"So," they say, "nobody's perfect!"
But the Vinedresser won't buy that.
Given the opportunity, He will trim the unproductive suckers and shape the branches so each one will bask in Sonlight.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Who Is Wise?

        The worst thing a preacher can do—the quickest way to get fired—is to "preach at" individual congregants' wrongdoing, especially those of the more tenured saints. On the other hand, Jesus' brother James—Ya'aqov in Hebrew—stood out from his brethren by living an entirely sanctified, righteous life. His community revered him as "James the Just." And other sources call him, in Hebrew, "Ya'aqov the Sadiq," or James the Brother. We can tell by the contents of James' letter that he didn't mind crossing the "saints" who had become smug and judgmental due to their position within the church, as the following excerpt attests.
13Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

15Such 'wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.

16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
(James 3:13-17 NIV)
        Wisdom and understanding are noble pursuits. Most of us will readily admit we possess far too little of those characteristics. And the ones who won't admit those shortcomings? Well, we just relegate them to the loony bin with all the other self-deluded wackos.
        There has to be some way of discerning the higher qualities in those we encounter, other than taking their word for it. The first direct product of wisdom that James mentions is a life of good works done in humility. Of course, discerning the works of those we don't know well can be a dicey proposition. And even those we think we know well can be clever enough to carry on an Academy Award Winning performance, both of good works and of humility. So there must be other ways of discerning genuine, heavenly wisdom.
        In verses 14 and 15, Ya'aqov the Lord's brother gives us the other side of the "Wisdom Equation." The "wisdom" that is not from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish, is often as hard to discern as the Gold Standard of true wisdom. Perhaps we can call it "fool's gold."
        Many who succeed in this world demonstrate that same worldly wisdom, and are proud of the bitter envy, and selfish ambition they harbor in their hearts. Others, depending upon their audience, flat-out deny the envy and ambition that fills their hearts. Oddly enough, we find blatantly religious folks in both camps. If one were to suggest to them that such worldly wisdom is carnal, unspiritual, or of the Devil, there'd be "hell to pay."
        Human affairs have always produced certain … ah … "fruit," such as vs. 16 enumerates: Such fruit looks and tastes a lot like disorder and every evil practice. The secular world's remedy of choice for this bitter fruit is regulation and control. We all know how well that works. Back in 1887, Lord Acton summed it up rather succinctly: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
        The corollary to Lord Acton's Law would be, "Laws are made to be successfully exploited by powerful men." Of course, we all know that "powerful" and "rich" are synonymous.
        One caveat is in order here: History has witnessed many wealthy people who refused to succumb to Lord Acton's Law, or, once corrupted, repented openly and liberally of their corruption. They were the philanthropists, the agents of righteous and social change, and even a few ministers who underwrote effective humanitarian and gospel works. Nowhere does the Bible say wealth is inherently sinful. But love, or even more often envy, of wealth has brought down many.
        But Ya'aqov the sadiq isn't finished with us yet. Verse 17 lists other characteristics that, if practiced successfully, guarantee the practitioner will conspicuously lack worldly power. Such things as purity, love of true inner peace, deference to others' needs, submissiveness, mercy, good fruit-bearing, impartiality and sincerity, virtually assure those who possess them of running at cross purposes with the world system.
        And the apostle's parting statement in chapter three sounds rather like a religious platitude. But listen carefully to the words and what they mean: Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

The Real vs. The Counterfeit

        Sounds so nicely passive, doesn't it. Just try it and see how easy it is. The world cries for peace, but do they really want it? No, the cost of righteousness is far too high.
        The Biblical fruit of the Spirit from Galatians chapter five sounds nice: Love-Joy-Peace-Patience-Kindness-Goodness-Faithfulness-Gentleness-Self-control. Let's all serve it up in HUGE portions. Just go out and pluck that fruit off the Tree of Life 'til the basket overflows.
        But there's one thing we harvesters must remember: The world is full of counterfeit spiritual fruit, and it is quite clever. They are infatuation instead of love, situational joy, aggressive peace-seeking, grudging tolerance instead of patience, altruism rather than kindness, and religious, Sunday-righteousness.
        And the last four are simply convincing performances of superficial goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These counterfeits are convincing enough to fool anyone, so we can't rely on our own discernment to know them. In fact, our attempts at discerning spiritual fruit can easily head us into the sin of judgmentalism. For that reason, Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.(Luke 6:37 NIV)
        So, how can we know the true fruit from the counterfeit fruit? Simple! Care for your own, and let God care for the rest.
        John the baptizer said it right. Speaking to all the religious leaders who came out to the Jordan River to make a show of righteousness, he said, Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.(Matthew 3:8 NIV)

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