In Search of Contentment

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This series is inspired (but not sponsored) by FBC (First Baptist Church of Davis) and their fall focus running from October 4, 2015 through November 28, 2015. When I first heard FBC was doing this series, the lectionary reading and sermon that day at my own church, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, was from the book of James, and it really spoke to me; James is also the first bible study I completed on my own: I was fourteen, and I wrote with colored markers in a spiral notebook each morning before school, using an observation-reflection-action method similar to the one outlined in FBC’s bible-study guide. I am looking forward to spending more time meditating on this challenging book of the New Testament. I will be using the bible study guide provided by FBC with the accompanying scripture throughout this series; however, my methodology might hop around from anecdotal to more analytical word study. My goal is to do this study daily, or at least a few times a week! A big thanks to FBC for their theme, chosen scriptures, and structure of this study.


James, a fall bible study

James 1:9-11

9Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Monday – James 1:1-11
Tuesday – James 1:1-4 [Romans 5]
Wednesday – James 1:5-8 [1 Kings 3]
Thursday – James 1:9-11 [Proverbs 30:7-9]
Friday – Recap [Psalm 145]

Thursday James 1:9-11

In my first post about James, I called James wisdom literature and the litmus test of true prosperity. For a cursory description, that will do. But sinking deeper into the context and asking who was James’s audience and why was he writing provides a sharper image of disappointment and need for wisdom, and it also gives insight to today’s topic of money.

The letter is addressed to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Very likely, James was writing to Jewish Christians born under the Mosaic law. Under the old covenant, prosperity is supposed to be a result of righteousness, and poverty is supposed to be a result of disobedience. Even the disciples asked Jesus who sinned when they saw someone who was suffering.

We all know what Deuteronomy 28 says. If you keep the law, you will be blessed. If you do not keep the law, you will be cursed.

A little reminder of the blessings supposedly coming to children of Abraham who obey the law: national power above another nations, blessed in city and country, womb blessed, crops blessed, livestock blessed, basket and kneading trough blessed, blessed coming in, blessed going out, enemies will be defeated, blessing on barns, blessing on everything you put your hand to, establishment as Lord’s holy people, people will see blessing and praise God, abundant prosperity, heavens open up for rain, will lend and not borrow, will be the head and not the tail, at the top and not the bottom.

(Yes, please! I will gladly have a bit of blessing!)

A person’s worldview with its major and minor underlying beliefs does not immediately change upon conversion to Christianity. Paradigm shifts occur, but accepting Jesus as the Messiah is merely one of many paradigms in our complex cultural worldview. Discipleship could be described as bringing other paradigms into alignment with the gospel. That is true for Christians today but even more so for adult converts of the first century, who were coming to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah while the church was still being formed.

James is writing to a people who still assumed material blessing should come if they are righteous – that money is the sign of high position and God’s favor. What does that inaccurate theology lead to? It leads to disappointment and fear when trials come; they also think they are judging rightly if they see a poor person and assume he or she has sinned; and although it is not necessarily a result of expecting material blessing, the recipients of James’s letter seemed to value money and selfish ambition instead of valuing wisdom. They seem to have the accompanying strife that goes along with selfish ambition as well as a strange mixture of harsh judgment missing grace and a misunderstanding of the gospel and how it differs from the Mosaic law.

I have held a similar inaccurate theology of blessing as an expectation for this current life, except mine is derived from a Pentecostal background. I have held faith for miracles to be so important that I have not had room for faith in the midst of trials with no answers. Philip Yancey in his book, Disappointment With God, differentiates between these two types of faith. He calls the first faith a childlike “seed” faith that can move mountains. I am an advocate of this kind of faith. However, there is a second kind of faith that I am just beginning to discover. This second faith is the kind of faithfulness that Yancey calls a steadfast fidelity, and it is produced by trials. This steadfast fidelity is the kind of faith that trusts that God is present even when times are difficult, and it is a faith that looks to our promised inheritance. 1

But the focus of today is money as a sign of blessing from God. Or rather, money as not a sign of blessing.

9Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” James 1:9-11

The problem with the Mosaic law and its promises are that people still died. James is not saying that having or even pursuing money is a sin. But contrary to the worldview of the recipients of his letter, riches are not as valuable because they lack eternal value.

It was easy as a ninth grader to accept kingdom values and the fading value of money without realizing what earthly prosperity looks like. At an even younger age (not quite sure how old – nine? ten?), I remember contentedly telling my parents that we were rich. I felt thankful for the love in our family (truly good), our good meals (truly good), our home (track house in a commuter town…), our car (station wagon at that time…), and overall feeling like we had everything that we needed. My mom said something along the lines of “Sorry, sweetie, we are not really rich.” However, I persisted in the idea that riches were superfluous and that we had everything we needed even through my senior year of high school.

I was naive, carried along by the contented tone of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but perhaps we were right.

Two things I ask of you;
    deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:7-9 ESV

James is more nonchalant toward riches than the writer of Proverbs 30:7-9. This proverb treats money as if it were a temptation to sin if present in too great or too small a quantity, whereas James treats money as if it were irrelevant. I appreciate that Proverbs 30:7-9 acknowledges that we are affected by our circumstances. My favorite sermon from Acts says, “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). I am comforted by the idea of each person being strategically placed in a place where our free wills are most likely to search for God. If the boundary of my land (or lack thereof) causes me to search for God, then my lack of “blessing” is transformed to a blessing.

Underlying James’s words is freedom from the world’s standards and a contentment that accepts either poverty or riches. This contentment is also seen in Proverbs 30:7-9, except that it is a contentment happy to have simply enough. Honestly, I have a hard time being content. Perhaps my discontent is because in some areas of my life I have empty hands.

O Paul. He found that he could be happy with two empty hands or two full hands. His secret to do all things was to ask for Christ to strengthen him.

O Jesus. He taught us to pray for that one handful: Give us this day our daily bread.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 245-247.

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