passions at war within them.  Well what on earth does this mean?   Let me tell you.  If you are a follower of Jesus Christ then the apostle Paul proclaims that you are a new creation.  The old has passed away and behold, the new has come.  There’s just one teensy-weensy little problem: just because the old has passed away doesn’t mean it’s gone.  The old isn’t so happy about being supplanted by this holier-than-thou upstart and so it reaches back from the grave and does everything it can to subvert the influence of the new.  The form this subversion often takes is illicit desires with the subtle taunt that we deserve such things.  As Paul would later make clear to the church in Rome, we know these desires are illicit and do not in fact want them, but we pursue them all the same.  Friends, if this is all happening on the inside, do you think it’s going to stay under wraps for very long?  Problems with others happen when our insides turn out.

Now, the object of these desires could be just about anything.  It could be an actual thing or it could be something completely intangible like respect or attention or love, but whatever it is, because we deserve it we don’t handle not getting it too well.  In fact, James describes our reaction to not seeing our desires realized rather graphically.  Look at v. 2: “You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  By a show of hands, who in here has killed someone because they had something you wanted and wouldn’t give it to you?  No one?  Yeah, me neither.  So how does James justify such graphic language?  Simple: Jesus used it.  It was Jesus who said that being angry with another person can bring us to a place of emotionally murdering them.  And if we are emotionally murdering them, what’s a little fighting and quarreling?  Let’s try this survey question: raise your hand if you have ever not gotten what you wanted from someone—regardless of what it was or even if you were totally aware of wanting it—and got really angry with that person?  Yeah, I’ve been there too.  We can’t hold that all balled up on our inside very long before it spills out.  As soon as the pressure on us ratchets up, it’s going to come out and that’s going to cause problems.  Indeed, problems with others happen when our insides turn out.

The next thing James says here is really frustrating.  From v. 2 again and following: “You do not have, because you do not ask.”  You know, perhaps we didn’t ask.  Perhaps we sat on it instead of verbalizing our need.  There are many people who struggle with being assertive.  But if you’re like me, that just doesn’t resonate very well with you.  “I have asked!” we protest.  “I asked and it didn’t make any difference.”  Let’s keep reading: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”  Ask wrongly?!?  But I was asking in order to help someone else!  That jerk was too stuck on himself to be bothered to meet my small request.  Maybe so.  But maybe, just maybe, you were left with an unmet desire that wasn’t quite so altruistic as helping someone else.  Perhaps it was a desire to be seen as someone else’s knight in shining armor, riding in to meet their needs when no one else could.  Perhaps you took on the task of helping someone else, you’re a perfectionist like me, and you are now unable to complete this task to perfection.  Perhaps you have a personality that likes for others to do what you ask them to do and this person didn’t acquiesce as you wanted.  Or perhaps you don’t like experiencing the inconvenience of having to search long and hard to find a person willing to come to your aid in accomplishing your task.  Whatever this other issue is—and you may not even be self-aware enough to grasp it—it is the result of our wanting to sit in God’s place on it.  It’s causing a lot of problems on our insides.  And problems with others happen when our insides turn out.

Given all of this, it’s no wonder James says what he does in v. 4: “You adulterous people!”  Now some of your translations have the more literal word “adulteresses” (that would be adulterous women) there instead of “you adulterous people.”  There’s a good bit of debate among New Testament scholars as to why exactly James uses such a word, but the more generic translation probably best captures what he’s trying to say.  The point here is that the effect of these illicit desires in our hearts is that we are committing spiritual adultery against our heavenly Bridegroom.  The church is the bride of Christ and when we run after these desires out of our old nature we are cheating on our bridegroom.

And then James drops the bomb.  “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”  In our modern culture where for many churches cultural relevancy is among the highest values, this is perhaps one of the most difficult things James writes.  His point is this: we cannot tolerate even a hint of the influence of this world which is the inspiring force for many of our illicit desires.  Not even a hint.  Every single time we try to accommodate some sinful attitude of this world in order that we might not offend someone else with our Christian faith we make ourselves an enemy of God.  Take that statement in for just a moment.  It’s every bit as tough as it sounds.  Think about why this is, though.  Let me use two illustrations to make my point.  First, this church is intimately familiar with the grim reality of cancer.  The influence of this world is a cancer in our souls.  It pollutes everything as it spreads throughout our systems.  It can shut entire systems down.  It will continue spreading and wrecking havoc in our lives until we stop it with the cleansing power of the Spirit of God.  Second, we have a graphic picture of the reality of what I am saying in the history of Israel.  When God told Israel to conquer the Promised Land they were to utterly destroy all the peoples who were living there.  Now, there are a lot of folks today who have problems with this, but that’s beside the fact for a moment.  Israel was not to leave alive anyone unwilling to join them and take up their ways.  But they didn’t follow through on this command.  Instead, they contented themselves with driving a wedge into the center of the land and leaving a few stragglers around the edges.  Gradually, these stragglers became large nations again, but this time with an axe to grind against these perceived foreign invaders who pushed them out of their land.  Yet their harm to Israel was not only militaristic in nature.  After a time their religious practices proved far more devastating to Israel in leading them away from following the path God had laid out for them.  Israel’s veneer of theocracy held for a long time, but eventually the walls came-a-tumblin’-down.  Our lives are no different.  When we allow the polluting influence of the world to have sway in our lives—regardless of the form that influence takes—it will wreck havoc on the inside.  And eventually, what’s on the inside always comes out.  Problems with others then happen when our insides turn out.

Folks, here’s the reality: when we let these desires rule our hearts, when we let them dictate how we respond to the people around us, we are giving ourselves to them instead of to God.  The problem with that is this: God’s not much on sharing.  James puts it like this in v. 5: “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?’”  God wants us all to Himself.  The only way that this is going to happen, however, is when we are completely reliant upon Him for everything we need.  When we live in the false light of the desires of our old nature or pass judgment on others when they don’t meet the standard of our interpretation of the law, we are not relying on Him.  We are relying on ourselves.  We are making ourselves judge and jury.  We are sitting on God’s throne in these areas.  Consider this in light of James’ words in vv. 11-12: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.  The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, 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.”  Got that?  If we pass judgment on someone else—meaning, by the way, not simply that we evaluate their actions as right or wrong, but rather we make overtures towards defining their eternal guilt or innocence—we ostensibly remove ourselves from under the purview of God’s moral law and step into the role of judge over the law.  In other words, we take God’s place.  Let’s finish it: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.  But who are you to judge your neighbor?”  In other words, there is someone designated to declare another person’s eternal guilt or innocence and it isn’t us.  Folks who attempt to live in this place of illicit desire and power grabbing see themselves as the measure of things whether they are aware of it or not.  They are operating out of a place of pride.  And as James points out: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  If we will come to God and own up to the fact that we don’t have what it takes to live consistently out of our new nature, He will gives us the grace and help we need to make strides in the right direction.  He will clean us from the inside out so that when we are in pressure situations, problems don’t arise.

As an aside, all of this really speaks to the importance of self-knowledge.  Go back with me for a moment to the toothpaste illustration from a few minutes ago.  If you pick up and unlabeled tube of toothpaste, you have to give it a squeeze to find out what’s inside.  The problem with this is that if you don’t like it, you either have a mess to clean up or a bad taste in your mouth.  Why would you want to go through that if you have the opportunity to make sure it is properly labeled?  If you have ever reacted to a situation in a way that was quite different from what you wanted but which also caught you off guard you know what I’m talking about.  Why put ourselves through that?  Why not take the time and effort to plunge to the depths of our souls and find out what’s there before a pressure situation brings out the worst in us?  If we have junk on our insides then problems with other people are going to happen when our insides turn out.  But if we know what’s there ahead of time and have a chance to fix it, there don’t have to be any unfortunate surprises.

So then, what must we do with this information?  Well, for some of you, this is all a matter of review.  You have taken the time to get to know yourselves and are in the process of fixing the trouble spots with the Spirit’s faithful help.  For most of you, though, you are not really sure about what’s inside you and you don’t really want to know because a lot of it isn’t something of which you are proud.  For you, James offers some pretty helpful advice in proverbial form in vv. 7-10: “Submit yourselves therefore [meaning, in light of what he has previously said] to God.”  Our place in this life is not to expend the effort to be the final arbiter of our lives; to save ourselves.  We simply don’t have what it takes to accomplish such a feat.  Our place in this life is to humbly submit ourselves to God’s faithful leadership and let Him lead us where He wills.  Our place is to come to the throne of God with the humble recognition that we are not enough on our own.  Our best efforts will never get us there.  They will only leave us incomplete and frustrated because we tried so hard and couldn’t make it.

“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”  Make sure you catch what this does and doesn’t say.  We should never under any circumstances give in to the demands of the devil.  Our job, however, is not to take the fight to the enemy.  We are called to set an example of resistance for others to follow.  We are to root ourselves deeply in the Rock of our God and let the devil run and hide from the powerful strength found there.

“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”  We cannot simply resist the devil.  If we try and don’t actively draw near to God, our resistance will eventually wear thin and he will hold mastery over our souls.  This is the approach failingly taken by many of the people in our communities who are content with just “being good” and who don’t want to bother with the whole church scene because, among other reasons, they don’t want someone else telling them what they need to know.  They don’t have it within them to “be good” long enough or to a sufficient degree to achieve any long term gain from it.

“Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”  We must confess our sins regularly and genuinely.  We must wash our hands because, like Cain, the blood of our victims marks us and calls out to God for justice.  We must purify our hearts because as long as our old nature is there it will make us double-minded—wanting to have both God and the world at the same time.

“Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”  This verse is aimed at those who are living such a duplicitous life.  There is no real joy for them and neither should they act like it.  All such folks have ahead of them is a funeral which is no place for laughter and joy.

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”  When we are willing to lay aside our desires, our need for control, our urge to be the final arbiter of our lives, we will find the honor we are seeking in all these other things.  We will find it in that our identity is rooted in the image of God who is the proper locus of all the honor in the universe.

If we will do these things, we will find ourselves well down the road of cleaning our insides out.  We will be taking strides towards labeling ourselves properly so that not only the people around us, but also we know what to expect in pressure situations.  The thing about James’ letter is that he wrote very little that was not something Jesus hadn’t already said.  He kind of serves as an interpreter of Jesus in this sense.  And it was Jesus who told us that it is out of the overflow of our hearts that our mouths speak.  Whatever is on our insides is eventually going to come out of us.  We can try to hide it for as long as we are able, but the pressures of this life are going to bring it out.  Some of our junk may be crammed way down at the bottom of our souls—kind of like the last bit of toothpaste in the tube, but life is going to squeeze us from the bottom up such that it is brought to the light.  And problems with others happen when our insides turn out.  But the hope of Christ is that with the new nature wrought by His Spirit, these problems don’t have to happen.  If we let Him, He will clean us out all the way to our toes so that only righteousness and godliness come out when the pressure goes up.  So open yourselves up to the Spirit and let Him make you the kind of people on the inside that you want everyone to see on the outside.