Living Theology | James 1.9–11
Living Theology is a blog series that draws out the theological principles of each week's sermon text and thinks through how we can apply them to our personal lives. In other words, this series asks how we can live out the theology of Scripture each day.
"Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business." — James 1.9–11 (NIV)
You can listen to Pastor Brian's sermon on James 1.9–11 here.
This is a difficult passage for many of us, especially those of us who live in a wealthy, first-world society. Our situation is certainly different from that of the original audience. James is likely writing to poor believers who are being mistreated by the wealthy. There is some disagreement over whether the wealthy in this passage are also believers. They are not explicitly referred to as believers, and what James says about them seems a little harsh, but at the same time the structure of verse 9 seems to imply that the terms "in humble circumstances" and "rich" are both describing the "believers" that are mentioned. Either way, there seems to be two primary points that James is making here.
Theological Principle #1:
God will lift up believers in humble circumstances.
It's possible that when James talks about the "high position" of believers in humble circumstances, he may simply be referring to the believers' current position in Christ, which is certainly a high position. However, the word that James uses for "high position" is also translated as "exaltation." Certainly, the high position of believers is both a present and future reality. Jesus talks about the future exaltation of believers who are seen as "lowly" in the world when He is teaching His disciples about the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world:
"Jesus called them together and said, 'You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'" — Mark 10.42–45
This idea of reversal also seems to be in the background of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16.19–31. The point here seems to be that our station in this life is not eternal. This is an encouragement to those in humble circumstances, but it is a warning to the rich. If the humble circumstances of the lowly in this life are only temporary, then how much more so the wealth of the rich!
It's also important to consider what James means when he talks about taking "pride" in our circumstances. The word for taking pride can also mean bragging, and both of these ideas have a fairly negative connotation to us. But this word can also have a positive connotation depending on how it is used. This is similar to the way that Paul talks about boasting in Christ in Romans 5:
"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance."
This word can be used to mean "take pride," "boast," or "brag," but it can also mean "exult," "glory," or "be proud of." If we were to talk about being proud of our kids, it would have a very different feel than if we were boasting about our own accomplishments. The idea of boasting in our circumstances doesn't mean that we're bragging; it more likely means that we should be satisfied with where God has placed us.
Theological Principle #2:
Material wealth does not last, and it cannot save you.
James' focus is on the transitory nature not only of material things but even of our own lives. He doesn't say, "their wealth will pass away," but "they [themselves] will pass away." James will come back to this theme in chapter 4 when he says, "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4.14).
There is a striking similarity to Jesus' own words:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? . . . Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? . . . Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
— Matthew 6.25, 27, 34
Now, James is not saying that the rich cannot or will not be saved. He's not even saying that they (we) are necessarily worse people for being rich. But material wealth does provide an extra temptation and hurdle to trusting in God. With enough money, you can buy your way out of almost any situation. Furthermore, it's much easier not to worry about what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear (Matthew 6.25, 31) when you have enough money to pay for all of these things. This is one reason why Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10.25).
We have to ask ourselves whether we are trusting in God to provide for our needs or if we are trusting in our job or our savings account or our retirement account to provide for our needs. This doesn't mean that we should quit our jobs; this doesn't mean we shouldn't save money. It means that we must remember that God is the one who provides the job and the paychecks that fund our savings. And at any time, He may chose to provide more or less of that according to His good purposes. We must remember that we are not ultimately dependent on a job or paycheck or welfare or even the generosity of others; we are dependent upon our God, who provides for us through these various means.
If you were to find out tomorrow that you were being laid off or that you were losing your social security or disability insurance, it would certainly be difficult not to panic a little. But in the midst of that panic, we remember that God is our provider. We call out to Him for help, to keep us safe, to provide for our needs. And we share our needs with our brothers and sisters in Christ, whom God has provided in order to help us. When God removes a source of providence from our lives, it is not inappropriate for us to be thankful for the reminder that we depend not on the gift but on the Giver.
And we can remember the words of Jesus:
"Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! — Matthew 7.9–11
This does not mean that God will give us anything we ask Him for. It simply means that when we come to our heavenly Father with a need, He is going to provide for us.
Applying God's Truth
So how can we live out the truth of these theological principles today?
Think carefully about our own status. Would you place yourself in the category of "believers in humble circumstances" or in the category of "the rich," and why? There is probably less of a danger of us considering ourselves rich when we're actually "in humble circumstances" than there is the other way around. Surely there are certain ways that all believers are in "humble circumstances," but before we jump to the assumption that James is talking about us in verse 9, it's worth considering how we may actually be the rich in this passage.
Master your wealth (as little of it as you may have) rather than letting it master you. This may sound odd as a way to "live out the truth" of this passage, but creating a plan for your time and money and sticking to it is a great way to gain a good perspective on the wealth that we do have. Something as simple as creating a budget and using a daily calendar will give you more control over the time and money that God has given you. It's usually when we don't have a plan for these things that they tend to control our lives. If you don't have a budget and a daily schedule already, consider putting them together. Often, people feel that they actually have more time and money than they realized once they have taken control of these resources. But remember, the purpose here isn't simply to manage our time and money better (though that is a great and worthy goal). The point for the purposes of this passage is to gain a perspective on these resources so that we can learn that they are merely tools that God gives us. We are dependent on Him, not on them.
Give thanks to God even when our wealth is taken away. James says that the rich should "take pride in their humiliation." We can "take pride" even when we are humbled for the same reason that we can "consider it pure joy" when we face trials of many kinds (James 1.2). If we know that we are secure in Christ and loved by God, then we can choose to view our "losses" as opportunities for our trust in God to grow stronger and more mature.
Find ways to use our wealth to bless others. In the same way that God uses our careers and our paychecks to provide for our needs, He also intends for our wealth to be a means for blessing others around us. Do you know someone who has recently lost a job or other source of income? Maybe you can provide meals for them. This sort of sharing of needs and wealth is one of the reasons for the Deacons' Benevolence Fund and the Calvary Care Pantry at Calvary Baptist Church. Monies and items contributed to the Deacons' Benevolence Fund and the Calvary Care Pantry are used to provide for the needs of people at Calvary and in our community. If you'd like to contribute to either of these ministries, you can do so here by designating the ministry for which the donation is intended in the "Add a note" section.
Remember that God's justice will be complete when His Kingdom is fully realized. While not everyone who is poor and "lowly" in our society is mistreated and not everyone who is wealthy is unjust, it is undeniable that there is an element of injustice that does occur between some who are wealthy and some who are poor. We must remember that this will not go on forever. When Christ returns and God's Kingdom is established to its fullest extent, these injustices will be set right. In the meantime, Christians can stand up for and support the lowly and the vulnerable, and we can call out injustice regardless of its source.
[All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV.]