Reliable Input


An atheist writer I enjoy draws a distinction between those who make their way through rational analysis of objective evidence, versus those who make their way reading the Bible. I don’t draw that distinction at all.

Biblical scriptures work. They are effective at capturing the truth of the spiritual conditions we all face and mapping the way forward, particularly when that way is contrary to the leadings of our deceived and deceitful hearts. This very effectiveness is part of the way these documents came to be recognized as scripture (a process that took a long time).

Reading the Bible thus broadens the scope of reliable input. For those who make their way through rational analysis, attention to scripture expands the range of evidence that this analysis can put to use.

Does God Speak Through Our Feelings?


Answer: Maybe.

Our “feelings” actually describe several phenomena at once. Emotion has various origins. They include:

1. Automatic Thinking

Our world has sudden danger in it; we don’t always have time to think logically. So our brains help us survive by looking for patterns that can be generalized into quick subroutines. If a vicious animal pounces from the underbrush, the survivor of such an attack might develop a subconscious program that says, “Be afraid when underbrush rustles.” In the same way, if a man in a tweed suit has hurt or betrayed you, your brain might create a program that says, “Distrust all men in tweed suits.”

Each of us runs numerous programs like this without recognizing them. They sometimes produce emotional conclusions that are at odds with what a rational conclusion would say.

2. Prideful Validation

I am self-centered. I assume you’re like me in this regard, but maybe that’s just my self-centeredness talking.

When I pick and choose among possible conclusions in my mind, I am biased in favor of every choice that validates my pride. If any conclusion says that my aims are noble, that my fears are justified, that my theories are correct, or even that my shame is a special case above everyone else’s shame, then my emotions will tend to flow in the direction of confirming that choice. The conclusion that uplifts or validates me will just “feel” more right.

3. Spiritual Awareness

The divine realm fills and surrounds the material realm. The one who follows in the way of Jesus Christ has declared his or her allegiance to this larger realm, the kingdom of God. As the rootedness to this larger realm grows fuller, it makes sense that the connection would produce an expanded awareness. When the believer feels that a certain course is right or wrong, good or bad, then this might be the divine awareness coming through. Before we can conclude that, however, we first have to look for other possible origins for the feeling, such as #1 and #2.

Random Thoughts about E-Books


(1) Several months ago, I shared the hope that I would become more consistent about reading the Bible. Since then, I’ve found the answer. It involves reading the Bible on an iPad. My problem with a printed version of the Bible is that I have never wanted to mark the pages. Annotations seemed counterproductive, because I knew the same passage might strike me differently when I came upon it again during a future reading. This reluctance limited my engagement with the text. But with an electronic version—which seems more ephemeral—I don’t have the same reluctance. I touch the text, sculpt it, and use my typing fingers to append my own reflections. The Bible has become not only a nearer experience to me, but a more tactile one.

(2) Bible-study apps are great reference tools, but they are practically useless if all you really want to do is read the Bible. The features of the app (maps, commentary, concordance, etc.) all just wait there irritably while I read, indignant over the fact that I have no use for these features while I am just slowly absorbing the text. After buying two such apps, I downloaded an unadorned copy of the Bible for little or no cost, and this is what I read.

(3) A whole lot of e-books are available for little or no cost, include great books. Compare that to a physical bookstore. Obtaining a public-domain work of great literature from a physical store actually imposes various costs, because it takes time and gasoline to get to the store, and even a second-hand copy of the book will cost a few dollars. But with an e-reader, literature is often free. The greatest works of the Western canon tend to be available at no cost as instantaneous downloads. Tonight—I dare you—take advantage of this. Download a classic book you’ve always wondered about and devote an hour or two of your evening to seeing whether what you have always believed about this book is true.

(4) A lot of my reading is in the early morning before dawn—my favorite part of the day. Books I read during this time must be printed. An e-reader won’t do, for multiple reasons: (A) I am afraid of spilling coffee on it, and (B) with the iPad, I am always aware of the declining battery life, of electrons spilling away. I imagine this loss as a faint hum, and in the quietest hour of the day, I imagine I can hear it.

(5) Here is the wonder of e-books: The reading experience changes, because all of our information resources are right there within the screen. If I question one of the book’s assertions or if I want to follow one of the book’s asides, I can highlight the relevant text and springboard off of the words into Google or Wikipedia. The book lives within a sea of connections, and I, the reader, freely swim that sea.

(6) Here is the horror of e-books: The reading experience is challenged, perhaps fatally so. All of our distractions are right there in the screen, including email, social media, video, and the rest. A worthwhile book is a like chin-up for the mind; it is a chance to win a victory and an elevated perspective at the price of a focused exertion. But given all the distractions within the reading device itself, how many will still make this exertion? How many will still see the effort through, in the face of so many enticing reasons not to?

(7) At my local Barnes & Noble, there was a giant banner announcing the latest version of the company’s “Nook” reader. And the scene on this banner—which, again, was hanging in a bookstore—showed the Nook being used to watch a movie.

(8) Blogs and e-books go together. Blogs demand concise expression. The majority of blog posts (including this one?) are too long. However, the pressure on the blogger to at least try to be concise helps focus the idea. This focusing is excellent preparation for an e-book, which offers the freedom to be brief. Print books do not afford the same freedom, because justifying the cost of printing and binding calls for a certain minimum quantity of pages. This is just one important way in which printed books and e-books differ in more ways than just how the text is served.

(9) My first book was written to be printed. Its e-book version came later. With the book I’m working on now, I feel myself visualizing it as an e-book. That is, I feel myself constructing it with the possibility of radical brevity in mind. I still expect that the book will be printed, but its printed version will be an odd and slender volume created mostly with a nod to those who read in quiet hours with coffee.

E-Book Now Available (And Some Thoughts about E-Book Pricing)


My book, The Ten Commandments, is now available as an e-book for Kindle or iPad. Buy it on Amazon or from the iBooks store.

When I was preparing to bring out this version of the book, I had to think about pricing. While I do not control the price that an outlet such as Amazon charges, I do establish the ballpark of this price through the initial pricing that I set.

You might have noticed that big publishers tend to set their e-book pricing at roughly the same level as the price of the book’s printed version. This is an interesting choice. They do this even though they know that we know that the e-book cost them a lot less to produce and distribute.

The choice is interesting because, if that pricing model holds up over time, it means that we book buyers view the physicality of a book to be just as much of an advantage as a disadvantage. The equivalent pricing, if the market continues to accept it, means that the benefits and burdens of ink-on-paper are so evenly matched that book consumers as a whole don’t look for the book’s tangibility to have an effect on price.

For my own e-book, I chose differently. I am using the e-book as my equivalent of the discount mass-market paperback. That is, the e-book is a much less expensive version of the book, introduced in the hope that it will tip someone who has been waiting to make a purchase over the edge into buying a copy.

(Is that you? Now is your moment.)

Peace


Bloggers Amy Peterson and Suzannah Paul got me thinking about peace. In a guest post Amy wrote for Suzannah’s blog, she described peace as “not the absence of conflict but its resolution.” Think about that.

Paul the apostle (presumably no relation to Suzannah) sought after peace in each of his letters. “Grace to you and peace,” he said at the start of the letter to the Galatians, and he wrote roughly the same hope into the opening of every other letter we have from him.

What was this “peace” he hoped his audience would have?

We don’t have it with strangers. Begin there. With strangers, we have only a polite absence of quarrel, but again, peace is not found in the mere absence. In the Hebrew that Paul studied, peace is shalom—meaning things as they should be, including relationships fully realized.

And in the Greek in which Paul wrote his letters, peace was eirene. The word suggests restoration and flourishing between people, even prosperity.

Peace such as this is so precious, we want to imagine we have more of it than we do.

This partly explains the grip of information media. These outlets absorb our attention by providing the illusion of peace. Exchanged texts or tweets seem a bit like shalom, and the emotion of a TV show can feel fleetingly like eirene. Throughout history, people have always been able to evade human relationship, but our time is very different because, with our technology, we also have the ability to sedate our very desire for relationship. We can replace the direct experience of people with surrogate experiences that are way more tidy.

Commenting on this phenomenon, Ms. Peterson cited the Old Testament’s book of Ezekiel, in which God condemns the false prophets who say “Peace!” when there is no peace. Are we those same false prophets?

Given all of what Paul meant by “peace,” his formulation—grace to you and peace—can be seen to describe a natural sequence. Grace comes first. Grace includes God’s lavish forgiveness and the freedom arising from this, the freedom to reclaim one’s authentic self.

Then, in a world that is filled and defined by people, real peace with people provides the opportunity for that self to flourish. Trusting cooperation with others gives wings to our efforts and allows those efforts to be valuable.

Grace is what we need. After that, real peace—as elusive as it is and as difficult as it is to obtain—is what we really want.

The End of James


So here at the end of these 31 days of James, I feel blessed. I’ve tried to treasure this early Christian letter the way its first recipients would have treasured it. Reading it verse by verse, passage by passage, I’ve tried to soak it in. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, God breathed out this work through James. I have tried to get my face close enough to draw in some of that breath. John 14:26 suggests that scripture provides words the Holy Spirit brings to mind as a means of speaking, and I have experienced this. Troubles, distractions, temptations, and loneliness come upon me in various shades, and often enough, the relevant words out of James come to mind in response. Count it all joy....

But there is something still missing, something I still want. James was a sibling of Jesus, a kid brother to the Son of Man. And James never knew Jesus was the Messiah until his brother was taken, beaten, nailed like furniture, and left to squirm and scream. And even that wasn’t enough, because his brother came back to stand before him personally, just him, James alone (1 Corinthians 15:7).

My question is: What was that like? How did that feel?

Just asking this line of questioning reveals what a product of the modern world I am, and what a modern reader. I look for disclosure. The people who have experienced extremes or depths are expected, somehow, to present the emotional content of that experience for my own and others’ perusal. We are so comfortable, so safe within our routines, that we look for second-hand emotions to sample like bonbons just so we can feel something without putting anything about our own selves at risk.

James was a leader of the Christian church by the time he wrote this letter. His thoughts were with the church. He picked up a pen, or dictated to a scribe, the instructions that were on his heart to give—the instructions that he thought would make the people of the church stronger. If he felt despair over the fact that it took him so long to recognize the Messiah, over the fact that he could not see the true nature of his own mother’s son, then this emotion was his burden to carry. It was his anchor, his ballast, keeping him fixed upon the work to which he was called. It was not something to be traded cheaply in search of consolation. And while telling stories about the boyhood of the Nazarene might be harmless enough, those stories would entirely miss the point of the Son of Man.

James simultaneously illustrates both the necessity and the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He illustrates the necessity, because without the death and rebirth, people were not able to see. Jesus’ own brother could not see. The clues were always there, but it took Jesus standing before him in the risen flesh before the clues made sense. I imagine James rejoiced upon seeing his brother in this way. But also, much later, I believe he wept. He wept for how much he had squandered of the life he could have lived with his brother, and for the heartless and reckless arrogance that had enabled him to be so blind.

And, as I say, James also illustrates the resurrection’s power. He illustrates its transformative power—salvation’s power. James the kid brother, James the fool, now became James the leader. He stood up out of the wanton blindness with which he had protected himself, with which he had preserved his once-tidy life, and he took up the truth. He squarely faced the trials that came from this and he found the doorway into joy.

He held together a church that is still held together today.

And he taught something, out of the depths of his experience. Through his brokenness, God breathed. God whispered through him with grace and love to speak some of the very first words of a second canon of scripture, the unexpected canon that came after Jesus Christ. From James and through James came this astonishing extra gift, a testament that was altogether new.

Pray for One Another


“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”—James 5:14

Do church elders have special healing powers?

Not exactly. God heals. The elders’ plea for healing might be granted, but James sees an additional promise in their prayers.

The result of verse 5:14 is 5:15: “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (emphasis mine). We are to be patient. The reassurance of those we esteem and trust offering their prayers over us can save us from losing patience, losing steadfastness, when sickness is the trial.

Yet there is also the separate problem, afflicting sick and well alike. The word “heal” actually appears in the next verse, 5:16: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

The unconfessed sin we harbor against one another itself constitutes a malady, and one that might reach deeper than the bodily illness.

[31 Days of James]

Let Yes Be Yes


“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”— James 5:12

From time to time, a person promising to do something will append the promise with, “You have my word.” When I hear this, I wonder: Does that mean I do not have your word anytime you leave off that last part?

[31 Days of James]

The Prophets


“My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience.”—James 5:10

We have it easier than the prophets did.

They suffered and withstood trials so they could predict what they would not live to see.

When we suffer and withstand trials, we are able to stand upon the victory that has already been accomplished.

[31 Days of James]

How the Farmer Waits


“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain.”—James 5:7

Here is a return to the point of the letter and the reason James wrote it. The victory has been won, so why are we still here? The apparent answer is that Christ has a purpose for this world and a role for us to play within it. You have work to do—but not “work” the way you or I are tempted to understand it.

“Be patient,” says James. He does not say, Put your back into it. Nor does he say, Be quick about what God commands you to do. “Be patient” is precisely the opposite of this.

I’ve argued in these posts that James’ reference to our being “justified by works” is not a description of earning God’s grace by effort, which we cannot hope to do. The fuller context of James’ letter makes this clear.

James 5:7 is part of this context. We struggle in this world, as preceding passages in James make clear. But as we do, we are also the means and material of God’s kingdom advancing. The analogy James offers is that of a farmer. The “good works” out of redeemed and sanctified lives grow up as the fruit grows up from the soil.

There is no forcing it. The fruit doesn’t grow because the farmer wills it to ripen. The fruit doesn’t grow according to the farmer’s direction or timetable. Yet still the farmer is there, patiently tending the ground.

That patience is trust in what will come. The kingdom coming through you, the unique and special fruit of the life that you have cultivated by faith, arises naturally—arises out of grace. In fact, the time of your trials might be the most fertile time of all, the very season in which this fruit is spreading its roots deep.

[31 Days of James]

If the Lord Wills


“You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’”—James 4:15

People who say “God willing” tend to be bracing for impact when they say it. They are allowing for something freakish to happen, some collision with peril akin to being struck by a meteor. This is generally the sense of “I’ll see you tomorrow, Joe—God willing!”

To gravely shade one's plans with a proviso in this way is to obey the letter of James 4:15, yet still to miss the promise in this verse. “You boast in your arrogance,” says James 4:16. That arrogance is the belief that your plans are best, and if those plans are waylaid, then something bad must have happened.

What if joy happens? What if your plans to do this or that are waylaid because, somewhere along the way, God shows you a way that is better than your plans? We all should hope for this.

[31 Days of James]

Vapor


“...you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”— James 4:14

You are a mist. The trap that keeps people from the liberty of eternal life is the folly of treating the life in this world as if it is eternal.

We make life heavy by acting as if we will always have the life we do.

We make ponderous plans because we think we have to guard this grave life against its becoming tarnished by the stain of failure—as though that stain is somehow permanent.

Life is a vapor. Yes, that means it might drift or disperse at any time. But there's more to see in the image of the vapor than just this. Life is also lighter than air.

[31 Days of James]

One Lawgiver


I have a heart that points fingers.

In my thoughts, in my feelings, I waste emotional energy believing I am not only able to identify, but also entitled to resent, those people who are wrong. Certainly, there is truth to be found. But in place of my continuing to seek after it, I settle into regarding my own personal preference as a seat of authority. From this seat, I determine who is wrong in what they advocate or wrong in what they pursue.

Strangely, I am most likely to point this secret finger of my authority against those whose beliefs are very near to my own, those who also place their faith in a risen and redeeming Christ. I inwardly grimace toward people because of some nuanced detail of disagreement within the faith that we share.

Stupid.

At best, I know what walk God has given to me. At best, I know what God has given me to follow in, given me to overcome, given me to do and pursue, and given me in the form of a garden for me to tend or a role for me to play. I say “at best” about knowing all of these things, because it is a stretch to say I know even this much for sure.

Certainly I know hardly any of this about someone else.

And if I claim that I do know this, then I am God. It’s that plain. “Who are you to judge another?” says James 4:12. “There is one lawgiver,” one judge. If I am judging, then I must be him.

[31 Days of James]

Lifted


The first instruction in James was, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (1:2). That advice still seems strange.

I’m not naturally inclined to equate joy with “trials.” Most of us aren’t. We tend instead to equate joy with happiness. Indeed, our everyday language treats these two words as meaning the same thing.

Yet joy and happiness are actually quite different—and the difference is more than just nuance or degree. “Happiness” is satisfaction or thriving derived out of the experience of this world. Approval, laughter, riches, and success all feed it. By contrast, “joy,” being an attribute of the spirit (see Galatians 5:22), does not require these things. It can follow a counterintuitive path.

“Let your laughter be turned to mourning,” James says. Let your joy be turned to gloom (4:9).

That is, trust your joy. Trust it enough to allow it to flow into gloom. Do not seek trials for their own sake (the advice is not masochistic), but look for the renewal of joy within the trials that do come. The wilderness is uncomfortable, but it is a place of searching. Our trials constitute a wilderness in which there is less happiness to distract us from joy.

The notion still seems strange. James’ letter provides more detail. In fact, this far into the letter, we have now tracked the transformation. Look here:

1. We seek joy in trials (James 1:2).

2. Trials offer a way to wisdom (1:3-5).

3. Wisdom produces humility (3:13).

4. The humble receive grace (4:6) and are lifted by God (4:10).

The resurrection does not explicitly appear in James’ letter. Yet the progression above outlines a course of personal rebirth. We die into humility within this life, and we are raised up into joy.

[31 Days of James]

Let Your Laughter Be Turned to Mourning


“Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”—James 4:9

Laughter is frequently the refuge of the haughty and proud. I laugh because I’ve grown a thick skin. I’ve grown a thick skin by becoming callous about my own brokenness and the concerns of other people.

This is the laughter that needs to cease and the thick skin that needs to be pierced. The physical body grows thick skin—calluses—as a means of protection. But my soul no longer requires such protection. I am safe in entering sorrow—safe even in confronting the dark or petty aspects of my own self—because the defeat of death means that mourning will no longer have the last word. Laughter can turn to mourning because rich and pure laughter, the laughter of love instead of fear, will win in the end. Joy can turn to gloom because joy will always come back.

There is mourning, but then there is morning.

[31 Days of James]

Draw Near


James 4:8: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” What a marvelous promise.

Jesus said to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Try doing this literally. Try to take whatever it is you do that you believe draws you nearer to God, and make this the very first thing you do every day.

When I do this, I find God returning the consideration. I seek the realm of God in the morning, and through peace and grace, he makes his presence known within the tiny realm of Pete throughout the day.

[31 Days of James]

Submit to God


The turning point of James’ letter is verse 4:6. James writes of humility by humbly yielding the stage, citing more ancient scripture than his own in order to make his vital point. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” he says—quoting Proverbs 3:34.

To get us to this point, here are the way stations that the letter of James has passed. The letter says a great deal that is not included in the sketch below, but here is the shape of the letter so far:

We experience trials. Through belief, we’ll outlast. (1:2-21)

But there is something more than mere outlasting. Is there not a purpose for the renewed life we’ve been given within this world? (1:22-25)

Some of the good we can do is plain. Take care of the vulnerable (1:26-27). Don’t take up the world’s way of ranking people by rich and poor (2:1-7).

But there is more still—more that you will do....

Not “being good” by obeying all of the religious rules. That leads to harshness. (2:8-13)

Not “believing” in God in only an abstract way. God is real, and your faith will have a real effect. (2:14-26)

Not being quick to tell others what to do. We barely know this about ourselves. (2:27-4:5)

No, you surrender all that. Submit to God, says James 4:7.

All of the following are forms of pride: That I imagine I am finished because I follow the rules ... that I think my belief does not have to touch my life in a way that you can see ... that I presume to instruct without my own self being changed. All of this is pride—stones in the dam that blocks off grace.

James is a letter about doing, about “works.” Yet it is not me alone who can choose or realize the fullness of the works God had in mind when he made me.

My role is to be humble. My role sometimes is to wait. My role is to seek God, to seek his will, to recognize his way of patient love and fruitful joy, and to see the stones of pride removed so that the work of grace can be released to flow out through me.

[31 Days of James]

Grace


“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”—James 4:6

Grace = God’s forgiveness, his guidance through a confusing world, and his accompaniment and protection within this world, among other blessings.

Pride keeps me from all of the above. Pride tells me the selfish things I do are reasonable and don’t have to be forgiven. Pride tells me I can make my own way in the world because I already have the way figured out. Pride also tells me the hope of protection is pointless, because I have resolved instead just to quake with worry over whatever perils I perceive.

Sometimes, because of pride, I am brought down low. My pride produces a painful failure. When this happens, often it is God giving me a gift by bringing something foolish to an end. The defeat of folly gives me a fresh opportunity to choose humility, and humility is the way to grace.

[31 Days of James]

What Do You Actually Want?


“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”—James 4:1

Andy Stanley wrote a wonderful book about the care and management of the human heart called It Came from Within. In it, he says that whenever he would catch his young sons fighting, he would break it up by saying, “You know why you’re fighting? Because someone here is not getting what they want!” Taking the time to confess and describe what it is we actually want can have a seemingly mystical power to defuse a quarrel.

Often, we don’t even know. The combatant has to think about the question. That is because we feel a lack before we understand it. We shirk from searching for the meaning of the feeling, because we fear our desires won’t be heard or fulfilled—leaving us feeling even worse. It’s strange, but the result is that we tend to fight first, before even taking the time to squarely face and describe what it is we feel we are missing.

[31 Days of James]

Envy and Self-Seeking


“For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”—James 3:16.

Self-seeking: I want more so that I can have more and occupy a higher place above other people.

Envy: I despise another because that person has something tangible or intangible that I think ought to belong to me.

Both of these attitudes put me on the throne. The object of my emotions and the energy of my thinking is me.

Letting go of the focus on me does not mean I allow myself to be disregarded or lost. To the contrary, letting go of the focus on me is a logical response to the realization that I already have everything.

Life is eternal. One implication of this is that I am not going to miss out on anything. As life goes on, I’ll experience more and more of the life that is greater than this world.

Thus, the James verse above suggests the key to having life fall into place. Turn attention toward seeking the source of this eternal life, and confusion is replaced by simplicity. Turn attention to believing in this gift more fully, and “every evil thing” has a way of fading toward insignificance—replaced by the fruitfulness that grows out of faith.

[31 Days of James]

Show by Good Conduct


“Let not many of you become teachers,” said James.

Several lines later, he gives the alternative: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom” (3:13).

I am writing a blog. Lately I’ve been posting to the Internet every day.

Yet the truest and most meaningful lessons come from those who post to reality every day. That is, those who allow their faith to become works—to become real—by means of the brave choices they make in their day-to-day lives and the humble service they provide.

The one who lives well in this way, without ever seeking to be seen as an instructor, has a way of instructing and persuading people to a fuller extent than the self-declared teacher or blogger ever might.

[31 Days of James]

Rahab


Rahab was pursuing her own self-interest. This makes her one of the most fascinating heroes (or heroines) of the Bible. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, chapter 11, various Old Testament figures are cited as examples of faith. By comparison, the letter of James passes over nearly all of this list to highlight the two figures that James apparently sees as being the most significant to his point. They are Abraham, the patriarch, and Rahab, the prostitute (James 2:25). In Rahab’s case, the strength of her faith was seen not in any outpouring of worship, service, or sacrifice, but instead in the fact that she was willing to trade on what she had come to believe. She was willing to stake what was dear to her upon her belief about God.

Rahab’s story is in the Old Testament book of Joshua. God had promised the Israelites that they would take the city of Jericho. Rahab, an inhabitant of Jericho, believed this was true. She could not explain the advancing success of the Israelites in any other way except that their God was real and their God was with them. Therefore, she made her choice. When Israelite spies came to reconnoiter the city, she hid them. She lied to the king to cover for them. In return, she sought and obtained from the Israelites a promise that her family, her parents and siblings, would be spared.

Pause for a moment upon this concern for her family. It seems reasonable to guess that this very concern might explain her prostitution, might explain why she was stuck in this life. Jericho’s king was clearly aware of her (Joshua 2:3). Perhaps submitting to an upper-class clientele was the one means Rahab had found for obtaining a comfortable income for the support of the ones she cherished.

But then these spies came. The will of God came. In response, we do not see Rahab glorifying God with any expression of worship, nor do we see her donating money or supplies to the cause. If she did these things, they are not recorded. What we do see is her faith. With clear eyes, she took her real-world personal interests and she aligned them with what she had come to recognize as true.

For this, she was honored. The Israelites spared her and her family, just as they had promised, but they did even more than this. They gave her a place among them from that day forward (Joshua 6:25). Today, Rahab is cited in three New Testament books.

In fact, her exerting a faith this strong—strong enough to stake what she cared about upon it—led Rahab into blessings far beyond what she had sought. It led her to freedom. Rahab’s once seemingly inescapable life as a prostitute came to an end, replaced by a home and a people. She became a wife. She became a mother. These developments are not recounted in scripture, but we know of them because of one of those New Testament references. In the genealogical citation of Matthew 1:5, we learn that Rahab was a many-times great grandmother to Jesus.

[31 Days of James]

God and Reality


Those who first believed were not persuaded by a doctrine. The doctrine had not been documented.

Those who first believed were persuaded by an event. Jesus rose and hundreds saw it.

Many who heard this news (most who heard it?) still were not convinced. Yes, God is great, they said, but in the end, certain things don’t change. People stay dead.

In other words, reality is bigger than God.

The persuaded—the believers—were the ones who couldn’t escape the nagging conviction that went: You know what? God is bigger than reality.

And by overriding death, God had just demonstrated that very point.

Death is reality’s most basic thing, but God is more basic still.

God is bigger than reality.

Carry that point one step further, and you have the letter of James. In essence, James says, If God is bigger than reality, then this should affect how you engage with reality. How you live your life should change.

James doesn’t mention the resurrection. He doesn’t have to—it was the most immediate thing on believers’ minds. It was why and what they believed. Instead, James starts from there. He picks up the question, Now what?

At its heart, the letter of James could be summarized this way:

The resurrection has implications.

[31 Days of James]

Faith and Works III


[Faith and Works I is here and II is here.]

James: “A man is justified by works, and not by faith only”—James 2:24.

Paul: “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith”—Galatians 2:16.

Is there a contradiction between these two verses?

No.

Though the choice of one word happens to be identical, the “works” of James’ argument are not the same as the “works” in the point that Paul is making. In fact, the “works” of James are the opposite of the “works of the law” that Paul argues against.

Paul’s argument about the “works of the law” could apply to all of the religious or churchy things I do in the hope of earning God’s favor. As Paul makes clear, these works don’t work.

By contrast, James’ “works” include the personal changes and outward choices that arise naturally—gracefully—because of my belief that God’s favor has already been won, and has been given to me for free. Believing I have this favor, I can stand upon it and start to walk in it. My faith will go to work.

(PS. These two men, James and Paul, deserve the space in which to develop their arguments. It is not splitting hairs to allow that the same word might point to two different things within their different contexts. To read how Jesus used the word “works,” see John 14:12.)

[31 Days of James]

Faith and Works II


We are justified by faith and not by works.

Translation: We are made right with God and restored into an abundant relationship with him not by anything any of us can do to earn this favor, but simply by believing in the love and accepting the gift that he offered through Jesus Christ.

Beautiful. Christians do well to guard this principle, which offers a defense against every bully demanding that salvation requires some special act or sacrifice that you or I do not feel called to perform.

For this reason, the letter of James can seem off-putting when James says, “Faith without works is dead” and “A man is justified by works and not by faith only.”

Yet what James is really advocating is the “law of liberty” (James 1:25). That liberty, that freedom, will automatically entail the freedom to do something—likely a different, special something in the case of every one of us.

Another way of expressing James’ point is that faith is for real. If my faith does not produce a change in my “real” life, then it must that be I still see God, and his liberty, as being less real than this life.

[31 Days of James]

Faith and Works


“Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”—James 2:18.

Faith is belief in something transformational. Life overcomes death. Eternity overcomes finiteness. God rules the world and overrules its priorities. To have faith produce no transformation, no outward change in the way this life is lived, is effectively equivalent to having no faith at all.

As James notes, even those opposed to God show an outward effect. “The demons believe—and shudder!” (2:19).

As James also notes, Abraham in the book of Genesis was counted as righteous because of his faith (2:23). However, on the day when Abraham thought that he would have to sacrifice his son, that very faith played out in the form of obedience.

When James writes that faith is completed by “works,” he is not saying that there is any special work to be done to earn your place or prove your faith to God or anyone else. In fact, James is arguing the mirror image of this idea. Rather than works proving faith, faith manifests as works. James’ point is that faith plays out.

Faith, embraced and believed, naturally produces the way forward into some new, personal change that the lack of this faith would never have permitted.

Perhaps you have seen faith play out in this way for you, within your own life. Perhaps you are still seeing faith play out within your life today....

[31 Days of James]

Praying with Skin in the Game


Is God my errand boy? I have been guilty of treating him this way in prayer. I pray about a problem that someone has brought to me not as the greatest measure of my commitment to the matter, but as the least measure of my commitment to it.

In my castoff prayer, it is as if I say, I’m not sure how much I care about this problem, God, but I am willing to mutter an appeal to you and see if you care.

James 2:16 has a picture of this. The believer expresses an appeal that a neighbor would be fed and clothed, but then doesn’t give the person food and clothing.

The sincere prayer puts skin in the game—or heart in the game. In every prayer I pray, what if I appended the following idea? What if I said: And if I am to be the instrument of answering this very prayer, God, then I am willing to go....

[31 Days of James]

Faith


“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?”— James 2:14

Plenty of seemingly thoughtful words are spent on the question of whether God exists. However, answering the question is meaningless if it is strictly a thoughtful exercise. As James points out, even the demons believe to this extent (2:19). If God does exist, then God is by definition the most important thing in the universe. Seeking God is therefore more meaningful than seeking anything else. I can claim to have faith in God, but a true faith will make its claim on me. The power of this faith is seen in the action or effect, such as personal change, that arises from confronting the universe’s most important thing.

[31 Days of James]

Rich in Faith


“Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?”—James 2:5

The rich person has a real problem. And by “rich person,” I mean me—an example of someone who lives a comfortable, modern American life of material excess.

The problem is this: While the poor person of faith often has little choice but to rely on and draw upon that faith, the rich person has the more seductive choice of falling back on his own resources. But where faith aims toward something eternal, these resources are inherently vulnerable. Sensing this vulnerability, I am inclined to act callously in defense of what I possess (James 2:6). I am prone to regard the Lord casually in my swagger (2:7).

An answer to that problem is found in somehow embracing an obvious truth—namely, that this life is as fleeting as that of a wildflower (1:10). Whether I admit it or not, “The rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business” (1:11).

Are there any of us who have ever “gone about business” who do not recognize this? We turn corners in our thoughts sometimes to catch an awareness of exactly what this fading away feels like.

[31 Days of James]

Partiality


“[When] you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves and become judges...?”— James 2:3-4

The world treats the rich differently than it does the poor. That was true in James’ time and it is true now. While those who are well off in the modern world are not typically domineering over those who are not, people do tend to be deferential to those they see as wealthier than themselves, and are sometimes patronizing to those they see as having less. Rich and poor alike get trained by this, with the former becoming confident and the latter becoming insecure. As a result, while we might not wish to treat people differently based on their material circumstances, we end up doing so just by unconsciously responding to people’s own cues.

The best defense against this partiality is to be aware of it. With each new individual you meet, it might take at least a moment’s prayerful pause to avoid picking up and carrying on the world’s tired and unfair assumptions about that person. This is true even when the meeting takes place in church.

[31 Days of James]

Keep Oneself Unspotted


“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”—James 1:27

Unpacking that verse:

“...to visit....”

Go personally. Send yourself.

“...orphans and widows....”

That is, the most vulnerable—the ones who are easily overlooked because their connections are gone.

“...in their trouble....”

See and appreciate their own personal struggles, not the ones we expect them to have.

“...to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

This last part follows from all of the above. If I am strong, then by carrying my strength to others, I can keep it from being covered over in callousness.

[31 Days of James]

This One Will Be Blessed


“But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.”— James 1:25

In my book, I talk about the “zeroth commandment,” the promise of freedom that precedes the Ten Commandments. In the verse above, that promise is fulfilled. Christ’s payment means that the possibility of being condemned for not obeying the Ten Commandments is now gone. Yet the possibility of blessing remains.

God’s law is now a teacher. In the context of what James calls the “law of liberty,” the Ten Commandments are not a bludgeon with which to hammer ourselves or anyone else. The teaching is purely a gift. If I treasure this gift enough to try to practice it, then I anchor the words in my heart and make them real in my life. Through action of this sort, we reshape ourselves into channels of blessing—becoming recipients of blessing as well as instruments of blessing to others.

[31 Days of James]

Liberty



“He who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it ... this one will be blessed in what he does.”—James 1:25

Liberty is useless unless I take up that liberty to do something—something I otherwise felt I could not or should not do.

Life wins. Death has been overcome. Yet if I remain in every way as constrained as I was before I believed in the victory, then it must be that I do not really believe in that victory at all.

Consider that “belief” is never mentioned in the verse out of James quoted above. It doesn’t need to be mentioned. Where the promise is freedom, the extent of my belief is seen in whether or not I act free.

[31 Days of James]

Doers


“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”— James 1:22

When you do things, why do you do them? There is some philosophy or value system that guides your actions, whether you are aware of that system or not. You and I listen to many ideas, but there are only certain ones that each of us reveres as true.

Matthew’s gospel gives an account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. During this time, Jesus listened to the devil. He listened well enough to be able to understand the other’s arguments and refute them (Matthew 4:3-10).

In this encounter, Jesus was a hearer of temptation, but not a doer. The lesson in this is that “hearing,” by itself, is not enough. On the one hand, my hearing temptation is not enough to condemn me, but on the other hand, merely giving respectful attention to scripture or the trappings of faith is not enough to transform me.

Either way, I first have to agree. What I accept as true will be revealed in what I do.

[31 Days of James]

The Implanted Word


The essential insight of Christian faith is that death has been defeated—your death and mine. The challenge is to set aside our pride sufficiently to accept the gift of life and begin again.

Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The second of those two conditions might be hardest. Yes, there is a God, one might say—and yes, in some abstract way, Jesus revealed him. Accepting this construct, it’s possible to say that Jesus is Lord and agree in principle with nearly any believer who says the same thing.

But do you believe that the gospel story is so relevant—and do you believe that you are so valuable—that God placed the defeat of death right into the midst of history, right into the midst of human events, so you could know you are saved and know you need not be troubled by the trials of this passing life?

“Receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls,” says James 1:21. Jesus went into the depth of the tomb in the same way that he goes into the depths of our hearts. The implanted word germinates within those depths, then flowers out.

[31 Days of James]

A Kind of Firstfruits


When we pray the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” what are we really praying for?

If his kingdom is the ethereal realm we imagine when we picture heaven, then his kingdom is a place. It is located on the other side of whatever border separates it from us in the geography of God. Is his kingdom this stationary and this remote?

No, we are of heaven. James 1:18 says, “He brought us forth [to] be a kind of firstfruits.” As we turn in submission to the way that Jesus led, we become agents of heaven on earth. As the authority of pride declines in each of our lives, heaven's agency increases.

We are heaven. When we ask for God’s kingdom to come, part of what we are asking is for God’s kingdom to come more fully through us—to win out against our will to belong to the earth instead. Heaven is a place, but it’s also an allegiance, a conviction, a people. Heaven is what we become part of, here on earth, by taking a stand for heaven’s love within this world.

[31 Days of James]

Every Good Gift


“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”— James 1:17

What if every good gift was not from above, not from God? Where instead would you look for the source?

Answer: You would look in the world. Good gifts come from this world, you would think. Plenty of other people have plenty of good gifts. I am in this world, too—so where are the rest of my good gifts? Where are those things that I feel like I deserve?

When I fail to recognize that every good thing comes from God, I fail also to recognize that no good thing is mundane. God did not promise any particular comfort within our brief time in this world. He does not promise riches, attainment, validation, health, success, security, etc.—even though many people have and take for granted each of these things.

When we see that he is the source of all blessings, we begin to glimpse the abundance of blessings he has poured into each of our lives. In trying to count how many good things have come to me, I come to humility, lost before the uncountable number of times the Lord has remembered me.

[31 Days of James]

First Things First


The very first chapter of the very first document of the New Testament puts two false ideas to rest at once. James chapter 1 refutes the idea that God’s blessing ought to take the form of wealth or comfort. James chapter 1 also refutes the idea that you have displeased God if you do not have these things. Just the opposite might be true. Before even reaching the midpoint of this first chapter, both of these seductive lies are done for.

[31 Days of James]

Wisdom


How do we get wisdom? James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Reading this verse by itself, one could get the impression that God just spoons the wisdom into our minds.

But when the verse is read in context, the complete passage suggests a particular means by which God imparts this wisdom. Verses 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, and 1:6 all refer to trials. Why wouldn’t verse 1:5 relate to the same theme? God might give us knowledge through our meditation and study, but he gives us wisdom by tempering us with personal difficulties. During the times of these difficulties, trust that you are receiving this wisdom and do not turn away (1:6-7).

[31 Days of James]

Count It All Joy


James 1:2 says, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” That sounds like a strange way to think about trials.

To be sure, you do not experience trials as joy. You’re no masochist. Our trials are trying, our pains are painful, and the verse does not say otherwise.

However, something big has changed. One of the most immediate implications of what was demonstrated with the resurrection is that your troubles can only go so far. Life is eternal. Death, which is the worst trouble and the wellspring of all trouble, has been revealed to be finite. Death is limited. That means your troubles are even more limited still.

Thus, every sorrow and every pain will sooner or later come to an end—perhaps in this world, perhaps beyond it. Either way, you will stand on the other side of that trial experiencing the joy of being done with it, the joy of again being completely you, albeit now with the added understanding of knowing all of what that trial consisted of and what your getting through it was really about.

Jesus said we would suffer in this world (John 16:33), so the fact that we do suffer is no surprise. And a line of scripture offering joy is no remedy—no switch by which the pain of our hurts can be shut off.

But do recognize the profound inversion that has now turned things right-way-up. Philosophers ask for the meaning of life. That question amounts to mere whistling in the dark. Jesus answered the real question: the meaning of death. Death and its associated miseries and troubles have been revealed to be only a blight, only a shadow, only a stain that will wash away. Death can never reach as far as life will reach. Therefore, the way forward is always and necessarily the way toward joy.

[31 Days of James]

Greetings


“James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the 12 tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.”—James 1:1

James is the get-to-the-point apostle. Elaborate salutations are a hallmark of Paul’s letters. James simply begins with “Greetings.” A letter he helped to write within the book of Acts begins the same way (Acts 15:23).

A man of the Jewish tradition who had seen the resurrected Christ, James was writing to others who shared his heart or were feeling their hearts pulled as his was. This is a letter to the believers and searchers in general—though written so early that it wasn’t even clear yet what it would mean for Gentiles to become Christians. The letter’s opening addresses the 12 tribes, which was the full breadth of the context for the church he knew at that time.

Throughout that church, what was on the minds of the people?

In such a general letter, presumably James would give attention to what he saw as the most common, pressing, and universal spiritual questions. If so, take a good look at the questions he starts with. See how well the concerns and struggles of first-century Christians still resemble the concerns and struggles that privately face us 2,000 years later. In the earliest lines of his letter, James picks up these points:

1. If Jesus saved us, what did he save us into? In my new life, I still have troubles. What does this mean? (James 1:2)

2. Even within the church, some people are rich and some are poor. What should I think about this? (1:9-10)

3. Though I have obtained forgiveness, I still am drawn to sin. How is this happening? (1:13-14)

All of these questions address matters from which we might prefer to look away, so as not to risk tarnishing the specialness of the life of faith. Yet James did not see any of these questions as matters to be avoided. He brought these questions right into the open, right away.

[31 Days of James]

Holiness


I am not always lit up with joy or driven by purpose. I descend into dark episodes of resentment, dejection, anxiety, or sloth—even though I believe that death itself, which is at the root of these things, has been beaten for all time. I am thus this weird hybrid creature—half spirit and half flesh. Jesus Christ came into my life to transform me, but he left me this way. Why? And how am I to live?

The early church, the first believers, learned from direct experience that the world was not going to end soon after the life of Jesus. They learned this by seeing the years pass. These people shared the knowledge that Christ had risen, that reality itself had been transformed. However, reality was then (strangely?) left alone to play out further. The world that had been changed was still left spinning on its axis.

God changes us but leaves us in this life. God fills us but also leaves us in our circumstances, leaves us in our roles, in our bodies, and even in our pain. Clearly, he has a continued plan for the world, and a purpose for your place within it.

The early church that had seen the resurrected Jesus come and go must certainly have been wondering what came next, what they were to do. How should they understand their place in the world and how should they answer the confusion, struggle, and suffering they still faced? How now should they live?

These were important questions. These were valid questions. And around 45 A.D., the answers started to come. Starting with James, the New Testament began to be written.

James, in fact, addresses these questions head-on. If one word summarizes this letter, that word is “holiness.” The letter is about what it looks like to live a set-apart, sanctified life—doing so not as an angelic abstraction, but as a real person in the real world. In this real world, we have real troubles. James gets right into this with the second sentence of his letter, setting out to convey the radical and even crazy change in viewpoint that the defeat of death now makes available.

“Consider it joy,” he is now able to say, “when you face trials of various kinds....”

[Coming: 31 Days of James]

James 0


The Bible is not necessary for Christian faith. The New Testament was written to people who already had Christian faith. The gospels, the accounts of Jesus’ life, were written decades after the events they describe. Even the letter of James, the earliest New Testament text, came several years after Jesus. So what did those recipients of James’ letter believe, if they did not have the Christian Bible?

Scripture actually answers this. Paul, toward the end of one of his letters to the believers in Corinth, took his audience back to the first principles they shared. His letter reminds them of the good news he received and passed onto them, point by point. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, he wrote:

I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over 500 brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles.

This is what Paul received, the first creed. This was the faith he accepted and transmitted. In the attempt to explore the first flowering of Christian scripture by reading James, this creed therefore represents an important starting point. If you will, this creed is James chapter 0. It was the assumption so fundamental to the New Testament audience that the first New Testament letter did not mention it.

That’s not to say that this is all the first believers knew. Jesus’ life and teachings were in the air and under discussion. Likely there were even some initial written accounts that no longer survive. But the people then could only have had very different levels of access to this information. Direct eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus knew a great deal, while far-removed believers knew little. That was OK, said Paul. Only a few elements are vital.

To paraphrase Paul’s passage above, those key elements are:

1. Christ died for your sins.

2. He was buried.

3. He was raised.

4. His death and resurrection unfolded as the Old Testament foretold; and

5. His return to life was a real historical event that real people saw.

That’s it. Just this much comprises the starting premise. To know just this much is to have enough equipment to set out, to begin a walk of faith. James takes it from there.

[Coming: 31 Days of James]

Jesus’ Kid Brother


Jesus had a kid brother.

He appears outside the Bible. Ancient reporters including Josephus and Hegesippus mention him as a leader of the early Christian church. Paul’s letter to the Galatians mentions him the same way (Galatians 1:19 and 2:9).

The Bible gives only piecemeal details about his personal story, but just those details are enough to outline a powerful narrative:

1. James was one of several kid brothers to Jesus—Matthew 13:55.

2. While Jesus was preaching, James didn’t believe his message—John 7:5.

3. But something changed. We later see James praying among the believers—Acts 1:14.

What changed? Paul makes clear what the moment must have been. In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul reports that Jesus appeared to James personally after Jesus had died, after he had risen from his grave.

In fact, in Paul’s list of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, only two witnesses are mentioned by name. Along with James, Peter (Cephas) also had a personal visit.

Later, these two men would both make important beginnings. Peter preached the first Christian sermon—in Acts chapter 2.

And James wrote the first New Testament text.

I am about to begin something different on this blog. Throughout October, I hope to devote daily posts to that very text—the letter of James. As I describe here, this concise letter provides an apt point of entry into the Bible, albeit an unusual one. I plan to begin 31 Days of James on Monday, October 1.

More Than Rules


Don’t worship other gods.

Don’t worship earthly things.

Treat God’s name reverently.

Work six days; keep the seventh holy.

Be humble toward your parents.

Don’t murder.

Don’t commit adultery.

Don’t steal.

Don’t slander.

Don’t resent others for what they have.

Those are the Ten Commandments as typically understood—a list of rules. The paraphrase above is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far.

The actual text of the Ten Commandments appears in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Read either passage. The difference between the paraphrase above and the richness of the biblical text is the additional meaning that the fuller text contains. The context of this text provides more meaning still. The book I wrote explores the simple proposition that the Ten Commandments, the words God singled out for inscription in stone, have even more to say to us than the list of rules we usually see.

If you search the Web for content on the Ten Commandments, you find plenty of impugning directed at this text. The critique that the Ten Commandments are out of step with the times is as old as the Bible itself. Yet, as I describe in my book’s first chapter (available here), one of the commandments—the fourth—is actually more poignant and relevant today than it would have seemed to its original hearers. Criticism of the Ten Commandments practically always addresses the rules list above, giving little attention (let alone wonder) to the fuller biblical text. Those who oppose the text often don’t take the risk of reading it thoughtfully.

On this blog, I am about to start a new project—a month of appreciating the letter of James. One of this letter’s phrases is the “law of liberty.” That liberty applies directly to the Ten Commandments, because those who have this liberty need not have their spirits burdened by rules. This is equally true whether the burden takes the form of obeying the rules or bristling against them. Instead, there is another way, a more innocent way, a way of faith and freedom—the way of a child, said Jesus in Matthew 19. A rich, joyful understanding can grow up out of the liberty to see the Ten Commandments—to see this ancient text—not as a set of shackles, but as a teacher.

The Divine Eye Roll


One of the mechanisms of healing that God has woven into the world is generational. The conflicts that separate people sometimes dissolve because the children of the adversaries take no interest in the matter of pride under contention. This sort of indifference is a blessing, and we should pray for more of it.

Try to remember that the next time a child rolls her eyes at you or says, “Whatever.”

You are actually witnessing an instrument of peace, one of the means (though maybe not in that very instant) by which reconciliation comes....

Thank You


Thank you. Things are gelling. The number of people engaged with this blog (via email, Facebook, RSS) is more than I might have expected when I began less than a year ago. I couldn’t be more grateful.

You might not think I mean you when I say “thank you,” but I do. When you entered your email address or clicked on “like,” I noticed. The vote in favor of these writings was a blessing to me. The encouragement meant more than you know.

I’d like to give away some copies of the book. Please email me the postal address of someone you'd like to see receive this book as a gift. I will include a note saying the gift is from you. Or, if you don’t have the book yourself and would like to send me your own mailing address, that works too—please do so.

I am looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you again.

31 Days of James


Here is a seemingly strange starting point for reading the Bible: Begin with the letter of James.

The reason this letter might seem strange as a starting point is because James comes so late in the Bible. It’s not a gospel. It’s not from Paul. This letter is so far back in the book, it feels like an appendix.

Yet the texts of the Bible were not arranged in the order in which they were written. James—Jesus’ brother—wrote what is likely to be the earliest New Testament text.

As a result, if you are not all that familiar with the contents of the New Testament, then you are in good company in reading James. Its original recipients were not all that familiar with the New Testament, either. It hadn’t been written yet.

If you are familiar with the Bible, try setting that familiarity aside. Try to imagine you don’t have the later texts—no gospels, no Pauline epistles. Try to treasure this one brief letter from James the way its first recipients did: as a document remarkably dense in spiritual substance, and just possibly as the beginning of something new.

Soon, I’m going to try something. I hope you’ll join me, and I’d welcome your help.

Starting October 1, I plan to spend one month offering daily blog posts on ideas out of the letter of James. Set aside 10 minutes or so per day for a month of exploring this text. Consider reading this little letter for yourself between now and then.

Please also help this writing find others. The daily posts begin in October, and I’ll offer some preliminary thoughts in September. If you know someone who might be interested in this walk through James, I would be honored and grateful if you would encourage them to subscribe to this blog by email or like these postings on Facebook.

Thank you!

[A postscript added much later: The 31 days are now done. Find links to all of the James blog posts on this page.]

Trinity


Isaac Newton rejected and argued against the Christian idea of the Trinity. This fascinates me. That particular facet of Newton’s life and belief came out in a biography I just read, Isaac Newton by James Gleick.

We have this popular picture of Newton’s physics describing a mechanical universe and the physics of Einstein, among others, describing a quantum-mechanical universe whose rules are more subjective and strange. The picture is partly right. To say that the physics of Einstein overthrew the physics of Newton goes too far, because Newton’s description of a universe in which time, space, and force are discretely measurable quantities was essential to provide context for what Einstein found. However, Einstein’s quantum-physics discoveries opened the door to finding whorls of wonder at the interstices of the more Newtonian picture of a clockwork world.

Of the two, we tend to marvel at physics more directly because of Einstein. The reality that results from his revelations includes strangenesses that playfully stretch the mind. Space bends in ways we can’t see, as we are bent along with it. Time dilates, and is experienced differently by different observers. Light is both a particle and a wave. Certain aspects of reality do not assume their properties until we look to see what those properties are.

The idea of the Trinity says that God is a person, but more than that, that God is three persons in one. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all different realities of God expressing the role of Godhood in different ways that scripture portrays, yet all of these realities are also God—of whom there is only one. Embracing this seeming paradox is another case of playfully stretching the mind, offering an example of the kind of intellectual joy that the Christian way affords.

In fact, there is no paradox at all in the notion of the Trinity. The challenge lies in recognizing how big God is, and how far above creation he stands. If God created everything, then God also created “oneness” and “threeness.” As the creator who has authority over these concepts, God does not have to be bound by them. Logically, the ruler of “oneness” and “threeness” can elect to be both one and three at the same time.

Newton, a man endowed by God with a special mind able to see the mechanisms in creation in ways that had never been explained before, certainly can be excused for not caring to accept the Trinity. He did not yet possess the cosmology that conditioned later explorers to more readily embrace the weird.

For me, the challenge of the idea of the Trinity is comforting specifically because of its challenge. We find that the picture of the creator that emerges from 2,000-year-old scripture is at least as rich and exciting as what we can discover about the universe that this creator created.

Scripture


What is scripture? Among other things, it’s food. Second Timothy 3:16 says scripture is breathed by God. Genesis 2:7 says human beings are breathed by God. Just as our biological bodies need biological matter for sustenance, the breath of the divine within us needs sustenance that is comprised of the breath of the divine.

In my book, I stated that one activity that perhaps naturally should be part of a Sabbath day is reading scripture. I feel as though this might be the most invisible line I wrote. The church-attending Christian who reads that statement might say, “Yeah—I know I should read the Bible.” The non-Christian who reads it might say, “Yeah—I know you people read the Bible.”

In my life, one constant has been books. I love books, love the sharing of mind and the fellowship of ideas that books make possible. I read a lot of books. From that perspective, let me offer a view on what makes the anthology we call “the Bible” very different from other books, modern or ancient. It is this: Other books have a floor, a point where I know I have plumbed the depth of all the author has to say. With some books, it can take careful reading to reach this floor, but the floor is there. With the Bible, I have never reached this floor. I re-read and reflect further, and I discover yet more relevance and meaning.

The Bible was not dictated by God. It doesn’t make that claim. The Bible is the light of God refracted in various ways as it shined through the differently shaped lenses of different human writers over time. When we give humble attention to the study of scripture, we are looking back through those lenses in search of that light.

Last week, I felt a familiar undertow of anxiety, and for the first time ever, I knew immediately what I was missing—what I had gone too long without. I sat down with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians for 45 minutes or so, and let myself do nothing but think about what it means. The light of this study spread through my mind and through my day, and changed things.

You won’t feel an appetite. That is the difference between spiritual and biological sustenance. Go without biological food, and you will develop a strong hunger. Go without spiritual food, and your spirit will simply go dormant. When this happens, your emotions and your force of will try to shoulder the weight that your spirit ought to carry instead. The inability of emotions and will to adequately manage this weight describes most of the problems in the modern world today.

Permission


In chapter 5 of Luke's gospel, there is a scene where Jesus helps Simon Peter catch a whole lot of fish. Simon had just spent a disappointing night on the lake. Jesus told him to push back out, go to the deep water, and let down his nets. Simon did, and the haul was huge.

What was going on here? Our inference is that Jesus produced the haul directly, but this is not stated. What if Jesus instead gave permission?

Imagine this:

Jesus, while watching from the shore, noticed a part of the water where the fishermen didn't go. He had noticed it on other nights before this one. He had even asked Simon about it, without being satisfied by the response.

Why did no one fish there? Perhaps because it was such deep water. Casting about with nets in that area was too much effort with too little hope of gain, Simon might have said—having long since become convinced that any smart fisherman knows better than to go there.

In other words, what if this story is not about Jesus’ ability, but Simon’s limitation?

We all carry so-called “knowledge” of this sort that keeps us trapped. We live in a world that was carved up by others before we set out into it, and we accept their prodding about the ways to move through it. We fear the exclusion or rejection that might come from choosing a different way. Simon might have been willing to be a less-effective fisherman for the sake of being an acceptable fisherman.

But then things change. Something happens, something shifts somewhereso that the merely human rules are revealed to be no longer true. In fact, this always happens. This world is ever in flux, and only the Creator is on the cutting edge. As a result, the ones nearest the Creator’s work will always risk looking like fools, until the old and tired rules are seen for what they are.

"God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise," wrote Paul in First Corinthians.

What did Jesus give to Simon on the lake? I am only speculating, only painting a picture. But I can imagine Jesus noticing the slight way Simon glanced through a tense expression toward that one area of the lake. Jesus said to him, Go. He said to Simon that the best part of his heart knew something better about the lake than what the habits of other fishermen were telling him.

Eventually, Simon Peter would follow his heart much farther—all the way to apostleship, all the way to leadership and martyrdom.

In giving permission, Jesus validated Simon. In validating this man, Jesus began to unlock his power.

Blessings Go Bad


Blessings go bad. Certainly not all of them do this, but many blessings have a lifespan, an expiration date.

Or maybe it’s more true to say that we go bad. We cling to the blessing tightly enough to strangle it, fearing to trust that the lack addressed by this blessing has now been fully and finally answered.

A person saved from drowning does not have to keep wearing the life preserver on dry land. A person mended through surgery does not have to make a home in the hospital room, turning a place of recovery into a place of captivity.

God began the Ten Commandments with an introductory statement, a declaration of the kind of God he is. In the book, I call this the “zeroth commandment,” and I devote a chapter to exploring it. God announces himself as one who sets captives free. In his declaration, the freedom God cited to Moses and his people was freedom from a blessing.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” said God in Exodus 20:2. The Israelites had been in Egypt because God delivered them there to save them from a famine. The book of Genesis tells this story. Once fed, they could have left. Instead, they stayed—eventually becoming slaves.

How many of the burdens in our own lives are like this? How many are good things that have grown confining or wearying because their season has passed?

When Jesus healed an invalid, he told the man to carry the mat he had been laying on, but he also told the man to get up and walk (John 5:8). That is: Carry your gratitude with you and the memory of what God has done, but don't linger—move. Strike out upon the liberation God has provided.

Use the blessing. Build upon it, pass it on, leave it behind... and in this way, discover the full measure of that blessing’s value.

Feeling Big or Living Large


Why do we not confront our fears? Sometimes it’s not because we feel too small. More often, it’s because we feel too big.

We pitch our tents and set up our lives far, far away from what we’re afraid of. We do this because of how big we want to feel. We don’t want to feel like someone who gets scared. I don’t.

Facing the fear means leaving the tent, walking over to where the fear is, and staring at it directly. To do only this much is scary, because I know where this will lead. I will discover that the worst-case scenario I have been dreading is, in fact, survivable. I will discover that what I have really been afraid of is that I might be embarrassed, or seem foolish, or fail, or have it publicly revealed that my heart has something tender and personal within it. I am scared to find out how tiny the things are that scare me.

Seeing this fills in some of the meaning of the line near the beginning of Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (v. 1:7). If a fear directs your choice, then you are subservient to that fear. Your experience and the scope of your awareness are limited by what that fear says. God will not hold you back this way. God, unlike other objects of fear, is not a bully who will play upon the awe we feel when at last we take him seriously.

Allow this awe, this awareness of the power and presence of God, to stand in the place of fearing small things. This is the way to live large instead of feeling big. To be great, place what is greatest at the head of your fears.

Giving


A couple of weeks ago, I was contemplating an act of giving, an idea that had come into my heart. I was in the process of thinking that the idea was too extravagant, too unnecessary—in short, talking myself out of it—when a friend stopped by to deliver dinner.

My wife was sick at the time. She’s better now—but on that night, this friend thought that providing our dinner would help our evening go easier. Just like that, she showed up with this gift, while I happened to be in the midst of a thought about giving.

And in my own internal response, I saw a glimpse of the larger reason for why we give. The effect goes beyond the recipient. The act of giving is able to tip scales, to propel love forward, and to reshape decisions to an extent that surpasses what the giver is able to know. Because of the way it affirms and uplifts human beings, because of the way it awakens them from out of their guardedness, selfless giving is probably the greatest power that we humans are given to deploy.

Second Best (or Not?)


The Apostle Paul wrote letters reluctantly. He communicated this way when he needed to, but his letters are full of statements about how he would rather be with the recipients himself—preaching the gospel and sharing encouragement in person. His letters are full of his hopes that he would travel to the recipient soon, as if the letter was only a down payment, only a temporary concession to distance.

Yet these letters are now Paul’s farthest-reaching legacy. They make up much of the New Testament, and they give us words we can share for comprehending the profundity of faith in Christ.

Even Paul could not imagine the full unfolding of the purpose God had for him. When Paul was doing what he thought was second-best, that’s when God was really using him.

Quotation Marks


Originally written as a series of tweets:

Quotation marks were invented around 1700. The Bible was written without them. All quote marks were added later.

Look at Genesis 12:1-3, God’s promise to Abram. Abram obeyed the command to leave his native land, setting out for distant Canaan.

But what did Abram hear and when did he hear it? We see quote marks and we assume a literal utterance. We assume a current conversation.

Remove the quotation marks and the matter is much less clear.

Genesis 12:1 begins, “Now the Lord had said to Abram....” The past perfect tense, “had,” indicates time had passed since God spoke.

Maybe a lot of time? God might have spoken to Abram slowly. Abram’s understanding might have come gradually.

The Bible says he was 75 when he said Yes and set out. What if he heard back when he was 25?

Maybe Abram spent 50 years trying to figure things out, trying to live his own way, trying to be successful in other people’s eyes.

Finally he became weary enough to give in. “OK OK, God. Let’s try this crazy thing that I have always felt like you’re asking me to do.”

Within your own life, do not demand that God must speak inside of quotation marks. This is a way to hide, a way to make yourself deaf.

Are you waiting for God to speak? Perhaps he has. Maybe he spoke with such devoted slowness that one sentence took years to fill your heart.

Maybe the longing that never quite leaves you is the whisper that has waited for you to listen.

Work


Not only does the Book of Exodus give us the Ten Commandments, it also includes the Bible’s earliest reference to a person being filled with the Spirit of God. (I am grateful to Richard Foster’s Steams of Living Water, a wonderful book, for making me aware of this detail.)

A man named Bezalel was the one about whom God said, “Look, I have filled him with God’s Spirit” in Exodus 31:3.

Why do this? To what end? Even after this filling, Bezalel was no mystic, no orator, no miracle-worker, no champion. Bezalel was a craftsman.

Specifically, he was appointed by God to work metal, cut stone, and carve wood. See Exodus 31:4-5.

That means scripture’s first reference to the Holy Spirit working through a man is a reference to a tradesman applying his mind, skills, strength, and tools to make something of material value.

Our productive abilities are gifts, and our skills are divine. Our work is holy. Both our jobs and our art are sacred—if we choose to see them that way.

Jesus was a carpenter.  This would seem to be the model for the significance of our earthly work, except there is a model for this significance that is even greater and even more basic than Jesus’ example. In Genesis 1, the creation story, we see a maker doing material work.

In the sequence that Genesis 1 describes, God made day and night, then the sky, then the land and sea, then vegetation, and so on. At every step, God took hold of worldly matter and he crafted it into something better than it was.

The work was worthy even to God himself. According to Genesis, he kept on pausing (Genesis 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, and so on) in order to notice that the work was good.

You and I still live within that same material world. More, you and I work here. We are called to keep on adding value to the world, arguably as part of that same creation process that now continues under human stewardship.

And as we remain true to this work, as we continue in it according to the opportunities and gifts we are given, I don’t doubt that we still give God pause.

Presumably, God still responds to worthy work the way he has responded from the beginning. He notices the work done with love and devotion, and he sees that it is good.

Reality


Is God real? Part of me tries to answer that question with reference to my little life. The divine realm seems insubstantial, distant, ethereal. When I pray to be saved from car trouble and I am saved from car trouble, the happiness I feel is a product of relief. God did this "real" thing, so I am reassured that he is real.

However: Am I real? Arguably, I am the insubstantial one. I am a cloud. So are you. This is a physical fact—the nucleus of any atom that composes one of us is minuscule, while its electrons, relatively speaking, orbit far away from it. There is nothing in between the two. As a result, if you could take a pointer as tiny as an electron and point it at any part of your body, that pointer would almost certainly point at nothing. It would point to a spot of emptiness that bears no indication of you.

Meanwhile, we are just as absent within large-scale measurements. Take the sweep of time from beginning to end. Take the span of space within reach of our telescopes. My life, including the impact of my life, is so tiny as to have no measurable reality within either of these contexts.

Jesus said the meek will inherit the earth. The meekness of appreciating our own minuteness and insubstantiality is a prerequisite for understanding the world as it truly is. If I am "real," as I like to imagine myself to be, then God must be hyper-real. He is the possessor of ultimate reality—the reality more real than me, more real than the earth I stand on. I come closer to God, closer to peace, when I see my life as a vapor that will melt away in the presence of his reality.

About Time


The sixth commandment speaks against murder. Jesus said we violate it by committing murder in our hearts (Matthew 5:22).

The seventh commandment speaks against adultery. Jesus said we violate this by committing adultery in our hearts (Matthew 5:28).

The ninth commandment speaks against slander. Could it be that this commandment, too, reaches deeper than what I say or do? I break the ninth commandment whenever I commit my thoughts and emotion to an unfounded conclusion about someone, even if I restrain myself against speaking that conclusion aloud.

The text of the ninth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Adults translate this commandment to children as, “You shall not lie.” I think that translation lacks something significant. The easier way to slander someone is not to lie, but to tell the truth about them. That is, we tell a selective version of the truth that emphasizes the incendiary facts while ignoring perspective and context. When I slander someone in my thoughts, I do exactly this same thing. In my indignation, I focus on the one or two facts I find objectionable, without giving any space in my mind to the competing facts that might provide balance or allow this person a defense.

The remedy is to seek the fuller truth. Yes, this person said X against something that I hold dear. But did he really mean to imply all that I took from his statement? Yes, that person did Y, which caused me to suffer a problem. But did she have any idea that this would be the effect, or did she have any reasonable choice other than what she did?

Viewed this way, the ninth commandment is seen to be a commandment about time. There is no way to understand someone—let alone love that person—unless you are willing to give time to that pursuit. Relationships are built up through many moments together, and the essential ingredient of all of those moments is time.

Notice that the ninth commandment lines up with the fourth commandment when the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are placed side-by-side. If the first tablet has commandments 1 through 5 and the second tablet has commandments 6 through 10, then commandments 4 and 9 are side-by-side. The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Thus, time is the current that runs through both commands. The ninth commandment says give time to people, as the fourth commandment says give time to God.

Accessible to Kids


Children have an affinity for rules. They want to obey, even if they struggle to do so. More, they want to take possession of the world they inhabit by mastering its ways and boundaries. They want to take possession of themselves in the same way.

The Ten Commandments speak to this. The biblical text is perhaps surprisingly accessible to children (provided one or two of the commands are interpreted for them). The text is also interesting to children to an extent that can be fascinating to experience.

My family experienced this again this week when we read aloud Bobbie Frazier’s new book, Dalton Discovers the Ten Commandments. The book tells the story of an angel named Homer teaching a boy about the commandments through object lessons from a young boy’s life. The book seems to have been written precisely at the level of my younger child, who tracked with one chapter after another and volunteered the implications she saw for her own five-year-old life.

As an aside, I think children also have an affinity for the idea of divine counsel. The story’s use of an angel was a welcome element for my daughter. The presence of an angel invisibly instructing the boy seemed to strike her as comfortably familiar and unquestionably true.

No to Woe

Originally appeared as a series of tweets:

1 Cor 9:16 really speaks to me.

1 Cor 9:16 says, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” Those are Paul’s words.

Paul is saying he has it in him to preach, to be an apostle. The Spirit was leading him to this. A pressure within was pushing him to this.

There was no explanation other than that -- no tidy account of Paul’s mission that could fit snugly within the plans of other people.

“Woe,” said Paul. Woe if he tried to ignore what was in him. Woe if he tried to curtail it, just for the sake of making sense.

Another word for this woe is -- are you ready for this? -- happiness.

Paul would’ve been happy sometimes if he stayed at home. Cozy, with time speeding by. It’s just that his soul would have been dim.

His soul would have been dim with wondering... What about this pressure I’m pushing down? What about this light I’m keeping covered up?

Thoreau wrote about the woe. He said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Paul traded up. Paul said, I’ll let go of the safety of making sense and having people pat me on the head. Paul chose joy.

Happiness and joy are different. Happiness fades. Joy builds. It is an outflow of the eternal Spirit of God. See Gal 5:22.

To follow God, Paul said no to woe. To know joy, Paul said yes to the way God made him, yes to the part made for him in God’s plan.

It didn’t all make sense. Paul couldn’t know the whole plan. But it was an adventure! And his soul was no longer dim. He blessed us all.

Stop making sense.

Stop trying to fit the episodes of your adventure into a plan so small that you can explain it all.

Where is the pressure inside of you pushing? (Forget the pressure on the outside for now.)

What is the direction in which you find yourself thinking less about happiness, because you’re busy encountering joy?

Write your own 1 Cor 9:16. Keep at it until true. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” said Paul. And woe to you if you do not ... ??