Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Feather Duster, Discipline and Happiness, Righteousness and Trials in James 1:2-4

Feather Duster as Birthday Present
My colleagues at work think me quite mad, but then, it's probably because they haven't met James, brother of Jesus, whom I have only just encountered for the first time (James, not Jesus).

So the birthday girl's dad had requested presence not presents but if presents were to be brought to the party, then something that would help make her more sensible and godly. (As expected, a discussion ensued as to whether anything could effectively cause godliness if God was the grower of plants but ignoring picky legalists, it was thought that gifts could possibly be classified as helpful and unhelpful to the quickly (physically) growing sprout.)

Enter: pint-sized feather duster - traditionally, an instrument of service on the feathered end and an instrument of discipline on the handle end, a fitting symbol to the birthday girl* of what properly-guided growth must entail, I thought. But the colleagues were mortified. How can you give such a present?, moaned the marrieds-with-kids. Cute what, I said, look at the sweet little red plastic handle! Ah, the child will hate you forever and the parents will be insulted, they said and there was much head-shaking and sighing and hand-wringing, and people stopped by throughout the workday to dissuade "you, misguided youngster" from embarking on an action that would cause irreversible damage to existing relationships.

But that is the view of the world.

Crazy man James starts off his letter exhorting us to count it all joy, supreme joy, unmixed happiness, when we meet various trials (James 1:2). Happiness is what we all aim for in life but surely we achieve that by managing to avoid, or at least positive-thinking our way through, all sorts of struggles and difficulties. Yet, instead of problems being anathema to our happiness, James says that, in fact, no joy can be achieved without us making it through a rocky thorn-ridden path. Trudging through an unpaved, unmaintained U-road is the image of the Christian keeping a good hold on his faith, his trust in God and his word and on righteousness despite opposition and obstacle.

How does joy emerge from crisis? Why, says James, because testing of our faith produces steadfastness and when steadfastness has its full effect, we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:3-4). QED.

He's a crazy one, that James. No one wants to buy furniture that has been stress-tested by 2,000 elephants piled on top of it. Look, a retailer might gush, 2,000 elephants stacked on top of each other balanced on this humble wooden chair and not a crack! That's great, the slightly impressed customer will say, got new one anot har?

(Dick Lucas, quoting a commentator, says that the Greek meaning of the word "steadfastness" is not just standing ground under great stress; it is not a ship at anchor in a storm but that ship still making progress through the storm. It is not putting the head down and gritting the teeth and waiting for the wind blow out but continuing to make steady if slow headway in that storm!)

We tend to pray that young Christians be kept from trials and temptation so that their faith might be allowed to solidify before the winds come. On the contrary, if this young Christian is to persist and continue in Christ, his path must not be smooth and easy.

Ok, so we've persevered as a Christian for 3 years or 7 years. Maybe the first year of conversion was a bit of a honeymoon, maybe we were energetic young Christians bursting like Ribena berries, with joy and truth and trying to get everything (ourselves included) changed tomorrow. We've listened to the right speakers, we've got right leaders as our role-models, we read the Bible properly, TULIP to us is an acronym not a type of flower, we practice servant-heartedness and other-people-centredness, but then we find that growth and maturity slow to knock on the door. And then we realise that, hang on, we are stunting our growth with our inscrutable tendency to sin and donkey-headedness.

James holds up a mouthwatering description of the pin-up person a Christian wants to be: perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:4). "Perfect", biblically, meaning not morally sinless but fully mature and grown up. "Complete" referring, in the Old Testament, to a sacrifice without blemish that could be used as an offering. And "lacking nothing" meaning fully equipped. Whose hunger and thirst to be fully formed wouldn't be aroused by this? How nice to be without blemishes that marr our witness to those around us and our service to God, and how lovely to be fully-equipped to do his work to our dying breath!

Not only can we not achieve this model Christian-hood without manifold trial, says James, but holiness is not an experience we can download through right teaching and effort and standing fast alone. It is a proved character that God makes through time. So steadfastness must "have its full effect", it must be allowed to run its course, like the competent youngster at his first job must be given time to find his footing or the fictional sensible politician must be given years in office so his equally fictional sensible policies can reach fruition. The word of God and the Spirit of God will work in his time to permeate and change us within; visible results are not promised with 4 weeks of daily use.

The world says we cannot be happy if we cling to our faith in God and his laws. God is a wet blanket and rains in on everything that is fun. But in reality, joy cannot be divorced from walking in God's ways and doing what is right by God. And yummy righteousness cannot be achieved without obstacle.

The world tell us that to deal with the "stresses" of life, we need to "get away", to go on vacation, have our problems melt away at a good concert or a spa, leave them at the entrance of the movie theatre, disappear into the world of the protagonist of a good novel or the iffy Little Nyonya (and hope that the ending is a subjectively satisfactory one). But we now know better and must consider it pure joy when trials come knowing how they will prove and refine us.

And let us not be resentful of God as we might be if we have a healthy concept of his sovereignty, because we know that God disciplines those he loves as even earthly fathers discipline their children whom they love, that we may share in his holiness, yielding a fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:4-11)*.

*if you ever read this, kiddo


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