Self-Reliance, Materialism, and James

Be forewarned — today’s post is a rather gloomy post. Lately, I have been thinking a bit about the book of James. Famously, Martin Luther was not a big fan of the book; he thought it failed to mention Christ and the gospel enough times. Well, I think a more charitable read of James is that it presupposes the gospel. Hence, James is writing to those who already considered themselves Christians.

Given that James is writing to Christians, it is interesting to see how much they struggle with worldliness, so for the rest of this post, I want to reflect a bit about two manifestations of worldliness that our current culture especially demonstrates. The first kind of worldliness is what I’ll call self-reliance. Consider the following passage from James 4:13-17.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

Now, we might ask, “What’s so bad about having plans for our futures? After all, isn’t that wise stewardship?” The problem, I think, is the underlying attitude. James is writing against an attitude that focuses on our plans and purposes, rather than on God’s plan. This attitude is arrogant because it assumes that we have the ultimate say over our own lives. However, as James says, we do not know what tomorrow will bring. We cannot control reality. The fault is not in having plans for the future, but in having a belief that we are our own masters.

The second kind of worldliness relates to material possessions. It is discussed in James 5:1-6.

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

This is a thorny passage, but I just want to point out two things. First, James emphasizes the temporary nature of material possessions, as if there were some who had an undue attachment to money. Second, he condemns the “rich” for the lack of justice in withholding wages from their workers. In our day, it has become popular to demonize the “1-percent” or the wealthy. But before we attempt to remove the speck from our brother’s eye, let us see if we have a log in our own eye. Do we, as Christians, have an excessive attachment to possessions? To worldly success? Is there justice in the way that we use and share our resources?

Self-reliance and materialism are, I think, two of the most prominent forms of worldliness among Christians today. We need look no further than within our youth groups. I see kids who are pushed to academic success, which is certainly a good thing, but when it comes to the Bible, they are functionally illiterate. I see parents who are more concerned about the worldly success of their child than they are about their child coming to the knowledge of the living God. We are blessed with so many things, yet I wonder if that has not trained us to be the most materialistic generation the world has seen. We make idols out of our smartphones, but justify it by downloading Bible apps.

Even if you don’t agree with what I’ve said, here’s one thing that we may agree on: my generation of young men and women must learn humility. For some reason, we think we are the latest and the greatest. This is even reflected in the church. Young Christians like me (especially those in high-school and college *ahem*) seem to think that we do the Christianity thing better than our parents, our churches…better than all those Christians in two-thousand years of church history. They are traditional, outmoded, and ignorant, but we are progressive, urbane, and enlightened.

Well, I am guilty of all that as well. I, too, am self-reliant, materialistic, and proud. What are we to do? Here is James’s advice to us; let us attend carefully to it:

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. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
(James 4:7-10 ESV)

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