Making Up Our Mind on the God of Lean Years

Why James Upsets Good People

It’s not secret that the Epistle of James in the New Testament frustrates and angers many people, including Christians who wouldn’t want to be publicly seen as being “against the Bible”. When some in our adult Sunday School class requested that we do James next I had an inkling of what we would run into.

One of the joys of our 9:30 Adults Sunday School class is the honesty of its participants. Many of these fine saints have lived long lives with joys and sufferings and are not above ignoring religious propriety and church-political-correctness to say what they think and feel. I find this refreshing and productive. It is one of the joys of doing the basic work of the church. There is nothing else like it.

This was the text we got hung up on Sunday AM and need to take a second week on it.

James 1:9–10 (NET)

9 Now the believer of humble means should take pride in his high position.10 But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow.

One of our participants expressed her observation that sometimes the Bible seems to be against wealth and this passage seemed to support her observation.

We could easily note that there are many, many passages in the Bible, including in this same epistle of James that are very clear that God is against poverty. So what can we say? Why is this such a difficult topic?  

God Vs. Mammon

It is noteworthy that when Jesus says “no one can serve two masters” he doesn’t say “God and Satan” but he says “God and mammon”. Mammon here clearly refers to wealth, property or anything of value. Money is the amazing universal translator of mammon making it a common epicenter for this conflict in our hearts.

The great tug of war for our selves is between God and mammon and we need to figure out how to talk about this without sliding into gnosticism or dualism. This is not small thing.

God Made Mammon and Called it “Good”

The first thing we should note is that “mammon” is not from the devil, it is from God.

God made mammon and called it “good” and he made us to be deeply related to mammon. We are made from mammon and so are also deeply dependent upon mammon for our sustenance and our capacity to fulfill God’s mission to us. We are to have dominion over the earth and to fulfill the intrinsic richness of the creation through art, science, thought, culture, etc. We cannot fulfill or realize God’s rich desire for us without using mammon.

If we believe the Apostle Paul that the creation waits in eager longer for the children of God to be revealed then it is safe to say that mammon itself awaits the resolution of our issues with it. It too wishes to be set free from our bondage so that it too may be remade, to joyfully fulfill its created potential.

Mammon and Shalom

According to the Christian faith, God’s creational intent was that humanity, as the divinely ordained steward of mammon over this earth would mine and employ loyal mammon to produce beauty, joy and glory to be shared, enjoyed and celebrated further on and further into the infinite joy and beauty of the Godhead. This is the joy we were made for. This joy is deeply built into us and mammon. Until that joy is realized we will always long for more.

This sets up a conflict. We cannot realize the shalom (wellness, goodness, peace, joy, perfection) we long for without mammon and so we are both dependent upon it but also idolatrously intoxicated by it.

In the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, our dysfunctional relationship of mammon is revealed. In accepting the serpent’s suggestion that our creator withholds from us, and that mammon can be employed apart from the will of the creator and set against the creator for our pleasure and shalom, our crippling addiction to shalom haunted mammon begins.

In the curses of Genesis 3 mammon rebels against us in the same way we rebelled against our maker. Because of our rebellion our maker’s relationship with us will be filled with pain and frustration for our creator. Now mammon, the stuff we are dependent upon not only for physical life but for emotional health, creative production (and re-production) and shalomic fulfillment will resist us at every turn.

An illustration of this for us is addiction. The alcoholic both loves alcohol, centers his life around it, and it is killing him, robbing him of not only the shalom that wine could offer, and offers others, but of nearly every other shalom that this rich and manifest creation offers.

If you read on in this section of James with this in mind you can understand what James is saying about desire (epithumea), temptation and God.

James 1:12–17 (NET)

12 Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. 16 Do not be led astray, my dear brothers and sisters.17 All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change.

Ought we to blame God for wine’s goodness? Our problem with wine (for example) comes from within us, not from the giver of the gift. This is a test that we must overcome. We must master our desire for mammon, or mammon will rule over us and if dumb mammon is our ruler it will destroy us for we were made to rule over mammon, not the other way round. 

The Relational Triangle: Humanity, Mammon and God

What we have here is a relational triangle. The shalom our creation hungers for requires that all three elements of the triangle rightly relate. As with many difficult triangulated relationships, however, if we find it difficult we opt for a solution by cutting out one of the parties.

The Spiritual: Cutting out Mammon

Gnosticism, some dualism and some common forms of escapist Christianity attempt to eliminate mammon. It’s me and Jesus and stuff doesn’t matter.

If it doesn’t matter then either we call it evil trying to escape from it with radical asceticism or complete indulgence in it.

These options were tried in Paul’s time as they are attempted in our own. What we are left with in this vision is a purely psychological or mental outcome where we have no bodies, no resurrection like Jesus’ where fish can be eaten and wounded hands and sides may be touched. Neither do we have food or feasts or cats or dogs or houses or lands or flowers or fields or loved ones with eyes and hands and faces. It is a thinner world than even the broken one we enjoy today.

The Skeptical: Cutting out God

The other path is to cut God out of the triangle. James KA Smith recently wrote a nice piece about Naturalizing Shalom where we focus on our attempt to finally wrestle mammon into submission to make it serve our sense of justice and shalom. I hear and see this project in sermons that are skeptical about our capacity to know the mind of our maker or to publicly declare that we will meet this maker face to face and that this maker will be the one to bring us and mammon into final restoration and joy.

This method of producing shalom through subjugating mammon flourishes in places where our moderately felt success in limited spaces fuels our ambitious imagination that we can universally reproduce a truly transformed or developed community if only mammon and other humans would cooperate by embracing the way that seems so clear to us and our friends.

I realize that the worldview of the community of the skeptical has given them a group-think that makes it difficult for them to believe in lots of religious particulars. Pluralism and the intelligence and moral quality of many of various faiths and worldviews suggest to them that all particulars are compromised. I get that.

What I don’t get is their optimism about their answers for controlling mammon and especially controlling other people. To me the only natural outcome of this is in fact tyranny. Diversity is paid lip service but when it comes to the essentials of their quest for the subjugation of mammon in the pursuit of justice all other ideas besides their own in service of that justice won’t be tolerated. The absolute god at the center of this project is as unrelenting as any.

Can Mammon Really, Finally Do It for Us?

I also doubt that in the age of decay any such subjugation and manipulation even of mammon itself will finally bring shalom.

Why am I skeptical? Can you actually find it in the world today apart from small moments and glimpses of goodness? Don’t most of these come at the expense of others paying other prices in places of less power and control? The sushi I enjoy comes at the cost of overfishing the seas. The car I enjoy comes at the expense of the future use of precious petroleum and the addition of greenhouse gasses. The body I enjoy continues, together with the rest of the universe, to break down and decay. The Genesis curses seem to hold no matter how comfy we make our John Deere tractors nor effective our epidurals.

If I look to the “most developed” communities I can imagine, like the ones in Granite Bay north of Sacramento that offer every comfort and convenience we have yet to imagine, with the promise of more to come, are not those homes places of divorce, addiction, depression, boredom, and all the various ways we use each other rather than love each other? Even if you suggest that I sell short our capacity to subjugate mammon or our capacity to fully articulate justice, I would still assert I will not see either of those promises fully realized in the time my 50 year old body has left, or even how much time my children have.

In fact, I would assert that I can reasonably be far more sure that this project of subjecting mammon will not in the foreseeable future produce the level of shalom our hearts desire for myself and especially the billions of others in the planet less fortunate than myself. We have an abundance of evidence this this is surely NOT within reach despite thousands of years of trying. I have at least as much cause to be skeptical of this project as other have to be skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension, and his statements like “all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me.”

The Complexity of God as the Source of Good Mammon

The key to working the triangle seems to be to prioritize God without divorcing mammon. We can’t fully have shalom with mammon without God. What does prioritizing God over mammon look like in our emotional worlds?

The Bible wants to say a number of things about God, us and mammon that are certainly in tension:

  • God is the source of good mammon in our lives. He gives it to whomever he wants.
  • God hates poverty.
  • Mammon presents for us a very dangerous trap for our hearts and our relationship with God.

These points raise difficult questions for us.

  • Why would God give alcoholics enough money to drink or drug addicts enough money to OD? Why wouldn’t God give drug addicts enough access to drugs and thus tempting them to steal?
  • If God hates poverty and poverty is at least partially related to the level of mammon in our lives, why doesn’t he just give the poor more mammon?
  • When in our estimation we lack sufficient mammon to fulfill God’s wishes for us, both for simple things like sustenance and health and important things like use of God given gifts, why aren’t we within our relational rights to blame God and punish him with cursing, withdrawal or abandonment of the relationship?

Why Abandoning God Brings Relief

It’s not hard to know why on the basis of this (the problem of suffering) people do abandon their relationship with God and find some relief in that abandonment.

CS Lewis notes in A Grief Observed that suffering always has two components, the suffering itself and “misery’s shadow”, the realization that you are suffering. If you add to this the combination of a personal God either intending that you suffer or not relieving that suffering you combine the suffering itself with a relational element.

  • The suffering
  • Having to realize that you are suffering and you can’t stop it (your helplessness). Your sense of power over your life is violated.
  • Thinking that someone is causing you to suffer, intentionally, and making it personal! Your sense of justice in this world is violated!

You can’t help but think that you have an enemy so the suffering has added to it a relational conflict. You can have relief for that relational conflict by both removing it (saying there is no God) AND punishing the God that you declared doesn’t exist by withdrawing.

This does not, of course, relieve the primary suffering or necessarily your sense of helplessness and facing the fact that you don’t have sufficient power to end your suffering excepting the possibility that suicide may end it if it does, which we can’t know. This is an article of faith of various kinds.

It also removes any possible consolation offered by the thought that the suffering might have purpose and that you might be rescued from it for greater joy. This is the exchange that is made in choosing to either curse God and die or punish him by abandon him, as if he were somehow sharing in our co-dependence.

James’ Counter-Intuitive Admonitions

James’ advice runs in exactly the opposite direction as Job’s wife.  When you are suffering you can run away from God and attempt to derive some emotional comfort by making your suffering impersonal and/or attempting to punish God through abandonment or trying to hurt his reputation.  Or you can go the other way and imagine that God is putting you through a time of testing in order to straighten out your triangular relationship between God, yourself and mammon.

How does this produce comfort?

Now instead of imagining that God is trying to hurt you through suffering, you believe that God is trying to grow you up through suffering and make you more like him, generous to the moral and immoral, a lover of enemies and jerks. In order to do this you must prioritize God and your assumption of his generosity towards you over favorable circumstance which is just another dimension of mammon.

This idea is of course not unique to Christianity. The yoga teacher said as much in appealing to Ganesha. What will be different is the story this idea is dependent upon and the ability of that story to grip you, and of course the ontological truth of the story.

What this means is that what you say to yourself is “God wants to give me everything, but in order to give me everything in a way that I can handle he must first address the parts of me that can’t handle good mammon.”

In order to do this, you need to double down on some assumptions/assertions:

  • God is good, all the time, and committed to my final wellbeing and perfection.
  • God is willing to use hard things, even things that may hurt and kill me in process.
  • My self, my relationship with both God and mammon will transcend the material universe as we can study and know it through science today. The triangle will be more everlasting than the mammon we know today. Mammon will be renewed so that God and I will arrive at the glory he desires for all of us.

In this way the sufferer is invited into the “pure joy” of the suffering, and the poor invited into the high estate of God bringing lean years. Also the rich remain in the potentially hazardous state of having their hearts vulnerable to idolizing the comfort and mammon they enjoy today.

The Burden of the Capacity for Moral and Relational Judgment

Where this discussion usually comes down is a judgment of God’s character.

Some will say “I can’t endorse the character of a God who uses suffering to refine people that he loves.”

Others will say “God and Jesus don’t work like this!” See this posting.

I am not saying that all suffering comes from God. I am saying that God does bring fat and lean years. (Genesis, Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Days 9 and 10).

Someone might as easily say “God is in a double bind in this because he is loving his fortunate ones who he brings into suffering through lean years, and is abandoning the wealthy to their idols. Which is worse?”

The luxury and the liability of all of this is given by our capacity to form moral judgments and act as moral judges. We all have the capacity to judge anyone and anything, including God. We are also given the capacity chose what type of relationship we want with other persons and with mammon.

We can chose to divorce such a God and opt for mammon. This is the choice illustrated in CS Lewis’ book “The Great Divorce” where persons making moral and relational judgments of others fill a dark English city where everyone can have everything they wish just by thinking of it. In Lewis’ estimation it does not bring happiness, shalom or even comfort. Judgment itself becomes a burden they are addicted to. It crushes them and keeps them from being able to enjoy the very real, solid mammon of heaven.

Community with God, and others, seems to require a humble relinquishment of our addiction to judgment. This sounds perilously close to some Buddhist observations. Is the answer the abandonment of desire? Isn’t it desire that gets us into trouble with mammon?

Ought We To Risk Loving A Moral Monster? 

I think James’ admonitions invite us to a desire for God beyond our moral judgments of him. In a sense we must want God no matter the moral monster others consider this God to be. This is the risk we must take to desire this God and his kingdom.

It leaves us in a curious position. We may have our pride, our self-sufficiency, our conviction that our moral compass, ours alone is correct, and imagine that this is all we can really have. It seems we are far too weak to sustain ourselves within or beyond the age of decay so this is what we are left with. We can judge God and others and perhaps he will be gracious enough to leave us alone as we are to hate him and find a safe spot in the universe as far away from him as possible. This is of course the place Christians call “hell”. It is not an empty place. The Bible suggests that many make this choice.

The other is to risk to love, to risk to commit, to risk to embrace one that we might be attracted to but can’t fully know and certainly can’t control. It is the choice of anyone who falls in love and tries to enter an uncertain future with a partner.

For Christians what the stories of Jesus are, and what the crucifixion and resurrection invite us into is the suggestion that this love is both worthy of our devotion to the degree that we are willing to endure the thought that he brings us to suffering for our own good.

This is of course the place that Jesus had to come to in the garden of Gethsemane. This is the place Peter came to at Jesus trial and later again by the side of the lake. Paul had to come to this place in pondering the thorn in his flesh, and James would meet it in his suffering and admonish his people to join him in this relationship.

It is the invitation to love God over mammon, and in the process receive from God the kind of mammon that will not decay, the mammon of Jesus’ resurrected flesh and a relationship that gives us the joy of the creator God. This mammon of a renewed world will not decay and we will be such that our desire for it will not destroy us.

James 1:18 (NET)

18 By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

The invitation is given, the choice is yours.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Making Up Our Mind on the God of Lean Years

  1. Pingback: Presuming Our Moral Compass is Accurate In A Skeptical Age |

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