Preaching on wisdom literature is always a challenge, since it is the text most likely to lead us into moralism or simplistic reading. The letter of James is perhaps the closest we have to wisdom literature in the NT, and it shares these challenges.
This is the script of a sermon I preached a few years ago on James 5.13–20 in the chapel of the theological college in which I taught. It was an interesting experience for several reasons. I had been teaching on the letter, and in the sermon tried to express some of the key issues in James—the nature of its apparently absolute statements, its proximity to the teaching of Jesus, and its nature as wisdom literature. (Where do we find short, circular, general guidance on the questions of the day in our culture?) It was also an experiment for me with preaching in a style quite different from my usual. Enjoy.
Dear Jim, I have just moved house and area in order to start training for ministry at a college in Nottingham. The strange thing is that, though people told me it would be really tough, and though I am missing friends and colleagues, I am feeling very excited about it, and keep seeing ways that God is answering prayer. What should I do?
Well, you have a nice problem—if you can call it a problem! Interestingly, it does appear to be a problem for some people—that others are having a good time when they are not—a kind of personal politics of envy. Some believers find it hard to accept the idea that God might actually give them things they want. I have a friend called Paul, and people sometimes think that he is a bit like this. Whenever he mentions ‘desire’, it always has negative connotations, and over the years some folk have decided that all he is interested in is discipline, and toughing it out. (It’s not true, by the way—he is always going on about being filled with God’s love, and never being separated from it, and so on. I never know why folk don’t see this side of him.)
I guess we need to remember the promise from Scripture: ‘Trust in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ If that is a promise, and we believe it is true, isn’t it funny how we are so surprised when it happens! It may be that the reason you are feeling cheerful is that this really is what God has for you, and despite all the hassles of moving and the loss of friendships, you have a deep sense of being in the right place.
There is a saying that ‘the worst thing that can happen to someone is not getting what they want—but the second worst is that they do get what they want.’ It is worth holding on to! You see, the trouble with having the desires of our heart is that at times we desire the wrong things. So rejoice now, when you are aware of God giving you the desires of your heart. But keep rejoicing when God reshapes your desires and gives you something you had no idea that you wanted!
So, what should you do at the moment? Here’s an idea: sing a song! When you are feeling on top of the world, there is nothing quite like expressing it, and there’s nothing quite like expressing it in song. And here’s an even better idea—borrow someone else’s song. You see, your cheerfulness may seem as though it is just a passing mood, but it is really a sign of God’s faithfulness. Others have discovered the same before you, and they left their songs for you to sing to your own tune of joy in what God has done. The songs in Scripture, the psalms, are testimonies to reality, to how things really are, not just how they ought to be. And the joy of discipleship is as much a reality as the pain. I know others around you may not be able to sing the same song as you at the same time, but think of yourself as a torch-bearer, testifying to God’s faithfulness for those who are in the dark valley of pain and doubt. Think of yourself as one singing songs in the night as others wait for their dawn to come.
Now, if you really are going to sing those kinds of songs, songs of hope and faithfulness, and not just songs about your own happiness, then you are going to need some help. These are the songs that we sing when we ask God to fill us afresh with his Spirit, because it is only the Spirit who can turn our joy into another’s hope.
Dear Jim, I have just moved house and area in order to start training for ministry at a college in Nottingham. The strange thing is that, though people told me I would feel very excited about being where God wanted me, and would see prayer answered, I am finding it really tough, and I am missing friends and colleagues. What makes it worse is that there are people here who keep going on about how wonderful God is, and singing, and I am getting really sick of it. What should I do?
Oh dear, this is a problem. The trouble with living in community is that other people are close enough to you for long enough that you only have to move an inch for them to get right up your nose!
One strategy would be to hold your nose (so they can’t get up it), block your ears (so you can’t hear their irritating songs), hide your wick (so they can’t get on it) and generally keep yourself to yourself. This is a good way to reduce your own pain by not being exposed to the joy of those around you. However, it does not really help in the long term, and fortunately there is an alternative strategy—to ask others to pray for you.
Now I know that this is not as simple as it sounds. For one thing, most of us are attached to a very particular understanding of who we are. We look at ourselves as autonomous individuals, and at the community in which God has placed as an add-on, an added bonus—or at times, as you are finding, as an added problem! Perhaps we have something to learn here from other cultures, where people are often much better at seeing themselves as persons-in-community.
But our way of thinking encourages us to think of our growth and maturity as an individual thing—what is God doing in me to make me more mature or whole or complete, rather than thinking about what God is doing amongst us to make us a more complete community.
For another thing, we are inclined to think that growing up is all about taking control. Not a day goes by without a newspaper article telling us of another area of illness or disease which has been brought under control by a new advance of medicine. We are encouraged to take control of our growth and learning. And we are even told that prayer has great power—it looks very much like a way of taking control of those areas of our life which are (slightly embarrassingly) rather out of control.
But prayer is not so much about exercising power, as about being vulnerable and admitting we need help. It is not prayer that brings healing, but God. It is not prayer that saves us, but God who raises us up. To pray is to be in the same position as the one who was crucified, who had to trust that God, and God alone, would save him. It is a place of great vulnerability.
And if we are used to living as individuals, then being vulnerable to those in our community of faith is even harder. We only get good at it by practising—we have to learn how to trust one another.
And, from the other side of the fence, it means that we need to become communities that are ready to pray—not in the sense of being ready to solve each other’s problems with a glib spiritual thought, or the application of a special technique that we learnt at some summer conference or other. Rather, offering to pray is about being ready to yearn, with others, for their completion and their wholeness in relation to God and in relation to others. If asking for prayer involves being vulnerable, so does offering to pray.
We often look at the heroes of the faith in Scripture, and think that their ministries were all about exercising power. But if we look more closely, we see that the key to what they did was learning to be vulnerable and dependent on God in just the way we need to be. In this respect, they are really no different from us.
So take heart, take a risk, and ask others to pray for you. It will make all the difference to you and to them.
Dear Jim, I have found myself asking lots of question about life and faith recently. I really need some time to work through all the difficult issues, so I find it quite annoying when people give me simple answers, such as ‘Just pray about it’. What should I do?
Well I hope I don’t annoy you too much—I have been accused of making life look rather simple through the advice that I give. All I am doing is trying to offer people some concise answers to life’s difficult questions. Actually, my brother Josh (who used to be in the same line of business as me) also used to do this, and some people say he is the greatest teacher who ever lived—so I am not losing too much sleep about it! (Mind you, his way of speaking was rather controversial and it did get him into serious trouble in the end.)
I find it interesting that sometimes the most profound truths are expressed in the simplest of ways. Sometimes we don’t understand because we haven’t thought things through. But just as often we don’t understand because we are unwilling to put what we hear into practice.
So you’re right to point out that we all need space to think—I would certainly never want my comments used to stop people thinking hard. But I would also never want the idea of thinking hard to become an excuse for not doing what I suggest! We need both, don’t we? We need to think hard about what it means to pray—but we need to learn to pray as well! We need to think hard about how we sing our song in a strange land—but we need to keep on singing too!
I guess in the end we need to be both one thing and the other—both thinking and doing. Isn’t this the secret of living with integrity? Unlike us, God does not think one thing and do another—he does not think without acting, or act without thinking. Only by doing both can we truly reflect the nature of the God we worship.