James is one of the starker biblical voices. He doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t seem to mind that people might get offended by what he says. Perhaps he learned that from Jesus.
Particularly, James seems to call out the sins that we (Americans) find more acceptable than others. For example, I would venture to guess that envy and ambition sound a bit innocuous to most of us. After all, who doesn’t feel a bit of envy every once in awhile? And aren’t certain kinds of ambition okay? James doesn’t think so.
In the New Testament letter that bears his name, we read:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
Contrary to our assumptions, James claims that these are particularly pernicious sins. Wherever they occur, you also find “disorder and every evil practice.” Every evil practice! Such wisdom is demonic. Strong words.
Do we really think that envy and ambition are this dangerous? How seriously do we take this? We know lust and greed are pretty serious (but sometimes we’re not so sure about greed). Pastors step out of ministry for these kinds of problems. But how many pastors have ever stepped out of ministry because of an ambition problem?
This kind of “ambition” is so ubiquitous among pastors that we almost worry that there’s something wrong with a leader who doesn’t have some drive to “beat the competition.” It’s considered “wise” to know how to play political games, to be a savvy negotiator, to get what you want, to win.
James says this kind of “wisdom” doesn’t come from God, it’s earthly, unspiritual, even demonic! When selfish ambition and bitter envy are allowed to run free, you should expect every evil practice to follow in its wake. The truth is that envy and selfish ambition hinder God’s kingdom tremendously, because they keep people who should be unified in love separate and suspicious of one another. People who ought to be cooperating and coordinating together to see the kingdom of God advance are instead prideful and jealous of one another.
Ultimately this kind of attitude keeps people out of God’s kingdom, because what people see when they look at the church isn’t a foretaste of God’s kingdom, it’s petty bickering that’s terribly off-putting for someone seeking a different way of life.
But the alternative James points out is as beautiful as envy and ambition are ugly:
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
I have little doubt that if church leaders could begin practicing some of these things, the floodgates of heaven would open over our cities and people would be running over themselves to get into the kingdom. But while we harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts, we’re blocking the doorway. I’m trying to get out of the way.