Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Throughout the book of James, we see an emphasis on doing good deeds. Faith is not faith unless it is motivating. God’s love is never limited to a rosy feeling but love always does something. There are passive ways of showing love, like graciously receiving gifts of kindness, or allowing someone to care for you when you are sick, but love is primarily active and expansive.
We expect the Bible to be critical of our sins as individuals, but there is plenty in the Bible that is critical of how our society functions and does things. Our basic attitudes are not always in line with biblical teachings.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
To put it simply, harboring bitter envy and selfish ambition is at the root of capitalism. We raise our children to have selfish ambition and to be driven by envy. The basis of our economic system goes back to a 1776 book called “The Wealth of the Nations.” In it, the author, a Scottish Economist named Adam Smith described a “free market system” where society benefits from everyone acting in their own self-interest. He didn’t think that government should control the economy or businesses. He writes that the only roles of government are to protect national boarders (with the military), enforce civil law, and to do “public works” like educating its citizens and maintaining roads.
The problem with every political system is that it assumes everyone in power is upright and moral. Republics (like ours) and Democracies are often in a mess because allthe leadership is made up of faulted and sinful human beings. Socialism and Communism fail because people tend to be selfish and easily corrupted. Monarchies and “Theocracies” are also troubled by faulted leaders. If you have people in government, every kind of government will be corrupt and inefficient.
In 1947, Winston Churchill said, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’”
Democracies and Republics are less prone to some kinds of misery, but they are closely tied to capitalism. Capitalism isn’t evil, but it tempts many people to greed, envy, and the worship of money.
Here is our basic problem. We are conflicted between our faith and our culture of money. It is as if we are being pulled and pushed into opposite directions by divorced parents. We are encouraged to be very ambitious, whether by working our way up a ladder to wealth or leaping to it by means of a lottery ticket. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements and marketing campaigns that are encouraging a continual state of heightened envy. To this, James says, “Where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Adam Smith, the old Scottish economist promoted self-interest, but people with unlimited self-interest and ambition, turn his system upside down. A general assumption of altruism, self-control, and goodness don’t get you very far when competing with wolves. Like every idealist, Smith ignored the power of greed, envy, and other sins that never leave humanity.
But what does James, guide us to do?
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
It is possible to be a repentant sinner who seeks to do the right thing. Instead of ambition and envy, it seeks peace and loving neighbor. Instead of fueling a never-ending desire for more and more, it finds thankfulness and contentment with what is to be had. Instead of the dog-eat-dog world of big business, it embodies the ideal of the lion and the lamb living in peace. Instead of thinking how you can keep an upper hand, it offers helping hands to neighbors.
As sincere Christians, we must live in this world, with all its politics, economics, and spitefulness, but we don’t need to worship an altar of greed or ambition. We can work and earn a living. In America, it is even possible to amass some wealth while being wise in God’s eyes. People benefit when some of the wealthy are truly altruistic and wise. On the other hand, it is not likely that your wealth will rise to the levels of the corrupt players of financial games. And if you do not attain wealth by earthly standards, there is no shame in it.
By the standards that James sets before us, we should turn our envious eyes away from the material wealth of celebrated fortunes and consider the people who live by the wisdom from God. We won’t usually find them in mansions or fine-looking homes, but we can recognize them by their humble peacefulness and love.
A Question to Ponder: Have you ever been pushed to be more ambitious or greedy?