May 1, 2011

Religion That Works

The topic of religion has been a hot one in our culture for the last several years.  Mostly, the discussion has centered on its proper place in society.  In this, everyone seems to have an opinion.  Some think it should have a really big and obvious role.  Others feel that religion should have at best a slight role in public life with no role at all being their preferred state.  Most folks, though, fall somewhere in between these poles.   Further complicating this public discussion is the fact that there are a lot of different ideas out there of what exactly is meant by the word religion in the first place.  Many view religion as a set of liturgical exercises whereby a person demonstrates devotion to her preferred deity.  And although that might be a general definition of the word, for a number of people, the word carries very negative connotations of a list of rules and regulations that dictate the shape and flow of a person’s life, restricting his freedom, and obligating him to a certain set of activities that he may not like, but he loses all the benefits of the religion if he doesn’t do them.  This is, in fact, what many have in mind when they think of the Christian religion.  Perhaps even some of you are there.  People think about the list of dos and don’ts in the Bible.  You have to keep all ten of the commandments.  You have to show up every Sunday and Wednesday.  You have to stand up and sit down at just the right times.  You have to give a certain percentage of your income.  You have to shake hands and smile and attend every pot-luck dinner.  You have to sign off on all of the right beliefs.  And the list goes on.  And if you don’t do all of these things, you might not be in the kingdom.  The problem with all of this is that it has been tried for a long time and more and more people are finding that it doesn’t do it for them.  All of this pomp and circumstance doesn’t connect them to God on its own.  Going through the motions doesn’t get us there.  So what does?

Well, a lot of well-meaning folks might respond by saying something about how we have to rely more on the Holy Spirit to help us connect to God.  Religion itself isn’t going to do the trick.  We should just get rid of the religion and focus on the relationship.  When I was in college it was popular to talk about how Jesus didn’t come to start a religion, He came to start a revolution.  There is certainly some truth in all of this and it sounds really hip and modern to talk about revolutions and relationships, but it all misses the point.  Most people want some sort of structure and consistency in their relating to God.  In fact, given our sinful proclivities, if we leave worship to be merely a spontaneous exercise, it will eventually fall to the point of never happening.  As a case in point, how many people have you invited to church who gave some sort of an excuse about going when they felt “up to it” (whatever that means) who then never came.  That’s the trick of sin: we’re never going to feel up to it on our own.  The elements of structure we build into our attempts at relating to God to keep us actually doing it and in a way that will prove to our benefit form the basis of our religion.  So then, what we need is to figure out which of the various possible elements are the most fundamental so that we can have a religion that works.  And I don’t mean that in a utilitarian way, but rather in the sense of having a religious environment that makes connecting with God the easiest for us.  What are the elements of religion that will put us in the best place of nurturing and developing a deep and satisfying relationship with God?  In other words: what is the substance of genuine religion?

If you think about it given the journey we’ve been on recently, this is the logical next question for us to ask.  We have been talking about the theory of Christian religion for the last two months now.  We have looked at it from the angle of theology and the angle of apologetics.  We have talked about what we believe and why we believe it.  All of that is really important stuff, but it is not sufficient for our spiritual development to simply cerebrate on the faith without doing anything about it.  For this reason we are now going to turn from the realm of theory to the realm of practice.  In this effort, there are few places in the Bible which better draw our minds to the practice of the faith—what some might call religion—than the book of James.

James is one of the little books in the back of the New Testament that wasn’t written by Paul.  It was in fact written by…drum roll please…James.  There’s some debate over exactly which James, but the consensus of church tradition and modern conservative scholarship is that it was written by James the Just, the half-brother of Jesus.  He wrote his letter to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” as chapter 1 verse 1 tells us.  Now, there’s some ambiguity about who exactly this includes, but perhaps the best interpretation imagines his audience to be the mostly poor, Jewish-background believers in the countryside around Jerusalem where James was the leader of the church.  As for when James wrote, because of considerations both internal and external, it is likely that James was the very first book in the New Testament to be written.  He probably wrote some time in the mid- to late-40s.  What this means for us is that James’ letter is a glimpse of what issues were important to the very earliest followers of Christ.  This can be helpful for us in terms of focusing our attention on the things which are the most fundamental to our faith.  And given the nature of the topics James addresses, we can be assured that our struggles are not unique.  They were dealing with some of the same issues we are still dealing with today barely a decade after the resurrection.  Furthermore, a close examination of this book can reveal which elements of the Christian religion are the most foundational.  It can help us uncover the substance of genuine religion.  James accomplishes all of this through a series of commands.  In fact, nearly half of the verses in the letter contain a command of some kind.  In this, James isn’t too concerned with sugar-coating things for us so they go down easy.  James is a tough book.  But in terms of helping us make the leap from orthodoxy (right beliefs) to orthopraxy (right actions), there is nothing better in all of the Bible.  So, with a much more textual approach than we’ve taken for a while, turn with me to James chapter 1 and let’s start working through this marvelous little book, this morning with the goal of ferreting out the substance of genuine religion.

When you read through the first chapter, there are three aspects of genuine religion that stand out.  As it turns out, these three aspects form the basis of the three major themes James addresses in this letter.  I want to spend the rest of our time this morning exploring and examining these three aspects of genuine religion.   The first comes both in vv. 2-4 and in vv. 12-18.  James talks about facing trials and temptations with joyful faithfulness and reminds us of the source of temptations.  Most notably, they don’t come from God.  He is the giver of only good gifts.  That does not mean we are always going to like what He gives us in the moment.  We may have to wait a long time to see that it was good, let alone how.  But just because we can’t see something immediately doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  Many times when I am outside playing with Noah he will hear and airplane and shout, “Daddy!  Pane!”  Usually, I can’t see it at first, but then, after I have spent some time examining the sky, my eyes grow accustomed to the background and I can see more clearly where it is.

Backing up just a bit, any religion worth the effort to follow it is going to prepare us to deal with trying times in this life.  The religion James has in mind does just this.  Right out of the gate he encourages us to “count it all joy” when we experience the various trials in this life.  Now, at first read, that’s a pretty tough command to start off with so let’s unpack it just a bit.  A better translation of that phrase would be, “consider it pure joy.”  Perhaps that only helps you a little, but let me make things clearer.  Here’re some things James isn’t saying.  He’s not saying that all the trials we face are going to be pleasant experiences for us.  The word here refers to our thinking, not our feeling.  James is no sadist.  He doesn’t expect that we are going to feel great after we lose a loved one to illness or lose our house to foreclosure or get fired from a long time job or are hounded by some temptation that is tearing apart our family or anything else along these lines.  Things like that simply are not going to make us happy.  They shouldn’t.  But, none of this should impact our sense of joy.  Joy is not an emotion it is a state of mind which is completely disconnected from our external circumstances.  It comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit giving us the assurance of our eternal security and the goodness of God’s plans for His people irrespective of their situations.  The reason we can have this joy in the midst of the various trials in our lives is that such things grow and strengthen our faith.  They develop in us a steadfastness or endurance or patience.  The idea here is not a passive faith that merely endures the challenges of this life, but an active, vibrant faith that eagerly seeks to make God’s kingdom manifest regardless of external obstacles.  One commentator calls this a “militant patience.”  This is a faith that enables us to deal with the junk of this world.  Christ-followers who have such a steadfast faith will indeed one day receive the crown of life from God.

Let me go back now to what I started taking about a minute ago.  The next thing James addresses in this thematic section is our experience of temptation.  There’s something really curious about this transition, though.  The English words “trials” and “temptations” translate the same Greek word.  In each trying situation we face in this life, there is a choice in how we shall respond to it.  If we respond to it well and remain faithful to the kingdom values we hold dear, it is a faith-growing trial God has allowed us to face in order to shape us to be more reflective of His image.  If we fall flat and take the sinful way out it is a temptation.  If we should succumb to what has become a temptation, however, let us not misplace the blame.  God doesn’t tempt.  God isn’t temptable.  He may allow us to face a lot of tough situations in this life, but He unfailingly accompanies us in these so that we might grow closer to Him through them.  These are trials.  Instead, the temptations we face come when we reject His company and operate out of our own sinful desires.  Such things as these desires do not come from God.  He is the giver of good gifts.  He is the giving God.  Do you see the dichotomy here?  On the one hand we have a good God who gives us good things and on the other we have our naturally unrighteous desires leading us to sin and death when acted upon.  Now, not all we experience in this world as trials come directly from God.  Many times, they stem from our own sin, our neighbor’s sin, or the Devil’s trickery.  When God allows us to face them, if we are willing to wait on Him and work with Him, we will eventually see how they were for our good.

Coming back around to the topic at hand, then, true religion must be able to help us navigate these dangerous waters.   This is the first aspect of genuine religion.  Real religion must help us stand up to the challenges of the world around us.   It provides a structure for our lives whereby we can steadily advance to completion in the light of our design regardless of our external circumstances.  It gives us an anchor to hold in the storms of life.  And so that we’re clear, a complex set of rules is not going to do the trick here.  It takes more.  So much more.  It takes a foundation against which the waves crash and break, not one which is broken by them.  Real religion can stand up to challenges from the world around it.

The second theme here is found in vv. 5-8 and 19-26.  If a religion is going to be worth taking upon ourselves, it must have some method of helping us choose the best path of the many that lie before us.  Put in a perhaps more “Christian” phrasing: genuine religion must be grounded first and foremost in encouraging a right relationship with God by helping people operate according to what He counts as right and proper.  Different religions have different approaches to this problem.  Most lay out a complex series of instructions for devotees to follow.  The religion of Jesus, however, takes a different approach.  Christianity is a religion of freedom and encourages open communication with God.  Thus James’ command in v. 5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God.”  You see, the Christian religion assumes that there are going to be situations we face in this life which no commandment already given is going to deal with.  The folks who gave the commands could not have anticipated some of the kinds of trials we face now.  In these times, the approach commended to followers of Christ is to keep an active line of communication with God the Father open and use His wisdom to solve the problem.  The reason for this is that God is the source of all wisdom.

Well, with all this in mind and remembering that we serve the God who is the giver of all good things, if we need wisdom in a situation we are to ask for it.  This asking, James tells us, must be done in faith, without doubting.  This statement has led some to the conclusion that if we don’t receive something, anything, from God, it must be because we don’t have enough faith.  If God didn’t answer your prayer the way you wanted Him to you must not have had sufficient faith in your asking.  This idea is wrong and stupid and it’s not at all what James is getting at.  Let’s think through this for just a minute.  Imagine that I have asked you for something.  But, you can hear in my voice when I ask that I clearly don’t believe you are going to give it to me.  How does that make you feel?  What assumption of you on my part does that reveal?  It reveals a lack of trust in your character.  It reveals that I’m really trying to use you to get what I want and might be friendly now, but probably won’t be later once I’ve gotten it.  It reveals that I think you’re a stingy jerk and that I’m frustrated I’ve had to waste my time even bothering to ask you for whatever it is.  Given that, how inclined are you to give me what I ask for?  Not so much.  The same thing goes for God.  If we seek wisdom from Him but don’t believe in our heart that He will give it, that He is the giver of good gifts, He’s not going to give it.  Prayer isn’t like some cosmic vending machine whereby we put in the correct amount of change and out pops whatever we were seeking, and if it doesn’t we have to kick it a couple of times to make sure it’s paying attention.  The faith James is talking about here is not the kind of faith that results in our salvation, it is our trust in God’s character.    At issue here is not the amount of faith we have, but the fact that we don’t really believe God is who He says He is.  Look, if we don’t really trust God’s character, if we think He’s a stingy jerk and we’re debasing ourselves to even bother asking Him for something, why would He want to acquiesce to such a request?  People like that are going to run to God whenever they need help and then go back to life as they please.  They want God to be their personal genie.  God doesn’t want folks like.  He doesn’t say, “Well, at least they came to me that one time.  At least they come on Sundays once in a while.”  He an all-or-nothing kind of God.  James calls such folks double-minded.  They want to have it both ways (which they can’t) and as a result are unstable and completely unreliable.

Two of the clearest ways that the wisdom of God can make itself known in our lives are in how we speak and in our obedience of God’s commands.  James addresses both of these when he comes back to wisdom near the end of the chapter.  Here’s how we seek and apply God’s wisdom in our lives.  Our first instinct must be to listen.  When we don’t listen we run the high risk of not hearing what’s being said.  Instead, we hear what we want to hear and most of us fill in the gaps with the worst possible plugs and react to these instead of to what was actually said.  This unrighteous anger, James warns, does not lead to the righteousness of God.  Remember: righteousness means being rightly related to the people in our lives.  If we are flying off the handle in anger then we aren’t rightly related to them.  We can keep all of this under tighter control by simply putting the Word into practice.  If you show up at church each week, hear the sermon, and then make no lifestyle changes because of it, it hasn’t really affected you.  The same goes with God’s word.  James compares such a person to one who looks in a mirror intently and then immediately forgets what she looks like.  In James’ day, mirrors were often made out of polished bronze or copper.  They gave very poor reflections such that a person really did have to study the mirror to gain a good awareness of her image.  A casual glance wouldn’t do.  Furthermore, in taking a look in a mirror the point is usually to see if there’s anything about our appearance that needs to be corrected.  What good has looking in the mirror done us, then, if we walk away and do nothing about what we saw?  If we roll out of bed in the morning, look at ourselves closely in the mirror, then put on some clothes and head to work, why bother having a mirror?  In the same way, if we come to the word then go away from it and do nothing in response to what we have read, why bother?

So then, what did we talk about just a minute ago?  The second part of genuine religion is that it must be grounded in encouraging a right relationship with God by operating according to what He counts as right and proper.  The religion James offers does just this.  It accomplishes it by encouraging us to seek the wisdom of God the Father and then put it into practice by doing what He says.  We can find this wisdom when we go to Him in prayer, but also when we immerse ourselves in His word.  One way we put it into practice is by letting listening, not speaking, but our first reaction to the situations in which we find ourselves.  In fact, in v. 26 James drops a bomb on us: if anyone doesn’t control his tongue like this his religion is worthless.  It’s not simply that such a person’s religion isn’t going to be very helpful to him.  James says that it is totally without worth to him.  She may as well not waste her time.  And indeed, if our religious structures aren’t helping us achieve even this most basic of personal improvements why are we wasting our time with it?

This all leaves us with just last thematic area to address.  Let me talk to you quickly about this last one and then we’ll get out of here.  In vv. 9-11 James sets up this disturbing contrast.  He commands the poor in this life to rejoice in their exaltation and the rich to rejoice in their humiliation.  This is exactly opposite of how things work in this world.  Poor folks are humble and rich folks are exalted in this life.  So why does James proclaim the opposite?  Some commentators would argue that the reason for this is that God has a preference for the poor and rich people can’t get into the kingdom (which even Jesus declared is extremely difficult).  Well, for folks like us who live in the most unimaginably prosperous culture the world has even known, this is a tough pill to swallow.  The fact is that even the most materially poor person in this church sits in the top 15% of wealth in the entire world.  And those who are followers of Christ from that group are generally a lot better about having faith in God before anything else than most of us are.  People who have a lot of stuff—like all of us here do—fall easily into the trap of thinking that the stuff will last.  James reminds us poignantly that this isn’t the case.  The person stuck on wealth will have her life cut short (however long it seems from an earthly perspective) well before she has accomplished and acquired everything she desires.  It will all fade away and prove worthless.  The poor, on the other hand, have a much easier time trusting God for their day-to-day needs.  Such a person has a high place in God’s eyes.  So yes, God does have a certain preference for the poor.  But, this does not mean, as some claim, that you have to be poor to be a real follower of God.  Such a view ignores most of the Old Testament and many notable figures in the New Testament.  Instead, this understanding sets us up for grasping the final aspect of genuine religion.

James makes this one as clear for us as He possibly could.  Let me read v. 27 for you again: “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  Now, most churches spend a lot of time dealing with the last part of that—the moral purity—but not so much the first.  Let me put this in slightly different terms with what we just said in mind: religion that’s actually going to do something for us has got to have as its primary concern not the building up of self, but others.  So what does this look like?  Well, the face James puts on it is to “visit” or help or minister to orphans and widows in their affliction.  In other words, help them when they are suffering.  If you read much of the Bible at all you know that “orphans and widows” are the stereotypically needy populations.  This was because there weren’t any social safety nets to help those two categories of people.  Now, in this country we do have many such safety nets but, this doesn’t mean we don’t have any needy people.  In fact, the way some of the safety nets in this country are structured, they have through unintended consequences encouraged the proliferation of widows by financially discouraging stable two-parent households.  The reality is that there are lots of people around us in need of help.  Take just single moms, for example.  Do you know any?  Single moms have a load on them like most of us here wouldn’t even believe.  How can we “visit them in their affliction”?  Perhaps take them a meal once in a while?  Offer to take the kids of their hands for a few hours?  Work to create places for them to belong in a world which, in spite of social advances, still relegates them to the periphery?  Yes, yes, and yes and more.  How about the staggering number of kids who are struggling in school and aren’t likely to get much further given their current contexts?  We could provide tutoring, mentoring, food (it’s hard to learn when you’re hungry), and a number of other things.  What if we showed them in a powerful way that Jesus loves them and that the church is a safe place to grow fully into their God-given design?  Might we even make a small dent in the vast number of kids who leave the church at 18 and never look back?  We can’t take social issues out of balance to the detriment of good theology, but if we neglect them entirely our religion does us no good.  If we are going to proclaim ourselves a serving body, these are some of the people we have to make sure we are serving.  This is religion that works.  Real religion builds others first, not ourselves.

Alright, let’s put all of this together.  We have seen three different aspects of real religion in the first chapter James.  We have seen that genuine religion must prepare us to stand up to challenges from the world around us.  It must encourage us to a right relationship with God by operating according to what He counts as right and proper.  And thirdly, it must be primarily concerned in building up not us, but the people around us, particularly those who are struggling.  Let’s assemble this into a concise package.  The substance of genuine religion is standing firm in the face of trials, acting consistently out of God’s wisdom, and taking care of the least, last, and lost in our midst.  Let me make this even simpler for you: Religion that stays wisely obeys.  This is our answer for a world struggling to find a religion that actually gets the job done.  This is an answer everyone needs because everyone is drawn to religion of some kind.  We all have a built in need to worship something and given our propensity for structure, we will create religion.  Yet without these things the religion won’t ultimately give us the fix we seek.  Religion that stays wisely obeys.   Religion that is going to hold up in the face of this world’s many trials operates on God’s wisdom and obeys His commands to take care of those around us who need help.  Religion that stays wisely obeys.  This is the Christian religion at its moist fundamental level.  It doesn’t matter what songs we sing or the order of our services or the length of the sermon or the time we dismiss or the look of the building or the number of programs or the size of our classes or anything else.  Religion that stays wisely obeys.  So if you want to get the most out of this religion, the Christian religion, make sure you have these things in place.  Religion that stays wisely obeys.