There’s a Better Way

As we continue in the book of James seeking practical wisdom for these
extraordinary times, I just couldn’t bring myself to portion out any part of James chapter
4. It’s “only” 17 verses, which seems like a digestible enough bite of scripture. It’s a
packed 17 verses, though, and these verses pack quite a gut punch. If you had a hard
time taking it all in as Jason read it so beautifully, feel free to pause the video and grab
your Bible, or take a look at it again later today or later in the week. Maybe give it two or
three reads. There’s a lot to take in and it’s quite convicting, as my husband rightly
noted when I read it to him. It seems as though the writer of James has quite the grasp
on human nature. When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are all of
these things…quick to dispute and stir up conflict, greedy for the things we don’t have, a
little too friendly with the ways of the world, unfaithful to God, careless with our words,
judgmental, and oh so anxious to ensure our own security. What a laundry list of human
ways of doing things. Indeed, James seems to have quite the grasp on what it means to
be so very human.

So, what’s the problem with that? The tone of this passage is kind of harsh so
there must be a problem with living our lives in very human ways. As folks who are
trying to live faithfully, seeking to follow Jesus and honor God, we have to do a good bit
of self-reflection. We have to think long and hard about the way we choose to live our
lives. We do have a choice, you see. We can choose to live in the way that we’re being
warned about here in James 4. It’s a way marked with conflict, greed, covetousness
which is a more weighty way to talk about jealousy, and relying on ourselves for security, salvation, and certainty. 

We’re told here in James that this way of living is
counter to all that God wants for us. It’s not a life-giving way of life. It’s a death dealing
way of life. Consciously or unconsciously we can choose this way that may feel
satisfying in the moment but ultimately leads us down a hard road. The alternative is to
choose a life of faithful intention. It’s a slower paced life, a less reactive life, a life
marked with humility, a life of drawing near to God. This way, James reminds us, is the
better way. It is the life-giving way.

As a kid I loved to watch the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the one
with Gene Wilder in the title role. I’m certain I read the book by Roald Dahl, as well, but
the movie really made the story come to life. If you’re familiar, at all, with the movie you
can probably remember the song the Oompa Loompa’s sang about the perils of being
greedy and doing anything to get what you want. Each child in the story, aside from
Charlie Bucket, is incredibly selfish and each comes to a sticky end. One gets stuck in a
pipe, one turns into a blueberry, one shrinks, and another goes down the garbage
chute. “Oompa Loompa Doompadee Da, If you’re not greedy, you will go far” sing the
Oompa Loompas. As I read chapter 4 in the book of James, I can almost imagine the
writer of James coming up with some version of this song. As in Roald Dahl’s story, we
are reminded that our actions have consequences.

James says that conflict in our lives is fueled by conflict within ourselves; that we
are double-minded trying to live the way of the world and the way of Christ at the same
time. Our internal desires have an impact on the way we choose to live our lives. When
we want something we don’t have, we’ll go to any lengths to get it. When we are
covetous, we go to extreme lengths to get what we want. Our nitpicking and our judgment                                                              of others often comes from a desire to have what they have and so we pick
fights and stir the pot. The judgments we make about others are often really judgments
about ourselves. And when greed is our motivator, we miss out on what God has for us
and even our prayers are motivated by greed. We can become so focused on what we
don’t have and what others do that we leave God out of our lives altogether. It’s not a
pretty picture. It’s not how we like to see ourselves and it’s certainly not how we want to
think about ourselves. I’m not like that, we think. I’m not like that, we say. {I’m not like
that, I think. I’m not like that, I say.} I don’t know about you but I want to be seen as a
good person. I want to be thought of as a good person. After all, it must be that the
world is full of good people and bad people and the distinction between the two is easy
to see. Right?

I wonder though if maybe the world is just full of people? What if, all of us, get
things wrong sometimes and get things right sometimes? What if we seek to recognize
when we make mistakes, own up to them, and then course correct? What if we seek to
recognize when we do things right and set an intention to continue on that right path?
And what if, when we stray from that path (not if), we intentionally turn back to God
again and again knowing that God is waiting for us with open arms? Perhaps then, the
conflicts within us will cease. Perhaps then, we’ll remember to whom we belong.
Perhaps then, we’ll be open to receiving grace upon grace.

The thing that we so often seek after in this life is our own safety and security.
We want a guarantee that things will go well for us. We want a guarantee that things will
be ok. And we believe that if we can get the things we want, if we can be prosperous, if
we can plan far enough ahead then we’ll have made it. Things will go our way not just
for ourselves but also for the people we love and care for and protect. We think that if
we play by all of the rules then nothing bad will happen. This kind of thinking usually
works for a time and then life comes along and that’s not what happens. We lose our job
or someone we love. We get sick or someone we love gets sick. Our hearts are broken.
Our plans fall apart. We cannot produce or think or plan our way to safety, security, and

The problem is that the world tells us that we can. The world says that we can
produce our way to safety. We can plan and save and ensure that all will be well. It’s an
enticing idea. It’s a promise the world offers to us. Against our better judgment, we
often buy into this promise. And James comes along and blows it out of the water.
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such town and
spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what
tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while
and then vanishes.” Way to take the wind out of our sails, James. There’s nothing quite
like the living, breathing word of God to remind us of our own finitude and fragility.
This week a friend told me about a mindfulness practice from another faith. In
Buddhism you’ll find something called the 5 Remembrances. “1.) I am subject to aging.
There is no way to avoid aging. 2.) I am subject to ill health. There is no way to avoid
illness. 3.) I am going to die. There is no way to avoid death. 4.) Everyone and
everything that I love will change, and I will be separated from them. 5.) My only true
possessions are my actions, and I cannot escape their consequences.” I told my friend
that the 5 Remembrances reminds me of this passage in James. These messages may
feel harsh and heavy but when we reflect on these true things we may find freedom. We
are finite and fragile. We will age. We will face obstacles. We cannot be spared from the
consequences of our actions when we act out of selfishness and greed or when we act
generously and faithfully. Things in the world and things in our lives will change. We
cannot ensure our own safety and security. But. But. But. We can draw near to God and
God will draw near to us. That is a promise worth holding. We are safe with God. We
are secure in God. We are redeemed by God. We are offered a better way of living, the
way of abundant life.

James says humility may be one of the keys for us. And while it’s certainly not a
dictionary definition of the word, my favorite way to think about humility is simply that I
don’t know everything. When we are humble, we recognize that we don’t know
everything, there is more to learn, there is more to know. When we are humble, we
recognize our own finitude and fragility. We recognize that we are mist. We recognize
that God is so much bigger than we can possibly imagine and that we can’t do anything
without God’s help, love, and presence in our lives. And in this knowledge we find
freedom and rest. When we face our own limitations, when we realize what we can’t do,
we are then free to focus on what we can. Vernon reminds the FIRL groups time and
again that “you can never be safe until you realize you’re not.” And friends, the only
place we are safe is with God.

So our striving and our conflicts and our grasping and our judging are all for
nought. They will not give us what we think we need. They will not grant us peace of
mind or a quiet soul or an abundant life. Wisdom for this extraordinary time and for all
time is that our safety and our security and the way that leads to life is found in God
alone. We focus on loving God and loving neighbor. We focus on living for God and
living for neighbor. These are our values, as people of faith. This is the orientation of our
lives and when we fall short, as we surely will, we get up, shake it off, make amends,
and draw near to God.


Rev. Alexandra Rodgers
Assoc. Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care