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Grace Upon Grace: How James 4 Changed My Life

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4: 8-10 NRSV

James has been a book of healing for me. It may seem odd to hear that because so many people say, “Oh, James is so intense,” or, “That is a Catholic book because it talks so much about works.” I want to offer a different way to read James, one that I will share through my own personal testimony.

I attended a Christian music school for my undergrad, and when I got there, I had two goals: to learn guitar and to know Jesus for myself. I am a pastor’s kid, and at the end of high school I realized that I had been coasting through life on my parent’s faith. My desire to know Jesus for myself was real, but looking back, I lost view of that second goal pretty quickly. My first goal started to morph into obtaining a certain status with my gifting. I began to idolize individuals who were on stage, and I wanted to be like them. I would follow them on Facebook and Instagram, dress like them, buy the same guitar gear as them, and spend my time trying to obtain what they had accomplished. My heart was set to be that person on stage after I graduated. I set my life vision on that goal and planned on being there for the rest of my life thinking that THAT was what the Lord had led me to. At the time I didn’t know that I had a problem, but I did know I was tired and discouraged, and that I wasn’t excelling to that level of musicianship and status that I had idolized.

My senior year, I was in a worship class and we were praying individually during the class one day. I was tired, discouraged, and becoming angry at myself and, honestly, at the Lord. Why would He lead me to this school to set me up for failure? It was then when I felt Him speak to me. It wasn’t audible or said by someone near me, but I knew the thought or phrase wasn’t my own. He said to me, “Thomas. I didn’t create you to be ‘Adam.’ I don’t need another ‘Adam.’”  At that moment I realized that I was trying to be someone I wasn’t meant to be. I was striving and performing to earn a title, a status, and a reputation that the Lord didn’t design me to have.

This was freeing and heartbreaking at the same time. Four years of trying to be someone I wasn’t–gone. My life plans were crumbling in front of me. I felt lost in my calling, I felt lost in my friendships, and I didn’t know what the Lord was calling me to.  During that season, I found this little book near the end of the Bible named James. As I read this book, I felt like someone had articulated my frustrations, sins, and answers into five sweet chapters. Focusing on chapter 4 for time’s sake, I will share with you what the Lord has been speaking to me.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1. As I read through this book and this chapter, I felt as though I was laying on a counseling couch and the Lord was speaking directly to me. My whole undergrad, my heart was warring with what I could obtain rather than seeking what God wanted me to be. I desired (v.2a) to be something I wasn’t made to be. I coveted (v.2b) what others had, whether that was materials or status. I wanted it to be my identity. I didn’t ask (v.2c) the Lord for what His plans were because I thought I knew them already; however, when I asked (v.3) for these things (talent, ability, and giftedness), I never asked if they were what the Lord had for me.

In the first three verses of chapter four, James listed my sins one by one. I was like, “Oops, guilty of that. Wow, that one too. I hope there is an answer!” And there was an answer in verses 5-10. “God yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” James isn’t referring to the Holy Spirit in this passage; he is talking about the human spirit that we all were created with–our passions, our desires, and our thoughts. James is also not saying God is jealous of us. He is the creator God and the sustainer of life. He doesn’t need anything because He created all things. He is jealous FOR us. His wants us to turn to Him. He wants our passions to be His passions. He wants our desires to be for Him. He wants our thoughts to be of Him. I was desiring to earn something that I wasn’t created to be, and God’s desire was only for me to realize I had nothing to earn. I only needed to realize that everything He had for me was in Himself. I can rest in Him. I can rest by acknowledging and accepting that He is God and He has a purpose for me.

It has taken grace upon grace for me to realize that all I need to do is simply rest in Him. Thankfully, there is grace. Verse 6 says that “He gives more grace.” All I needed to do was to receive it. All I needed to do was submit myself to His love and grace. “Humble yourselves before God and He will exalt you,” says verse 10. “He gives grace to the humble,” states verse 6. All you need to do is draw near to Him. He doesn’t want to stay at arm’s length from you. His desire is to walk with you through life. If He needs to carry you through some seasons, let Him. Don’t fall into the trap that I did. I boasted about who I was going to be and what I was going to do, but it was not what the Lord had for me. God has been so patient with me as I have walked through these past couple of years. I can now see His hand in my life so clearly. Though I am still on a journey toward finding out what the Lord has for me, I feel as though He has calmed the storm in my heart and I am no longer “lost at sea”; rather, His grace has been the wind in my sails, and His heart is my compass toward His will for me.  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” says verse 8. This is my testimony. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

 

Thomas Hickey, New City Stories Guest Writer

Into the Valley

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”Matthew 16:24 ESV

The pilgrimage that most imagine when they think about the journey of the spiritual life is the steep and glorious trek up the mountain.  We often picture our soul beginning in a kind of valley of darkness and isolation from God, obstructed by sin and moral confusion.  But then, after God removes the scales from our eyes, we embark on a long ascent up the mountainside that is filled with holy encounters and sanctifying lessons.  Finally, we dream of the day when we reach the peak and our spiritual vision becomes clear and we come to total peace.

Elijah hiding his face from God after he hears His whisper. 1 Kings 19

There is some warrant for this particular image of the spiritual pilgrimage.  There are metaphors and images in scripture that lend us to believe that any spiritual journey moves upward towards the mountaintop.  For example, Isaiah 2:2 says, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it.” More than this, God Himself meets with individuals on hills and mountains throughout Scripture.  From God meeting Moses on Mt. Sinai to Elijah climbing Mt. Carmel to hear God’s whisper in the Old Testament and from Peter, James, and John witnessing the glory of the transfiguration on a mountainside to Jesus Himself retreating to the Mount of Olives to commune with his Father in prayer in the New Testament , a clear pattern of God encountering his people in high places emerges.  

This image of the spiritual life also makes sense on an intuitive level.  As we mature in our faith, we move from slavery to freedom, from blindness to sight, from certain death to abundant life. There seems to be movement from the lesser to the greater, the lower to the higher.

But what of our experience? Does this image of a spiritual climb to the mountaintop hold up when the Christian life is lived out?

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

It seems to me that in the daily rounds of life the journey of the spirit is not one of ascent, but descent.  The Christian journey is fundamentally constituted by a kind of “downward mobility” into a life of service and sacrifice.  Freedom in the spiritual life is not found in doing all we can to climb to the top, but in crawling through the trenches of humility.  Scripture teaches us this principle, too. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what the Christian life ought to look like; the lowly traits of meekness, humility, persecution, and hunger are all markers of those who have reached spiritual heights, which is why Jesus calls them “blessed” (Matthew 5:1-11).  So does this mean to go up one must go down?  Should we live our lives in the valley in order to reach the peaks?

We have an apparent contradiction at the crossroads of our spiritual pilgrimage; namely that to be truly “blessed,” to reach the heights where Christ reigns and offers life and love, we must descend into the depths of self-forgetfulness and denial.  How is this the case? How can we find ourselves by forgetting ourselves?  How is it better that we move from being free to follow our every desire to becoming a “slave to Christ?” How can burden be a means toward freedom?  The answer to this riddle is the cross. 

The cross of Christ is the sweetest burden that I ever bore; it is such a burden as wings are to a bird, or sails to a ship, to carry me forward to my harbor.”
―Samuel Rutherford

The cross of Jesus Christ is both the sure foundation and the animating force of the Christian life.  The cross represents the real, historical, and cosmic event where the way of death now becomes the way of life.  In this way, the Cross is a model for us, a kind of ultimate signpost that shows us the way towards the divine life.  This signpost does not point us in the direction that we might think, but it always leads us the right destination.

I want to be clear here: The path through the valley does not end in the valley.  We as followers of Christ should not seek out meekness for the sake of meekness, trials for the sake of trials, lowliness for the sake of lowliness. If we view these things as ends in and of themselves we end up with a kind of self-serving asceticism where our actions, however sacrificial, are built on our pride masquerading as humility.  Instead, however, we are called to follow Christ and the path that he walked was one marked by pure self-sacrificial love for God and others.  Paul says in Romans 8:17 that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (ESV).  In other words, if our proper spiritual destination is Christ Himself, if we are truly “heirs with Christ,” then our own self-sacrifice can only lead us to Jesus if it participates in Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, says that “the cross comes before the crown…a cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.”  Discipleship must take on the shape of the Cross, it must have a “cruciform” character, because this is the way Christ leads us by His example as Calvary. Fortunately, it does not end at the Cross; instead, just like the tomb opened up and Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, so we too are promised ascent towards glory and freedom at the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, ascent towards the One who called us down the path in the first place.

But there is another strange thing that happens when we descend into the valley.  Not only is it the way towards freedom, but we actually begin to experience freedom while we are there.  Why in a place marked by sacrifice, denial, and humility do we actually feel more alive and more like who we were created to be?  The answer again can be found in the cross of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30 ESV), he isn’t saying that no yoke or burden exists.  No, not at all. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The yoke and burden of Christ seems that it would be impossible to bear:  betrayed by those closest to him, the victim of  an unjust sentencing, brutally tortured and spit on by those he came to save, and nailed naked to a cross in front of friends, family, and strangers — this hardly sounds like an “easy” yoke or a “light” burden.  So what is Jesus saying? He is claiming that in him and his power, all suffering has been transformed into new life.  This is what Paul had in mind when he writes “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55 ESV).  It’s not that death no longer exists–it does.  It’s that death takes on a completely new meaning when it is found in the Son of God and Man, the only one able to give meaning where there is suffering, to provide life where there is none.  

So the valley not only leads towards freedom and glory but it also provides it.  When we pick up the “yoke” of Christ and place it around our necks, it isn’t easy because it is without trials and demands; no, it is easy because Christ Himself, through the power of his Holy Spirit, gives us the vision, the strength, the will, and the joy to carry it forward.

***

In my own spiritual journey, I have always struggled with ambition.  Ambition, pride, and recognition are some of the obstacles that keep me from trekking down through the valley, which I know is the way towards Christ.  I want to reach the mountain peaks, but not without others recognizing my climb.  

Then God gave me a son.  About a week before Eli was born, I wrote on a whiteboard next to my bathroom mirror: “Do you desire the humility of the cross more than the glory of man?”  I wanted to desire the humility of the cross more, but I was afraid I couldn’t act on this desire on my own.  When Eli came, I realized his presence in my life helped me to solve this dilemma.  I have no choice but to change his dirty diapers every two hours, comfort him when he cries, heat up meals for my tired, nursing wife, and make late night pharmacy runs for medicine.  Ambition is not a temptation with a newborn child.  I feel no need to be impressive around him, just present. I don’t need him to recognize my talent, just my love.

God giving me Eli is a means of grace.  God is nudging me along the path; I am being led down into the valley where my Guide is teaching me that life emerges from forgetting myself and serving others.  For me, Eli’s presence in my life helps me to forget myself.  How can I think about my future calling when I know that right now I’m called to be a father?  Of course, Eli is more than a “means of grace” in my life.  He is first and foremost a precious child made in God’s image who will, God willing, embark on his own spiritual pilgrimage one day.  

This season of life reminded me that God is more invested in our spiritual journeys than we are.  He will give you roles and responsibilities, He will place people in your life, He will allow you to walk through difficult seasons in order to give you opportunities to be Christ-like.  He wants us to carry His burden and take on His yoke because when we do, He is there in a special way with us.  It is impossible to be like Christ when we always have ourselves first in our minds and in our hearts.  In thinking that we can achieve the glory of Christ without the Cross of Christ, we complicate our pilgrimage and risk losing our way altogether. So God, in His deep desire for us to reach the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, gifts us with steps along the path; steps of humility, self-denial, and sacrifice.

Our spiritual journeys must always take on a cruciform character.  We must “take up our cross” and carry them into the depths of the valley of humble service because it is in this valley where God strips us of all that weighs us down and we emerge unburdened, ready to climb the peaks.  In the valley, we are given responsibilities, roles, and opportunities to serve that must be fulfilled in faithfulness now, not later.  This gives us the freedom and cultivates the character necessary to move us towards Christ because it is Christ’s character that we are becoming.

For me, at this moment in my life, this was my son. For others, it could be something that at first seems like a set-back. Maybe a neighbor moves in across the street that needs to feel welcomed.  Or maybe there is an opportunity to volunteer at a local shelter. Or maybe your spouse needs you to spend more time helping around the house. Or maybe a difficult co-worker needs a friend to make them less lonely. Whatever it is, Christ is there.  He is calling us down this path because he has already walked it and knows that it is the way towards his love, freedom, and glory. That is the promise of the Cross.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

 

The Sabbath Keeps Us

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;

 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14 ESV

The other morning while I was sitting on my front porch during the Sabbath, I noticed a finch perched in the tree a few feet away.  It was bright yellow with jet black accents along its wings, chirping a beautiful melody from its blazing orange beak.  This tiny bird drew me into its performance; I couldn’t help but to just sit and watch and listen.

In my listening, I began to notice that the finch wasn’t alone in its song, but was joined by an entire choir of hundreds of other birds from nearby trees, creating a kind of invisible symphony that touched every inch of the atmosphere around me.  The trees swayed to their song, rhythmically bending and bowing in an act of worship. The sun flickered off of the leaves, dancing to the psalms being sung.  I was witnessing the hymn of nature, a song of effortless gratitude.

I realized in that moment that the world around me was completely suspended in grace, myself included.

***

It is no coincidence that I remembered God’s grace during my practice of the Sabbath, which is a weekly time set aside to slow down and turn my heart and mind and body towards God in thanksgiving.  It is not an accident that as I participated in God’s rest—a rest that He has prescribed and promised to His people from the beginning (Genesis 2:3)—His perfect economy of grace was revealed to me.   Exodus 20:11 tells us that “the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  This means that Sabbath rest is charged with God’s presence in a special way and in that presence we find that blessing and sanctification are offered for us, His creation.

Mariano-Fortuny-St.-Paul-in-the-Areopagus

Many Greek thinkers in the time of the early church worshipped, along with other pagan gods, an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23).  Some believed this “unknown god” to be a far-off deity who created the cosmos but was distant and indifferent towards his creation.  In Acts 17, Paul addresses these very thinkers.  He tells the philosophers that God is not distant or “unknown;” in reality, it is in this God that “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) and this God “gives to all mankind life and breath” (v.25).

 

I wonder how many of us today worship an “unknown god.”  Sure, we may not say that the God we worship is “unknown,” but that doesn’t mean that we don’t live like He is distant from our lives.  Many of us, including myself, have a habit of keeping God at a distance with our actions.  We function as if His grace is not the reality that sustains us and instead live each day by the power of our own individual pursuits and strivings and reputations and creations.  The cultural message that many of us have adopted is that we can be “self-made,” and it is only when we focus on working to fulfill our individual desires that we can experience rest and freedom.  This contemporary mindset has kept us from living, moving, and having our very being grounded in the sustaining love and grace of God.  We say we worship the God of abundance, but act as if we serve the gods of scarcity.  The result of this is that we, like the first century Greeks, make God “unknown” in our own hearts and minds.

Fortunately for us, God and His grace are made known to us during the Sabbath.

Sabbath is a powerful space where we are reminded that God’s grace, His very presence, is what sustains us continually.   In our individualized, consumerist, materialistic, and technological culture, our imaginations are inundated with the idea that we own our lives, that the sustaining of our existence is solely predicated on our own ceaseless work and productivity.  Even as Christians, whether we realize it or not, our hearts and minds have been trained to look primarily to ourselves for fulfillment.  We find ourselves swimming in the waters of our culture—waters that often flow contrary to what God’s word says about rest, freedom, peace, contentment, and joy.  Sabbath-keeping is a weekly resistance against this way of life.

When we cease from our to-do lists and anxieties and production, we are confronted with the reality that the world keeps on spinning. We creatures are not the ones that rotate the world on its axis or push it around the Sun, nor are we the ones that provide our next meal.  Everything is the Father’s and Sabbath teaches us that the Father is generous.  In other words, isn’t just that the practice of Sabbath provides us with rest from our labor throughout the week (though it does); it reminds us of our limits and insufficiency in light of God’s sovereignty and providence.  During the Sabbath we come to terms with our “creatureliness” and God’s sovereignty.  This is the starting point for true freedom.

The psalmist says, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times…and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts” (Psalm 119:20,45 ESV).  Talk about counter-cultural! The psalmist here is saying that freedom comes from recovering our God-given limitations.  In an age where we are told that it is our right to go beyond established and natural boundaries, that we need to keep pushing and climbing the social ladder at all costs, that we have little value outside of how much we produce, the Church would do well to heed the psalmists’ words.  It is through practicing the Sabbath that we come to know these limits – and consequently this freedom – in a deep way.  In the Sabbath, we are carried to the “wide space” where we can walk freely with Jesus Christ, who is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark: 2:28 ESV).

Christ and the Pharisees by Earnst Zimmerman

Jesus was not against keeping the law, particularly the Sabbath.  What he was against, however, was using the law to create barriers between us and God.  He was against using the law to make God “unknown.”  This is why Jesus boldly reminded the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 ESV).

 

Sabbath-keeping gives us a kind of “holy pause” in our lives.  This “pause” isn’t passive or empty, however.  Instead, this “pause” is filled with God’s presence, reminding us that our work, our toils, and our striving are totally derivative of a work that is already complete.  It is through the rhythm of Sabbath-keeping that we come to know the One who finished the work on our behalf, and from this we can move into a life where our work (and play!) is not independent of and distant from the grace of God, but participates fully in it.  In keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps us.

***

As I sat on my front porch that Sunday morning watching and listening to the finch and the surrounding symphony of gratitude, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26 ESV).  I couldn’t help but wonder where Jesus got this imagery of the birds and the grace they displayed.  I imagined Jesus himself, weary from a week of labor, retreating into nature one morning and sitting under a tree, watching and listening to this same hymn of nature.  I imagine that as he sat and observed the birds singing while they fluttered from branch to branch, he too was reminded of his Father’s grace that sustains him as he goes into the world to accomplish His will.

It is in these moments of Sabbath rest, of a retreat back into the finished work of God, that we remember who we are and who God is.  In this remembering we are given the freedom and grace to go out to do the Father’s will, which is to ultimately invite all of creation into the song of the golden finch, into the hymn of effortless gratitude and praise to the only One who can and will sustain us.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

My Banner Over You is Love: A Testimony of Forgiveness

“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” Song of Solomon 2:4 ESV

In the past when I looked at this flag and my Dad’s picture feelings of anger, resentment, confusion, abandonment, fear, loneliness and most cutting rejection pierced my heart. When I got handed this flag at his funeral the only meaning it had was the reminder of what my father did to me and my mom before I was even born. He left us.

His choice to leave marked me so deep to my core it was unbearable. A flag that was the mark of a soldiers honor to his country was the constant reminder in my heart of the dishonor he had shown for leaving me. Honestly, I hid this flag for the longest time; I couldn’t look at it…until my heart started to forgive him.  It was only until recently that I decided to put it out on display after allowing Jesus to heal the broken places of what was supposed to be one of the most foundational and meaningful relationships of my life.

And slowly that forgiveness allowed for Jesus’ freedom to heal the gap in my heart where I so longed for a relationship with my Dad. Forgiveness opened the door for me to see my father as someone flawed, scared and not ready. I accepted that. One final step of forgiveness was necessary though; I knew it wasn’t finished.  The thoughts and feelings of abandonment and rejection always lingered around me like best friends at a party.

Recently in a freedom prayer session Jesus showed me the picture of my Dad’s flag that I received at his funeral.  I knew that Jesus giving me this picture meant that I had to lay everything down; from the hurt, the rejection, and the indescribable pain lingering in my heart to the anger and hate I had for what he had done so many years ago.  Years of agony, pain, and bitterness had developed in place of a relationship for which I had desperately longed.  I laid it all down in the flag case with the flag and Jesus replaced it with his redemption through the cross.

Immediately after this, Jesus spoke to me and said “My banner over you is Love.”  I caved, it was finally finished. I knew it. I felt the burden of the pain in and around my heart for my Dad lift– a burden that had been there longer than I can remember.  I was free.

This flag is no longer the banner that marks my life and the choices that my dad made or didn’t make no longer define who I am.  Jesus’ banner is the banner that flies over my life and that banner is LOVE.  Even though I wasn’t my dad’s decision I was Jesus’ decision.

So now when I look at that flag and at that man in the picture that honorably served our country, I have nothing but love in my heart for him because I know that banner in that case is Jesus’ banner of love, freedom and redemption for me and him.

Rachel Morris, New City Stories Contributor