How we measure (Mother Beth)
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 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.
We’ve looked quite a bit at James this month, one of the New Testament letters, which we’ll finish reading at Mass next week. As both Deacon Chris and Marisa have mentioned, this letter focuses on behavior – how those of us who belong to Christ live out that belonging. So James doesn’t really address the baseline question of what makes somebody a Christian; he’s focused on the next step, what it looks like when Christians express the identity God has given us.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a NT scholar from Emory University, points out that throughout his letter, James speaks about two measures for human behavior. How do we measure what’s good and admirable? How do we decide what’s the best way to live? James teaches that either we can measure this by God, our creator and source, or we can measure it by the way human priorities, oriented around us, measure things. Throughout the NT, and here in James, that second attitude is often called “the world,” that whole bundle of human priorities independent of God -- “what looks worth it to me by my own lights, what everyone else is doing, what just feels normal.”
When you hear the word “world” in the NT, that’s usually what it means, which is worth remembering because by “world” we often mean the whole planet or the beauty of nature or something positive. So when James says “friendship with the world is enmity with Christ,” or the apostle John says “do not love the world,” they don’t mean Christians shouldn’t value natural beauty or enjoy life. They mean we shouldn’t love approaching existence as if we were on our own to get what we want out of life.
So there are these two measures, in James: we measure what’s worth doing by God, our creator and owner, or we measure what’s worth doing by us. And where James is especially interested in making inroads, is in waking up people who think of themselves as accepting God but are actually measuring what’s good and helpful and valuable by themselves, by the values of the world. James calls this “double-mindedness.” He says that we can either be a friend of the world, or a friend of God. But we can’t live by two measures at once.
What you measure by, what counts for you as a good way to live, affects your behavior in all kinds of ways. So we’ve already heard James address over these past few weeks what it looks like when you use God to measure how you respond to economic inequity, as well as when you use God to measure how you respond to the way language can be a tool for violence and exclusion. In the whole first section of today’s reading he talks about how disputes and compromises are handled when you use God as your measure.
In all of those areas – dealing with economic disparities, with our speech, with conflicts -- measuring the best way to live by God produces very different results than measuring the best way to live by us, by the world. In fact those two measures produce different results in every single thing we do all day. And James is trying to tell his readers: OK, we’re sitting in church right now, but in our routine assumptions, what measure of value are we actually going by? What ideas of the best way to live are we actually putting into practice? Because that will tell you whether you are living as a friend of the world, as he calls it, or a friend of God. Far more than what you say, what priorities you put into practice tell you who you really are.
James applies this today in a really subtle way to prayer, and I want us to try and notice how his flow of thought works here. First he talks about cravings that we have and how we respond to them. Just these baseline, I want it experiences, whether big or small. This could be anything at all. You’re at an event and someone is being made a fuss over and you think, how come I’m not getting any credit? I work way harder than her. Or my flight is delayed and we have to sit on the tarmac for an hour. Or I went to my lunch restaurant and they didn’t have the tuna salad today and I only went because I wanted the tuna salad. Our lives are full of experiences where our cravings get denied. Where we don’t get what we prefer.
And James uses this very common experience to ask us to notice what measure we use in prayer. Up till now he’s talked about daily life, now he talks about prayer. You do not have, because you do not ask, he says. In other words, whatever craving is getting frustrated right now, have you prayed about it? If you’re measuring the way you live by you, not by God, will you think to pray in situations that don’t seem quote, religious, unquote? Probably not.
You know, you can pray in absolutely every situation. On the tarmac. At lunch. God is present in every millisecond, relating to you, loving you, closer than your own breath. There is no situation in which it isn’t possible to measure by God. Now, probably only the greatest saints live minute to minute with that perspective. But it’s always possible.
So James first says: you’re measuring by yourself, so you do not ask. And then he goes even further: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. When someone’s measuring by themselves, even if they do pray, they’ll tend still to pray with that self focus. They will tend to measure what’s important by themselves, even in prayer. It’s such a subtle point James is making. That’s what he means by “you ask wrongly.” If someone is measuring what’s valuable by themself, their prayer will be mostly trying to recruit God for their agenda, to treat him as a resource for satisfying cravings.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
So if we are willing to be as subtle and self-aware as James this morning, we can look at our prayer lives. Are we mostly praying when we have a want or a craving? Are we praying in order to get things? Or are we praying, if you will, in order to get God? In order to draw near to God and allow him to draw near to us? When you’re a friend of the world, in James’ language, you’ll talk to God about the world.
When you’re a friend of God, you’ll naturally start to talk to God about God. To thank and adore him for who he is. To just sit in his presence in silence and soak up his love. To let yourself steep in the words of Scripture so that your perspective can get bigger. To receive his limitless forgiveness. Just to enjoy him. Our Presbyterian friends say in their Westminster catechism, that the chief point of being a human being is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Praying not to get things, but to get more of God, to enjoy God, to draw near to God, to allow God to draw near to you. And those of you who know what I’m talking about know that what often happens is that we start our prayer with self, and then God widens us out to enjoying him and seeing things from a broader perspective. We start with the worldly concern we have: “God I’m so angry about this flight being late,” and then as that prayer goes on he opens everything up for us, widens our vision, and changes our reactions. We see this all the time in the Psalms; today’s is a good example though we don’t have time even to look at it. It alternates prayer based on that human measure, that self-preoccupation, with God widening out the preoccupations and pouring down his love and his spaciousness.
If you think you might be stuck in that human measure, if you talk to God mostly about things and mostly when you want something, rather than spending time routinely enjoying him and letting him broaden your mind, I’m going to suggest you use today’s collect as an initial little bit of leverage to begin changing that. Take the bulletin home, or use the Forward Movement app or your Book of Common Prayer, and spend 10 or 15 minutes in the presence of God with this week’s collect. You do not have because you do not ask. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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