By Pastor Glenn Pease
A young girl from a very wealthy family decided to write a story about poor people for her assignment in school. Her story began like this: "Once upon a time there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the butler was poor, the chauffeur was poor, the maid was poor, and the gardener was poor. Everybody was poor." The little girls concept of poverty was obviously colored by her own environment. This is true for all of us, however, even though it may not be as conspicuous as it was in her case.
Poverty and prosperity are relative terms, and who is rich and who is poor is often very hard to define. People with very little income in our society can own almost everything that people with large incomes own. They usually pay more for it in the long run, but they can have it if they wish. I remember the surprise I got one day when I took a bag of groceries up some dilapidated steps and pounded on a poor excuse for a door. It almost came off when I did. I was on an errand of mercy to give these poor people a gift of necessities from the church. When I stepped into the house I saw the children dirty and ragged watching a large color television. This was back in the 70's when most of the church members who were giving the food did not yet own a colored set.
In our society you don't have to wait until you can afford it. You can have luxuries today if you are willing to sacrifice necessities. We can't knock it, for such freedom of choice is a freedom most of the world does not have. Most would have little if they had to wait until they could afford it. Richard Armor gives us a humorous insight into this reality.
The bride white of hair, is stooped over her cane,
Her faltering footsteps need guiding,
While down the church aisle, with a wan, toothless smile,
The groom in a wheelchair comes riding,
And who is this elderly couple, you ask?
You'll find when you've closely explored it,
That here is that rare, most conservative pair,
Who waited till they could afford it.
Such people are more than rare, for they are extinct in our society, for we live where even the poor are rich with luxuries that millions never possess in other parts of the world. This means that most Christians today need to listen to James when he gives advice to the rich, as well as his advice to the poor. American Christians are both relatively poor, and relatively rich, and so they can be defeated by the trials that come with either poverty or prosperity.
In our previous message we focused our attention on the trial of poverty and lowliness, and we discovered that we can conquer the tendency toward depression and feeling like a worthless nobody through an honest realization of our Christian dignity. We have a right to be proud as children of God, and we have in Christ that which makes us the richest people on earth. We can say with the poet,
Lord of the poor, when earth you trod,
The lot you chose was hard and poor;
You taught us hardness to endure,
And so to gain through hurt and pain
The wealth that lasts for evermore.
A proper sense of our Christian dignity will make us rich, and victorious over the trials that come from lacking the best this world has to offer.
Now we want to focus our attention on verse 10-11 where the opposite trial is dealt with, and that is the trial of prosperity. The treatment of this problem calls for an understanding of Christian humility. Christian dignity and humility must be combined in that Christian who hopes to beat both battles-the battle of fearful depression, and the battle of false pride.
James in verse 10 says the rich Christian is to rejoice in that he is made low, or to rejoice in his humiliation. This is in contrast to the poor Christian rejoicing in his exaltation. What does it mean that the rich Christian has been made low in Christ, when the poor have been lifted? Certainly the rich are exalted also when they became children of God. James is not denying this. He is giving advice on how to gain victory over trials, and the trial of the rich will be the tendency to put their trust in, and find their prestige in their material possessions.
James is telling rich Christians they are to gain the victory over this danger by recognizing that in Christ they have been made equal with the brother of low degree. They have actually lost something by coming to Christ. They have lost the right to be respected for their wealth alone. Christian humility demands that they see themselves as God sees them, and He sees them on a level of equality with all His children. As rich Christians they have no right to lord it over their brethren in Christ who have much less. If they shun them, or treat them as unworthy of equality, they show that they are still measuring life's values by the world's standard. They are failing to conquer in the trial of prosperity, and they will end up with less reward than their brothers of low degree who do succeed in conquering in their trial.
The poor Christian is in danger of thinking too little of himself, and the rich Christian is in danger of thinking too highly of himself. One fails without a sense of dignity, and the other fails without a sense of humility. The Apostle Paul had everything going for him as a leader among the Pharisees. She had position, power and possessions, but he gave it all up, and he counted it as refuse in order that he might have Christ. Jesus Christ was the pearl of great price for which he sold all that he had that he might possess it. The greatest thing that ever happened to Paul was when he got knocked off his high horse of pharisaical pride, and was brought low to the level of Christian humility.
From that point on Paul was all things to all men. He could stand with dignity before Apostles or kings. He could serve the lowly like a common slave. He even wrote a letter for a slave to Philemon. Paul was a rich man who discovered greater riches in Christ, and escaped the world's value system. Like James, he was concerned that rich Christians not get defeated by trust in their riches. He wrote to Timothy in I Tim. 6:17-19, "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, land to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life."
James is saying that very same thing. He too wants rich Christians to escape the temptation of wealth, and gain God's best. They can only do so by constantly and consciously rejoicing in their Christian humility. That is, by being grateful that their eyes have been opened to the folly of measuring a persons value by the possessions he has acquired. Christian humility is not saying that you are nothing, or that you are of little value. It is simply recognizing that your dignity and worth as a person is not based on material possessions or social position. Your dignity is based on what Jesus did for you, and for all who receive Him. Your humility is an awareness that you are on the same level with all of God's children. When a Christian thinks he is something special because of what he has, he is living on the level of worldly pride. When he has the same pride as the poor Christian based on being a part of the family of God, then he has the Christian humility he needs to be victorious over the trial of riches.
When the rich Christian has been brought low so that he recognizes his equality with the poor Christian, that is when he can rejoice says James. He is saying you can be happy when you no longer have to base your dignity on those things which cannot last. This explains how a person can rejoice in losing something, and in being brought low. He has lost what is passing away, and by being brought low he has gained a sense of his dignity that will last forever. He has lost a passing security to gain an eternal security. A Christian who finds his security in God alone can face any trial and be victorious. He can be a poor Joseph who became rich, or a rich Job who became poor, and either way, like Paul, be content in whatever state he is. Worldly wealth is of withering worth, but in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. You are truly rich when Christ is the foundation of your wealth.
The rich will have a hard time doing what James advises. Many will live defeated lives because they cannot stop basing their dignity on earthly standards. Most everything James says about the rich in this letter is negative. He knows how hard it is for them to escape the pride of class and position. James, as a leader of the church of Jerusalem, no doubt knew people personally who fit these words of Cullen the poet-
She thinks that even up in heaven
Her class lies late and snores,
While poor servant cherubs rise at seven
To do celestial chores.
God wants all believers to have a sense of dignity and security, but if they find it in power, possessions, or position, rather than in Christ, they have no greater security than the world has which passes away. Christian humility is simply a recognition that all the passing values of this world are no basis for pride or dignity. It is a recognition that the true basis for these things is available to all people equally. A rich Christian can rejoice that he has lost his reason for pride in his riches, and found the same everlasting foundation in Christ that the poor brother has found.
The whole point James is driving at here in his counsel to Christians is that there physical circumstances must always be balanced with the proper spiritual virtues, or they will be defeated by life's trials. If you are poor, you must experience spiritual prosperity, and if you are rich, you must experience spiritual humility. If you do not balance out life with the proper spiritual virtues, your physical circumstances will determine your character, and you will be no different than the non- Christian, and that means you have a defeated Christian life. Satan has succeeded in neutralizing your witness.
A wise Christian is one who never lets poverty or prosperity hinder his service for Christ. If you are too poor to serve Christ with joy, or too rich to have the time to serve Christ in humility, you have been blinded to the true values of life. You are a double minded man, and James says you will receive nothing from the Lord in that state. Do not let Satan rob you of God's best, but get all the riches He wants to give you by practicing Christian humility.