22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

Col 2:23    Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence

As we come to the end of the second chapter Paul drives his final nails into the coffin of human spirituality or human salvation, that brought about by our own endeavours. Again to catch the full flow of the logic of what is being said we need to go back to the previous verses. Earlier he denounced following rules: Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?” (v.20,21) and he had gone on to say that such rules were doomed to disappear: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22). It was these ‘rules’ that were “based on human commands” that he now refers to when he says, “such regulations”.

There is a temptation, I suspect, in many to feel these are words of warning against Gnostic malpractices and which therefore have little relevance to life today. I don’t think such a view could be more wrong. We live in a world where excessive provision of material blessing – especially in the West where choice of food is amazing – has actually caused much concern for health and wellbeing which in turn has resulted in an abundance of approaches towards dieting and other fitness regimes. A considerable number of people are concerned about their weight or their shape and perhaps greater numbers are concerned at following self-help manuals or the guidance of mentors or trainers to keep their lives in shape generally.

At the time of writing this meditation (mid 2015)  the trend towards pleasure through materialism is showing signs of collapse, as increasingly in the media there is a recognition that pleasure or satisfaction gained through collecting or owning ‘things’ is short lived. The signs are that people are moving away to seek meaning or pleasure or excitement through ‘experiences’ whether it be sky diving, going on cruises, taking drugs  or a multitude of other experience-creating activities.  So here we have these two streams – self-help and looking for ‘experiences’ – which although very much being twenty-first century manifestations of misguided mankind’s search for meaning and purpose, very much echo the lives and experiences of those following the Gnostic trail in the first century.

So let’s look again at our verse above. All of these approaches of following rules – or someone else’s self-discipline regime – “indeed have an appearance of wisdom.” How eagerly people scan these things today in the weekend papers. The eastern outlook on ‘mindfulness’ has become one of the more recent fads to sweep the Western world taking in both believers and non-believers, for both individual and corporate business  development. Each new thing creates an interest because past things have failed and just maybe this latest thing will provide the wisdom we need.

Note again the things Paul identifies in the Gnostic way that is also common today. First he speaks of “their self-imposed worship.”  Worship is simply highly esteeming something over everything else and when he says it is ‘self imposed’ he means it is brought about by the false teachers and does not flow naturally out of a genuine encounter with God.  If we ascribe to any regime, method or discipline honour that exalts it as ‘the answer’, we are in deception, for nothing and no one is worthy of our worship except God Himself.

Second he speaks of “their false humility,” which simply speaks of their appearance – they look good. You watch these people and initially their regime gives them a buzz and for a while they look good; it seems to work. Look again in two years and you will probably find them trying something else. The present is a false appearance.

Then third, he speaks of “their harsh treatment of the body,” and how people today are subject to fitness regimes which are really hard work. Yes, the motivation of the Gnostics was to do with thinking that the material or physical was bad, whereas today the workout is to improve personal health and appearance, but ultimately both have false foundations.

Paul concludes with a damning condemnation: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  For the Gnostics they beat themselves up because material things were evil, but actually their assessment was false and they often soon gave way to falling back to sensual pleasures. How often today does the person who struggles for months on a really harsh diet eventually give way and fall back into bad eating habits. The thing is that without the proper motivation, all these things are doomed to failure.

We so often hear of people “comfort eating”, meaning they eat to make themselves good because they have such poor self-esteem. When you really come to know you are loved by God and have a place in His plans for the world, you no longer need to use food (or even a fitness regime) to feel good. You feel good because you are loved and you know it! All of these things we have been considering can be summarized as self-help, and people do them because they do not go to the true source of all real help – Christ.

All of the things Paul has been speaking about in the later half of this chapter are substitutes for a genuine relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Observing special days, following rituals, trying to follow self-disciplinary rules, all of these things are substitutes that DO NOT WORK. That is the lesson of this chapter. Make Christ THE focus of your life, enter into a real relationship with him via his Holy Spirit, and you will know a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. May it be so!

23. Faith No Deeds

Meditations in James: 23 :  Faith without deeds

Jas 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

Faith is at the heart of the reality of the Christian Faith. That is why James perseveres with his argument and why we continue with it for a third day. Remember behind all James’ teaching is the thought that he is writing to a dispersed people living in the world and so James is saying things that they particularly need to hear, to combat the deception of the enemy in the world. One of the enemy’s strategies is to try to get us into an extreme position, so there are some ‘faith’ people and there are some ‘action’ or ‘deeds’ people. The ‘faith’ person is a great prayer warrior perhaps, or a great Bible expositor and the rest of the church hold their spirituality in awe.  Then at the other extreme is the person who is full of good works, constantly helping the poor and needy but who is never heard to utter a prayer and never spends time with God in the Bible. One of them has their head in the clouds of heaven, but that is all they have. The other has their feet on the earth, but that is all they have.

Now when we look at verse 18 there is a problem. Ancient manuscripts don’t have punctuation or quotation marks, and some Bibles change the punctuation marks to include the whole of the debate, but let’s accept it for what we have above. James imagines one of these ‘extremists’ saying, “Well you’re a faith person James; I’m a deeds person. I’m not a great spiritual giant like you, but I do stuff.” James’ reply needs to be seen as saying, “Well if you separate the two out, if you think they can exist separately, if you are a Christian show me your faith separated from deeds, and then I’ll show you a better way, faith shown by deeds.”

Do you see what James is doing? He is showing us the folly of trying to make faith and deeds two separate things that can exist by themselves. Well, deeds can exist by themselves, that is true. An unbeliever can do good works, and many do. Yes, good deeds can exist entirely separately from religious faith, but faith cannot. As we said in a previous meditation, and we keep on needing to hear, faith that doesn’t express itself in some way is merely a mind thing and we can’t be sure it even exists. If you say, “I believe” but there are no signs of the expression of that belief, then the reality is that you don’t believe; it’s just words. “But I go to church on a Sunday morning,” someone might say as a defence to this challenge. If that is the only expression of your belief, then it is rather shallow isn’t it? “But I keep the Ten Commandments as well,” I hear you protest. Still rather a shallow faith isn’t it, when you line that up with what we said previously about faith – about it being about hearing God and responding to Him in a daily, living relationship.

No, we would do well to consider further a “faith that works”. That little phrase sums up the Christian life well. It is, indeed, a faith that works. It works in the sense that a machine works, and it works in this way because it is simply an expression of how God has designed things to be. When we come into a living relationship with the Lord, we find a new peace, harmony and order appearing. Living God’s way, and in harmony and in fellowship with the Lord means that all His resources, His grace, are available, including things like wisdom or strength, and so suddenly there is an observable change that takes place that can only be explained using such words as peace, harmony and order.  Suddenly this life starts working as it should do. Until we became a Christian we had been dysfunctional, only working in the material realm, yet we are beings designed to work in the material and spiritual realms. If the latter is missing we can never fully function as we are designed to. No, we suddenly see a faith that is now working.

But even in saying that, what we mean is that there is a visible outworking of faith by the way the life is now being lived, seen by the things the person does. The actual living out of their life, the ‘doing’ of it, is what reveals the reality of the faith that is there. The person who goes to church on a Sunday morning but who still remains a self-centred, grumbling and moaning person, godless in every other way except Sunday morning, actually doesn’t have faith. The truth is that when God speaks, and a person responds and is born again, that affects the whole of their life. Satan will try and tell us to compartmentalise our lives and keep faith away from work or school or whatever, but when we came to Christ we surrendered the whole of our lives to him and he is to be Lord over every aspect of our existence. The result should be that every aspect of our lives, all the things we do, will reflect that.

Check this out. Are there areas of your life where you try to keep God out? Are there areas of your life where faith does not operate? If there are, you’ve obviously not realised that God is concerned to bless every aspect of your life, every single thing you do. It’s time to let Him have free access to every part of your life so that faith may work in all areas, and that all areas may work as He’s designed them to work.

16. Spirituality

Meditations in James: 16 :  Practical Spirituality

Jas 1:27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

The Human Race seems, so often, to go in for extremes. In Christian circles, in the past at least, there have been charismatics who have never wanted to touch the world, activists who are only concerned with the world, fundamentalists who huddle in holy corners protecting the truth, and liberals who shy away from dogmatic truth. James isn’t such a person. Scan back over his letter so far and you will see signs of faith and works.

On the ‘spiritual’ side he has spoken about our faith (v.3), asking God for wisdom (v.5), not getting things from the Lord (v.7), the crown of life that God promises (v.12), God not tempting (v.13), all the goodness coming down from God (v.17), the new birth from God (v.18), the righteous life that God desires (v.20).

Yes, very God-centred for there is plenty on the spiritual side, but what about the practical side?  Well all along he’s been speaking about the trials of everyday life (v.2), the realities of poverty and riches (v.9,10),  falling in temptation (v.14,15), getting rid of anger and evil (v.19-21), and controlling the tongue (v.26). However when you consider these two lists, they overlap or interlink so really it is difficult to distinguish between them. The truth is that James really sees all of life as coming under the spiritual umbrella, everything coming in the ambit of our relationship with God.

Now it is necessary to say these things because James has had a bad press historically. There have been those who say that because he hardly mentions Jesus (twice only in passing) he is not very spiritual. We want to suggest that such people entirely miss the point. James is very much concerned, as we have already noted a number of times, to be a pastoral help to the Christians now scattered far and wide. He wants to help them as they combat the ways of the world, and therefore his letter is, in many ways, very down to earth yet, as we have just noted, his thinking of these things is completely saturated with the recognition that we are God’s children and everything we do comes within the range of our relationship with Him. Our relationship with the Lord is what under-girds everything that James speaks about. If he chides us about anger, it is because anger doesn’t conform to the righteous life God desires for us. If he chides us over the use of the tongue it is because the wrong use of the tongue doesn’t fit with the idea of us being religious, having a relationship with God. No, every practical issue comes back in some way to our relationship with the Lord.

When he talks about ‘religion’ he is meaning the practical expression of our spirituality, the way we express our faith as Christians in our daily lives. Very well, he says, you have a religion, a faith, an expression of your relationship with God being worked out in daily life, then check it against the sort of practical faith that God wants of you. After all, he surely implies, the most important thing is to be doing what God wants. So you want to be religious? OK, he goes on,  then express your faith, the love from God you have, His love that He wants to express to His world, by looking after those who are in need, the widows and orphans who are in distress because they have no one looking after them. You want to be real in the expression of your faith? Then reach out and bless those in need.

Before we go any further, can we counteract any tendency you may have that leads you towards extremism, wanting to go out to one or other of the extremes we started off thinking about. Merely because he is saying express your faith towards people, he is not therefore saying, don’t express it towards God. That has already been covered and he will come back to it. Oh no, it’s not one or the other; it is both. God wants us to relate to Him AND to people.  God wants us to have a strong spiritual aspect to our lives, reading the Bible, praying, worshipping etc., but He also wants us to have a strong practical faith dimension to our lives as well. He wants to see that we are reaching out, not only to bring the word Gospel to people but the whole Gospel to people, expressed in words and deeds, just like Jesus did.  How tragic that we so often divide these two aspects of the spiritual life and then only focus on one.

Perhaps to conclude we would do well to check out both sides of the spiritual equation as it applies to us personally. Do we have a strong spiritual dimension whereby we do read the Bible regularly, pray regularly, worship regularly and fellowship with other Christians regularly?  We need all those things.  How about the practical dimension to our lives, first as it affects those closest to us? How do we treat our partner, our children, people we encounter in the world, those we work for or work with? Are our emotions under control yet free to be expressed in a good way, do we have our tongues under control – just the issues James has covered so far! But what about the wider practical expression of our faith that James has just been referring to, caring for those in need, for those who have no one else to stand with them – there are a lot of such people. There is a whole world out there to be loved with Jesus’ love and he’s just longing to go to them through you, as you work out your relationship with Him.