In the last post we looked at James 1:9 and his command for the suffering Christian to take comfort and boast in the good news of the Gospel.
Now we keep going to the next verse. James turns to the Christian who is rich and experiencing the fullness of life and he tells them take comfort and to boast in their humiliation.
“let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation”
What is he talking about, boasting in our “humiliation”?
James is telling those Christians whose lives are full of good things to internalize the bad news of the gospel.
This can be confusing since the word Gospel literally means “Good news.” In ancient times it was a report of victory or of a new turn of events. It was often posted in a public place for all to see or it was heralded by a town crier. “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!” But every time in the New Testament where people share the good news of Jesus we see it included within itself a message of bad news as well.
The Gospel says- “God has done all that is necessary to forgive your sins!” But what is the bad news carried within that statement? The bad news is that you and I had sins that needed to be forgiven. We were needy sinners. Or as Joseph Hart describes us in his 1759 Hymn, we were “sinners poor and needy weak and wounded sick and sore”
Or take John 3:16 for instance. It says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The implicit bad news in here is that you and I were perishing.
It is this kernel of bad news that is the backdrop to every gospel proclamation. And it is this bad news that we are told to boast in when life is rich.
The rich should exalt in their humiliation.
What does that mean?
Were you always part of the in crowd, were you always picked first for the team, do you have money in the bank, a roof over your head? Do you have food in the fridge and a paycheck that comes like clockwork? Is there some level that you have experienced luxury, ease, or success?
Then, exalt, find joy in, smile because of the bad news of the gospel that you are a finite sinner and without God you are nothing.
We need both the good news and the bad news to keep our feet on the ground and to keep us stable amidst the ups and downs of life. This is especially true for American Christians.
In June of 2013 Forbes published an article on this topic called “Astonishing Numbers: America's Poor Still Live Better Than Most Of The Rest Of Humanity” The author tells us, “Even if you’re stuck in the bottom 5% of the US income distribution your standard of living is about equal to that of the top 5% of people in India… The poor in the US are richer than around 70% of all the people extant.”
I think James’ command to the brother or sister in rich circumstances definitely applies to American Christians and I know it applies to me.
Here is the Bad News of the Gospel we should be remembering:
• We were born as sinners in need of grace
“For I was born a sinner—
yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.” Psalm 51:5
• Our righteous acts are like filthy rags
“We are all infected and impure with sin.
When we display our righteous deeds,
they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
and our sins sweep us away like the wind.” Isaiah 64:6
• We were dead in our sin
“Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God
All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.” Ephesians 2
• We all fall short
“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23
• We have made many mistakes
“Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.” James 3:2
• Our wealth is a gift from God
“ never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’
Remember the LORD your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath.” Deuteronomy 8:17-18
• We can’t take anything with us
“So don’t be dismayed when the wicked grow rich
and their homes become ever more splendid.
For when they die, they take nothing with them.
Their wealth will not follow them into the grave.” Psalm 49:16-17
“God gives some people great wealth and honor and everything they could ever want, but then he doesn't give them the chance to enjoy these things. They die, and someone else, even a stranger, ends up enjoying their wealth! This is meaningless—a sickening tragedy.” Ecclesiastes 6:2
• Our life is but a vapor-
“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heart and withers the grass; its flower falls and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade in the midst of his pursuits.” James 1:9-11
These are the humbling truths James wants us to boast in when we are full and life is rich. They keep our feet on the ground and the help protect us from pride and self-righteousness.
Realizing that life is but a vapor made an impact on the famous Russian author Tolstoy. In his book “Confession” he tells about how he wrestled with these ideas.
“There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes s twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them.
So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. And this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all.
• The deception of the joys of life which formerly allayed my terror of the dragon now no longer deceived me. No matter how often I may be told, "You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live," I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.”
Even though Tolstoy had written arguably the world’s most recognized novel he was still humbled by the inevitability of death waiting like a dragon for him at the bottom of the well. His wealth and success could not save him, just as our wealth and success cannot save us. We too will fade like a flower of the field.
As Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, “You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet.”
So what are the implications for us?
As a Christian, you must remember:
You have money but your money doesn't have you.
You make money. But your money does not make you. God is your maker
What if you live in the most expensive zip code?
Do you need to move?
Maybe you are called to “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33)
Or maybe you are called to use those possessions as a way to serve God.
You will have to pray it through.
This is for sure though, when you boast in the bad news it frees you up to see your house as just as house.
It gives you power to open your home to others.
-To invite neighbors over for meals.
-To house foreign missionaries on furlough.
-To let that estranged husband or wife sleep in your extra bedroom.
-To host children through safe families.
-To become a foster parent or to adopt a child.
This all comes from the power of boasting in the Bad news.
What if you have a nice car,
Do you need to sell it?
I know a homeless mom sleeping in a shelter with two kids taking the bus everyday to work who would be blessed to have it. You get joy from driving it around. What kind of joy would you experience if you went up to somebody and just gave them the keys.
Or maybe not. You will have to pray it through.
But this is for sure. Boasting in the Bad News reminds you that your identity is not in your car. It frees you to use that car as a way to serve others and serve God.
-Offering to help people when they have to move
-Driving neighbor kids to and from school
-Loaning it to friends who are struggling
What if you like going out for nice meals or staying in nice vacations resorts,
Do you need to stop?
Maybe you are called to sacrifice those luxuries and spend that money on helping a homeless family get stabilized.
Or maybe not, you will have to pray it through.
But this is for sure, when you go to that restaurant or you go to that hotel, boasting in the Bad News of the gospel will help you see that that bus boy is your equal. It will help you remember that the person holding the door for you is your fellow human, and that your waitress is just as precious to God as you are. Boasting in the Bad news helps you see that your money is just money. It enables you to tip in a gospel way showing undeserved generosity to the people who are working for and serving you. I guarantee you will have more fun on your vacation, and your meal will be more memorable.
Try reading Luke 16:9-13.
What if you aren't 'rich' and can't make ends meet??
This is for sure, everyone who is reading this can afford to sponsor a kid with World Vision or Compassion International. Drink a little less coffee, get a smaller data package and put aside that $34 a month that it takes to bless someone half way around the world. When you boast in the bad news these kinds of things are the result.
According to Rich Stearns
“The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. (That’s more than $5,000 billion.) It would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest 1 billion people out of extreme poverty. Said another way, American Christians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control about half of global Christian wealth; a lack of money is not our problem. "
(The Hole in Our Gospel, p.216)
We don’t want to become like Oscar Schindler who finished his life and was filled with regret. He was a business man during World War 2 who intentionally employed Jewish people to save them from the Nazi’s. He sacrificed money and risked his life so that others could live. And yet at the end of Spielberg’s award winning movie Schlinder has regret that he did not do more.
Schlinder: I could have got more. I could have got more, I don't know. If I just...I could have got more.
Stern: Oskar, there are 1,100 people who are alive because of you. Look at them.
Schlinder: If I had made more money. I threw away so much money. [laughs, then gets teary-eyed] You have no idea. If I just...
Stern: There will be generations because of you.
Schlinder: I didn't do enough.
Stern: You did so much.
Schlinder: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin...two people. This is gold. Two people. He would have given me two more, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern, for this. [starts crying] I could have got one more person, and I didn't! I -- I -- I -- I didn't!
How can we make sure we do not reach the end of our short life in a similar way?
I think the answer is clear and it is found in 2 Corinthians 8:9 where Paul writes,
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." - 2 Corinthians 8:9
When we look at Jesus and we see the riches he left in heaven for the poverty and emptiness of the cross, it restructures the motives and priorities of our hearts. He did that for you. Can you see how he went even further than Schlinder? He did not just risk his life, he gave his life, so that we could be spared.
Can you see how in his death he solved Tolstoy’s despair? He went to the bottom of the well and was devoured by the dragon. And yet, when death devoured Jesus, he came out on top. Jesus’ death was the end of death. He went to the bottom of the grave and punched a hole out the other side. So now we do not need to fear how short our life is. It does not need to fill us with despair. Instead the bad news of the gospel steers us back into to a life of meaning and purpose serving others with our many riches.
“With man this is impossible but with God all things are possible”