The following reflection is from a sermon entitled “Learning” based on James 3:13-4:3,7-8a first delivered on September 18, 1994 at Cochranton Presbyterian.
Who is wise? Where can spiritual wisdom be found? In gentleness. In simple acts of kindness. Those who lead good lives, in harmony with God, nature, neighbor, self. Wisdom is found not in great achievements, but in the lives of good men and women.
A while back, I was part of a memorial service for a woman named Lillian. She had no children. Her husband had died a year earlier. Meeting with family members, I quickly developed an image of her as someone who had no great accomplishments to her credit, but who poured her heart into all that she did. Everyone knew her as Aunt Lil. She had two great loves: her family and her church. Her walls at home were plastered with photographs of children: nieces, nephews, cousins, and neighbors. At church, she was the organist and played piano for Sunday school. Whenever there was a need for more classroom space, for teaching supplies, for childcare, you could count on Aunt Lil to give…her time, her money, and her love.
When Aunt Lil died, she left behind a legacy…not through children of her own, but through wisdom lived and passed on.
Wisdom has nothing to do with craftiness, says James. It has no envy, selfish ambition, chaos, wickedness or complexity. Spiritual wisdom is not demonstrated in the ability to get ahead, to get what you want, to deceive others. Wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, flexible, merciful, bearing good fruit. It is fair; it has integrity. Through wisdom, righteousness is sown -right things are done.
Wisdom, then, has little to do with intelligence or expertise. It is a quality of life – living in harmony with God, with others, with yourself.
James continues in Chapter 4,
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”
You may have seen the news item a while back about a young boy killed trying to resist having his Air Jordan shoes stolen. What a tragic story- a poignant illustration of what James describes. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” Most of us don’t take it to this extreme, but we all “covet something and cannot obtain it: so we engage in disputes and conflicts.”
It’s a peculiar trait in human nature. We seem to want most things we can’t have. This desire, the Bible calls coveting, can damage our faith, our relationships, and our health.
I think of the modern disease of anorexia nervosa as a painful example of this. Women are bombarded with messages that thin is attractive, that the way to beauty is through starvation diets and compulsive exercise. Some women take these messages to heart and feel ugly, fat, unwanted. They covet some ideal figure that is both unhealthy and not right for them. Their disputes and conflicts happen internally; often they smile as if everything is fine, while inside they are starving- for food, affection, and love. Only when they are able to let go of what they covet, will they allow themselves to be fed.
James then abruptly shifts in the middle of verse 2.
“You do not have, because you do not ask.”
This seems simple, but we often overlook it, or explain it away. For whatever reason, we fail to ask for what we want. We keep our desires hidden- from others, from God, sometimes even from ourselves. We don’t want to be disappointed. We’re afraid if we open up, we’re afraid we won’t get what we’ve asked for, that we’ll be left longing, looking like a fool.
This happens all the time in the church. As leaders, we sit back expecting people to come to us, to volunteer, rather than actively recruit them. We fear rejection. We’re afraid to ask someone to come to church with us because we don’t want them to say no. It’s like with dating. I remember when I first started dating, how difficult it was to ask someone out. I would start on Monday, plotting what I would say, going over it a hundred times in my head, imagining my facial expressions, what I would wear always trying to look cool. By Wednesday, this image in my head would turn to images of me stumbling over words, of me asking the question and then ramming my head against a locker door, of her laughing and saying, “You want to go out with me? You’ve gotta be joking?” By Friday, I would tell myself either she has a date by now, or I look desperate asking her at the last minute, so…I don’t ask.
It’s simple, but true, you’ve got to ask for what you want. It’s true in our relationships with each other and in our relationship with God. Ask for what you want. Express your desires. Let God respond.