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If Only I Were God,
Things Would Not Be So Odd
September 21, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to James chapter 3, and follow along as I read verses 13-18. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.
15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.
16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
If Only I Were God
A 25-year-old brunette rock star, a cigar-chomping octogenarian comedian, and a sixtyish black man—they have all played God in the movies—Alanis Morissette, George Burns, and Morgan Freeman. Morissette did not have any lines, but was God in Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma. Back in the ’70s, George Burns appeared to John Denver in a plaid shirt and a golf cap in the movie Oh, God. More recently, in Bruce Almighty!, Morgan Freeman as God gives Jim Carrey a chance to have Godlike powers since Carrey was grumbling about God’s on-the-job performance.
Suppose God offered us the same opportunity. What would you do if you were God for a week, or even a day? Perhaps you are not happy with the nature of things. Perhaps you think:
If only I were God,
Things would not be so Odd.
Or, if you could not be God with all of God’s powers, which God powers would you like to have? Suppose you could have one of two super powers, the power of invisibility or the power of flight, which power would you choose? Would you rather fly free in the sky like Superman, or would you rather be invisible like the comic book superhero Susan Richards, who is The Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four?
While we are fantasizing here, suppose that whichever power you pick, you are the only person in the whole world to have that particular super power; and you cannot choose both. It is one or the other, or none at all.
Now let us be clear: Invisibility means the power to become transparent at will, including your clothing, but anything you pick up is visible. Flight means the power to fly at any altitude within the earth’s atmosphere at speeds up to 1,000 mph. But you don’t get invulnerability. If you fly into anything at that speed, it kills you. And you do not get super strength.
So which do you choose: flight or invisibility? You make your choice, and now you have your super power. What do you do with it? How do you use it?
On NPR’s program This American Life, [see Hodgman, John. This American Life: Super Powers, National Public Radio, thislife.org.] John Hodgman conducted an informal, unscientific survey asking the question: Which is better—the power of flight, or the power of invisibility? What he found surprised him. No matter which power people chose, they used it selfishly. Their plans were not usually heroic; in fact, they were not even kind.
In John Hodgman’s interviews, hardly anyone ever said, “I will use my superpower for good.” No one seemed to care about justice. No one wanted to work for peace. No one tried to be merciful. Hodgman wondered why no one wanted to take down organized crime or fly medicine to sick people in remote jungles.
One typical respondent, who chose flight for his superpower, commented, “I don’t think I’d want to spend a lot of my time using my power for good. I mean, if I don’t have super strength and I’m not invulnerable it would be very dangerous. If you had to rescue somebody from a burning building you might catch on fire. Just having the power of flight, I don’t think it’s necessarily quite enough because you don’t have the super strength. I’d still be weak when I got there. I don’t fight crime now.” This man finished with the comment, “I’d go to Paris, I suppose. I could be ‘Going to Paris Man.’”
Well, “Going to Paris Man” is not a superhero. But his answer is revealing. When most people think about having superpowers or godlike powers, they do not think about working for peace, harmony, and love. They think, “If I were invisible, I could rob a bank and not get caught.” They think, “If I could fly, I would be famous.”
Nobody that John Hodgman interviewed for This American Life wanted to help others or save a drowning kitten, or beat up bad guys. It turns out that most people secretly, or even openly, are devoted to themselves and only themselves.
This is not a surprise. It is the wisdom of the world. The apostle James knows this about us — that we all have a level of selfishness and a powerful collection of human cravings. We may successfully conceal our private jealousies, desires, and envies from others, but these are, as James points out, a devilish, destructive wisdom.
Today’s lesson from James chapter 3 is a lesson in wisdom—practical, life-ordering, life-enhancing wisdom. V13 opens with the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The theme of wisdom was introduced earlier in the epistle. Back in 1:5, James instructs those who sense that they are lacking in wisdom to “ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”
The circumstances in which believers might feel lacking in wisdom are specific. In 1:2, James says, “Whenever you face trials of any kind.” Wisdom is identified with adversity. Christians face suffering with wisdom. Or to put it another way, wisdom is what enables a spiritual person to overcome suffering.
In Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (1:20), the question posed in today’s lesson from James 3 appears almost verbatim: “Where is the one who is wise?” and Paul goes on to discuss wisdom in Corinthians in the same way that James does. Both Paul and James emphasize that worldly wisdom and spiritual wisdom are often opposites, and that spiritual wisdom is often incomprehensible to those with worldly wisdom.
Biblical wisdom is never speculative theory or detached philosophy. Wisdom in the biblical tradition is always the wisdom that is embedded thoroughly in the practicalities of life. Biblical wisdom is about how to behave well and live well. The purpose of wisdom is to learn how to understand the world in its deepest aspects and, in so understanding, to live in accordance with those aspects. Wisdom is not thought; wisdom is lived.
According to James, the proof of the wise person is a life of “gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). The gentleness of which James writes is a spirit of humility or meekness.
In v15, James says that the wisdom that gives rise to envy and ambition is “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.” In contrast to this false, earthly wisdom, James says that the true wisdom, “from above” (v. 17), is “pure,” “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” This list of qualities reminds us of Paul’s list of the qualities of love in 1 Corinthians 13. The connection between knowledge and right behavior is clear. A wise person, James says, has these good traits that cause him or her to behave in a certain way. The wise person reaps a “harvest of righteousness” that is sown in peace for those who make peace (v. 18).
Look at it this way: if I want to raise a certain kind of plant, then I have to plant a certain kind of seed. I do not expect a squash seed to grow into a watermelon, nor do I expect sunflower seed to become tomatoes.
James is looking for a “harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). He wants us to grow a certain kind of life, a life of right living and right thinking and right doing, but a “harvest of righteousness” cannot grow from a seed of envy and selfishness and bragging and lying. A “harvest of righteousness” requires a seed that is full of mercy and love. That is a wise life.
In chapter 4, James continues to expand upon wisdom. He talks about the conflicts and disputes we have and then he asks: Where do these things come from? He answers his own question saying they come from the human heart. They arise from human greed, human lust, human pride. In 4:2, James says, “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” This is worldly thinking. I want, I covet. In v4, James lashes out at this way of thinking saying: “ Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” What he is saying is that you cannot have the wisdom of God mixed with the demonic wisdom of the world.
You cannot life like Lucifer and be a child of God. We must choose the kind of life we want and the kind of wisdom we want. This reminds us of the great passage in Joshua 24:15 where Joshua says, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." Joshua says, James says, Paul says, you must make a choice. Do you belong to the light or to the night? Do you choose God or Satan? You cannot choose both. That never works. And the failure to choose is in itself a choice. If you fail to choose God, you are in effect choosing the devil. True wisdom realizes that only one choice is possible. True wisdom chooses God.
Back to our fantasizing about being God or having Godlike powers. Having Godlike powers like flight or invisibility does not change our character. Actually, by talking about how we would use such powers, we unwittingly reveal our true character, and often that character is not pretty. We might say,
If only I were God,
Things would not be so odd
But that is wishful thinking, because if we had godlike powers, we would still be the same greedy, selfish people, and so we would make things much worse.
There is an old story about a man who thought he was wise. One day this man sat under a mango tree in the noonday heat, and he looked at his pumpkin vines growing nearby. He thought, “How foolish God is. He puts a big heavy pumpkin on a weak vine, which then must lie on the ground. And then God hangs small mangoes on a tree that could hold a hundred pumpkins.” Just then a bit of a breeze came up and knocked a loose mango off the tree. It fell and hit the man on the head. Now he had a bump on his head which made him a sadder and wiser man. “Suppose,” he thought, “that had been a pumpkin, instead of a mango. Perhaps I should not try to plan the world for God. Perhaps, I should thank God that he has done so well.” [source unknown]
Hodgman found that his interviewees swiftly and straightforwardly concocted schemes that they happily shared aloud with him. All relied on their new super powers to acquire their personal desires. Typically this is how it goes: People who turn invisible sneak into the movies, steal cashmere sweaters at fine department stores, spy on their coworkers, hang around showers, eavesdrop on conversations about themselves or slip onto airplanes for free rides. Almost everyone he spoke with called invisibility the sneaky power.
People who fly stop taking the bus; they give up their cars. They fly around, hoping to gain attention and fame. They fly off to Paris, or Prague, or Rio. Flight may be considered the super power of self-aggrandizement.
Such desires as these — stealing sweaters or wanting attention — are decidedly earthly, and unspiritual. Predominantly the interviewees are all self-serving. Having obtained their personal super power they use it only for themselves, only for their own good.
The Superpower We Need
The Godlike power they need, and we need, is divine wisdom. James calls it wisdom from above. In Proverbs, the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In the Psalms it is meditation on the law of God. In James, it is something for which we should ask of God — who gives generously to all without finding fault (1:5). It is also something that is “from above.” That is, it is the wisdom of God. It is true wisdom, characterized by purity and peacefulness, love and mercy, humility and kindness.
True wisdom yields a “harvest of righteousness.” In other words, James is arguing that you can talk all you want about being wise, smart, powerful, but unless your life bears witness to your good words, not only are you not wise, you are dumb as dirt. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (3:13).
False wisdom, James says, is something altogether different. It is characterized by “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” It is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (3:14-16).
What are we to do?
What then are we to do? We recognize the problem. There is no use in denying our sinfulness. We are always going to be faced with sin and temptation, but that does not mean that we must sin.
You probably know that Johnny Cash died on September 12. Johnny was famous for his gravelly-voiced songs that had a rough edge to them—Folsom Prison Blues, A Boy Named Sue, I Walk the Line. Johnny Cash spent years in a battle against the demons of drug abuse. He finally got dried out and sobered up, but he said that the demons never go away. “They don’t come knocking on a regular basis,” he told Rolling Stone magazine (December 12, 2002). “They just kind of hold their distance. I could invite them in: the sex demon, the drug demon. But I don’t. They’re very sinister. You got to watch ‘em.”
Which is good advice. Temptation never goes away. Our task is, as Johnny said,” to watch ‘em,” and not to give in to temptation.
To help us toward this end, James has some practical advice. In 4:7-8, James says, “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 want to be like God? You want to be truly wise and powerful? Here’s what you do:
• Give yourself to God.
• Fight the devil.
• Purify your thoughts, habits, attitudes.
Without super powers we are able to do plenty of damage: We brag, we covet, we murder, we quarrel, we fight.
Look at the situation in the so-called Holy Land—where fussing and fighting and murder is a way of life. The tendency in the American media and among U.S. politicians is to put almost all of the blame for the breakdown of the “peace process” on the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat. They do deserve their share of the blame, but not all of it. Both sides have been lacking in that “gentleness born of wisdom.” Both sides lack wisdom that is “peaceable ... willing to yield, full of mercy ... and without a trace of ... hypocrisy.” What the holy land needs most of all is the gentleness of justice and non-violence that characterized people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
And we need that same gentleness and love in our own lives to make our lives holy. We have allowed our selves to be moved too much by earthly desires and material attachments. We have grown quarrelsome and conflicted. We continue to ask for more things—more cash, more clothes, more cars, more computers. Moreover, when we have power, we do not use it to serve others, but to gratify our own desires.
But God knows our innermost hearts. God knows all about us and loves us anyway. God invites us to open our deepest selves to something new, something deeper than our want, more eternal than our pleasure. We pray that God will grant us gentleness born of wisdom from above, so that our works might be filled with God’s peace and mercy
God has promised us that if we draw near to him, he will draw near to us. Let us claim that promise. Turn back to God. Receive his wisdom and understanding. Choose God over all the desires and cravings of this world. Be filled with God’s love. Be filled with God’s spirit. Live wisely. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/22/04