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Quarrelsome Christians are not wise

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 18 Sep 2018

Lee Gatiss considers some lessons for our political and social media engagement, from this Sunday's lectionary reading on James.

The reading from James 3:13-4:8 in this coming Sunday’s Lectionary has some important things to say about our communication strategies, whether in person, in the pulpit, in print, or online. Here’s what it says:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you. You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

Unspiritual wisdom
If we lack wisdom, we are to ask God (James 1:5). Some people, however, think they are wise enough already says James. And yet their conduct, even with other Christians, is full of bitter jealousy, insatiable ambition, and unwarranted boasting. This tends to cause fights and quarrels amongst brothers whose primary thought is more prominence or more prestige for themselves. God, on the other hand, wants more of them: he yearns for our wholehearted friendship, which is only fostered by an attitude of repentant humility.

An attitude like this is difficult for those who have let their selfish desires and worldly ambitions run away with them and distract them from the way of Christ. So James concludes that the much vaunted wisdom of quarrelsome Christians is actually “earthly, unspiritual, demonic”, precisely because it is not peaceable, gentle, and merciful. Their sinful passions and propensities cannot be satisfied without attacking other people and dragging them down somehow, whereas truly spiritual wisdom (it says here) raises others up and is itself exalted by God, who gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud.

No-one in the Bible illustrates this better than Jesus himself, of course, but Moses is also said to have been the meekest and humblest man on earth (Numbers 12:3). That startling declaration comes in the middle of a story where he was being publicly undermined by his brother and sister, and yet we hear nothing of his retaliation. God himself opposed the proud, vindicating Moses and chastising Miriam in an ironic and powerfully appropriate way. What does Moses then do? Is he full of schadenfreude and gloating? No. He graciously and earnestly prays for those who stood against him.

I pray for and preach all this to myself, and I know I don’t always get it right. But let us be in no doubt: that is the kind of meekness we need in today’s church.

Contempt for courtesy
Many of us doubt the effectiveness of humility. James says that pure, impartial, and sincere wisdom leads to a harvest of righteousness rather than rivalry and discord. It puts friendship with God first, and tries to contend for him only in ways pleasing to him. Only this way of going about things will lead to the results that God himself longs to see.

Yet there are always people who scoff at the idea of courtesy and kindness in the midst of our disagreements. What is needed, they believe, is something more robust and strong. As Calvin once put it, “they who are carried away to evil speaking by the lust of slandering, have always this excuse, ‘What! can we then remove evil by our courteousness?’” And, of course, they are right that winsome, amiable engagement alone is not in and of itself sufficient. Yet the bad breath of bolshiness is so unattractive and off-putting, as the expression of our inward angsts and un-submissive hearts, that it can only please the devil who seeks to divide us.

One of our besetting sins as evangelicals is pragmatism. In his book on Graciousness, which was reviewed on the Church Society podcast yesterday, John Crotts says this: “Pragmatists justify using a harsh, aggressive, firm, and often loud tone of voice when they deal with those who disagree with them. They rationalise that their harshness lets their opponent know how serious they are about their point of view. Such contests can be won because of intimidation and submission rather than because the other person is persuaded of the disputed truth claims. Pragmatists would not want to remove harshness from their cache of weapons. But true change doesn’t come through brutal tones and language.”

I don’t think it’s just us evangelicals who sometimes slip into and justify this approach. But surely we should want to lead the way in repenting of it? It is incumbent on all of us to walk worthy of the gospel, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Meekness is not weakness

No stranger to attacks on his person and his theology, the 18th century evangelical hymn writer Augustus Montague Toplady, once said, “It is not necessary to be timid in order to be meek.” Meekness is not weakness. But neither is harshness strength. Humility seeking unity is the truly courageous path. As Calvin comments on our passage from James, “those who are wise according to God’s will, are so kind, meek, and merciful, as yet not to cover vices nor favour them; but on the contrary in such a way as to strive to correct them, and yet in a peaceable manner, that is, in moderation, so that union is preserved.” Elsewhere he also warns, however, that “courteousness should not degenerate into compliance, so as to lead us to flatter the vices of men for the sake of preserving peace” (on Romans 12:18).

So, let’s submit ourselves to God, and his judgment, asking him to give us true wisdom and understanding to strike this balance. Only then will we be less worried about what other people are thinking and saying and doing. We will also be less susceptible to impetuous and insatiable and inordinate ambitions to judge and destroy those in our way. “Those who wish to be physicians to heal vices,” said Calvin, “ought not to be executioners.”

Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society. This is an expanded version of his regular column in this week’s Church of England Newspaper.

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