What defines who is rich and who is poor? How much money does it take? It really comes down to a matter of perspective. In the USA I’m in the middle with a fairly standard working man’s salary. An experienced long-haul truck driver makes about the same amount. But, if I were to move to any number of places around the world I would be counted as very well off, if not rich (even though I’m not). Neither am I poor, although there were times in my life when that was true. Again, in a relative sense. So, while the New Testament Book of James discusses rich and poor we must not lose sight of the larger lesson.
For today’s look into James we are pulling on several separate but related threads. In each of these there is a forefront issue and a background lesson. Because of this, our basic outline of observing the struggle, finding the joy, and acknowledging the endurance will be woven into the sections.
Regardless of your station in life, we all make plans. A person involved in business plans what exchanges they will make. The farmer plants planning on a harvest. The worker plans on the paycheck that comes in due season from their labor. A homemaker plans for the various stages their children will go through.
Always practical James reminds us of several truths, “Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13–16, NLT)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. James’ issue isn’t with planning itself but with leaving God out of it. The struggle with this thread is us. How often do we make plans without asking God? Too often we ask God to bless our plans instead of asking Him what our plans should be. The first is arrogant and boastful. We’re in control. The second is humble and God is in control.
That concept of submitting to God’s rule and reign in our life is James’ larger point and it’s joy. There’s a special excitement that comes with following God’s lead. It doesn’t mean that everything magically works. But there is a blessing when we step out in obedience even if the risk is great and the step costly. There’s an inescapable joy that comes with participating in God’s plans even if there is pain, loss, and suffering.
How we endure in this is wrapped up in one word – humility. It is humbling to submit our ways and steps to God. It’s not so much of a lowering of ourselves but a recognition of God’s greatness and putting things back in their proper order.
Rich and Poor
James says much, the whole Bible says much, about the value of the poor in God’s sight. “Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements.” (James 1:9–11, NLT)
To be frank, I don’t know many poor who express feeling honored by God. The daily struggle to put bread on the table, to keep a roof over their heads, to provide shoes for the ever-growing feet of children takes an emotional and physical toll. Nonetheless, God honor’s them. An honor not counted in dollars but in faith, peace, and provision. One way of looking at it is that God prefers the poor. They see God’s hand at work more readily than someone self-sufficient.
A little later in the book, James’ gives the rich a stark warning. “Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment. For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you.” (James 5:1–6, NLT) The rich struggle to trust God instead of their wealth, power, or self.
The difference that must be grasped is between temporary gain and eternal wealth. Jesus gave us this perspective in his parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. In the here and now Lazarus was a poor beggar covered with sores. A pitiful existence. The Rich Man lived in splendor. Some would even call him blessed by God. But then both died. Lazarus went to Abraham’s Bosom or paradise, the Rich Man to a place of torment. That’s the setting, the point of Jesus’ parable is that the rich are so deaf to God that they wouldn’t take notice if someone returned from death to warn them.
Here we must be clear about a few things. God doesn’t judge our bank accounts but our hearts. There are poor that act rich; and rich that are humble in their prosperity. Neither do we ignore the poor, followers of Jesus are His hands and feet. Since God honors the poor so should we. Prosperity is a mark of responsibility not an indicator of blessing.
Humility is the larger background truth James is presenting. It is the endurance portion of making plans, of living poor, and living rich. James writes, “And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.” (James 4:6–10, NLT)
Regardless of the hand life has dealt, God calls us to humility. Rich, poor, or in-between we are to humble ourselves before God. Submitting our everything to Him who loves us more than we can imagine.