Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 1:14-18; James 1:19-27; Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; Jeremiah 5
James continues his argument that faith should lead to action. Having mentioned the word of truth that brings spiritual birth (v. 18), he quickly adds that knowing the truth is not enough; we must also act on what we know to be true. God’s gift brings moral responsibility. While grace is freely given, a proper understanding of the gift produces a desire to act according to God’s ways and wisdom. This involves both avoiding unethical behaviour and developing ethical character and practices. The word is like a seed planted within us that should grow and produce the fruit of a righteous life. This includes internal qualities, such as humility, a willingness to listen to others and careful use of words, and external actions, such as serving others and promoting justice.
Sometimes we look at anger and other ‘external’ sins as obviously wrong and denounce them. Abortion, adultery, violence and corruption are clearly wrong. We read the descriptions of the people in Jerusalem and are amazed at how far short of God’s ways they fell. The men lust after their neighbours wives like neighing stallions, with adultery and prostitution rampant. No one seeks the truth, no one is honest, and no one defends those poor or fatherless (5:1, 28). Their leaders lie to them and the people love it this way (5:31).
We would not condone such a society, but we admire those who work hard, are successful, and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The author of Ecclesiastes denied himself nothing, thinking he had earned his comforts. How many of us feel likewise? Yet Ecclesiastes notes that all this is fleeting and futile: a chasing after the wind. Such ‘good’ people have wealth and comfort, but are not blessed the way James says we can be.
James is concerned that when we read about injustice in Jeremiah, or meaningless pursuit of wealth in Ecclesiastes, we hear and forget. We are touched, but not changed. The word should lead to humble reflection and an intense look at ourselves. James does not want superficial adherence to the law, but inner transformation. One of his more challenging claims is that the perfect law gives freedom (v. 25). The context suggests that James equates the perfect law with the Word, as does the Old Testament (Psalm 19:7). The perfect law is the word implanted, which includes Jesus’ teaching (John 1:14).
We have difficulty associating law with freedom. We often view law as something that restrains and restricts, limiting our freedom. Law in general can do this, but the law of Christ bring freedom. The law is not an end in itself, but a means toward an end: the goal of loving what God loves, and freely choosing to do what God would do. The word within us woos us to willingly wanting what God wants. As the word grows within us, it transforms our hearts so that our hearts become more like God’s heart. We reject the moral filth that God rejects, and we are drawn to what God loves. Otherwise, we can externally comply with the law while inside we seethe with anger or malice, or lack compassion. At the same time, there is a place for obedience as a means of learning to love what God loves. As Christ changes us inwardly, good words, attitudes and actions will arise willingly from our changing hearts. James’s ethics flow from supernatural transformation of the heart.