The Bible is filled with paradoxes. A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory and yet is perhaps true. The Bible is filled with these kinds of statements.
When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10)
- Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt. 10:39)
- He who wants to be great must become a servant (Mark 10:43)
- Paul was sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor 6:10)
- The last will be first (Matt 20:16)
- Paul had nothing yet possessed all things (2 Cor 6:10)
- We fix our eyes on what is unseen (2 Cor 4:18)
All of these statements sound contradictory when we first hear them, but the more we think about them the more profound they become.
G. K. Chesterton gave this magnificent definition of a paradox: “a paradox is truth standing on its head shouting for attention.” Imagine a group of people standing on their head calling “Hey Look at Me!” That’s what a paradox does, it appears so crazy that we must pay attention.
Some would say that James began his letter paradoxically when he said we should be joyful in our trials. He was not saying we have to be happy about the circumstances of life. His point was that even though we hate the time of trial and difficulty, we should rejoice that these occasions provide us the opportunity to grow in faith. In other words that which is bad, is actually good.
James continues this paradoxical speaking in the next couple of verses. He tells us that those in poverty should take pride in their high position and those who are rich should take pride in their low position. In other words there is a richness in poverty and a poverty in riches.
In order to understand this we need to remember the context of this letter. James was talking to people who had been scattered most likely due to the persecution of Christians. Many of these people would have lost everything they had. They lost their homes, businesses, friendships, and most of their possessions. So James was writing to those who felt impoverished. His words encouraged the people.
An interpretive debate exists over who “the rich” are. Is James referring to the people who were oppressing the Christians, is he talking to Christians who were rich, or is he talking to any rich person? I believe there are broad principles for the rich, no matter who they are.
First, James talks to the people who had little.
THE RICHNESS OF POVERTY
The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.
“Humble circumstances” does not refer merely to not having as much money as others. It also encompasses those who are lower on the social ladder. It would include those who were discarded by the world. James talks to all who feel like “second class” people. He speaks to those with a stained past, relationship scars, financial struggles, disabilities or are the victims of prejudice because of age or race.
James told the people to look past their status in the world and focus on their status in Jesus Christ. Though in the world they may be treated as irrelevant, in terms of the gospel they were “rich in faith”. Think about it! God calls us his “treasure”. He considers us to be “kings and priests”. Angels consider it an honor to minister to our needs! We are called “joint-heirs” with Christ. There is nothing second class about our relationship with Jesus Christ!
Think about how you deal with your children. They become upset because of something their friends said or did. Perhaps they were told they were unattractive, or unintelligent or awkward, or even that they were too smart (a geek). Being accepted by your peers is so important to kids. As a parent we try to help our kids raise their sights. We tell our children that their friends are short-sighted and they put value on things that ultimately don’t matter. We remind our child that WE love them. We try to convey to them that their friends will often be fickle, but we will be constant in our love. Their friends will change over the course of time but family will remain constant. And if we are doing our job well, when we wrap our arms around our precious child we will tell them that there is someone who loves them even more than we do. We will tell them of God’s great love.
This is what James is doing. He tells these struggling believers not to worry about their net worth, their social status, or their press clippings. The opinion that matters, the security that lasts, the key to real joy is not found in the trappings of the world, it is found in our relationship with the Lord.
There is more to this passage than simply saying “people in humble circumstances should keep their heads up because God loves them”. As you read through the rest of James it is clear that James teaches that there is an advantage to being poor. Even Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor”. The advantage is found in the fact those who have little, will trust God more than they trust their stuff. This is why some of the most vibrant faith is found in third world countries where the people live in a kind of poverty of which we can’t even conceive. Vibrant faith is often found in those who have failed greatly and have come to Christ. The reason for this is because,
They put their absolute confidence in God’s grace rather than putting part of their confidence in their own goodness
- They receive God’s grace with open arms; the rich often feel they have to do something to earn this grace (which of course turns it into a wage rather than a gift).
- They turn to God FIRST when they have any need. Those with much turn first to their own devices.
- They are quick to relate to and embrace anyone. We tend to evaluate whether a person is worthy of our attention.
- They quickly give God thanks for what they have; we have a tendency to congratulate ourselves.
James says those who are poor should stop looking at their circumstance and thank God for removing the barrier of riches from their lives.
THE POVERTY OF RICHES
But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.
The word “rich” generally refers to money but can also encompass being extremely blessed in other areas such as the person who is gifted or attractive.
Remember, James is still talking to us about the trials of life. I believe he is saying something profound here . . . don’t miss it. To those who are rich he says: riches are also a trial.
When we have much we tend to trust what we have instead of trusting God. The only antidote to the seduction of the material is to continually remind ourselves that we must come to Christ with our hands open. We are saved not because of what we have . . .we are saved because of what God has done for us. We must remind ourselves that our riches add zero . . nothing . . .to our status in Christ. This is what James means when he says we should take pride in our low position . . . we must continually focus on our position in Christ.
In Jeremiah 9:23-24 we read this pertinent admonition,
This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord”
We don’t think of riches as being a trial. We look at riches as the goal, the pinnacle, that which is a sign of blessing from God. However Jesus saw it differently.
Matthew 19:23-24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
- Luke 6:24-26 But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
- Luke 16:13 No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
- Luke 6:20 “Blessed are you who are poor”
- Jesus parables often involved money (parable of the talents, the man who built bigger barns only to die, parable of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the ungrateful servant and others)
- He contrasted the rich man and Lazarus (with the rich man being the villain)
- He told the rich young ruler he had to sell all he had if he wanted to be right with God (because he was trusting in his wealth)
In the book of Proverbs we read,
Proverbs 11:28 Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf
- Prov. 13:8 The rich can pay a ransom for their lives, but the poor won’t even get threatened. (NLT)
- Prov. 18:11 The rich think of their wealth as a strong defense; they imagine it to be a high wall of safety. (NLT)
- Proverbs 23:5 In the blink of an eye wealth disappears, for it will sprout wings and fly away like an eagle. (NLT)
Is the Bible teaching us that having much is bad? No I don’t think that is the message at all. The message of the Bible is that having much is dangerous. Having much is a test. Satan will eagerly use our riches to get us to trust in ourselves rather than trusting in the Lord.
Think about the athlete who has great natural ability. Often these people fail in professional sports because they are so confident in their ability that they don’t feel they need to practice or listen to instruction from others.
The person with great intelligence often has trouble in the world because they have such confidence in their intellect, that they dismiss the wisdom and counsel of others.
It’s the same way with riches. Our abundance can control us. We start to believe that God has saved us because we are the “cream of the crop” not because He is gracious to sinful people. We can feel superior to others and at times don’t feel that others deserve to be forgiven and made new (which implies we DID deserve to be forgiven and made new). We look to the stuff we buy to find happiness. We start to trust our 401K’s for our security. We can be so enslaved to “stuff” that we have no time to serve the Lord because we have to keep working to support our lifestyle! We can even justify questionable tactics and false teaching by the fact that “God is obviously blessing” what we are doing. Isn’t it just as possible that Satan has lured us away from God by giving us much?
The solution, according to James is to take pride in our low position. We must daily remind ourselves that everything we have belongs to Him. We must use our money for His glory or it will cause us to stumble. We will end up driving to Hell in a limo!
A TRUTH WE ALL MUST FACE
James drives home his point with a truth we all must face.
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 man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
James reminds us that everything in life is temporary. James referred to a phenomenon well known to the people of his day. In Palestine it is called Sirocco. It is a blistering wind that comes off the Mediterranean. In California a similar phenomena is known as the Santa Ana winds. These winds sweep down into California with such a heat that the ground becomes so hot you cannot walk on it barefoot and if plants are not watered regularly they will quickly shrivel up and die. The Santa Ana winds are often the indirect cause of California wildfires and the primary cause of their spread.
The picture is clear: one day you have a beautiful garden, the next day it is all shriveled up! James says this is the reality of life: riches and even life itself are temporary. One minute they are here: the next it is gone. A financial downturn, a catastrophic illness, a natural disaster, or a sudden death and our riches, are gone.
Isn’t it funny that when a well-known person dies, their death is often announced with a shocked tone? It’s as if death is not supposed to happen to people who are successful in the eyes of the world. James wants us to face reality. The things of this earth are temporary and fleeting.
The question is this: For what will you live your life? For riches, titles, nice things, a comfortable retirement? These things are all temporary. James would have us live for eternity. He would have us humbly serve God with what we have.
It is tempting for most of us to dismiss this text as being irrelevant to us. That is a big mistake. We forget that we live in western affluence. Most of us have homes, running water, indoor sanitation and food to eat. We have much more than most of the world. Most of us also suffer from feeling we need more . . . if possible, much more.
The danger of this text is that we misunderstand it. James is not telling us that everything material is bad. God has given us life to enjoy. James is warning us that affluence is seductive and a common tool of the devil. It can make us selfish. I’m afraid that there are some who “serve God” not because He is God and deserves our honor and obedience; they serve Him because they believe He will further their desire for material prosperity and gain. They believe serving God is a good financial move. Such thinking is idolatry; these people are not serving God, they are serving money!
There are some valuable lessons in this text. First, you are valuable to God regardless of how the rest of the world views you. You may not have the nicest clothes. You may not drive a new car. You may not be able to put a big check in the offering plate. You may have a checkered reputation. You may not be talented in the things the world applauds. You may not turn heads with your looks. It doesn’t matter. If you are willing to turn to Christ for forgiveness and new life you are a child of God. You are loved by the Creator of the Universe. You possess an eternal inheritance. You are cherished by the Lord of the Universe. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start living like a child of the King of Kings.
Second, this text reminds us (and this lesson will be repeated in a few weeks) that we should not make a person’s income level, community status, or reputation a condition of fellowship. If a person has trusted Christ, they are our brother and sister. We like to think that we are not prejudiced along these lines . . . but most of us are. We are much more interested in associating with the popular people. We want to hang around with people who will make us look good. We are drawn to some or stay away from others because of what we think they will do for us. It is a selfish way of relating to people. This passage calls us to repent. This should be a place where people of different backgrounds are welcomed as equal members of the body of Christ. The barriers and categories that exist in relationships in the world should have no place in God’s house.
Madison Avenue wants us to believe that those who have much are valuable and special. They push us to be “winners” in the eyes of the world. By contrast, everyone else is considered to be a “loser” and considered less valuable. James is trying to get us to think differently. He wants us to see with God’s eyes.
Third, the text reminds us that trials and temptations are not confined to painful and hard things. Sometimes the most seductive temptations are about things that bring us pleasure and make us feel good.
A child predator knows that they will be much more successful luring children by speaking softly, giving compliment and offering the kids candy, toys, or other things popular with kids. Parents warn their kids not to accept anything from strangers. We teach them to be alert to dangers that masquerade as something good.
James is doing the same thing. He reminds us of yet another paradox: that which appears delightful, is often deadly. The human predator, Satan, has been seducing people away from God for a long time. If you don’t believe James, you might want to consider the story of Adam and Eve. The fruit that seemed delightful was the cause of untold misery.
Having much (like Americans do) is actually a trial. It is a test that will either cause us to focus more on our position in Christ and lead us to use what we have for His purpose, or it will draw us away from God and lead us to depend on what we have, rather on the One who gives it to us.
The world tells us the rich are blessed and the poor need to work harder. But God turns this truth upside down. In God’s eyes the poor come to God with their hands and hearts open and discover that they are accepted and loved by God. They even have an advantage in their quest to trust Christ because they don’t carry so much baggage. The rich and famous, on the other hand are actually in great danger and they face the constant battle to remember that their riches are a transitory tool and not their god. You could call it the paradox of the Christian faith.