Think about it. What causes the endorphins to flow through your skin and penetrate your soul? Is it chocolate? Is it music? Is it dancing? Is it health? Is it the ability to relax a bit? Is it the love of a family member? Is it the feeling that you are not alone and someone knows your inmost struggles? Is it making a three-point shot, or recording a best time in a sporting event? Is it taking the stage? Is it completing a test and getting a good grade? All of these things bring us pleasure. All of these things are well worth our time, energy and focus.
I submit that pleasure is what we seek, consciously and unconsciously. It’s attractive. It’s addicting. We do things to recreate that pleasure. It’s a better motivator than fear or guilt. Maybe that’s why we seek out guilty pleasures.
The problem with simple pleasure is that it does not have a conscience. If we all sought selfish pleasure all the time, then we might be a bit self-serving and ignorant of our fellow person. James 3:16 says that selfish ambition, the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, leads to disorder and wickedness.
James uses the word pleasure one time in today’s scripture and it’s not a good thing when he does. The fourth chapter opens with the words, “these conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? They come from your cravings that are at war within you, don’t they? You want something someone else has, so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You kill. You don’t have because you don’t ask, or if you ask, you don’t ask in the right way. You ask so that you can spend what you get on your own pleasures.”
Pleasure. That thing or that feeling that washes over you. Can we get a little bit too much of it? Hold that thought while we try to get into the mind of James.
Throughout this month, we have been looking at the book of James. We’ll finish our traverse of the book next week.
James was written to a small, persecuted, exhausted and fragile congregation in Jerusalem. James, the founder of the church, wrote this letter in order to help the people to keep the faith in a world that told them their faith was foolishness and that their Way was folly. A good book for us to read when the going gets tough and our loyalties are questionable. It is also a moralistic book that gives us practical advice and even a proverbial kick in the pants when we step out of line. Let me take you through a quick synopsis of the book so far:
James is interested not so much in theology, but in practice. In the first chapter of his book, James called the people to be doers of the word, not hearers only. He told them to practice what they preached. Figure out your purpose and lead your life by that purpose says James. We need to hear those words today, too.
In the second chapter, James told the people that faith without works is dead. It takes work to be a Christian. It takes work to not be conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds. It takes work to live and love in Christian community. Remember that God shows no partiality. All of us can be purpose-filled, faith-working Christians.
In the third chapter, James says that we need to watch out for the way we treat each other. Our harsh words toward each other can act like poison. James is not telling us to sugar-coat the truth as much as he is saying that we need to be attentive to the way our words will be heard. This is all counter-cultural, especially in this campaign season. But that is what we are called to be. The Way of Jesus and the early church was defined by a different kind of law.
After he speaks about judgment of one another, boasting and injustice which abounds, he concludes with this simple phrase: “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.”
We can get into a heavy theological diatribe about the source, nature and meaning of sin, and I’m not sure that would be very helpful. For James, sin is simply seeing something that needs to be done and then failing to do it.
As long as people see what is right and fail to do what is right, this world will continue on its downward spiral. As James said in chapter 3, even as a small rudder can change the course of a huge ship, so can our work of justice and righteousness change the world. Margaret Mead once said, “Don’t think that a small group of committed people cannot change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
If the people of God truly acted on their faith, then this world might be different indeed. But more importantly, to James and to us, we would be different indeed, too.
For James and the early church, their value and their identity was all wrapped up in how they did the word. Everything said that they shouldn’t, but they did it anyway. The last verse of the fourth chapter was written to encourage the people to keep on doing the works of justice, mercy and hope that the Way, the early church was all about. “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin.”
But it’s more than all of that. In the fourth chapter, James says that the way we get along with one another has everything to do with being a Christian. It’s not simply a relationship between you and God. It’s a relationship with a community of people, even the whole world. Christianity is more than a belief system. It’s a lifestyle choice.
James starts out the fourth chapter by asking, “these conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” He then answers his own question by asking another question: “Do they not come from your cravings?…” “You want something and you don’t have it, so you kill….You covet something and can’t attain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts…”
Atina Diffley writes that all war has land as its root. The desire to maintain ours and the land of our neighbors which we covet. Think oil and frac sand and holy sites and settlements and occupation. It’s all about the land, the resources we covet. This covetousness in pursuit of pleasure is the wisdom of the world and it is antithetical to the Gospel. Ironically it was this Christian-based covetousness that undergirded the conquest of the First Nations people of this continent.
James says that all of the conflicts and disputes come from our cravings, our covetousness and our greed. In eloquent prose, James opens the fourth chapter of his letter by telling us that we need to look at ourselves and our selfish desires if we want to solve the problems of the world. We need to be honest with ourselves, and we need to watch ourselves when we lapse into covetousness and greed—seeking pleasure only for ourselves. Knowing this tendency to slip into selfishness and self-interest, James tells us what we must do. If we do not do this, we commit sin. Hear his ten commandments from James 4:7-10.
1. Submit yourself to God
2. Resist the Devil and the Devil will flee from you.
3. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.
4. Cleanse your hands
5. Purify your hearts
9. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection
10. Humble yourselves before God and God will exalt you.
James contrasts earthly wisdom with wisdom from above. The former is self-absorbed and destructive. The latter leads to eternal life.
Wisdom of Solomon says that wisdom “passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God” 7:27
James almost sounds like apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic wisdom is the kind that sees through the lies and deception of this world and reveals what’s really going on. This kind of special revelation is needed in order to see the world as it truly is—a place where cosmic forces are at work.
And the desire for self-seeking pleasure holds a strong temptation for many of us. And if it were not for the church reminding us of our needs to care for others, well we might all get left in the dust of history.
So how do we seek out this heavenly wisdom? How do we live as though we are members of the Way? How do we find pleasure in our worship, work and service.
I submit that there are several ways.
1. Find out what gives you pleasure. Celebrate that. Rejoice in God’s presence in the midst of your pleasure. Pleasure is a good thing.
2. Take a serious moral inventory and find out if the things that give you pleasure are things that come out of covetousness and greed. If so, then you may need to rethink what brings you pleasure.
3. Help someone else have pleasure in their lives. You can do this by giving them something they need. You can do this by offering a kind word. You can do this by advocating for their rights. I participated in the Big Gay Race yesterday with a half dozen other people from UBC and about 6000 others. It was a great day of justice and joy. It was filled with laughter and celebration. And none of it was about getting something from another, other than the rights to marriage. But even getting that right doesn’t take anything away from anybody else. I went away from that race, a little sore, but with my heart filled with pleasure.
4. Recognize the places and people who need friends and be the presence they need. If not in physical sense, then in a prayerful sense. I know I have felt that amongst you all in these past few weeks as my dad continues to struggle medically.
5. Finally, do something that will renew you. For just as anger begets anger, pleasure is infectious. We need more healthy pleasure in our lives. It leads to peace and joy.
Today’s scripture says that it is true wisdom, often antithetical to the ways of the world that will save us. Not envy and selfish ambition, but purity, peace, gentleness, willingness to yield, being full of mercy and good fruits and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. That’s the way of God.
Embrace your purpose as a follower of the way. Remember that God shows no partiality and the grace of God is open to all. Watch out for the poison of harsh words and embrace the wisdom from on high. And as you seek pleasure, remember that your pleasure must never come at the expense of another. That is selfish ambition and it is the root of so many of our conflicts.
I’m reminded of an Easter service when Amanda was two or three years old. We were in a storefront church in San Francisco. We had done an Easter egg hunt at home before church and then brought the basket full of colored eggs to church to serve as the centerpiece for the Easter brunch. During the service, Amanda decided that she would take the basket and distribute the eggs to the members of the congregation. She did this during the sermon, of course. And when she was done, she collected all the eggs and did it again. She exuded pleasure. The pleasure of giving, the pleasure of getting, the pleasure of making adults smile. No one remembers what I said on that Sunday, I’m sure. But they remember a toddler’s unabashed pleasure that was contagious.
Many of us when we went to Nicaragua recognized the economic disparities between our cultures. And yet, the delighted in giving us gifts. It was awkward for us at first, but then we realized that giving gave them pleasure. And to deny their gift was an insult. We learned not to compliment a purse or a shirt, for we knew that it would end up as a gift to us if we did. Part of how they viewed their faith and their lives was to give pleasure to another. We left that place with full hearts and full suitcases.
Pleasure is a gift from God from the wisdom of God. It is not an individual trait, but a community gift. If we live our lives to give pleasure to another, real pleasure, we will be doers of the word who have a serious and powerful purpose on this earth. Thanks be to God.