The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘James

Conditional lives

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“All of this is conditional.”

So said our Prime Minister when setting out the proposals for the ending of the UK’s national lockdown. It seems like a sensible thing to say. Whether or not you like the idea of being a slave to ‘the science’, our widespread ignorance makes it at least reasonable to suggest that we can only proceed step by step, simply because we do not know what will happen when we take each step. Even a bolder and more definite plan, and even taking account of the more detailed advice that has been promised, it always has to be what is insistently called “a conditional plan.”

It is striking to see how angry and afraid people become because of this. It reminds me of a road trip to preach at a church in the Midlands many years ago. Setting out in good time, I discovered that a major motorway had been closed overnight and the re-opening had been delayed. In company with thousands of others, I queued. In company with hundreds of others, I got fed up queuing and tried to find a way around. When those hundreds of us ended up in other and worse queues, I returned to my original queue, which was still shorter. When the road opened, off we all went, most of us now late. To begin with, I had the pedal to the metal, wondering if I could still get there in time, occasionally dropping out of the fast lane to let someone past at a ridiculous rate of knots. And I noticed their faces and their driving styles. They appeared, typically, angry or scared. Their plans were in disarray. They had thought that they were in control, and now they needed to get back in control, to catch up lost time, to get a grip again on their lives. It seemed to me that they thought that they had been in charge of things, and, when things were taken out of their hands, they became deeply agitated. At some level, it was idolatry of the self. At that point, I slowed down, called ahead to say that I would be late, and drove—relatively safely and sanely—to the place where I was preaching. I arrived about thirty minutes into the service, stepping inside the door as a man was fervently pleading for the safe arrival of the preacher. His earnestness suggested that he would be the man who would have to step in if I did not arrive. His relief when he opened his eyes was palpable. I don’t know if anyone has ever been that glad to see me! But I had been taught again that I am not in control.

It is a lesson that has been pressed home again in the last few weeks. On one level, everything has fallen apart. So much that I had planned, for which I had prepared, and upon which I had presumed over the course of the coming months, now lies in ashes. The plans for the Lord’s day ministry that I had in mind, the evangelistic efforts locally, the connections and investments close at hand, all proved conditional. Next week I should have been at a conference in the UK and then one in the US. They were, it seems, eminently conditional. This week, my involvement in a European conference in the summer was tentatively cancelled, but that’s conditional on the next few weeks. Possibly rescheduling of these conferences for the future is … er … conditional upon factors outside of our control. We are looking at plans for post-lockdown church meetings. Much of it is conditional. At its most visceral, we have come again face to face with our own mortality, and with the mortality of those who are most dear to us. My life is conditional. Perhaps the fear has faded a bit, but all plans might have been ended by death. I have had to face again my utter weakness. I have been reminded—I have needed to be reminded—that I am not in control, and that God is. In fact, in that there is something quite refreshing.

You see, I spend a lot of time planning. I think efficiency is a marvellous thing. My days tend to be quite full, even if not always well-constructed and minutely-detailed. I like a bit of flex. The bigger picture tends to be, in my calendar, a rainbow-hued glory of seamless transition from place to place and task to task. In the last few weeks, I have spent at least as much time deleting and re-ordering as I have entering and scheduling.

And in that there can be a real sense of relief. The first few weeks of lockdown, everything just dropped. The schedule to which I was a self-indentured slave meant very little. There were times when I could have danced, others when I felt the responsibility for diligence with a newly-cleansed calendar. But it was not simply the absence of the demand that offered peace; for many, the fact that they were no longer in control seemed to induce fear or anger. What gave me peace was the reminder that while I am not in control, God is.

Everything I plan is always conditional. I just tend to forget that it is so. Every plan, made by every individual and institution, every prime minister, president and potentate, every governor and every government and every grunt, is conditional. The world’s plans have been brought to a standstill, or even to nothing, by a virus we can barely trace or track. We all tend to forget that it is so. James reminds us of this reality at the personal, visceral level:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (Jas 4:13–16).

sun behind cloudsWe make our plans, and we forget that even tomorrow is not guaranteed. It is not wrong to make plans, but we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” Anything else is to boast in arrogance, and all such boasting is evil. What I ought to remember is that the only words which never fall to the ground are God’s. Nothing fails of any of his plans and promises. In that true sense, nothing has fallen apart; nothing has ended prematurely; nothing has been rescheduled. Everything has worked out as the Lord God has intended. From my perspective, all has proved conditional. From the throne of heaven, all comes to pass as it was intended. God’s sovereign determinations and unconditional decrees have issued in unfailing outcomes.

If we become angry or afraid because of the conditional nature of our plans and purposes, it is because we have not reckoned with our humanity, our mortality, our feeble finitude. We are not in control. That is true in the great things of our existence, and it is true of all the minute details of our individual lives. That tends to make the self-determining heart afraid and angry, or drift into despair, or insist upon the emptiness and pointlessness of it all. But true faith faces this, and turns to God and puts all things in his hands, and hangs all our plans and purposes upon his merciful and loving designs, without fear or anger.

My times are in your hand;
My God, I wish them there;
My life, my friends, my soul I leave
Entirely to your care.

My times are in your hand;
Whatever may unfold;
Pleasing or painful, dark or bright,
All by your love controlled.

My times are in your hand;
Why should I doubt or fear?
My Father’s hand will never cause
His child a needless tear.

My times are in your hand,
Jesus, the crucified!
Those hands my cruel sins had pierced
Are now my guard and guide.

My times are in your hand,
I’ll trust abidingly;
And, after death, at your right hand
I shall forever be.

William Freeman Lloyd (with minor modernisations)

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 12 May 2020 at 12:31

Hearing and doing

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What would you think of someone who sat down to a wonderful meal, beautifully served, who smiled in appreciation, breathed deeply to draw in all the delightful aromas, applauded the service, commended the chefs, and walked away without eating a single mouthful, having nothing to digest and from which to draw nourishment?

How would you respond to a patient impressed with the insight and skill of the doctor to whom they had gone, fulsome in praise of his diagnostic penetration and grasp of the available remedies, praising his ‘bedside manner,’ appreciative of his sympathetic honesty and his compassionate care, treasuring the fact that he had prescribed a particularly profitable regimen of exercises and a particularly effective medication, without having actually observed a single step of the exercises or taken a single tablet of the prescribed cure?

In either instance, you would be justified in saying that the individuals involved had rather missed the point of the transactions in question. There is nothing inherently nourishing about being at the meal table when such a banquet is served – the food needs to be eaten and digested. There is nothing inherently life-giving about a consultation with such a doctor – the advice and the medicine need to be taken.

And yet how easy it is to adopt such an attitude with regard to the ministry of the Word of God. How easy it is to be satisfied with – even to commend ourselves for – the hearing of vigorous preaching, sitting under sermons with searching application, the reading of stirring books that call us to a life of vigorous godliness, being pastored by faithful men who deal sincerely with our souls, and being part of a church built strongly upon Scriptural foundations.

There we sit, revelling in the aromas of good spiritual food, appreciating the fine service, commending those who bring the food to us so appetisingly (especially to other people whom we believe to be sadly malnourished). But do we eat and are we nourished? We praise the skill and insight of spiritual physicians, perhaps even boasting of their gifts and graces, confident that they are prescribing spiritual medicines of the finest quality and exercises of the highest calibre. But do we take the pill and follow the counsel?

There is nothing inherently virtuous in simply being in such a place under such a ministry. To be sure, it is a good place to be. It is the right place to be. But the benefits may be all around us without ever penetrating; the blessings may make no difference to us because we do not imbibe the things taught, we are not eating and digesting the food that is served.

You may know people who have sat in such churches and received such ministry for month upon month, year upon year, even decade upon decade. Why do they still lack spiritual maturity? Why has there been so little evident progress in sanctification? Why is there still that root of bitterness? Why is there so little Christian joy? Why are they still seemingly oblivious to particular weaknesses and sins? Why are so few of the opportunities offered and duties urged being embraced?

It may be because the working assumption has been that simply being there is enough. But it is not.

James calls upon the saints to “lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1.21). Here is that truly Berean spirit (Acts 17.11) which gives a ready and humble welcome to the Word of God, desiring that it will accomplish its intended purpose and opening the door of our hearts to give it a swift and unobstructed entrance, in order that it may take root in our souls and begin to bear fruit. In order to do this, we must decisively strip off and throw away whatever remains in our hearts of ungodliness, deliberately and unstintingly rooting out the weeds of wickedness in order that the flowers of righteousness may grow, bud and bloom in our souls. Such a reception, fiercely dealing with sin and meekly embracing the truth, will be the means of our salvation as we press on toward heaven.

James then speaks to the problem that we have identified:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 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. (Jas 1.22-25)

It is not enough, says James, to pat ourselves on the back with regard to hearing. The hearing is not an end in itself, but the means to an end. We must be always putting into practice the things that we hear.

Hearing only is the attitude of the student who does turn up to his classes and lectures but is perhaps too careless, too lazy, or too arrogant to assume that he has anything that he must learn and apply. His mere presence does not guarantee any benefit from the things being taught. There may be an occasional, accidental benefit – as of one with a very picky spiritual appetite, or from a piece of food swallowed unintentionally – but there is no sustained and ready embrace of what is consistently given. It is being taught, but it is not being learned. By contrast, the doer, the worker, submits to the authority of the Word of God and grasps and carries out its requirements. He feeds upon the truth and, being nourished, becomes healthy and strong. He repeats the exercises and takes the medicine, and so sustains and increases his well-being. To hear but not to do the Word of God is self-deceit. It gives us a false estimate of ourselves; it allows us to give to ourselves (and to others) the impression that we are walking closely with God when we may not be walking with him at all, let alone following close behind (Ps 63.8). Robert Johnstone says that “to rest satisfied with the means of grace, without yielding up our heart to the power as means, so as to receive the grace and exhibit its working in our lives, is manifestly folly” (Lectures on the Epistle of James, 111). He goes on to refer to Christ’s fearful warning about the hearer only and the doer also in Matthew 7.24-27, claiming that “there is reason to fear that, with great numbers of professing Christians in all sections of the church – persons who attend the house of God, listen with a fair measure of diligence to the proclamation of truth, and, it may be, in intercourse with their friend rather love to talk of sermons and ministers and orthodoxy – this is all; whilst yet they are impressed with the conviction that they are certainly Christians, – nay, perhaps singularly excellent Christians , – forgetting that any degree of religious profession, where the heart is destitute of the love of God, and the life not consecrated to His service, is in His sight utter mockery” (112).

James uses an illustration to drive home this point about hearing and doing. The one who merely hears is like someone who looks briefly and carelessly into a mirror. The mirror gives him something of an accurate reflection of his face but he gives no thought and makes no response to it. It is, perhaps, a passing glance, and he quickly forgets what he has seen. That brief glimpse of reality has no penetrating influence and makes no lasting change upon him: he derives no benefit from the perspective he was granted. The one who actually does is like someone who peers carefully into the mirror and who responds to the dirt and disorder that it reveals, enabling the viewer to correct what is ugly or uglifying and to cultivate true beauty. The reality that he accurately perceives in the mirror has an effect upon him and he acts in accordance with it: he derives lasting benefit from the perspective he was granted.

The Word of God is the mirror: it shows us what is presently wrong and what may be made right. Here, if we take time to consider the truth, we perceive the “perfect law of liberty” and – if we act in accordance with what we see – we will indeed reap the intended benefits in the things that we do, in the demonstrable pursuit of true religion in the salvation of our souls, the day-by-day application of Christianity in the great and small things of life.

James addresses three specific areas in which the hearing must translate to doing if the one professing Christ as Lord and Saviour is not to be self-deceived: the control of the tongue, the care of the needy, the keeping from the world. Have you heard sermons that deal with these directly, or at least touch on them? Has your tongue been reined in, your hand liberated, and your conscience bound? Have your words become purer, your hand freer, and your heart cleaner, as the truth of God has been preached? Think of the last sermon you heard. Was it a brief glimpse into your soul which accomplished nothing more than a passing sense of sin to be dealt with and grace to be cultivated? Can you even remember the applications and exhortations made? Are you making evident progress in response to the Word of God which you hear read and preached and applied?

Perhaps there has been an occasional, temporary response. You have come to the end of a book or a sermon saying, “I really must do something about this,” but the light that has entered your mind has not really penetrated to your soul, and by the time you get up from your chair or finish your journey home all the spiritual impetus has drained away. Perhaps you have been quite satisfied with the resolution to change without the reality of change. Perhaps you have been heartily glad that such applications are made and such exhortations given, but after a brief glance in the mirror you have been quickly persuaded that all is well with you, however much others are called to do. This is to hear but not to do.

How often – perhaps, more accurately, how rarely – do we go from the Word of God without a proper consideration of its application to us, and the matters of practical godliness in which it dictates to us? How grieved are our pastors that after another sermon, or series of sermons, or another conversation, or pointed exhortation privately given, or a pastoral visit to encourage or console or stir up, we are as much persuaded as ever we were that we are just where we ought to be, that he cannot possibly have meant us, and that – perhaps by very virtue of having been present when the words are spoken – we are somehow further on, or at least exonerated from the charges that were laid against others. “After all, I heard him say that it was a sin; more than that, I agreed with him!” Alas, how often do such passing glimpses into the mirror of truth produce nothing more than a self-deceiving self-commendation of the stagnant soul!

How much healthier is the trained and tender conscience that asks, “Is it I?” when the Word of God exposes sin. How much happier is the man who meditates upon the truth of God’s perfect law of liberty and brings forth fruit through pruning and nurturing, whose life is constantly being trained by the Scriptures, who eats the food before him and finds that even that which is bitter can become very sweet, who disciplines his soul to godliness even when the exercise is at first painful to the spiritual muscles, who takes his medicine and finds that his soul is made well.

Being taught and learning are two very different things. The former is necessary but it does not guarantee the latter. The mere spectator must become a true participator. The Word of God is for action rather than speculation. We must receive and obey the truth communicated to us. We must be both hearers and doers. Eat the food. Receive the counsel. Take the medicine. In so doing, you shall live.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 15 July 2011 at 17:05

Posted in Christian living

Tagged with , , ,

Godly living, James-style

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Justin Taylor and the Desiring God blog draw attention to a list of 20 resolutions drawn from the book of James, as given by Sinclair Ferguson at the latest Desiring God conference.  We might profitably go to God on the basis of number 18 (Jas 5.15) , and then set out to live a more godly life in prayerful dependence on the Spirit of the Christ.

  • James 1:5 To ask God for wisdom to speak and with a single mind
  • James 1:9-10 To boast only in exaltation in Christ, & humiliation in world
  • James 1:13 To set a watch over my mouth
  • James 1:19 To be constantly quick to hear, slow to speak
  • James 2:1-4 To learn the gospel way of speaking to poor and the rich
  • James 2:12 To speak always in the consciousness of the final judgment
  • James 2:16 To never stand on anyone’s face with my words
  • James 3:14 To never claim as reality something I do not experience
  • James 4:1 To resist quarrelsome words in order to mortify a quarrelsome heart
  • James 4:11 To never speak evil of another
  • James 4:13 To never boast in what I will accomplish
  • James 4:15 To always speak as one subject to the providences of God
  • James 5:9 To never grumble, knowing that the Judge is at the door
  • James 5:12 To never allow anything but total integrity in my speech
  • James 5:13 To speak to God in prayer whenever I suffer
  • James 5:14 To sing praises to God whenever I am cheerful
  • James 5:14 To ask for the prayers of others when I am sick
  • James 5:15 To confess it freely whenever I have failed
  • James 5:15 To pray with and for one another when I am together with others
  • James 5:19 To speak words of restoration when I see another wander

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 27 September 2008 at 10:08

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