Worldliness and Riches
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to James chapter 5. We've been studying through the book of James for a number of months now, and in particular in the last three weeks we have seen James address the issue of worldliness. If you look at James 4:11, all the way through James 5:6, that compact section in the book of James deals with the subject of worldliness.
Last week we noted that James addressed two areas in which he saw professing believers struggling with an insipient worldliness. One was in speech that was harmful or hurtful of the brethren or our neighbor. Another was in presumptuous attitude and speech saying, “I'm going to do thus and so,” and “I'm going to accomplish this and that,” and never factoring God into that equation.
He gets to the third area of insipient worldliness in James 5 verses 1-6, and it is in a wrong view and use of wealth. This too, James says, is a mark of worldliness. So let's hear God's word in James 5 beginning in verse 1.
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.” Amen.
And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, James' words are jolting and bracing. They are convicting. Especially for us who live in a prosperous land and a prosperous culture, who experience the blessings and benefits of widespread prosperity. And so we would think Christianly about this. Give us a mind to hear Your word. Search us out to see if there is any unclean thing in us. Challenge us, we pray, by Your word. Help us not to resist, or to be tempted to apply this word to someone else other than ourselves. At the same time, O Lord, it may be this very sin that reveals to someone in this room the need for saving grace. If that be so, draw that one to Jesus Christ. All these things we ask in Jesus name. Amen.
James' words are, to be blunt, blunt. This isn't very nice language. To give you an even sharper appreciation for how blunt James is, let me share you Gene Peterson's paraphrastic rendering of this passage in his version of the message. “A final word to you arrogant rich. Take some lessons in lament. You'll need buckets for the tears when the crash comes upon you. Your money is corrupt, and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your stomach destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you piled up is just judgment. All the workers you have exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the master avenger. You've looted the earth and lived it up, but all you'll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse. In fact, what you've done is condemn and murder perfectly good persons who stand there and take it.”
James's words are blunt. And we have to ask ourselves, “To whom is James speaking? Is this how you would expect a Christian minister to speak to a congregation that he assumes to be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. After all, over and over in the book he refers to us as ‘brethren.’
I. Your use of money may reveal the presence of worldliness in your heart.
What's James teaching? Well, he's teaching us – and here he's teaching us the same thing the rest of the Bible teaches us, that our use of wealth is an important spiritual indicator. And in this passage he shows four ways that we can see problems with our use of money. He shows us four ways in which we can see that the problem of worldliness in the use of wealth is not just a problem for someone else, but a problem for ourselves. And I'd like you to see those four things.
First, he begins with his master point. You see it in verse 1. “Come now you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.” In this verse James gives a call to the rich to consider the final judgment to come, and to tremble in light of that final judgment. And James is teaching a very important lesson in that verse. He's simply reminding us that your use of money may reveal the presence of worldliness in your heart.
Now there's considerable debate amongst commentators as to whom these comments are directed to. Is James speaking about wealthy Christians in the congregation? Or is he speaking about wealthy unblievers, Jews or gentiles, around the congregation? And there are some good things to argue both pro and con. For instance, people will point out the fact that James frequently reiterates when he is speaking to believers in this book the word, using “brethren.” And in verses 1 through 6, you will remember that the word “brethren” was not used. On the other hand, the very phrase “come now” which introduces the section was used in reference to believers just a few verses before in chapter 4. So there are reasons to read it both ways. But the bottom line is this. Whoever you think James is directly speaking to, he is clearly intending to speak to believers.
At the very least James' words are designed in part to create a mindset amongst believers about wealth. Let's say that James is talking about wealthy unbelievers. Let's just assume that for a minute. The fact that he's writing something that he's directing at wealthy unbelievers, but he's writing in a book that he's sending to believers, indicates that he wants believers to hear what he's saying to those unbelievers, to think about it, and to have it impact their own mindset with the way that they deal with their own material wealth. And let me say, it's also tempting because of the language James uses to say, “Well this is not something he's writing to me. I'm not rich. I don't have an annual income of above $200,000, or a million dollars, or wherever you want to set it artificially, wherever rich becomes. But whatever it is, it is always $l0,000 more than I'm making.” Now rich is up there somewhere.
Before you're quick to excuse yourself as not being among the rich, let me ask you to think about it three ways; historically, globally, and personally. Historically, it is simply a fact that we live in the wealthiest nation in the world, and we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and we are the wealthiest Christians in the history of the world. That puts us, no matter where your income is in this congregation – you don't have to be in seven figures, you can be in five figures – and you're still among the wealthiest Christians to have ever walked on this planet. You are rich by comparison.
Think globally as well. Amongst the Christians who live on this planet right now, you are without question the wealthiest Christians on this planet. I was speaking to a Gideon this morning, and I believe he was telling me the Gideon's give Bibles out and have organizations in 176 countries. In only 11 of those countries do the Gideon's break-even. So 11 countries are supporting the work of the Gideon's in the rest of the countries of the world. Now my guess is every mission organization could repeat that very same statistic. And of course, we are the country that is giving the most in that regard, because our Christians have more than others. I might also add that our Christians don't give proportionally more than others. We only give absolutely more than others. But that's another story for another day. We are the wealthiest Christians in the world. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing starvation. I just received a letter from John Kyle, known to many of you, who works with the Evangelical Association of Mission Agencies. And John shared with me the recent reports about the potential of 6,000,000 dying of famine in Africa. Now many of those 6,000,000 will be Christian brothers and sisters. We need to remember what we have in a global perspective. And we need to take account of what we have personally. Think of what you have in comparison to your parents, your grandparents and your great grandparents. James' words are not for somebody else. They're for us. Let's not excuse ourselves.
And James uses jolting language. And he calls on the rich here to lament their impending doom because of their misuse of wealth, and by implication he calls on them to repent. He wants us to consider our use of wealth in light of God's scrutiny of that use of wealth. He wants to consider our use of wealth in light of the final judgment. Richard Baxter asked, many years ago, this question. “Ask yourselves often how you shall wish at death and judgment your estates had been spent, and use them accordingly now. Why should not a man of reason do that which he knows beforehand he will vehemently wish that he had done.” James is saying, “Look at your use of wealth in light of the final judgment, in light of God's scrutiny, in light of God's standard of measurement, in light of God's evaluation, and live accordingly.”
In the background of James' directive here you can hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents; and God's judgment of how those men used their resources. James is reminding us that our use of money reveals something about either the spirituality or the worldliness of our hearts. Our attitude toward and our use of money and things is a major indicator of either our Christianity or our worldliness. And, I suspect, for many professing Christians in this room, it's an indication of both. In other words, it's an indication that we do have a spiritual desire to follow the Lord. But on the other hand we see a lot of the world in our heart. We need to realize what we are. We are rich and that brings certain challenges.
It first struck me how much I had, I think, when I heard Ralph Davis share this story. He says that every time he takes out the trash, twice a week, he is reminded of the bounty of God to him. In other words, God has given him so much that twice a week he has to throw out stuff. And it struck me that I was not viewing myself as the recipient of God's bounty as I ought to just when I consider taking out the trash. And James is saying that our attitude towards, and use of money and things, is a major indicator of our Christianity and worldliness.
Do you view yourself as the rich recipient of God's bounty? And do you use your money and things in light of that? Now James knows that's a problem and so he doesn't just give you that general counsel. By the way you can find that counsel all through the Bible. You can find it in Moses. You can find it in proverbs. You can find it in Jesus. You can find it in the rest of the New Testament. Over and over the bible says that the way you use your money is an index of who you really are. Not just the money, by the way, that you give to church and charitable organizations, but the way you use all your money and things.
II. Your home inventory (and the general presence of extras) may reveal wealth-worldliness.
Well, James gives you four areas to look at to make an evaluation of your own money and things. Here they are. In verses 2 and 3 here's his first area. He gives here a specific condemnation of hoarding wealth and things. A specific condemnation of the hoarding of things and wealth. Let me put it provocatively. Your home inventory and the general presence of extras may reveal something about wealth worldliness in your life. Notice James' illustration. “Your riches have rotted, your garments have become moth eaten, your gold and silver have rusted. He speaks of overage, spoil, of moth-eaten clothing, and of disused wealth. All of them are signs of hoarding wealth. A person has so much they can't even get around to using what they have. So their clothes end up being mothe-eaten. They never get to use the riches that they have so those riches rot, and even their gold and their silver tarnish because they never can use them. They never can clean them and prepare them for use. He's speaking about the hoarding of wealth.
My closet first taught me that this was a sin that I had to deal with. I have the largest closet that I have ever had in my life. My closet is larger than the closet I had when I was a kid growing up in the home. It's a larger closet than when I was a teenager in the second house that my family lived in. It's a larger closet than the apartment that I had when I first came to Jackson, or the apartment that Anne and I lived in when we were first married, or in the first home that we owned. Probably twice as large as any closet that I have ever had. And it's full. My closet taught me that I have too much stuff. Have you ever wondered, when you buy a house that was built in the 50's, “Where did they put their clothes?” You've got to expand the closets. Why? Because we've got too much stuff. We hoard.
The hoarding of wealth is a sin in three ways. It's a sin because it's an improper use of wealth. There's a quote in your bulletin. Take a look it on the top of the guide to the morning service. It's a great quote from Randy Alcorn. He says, “God prospers me not to raise my standard of living but to raise my standard of giving. God gives us more money than we need so that we can give generously.” When we hoard, we're improperly using the wealth that the Lord has given us. He has given it to us that we might be more generous in giving.
Secondly, hoarding of wealth is a sin because it perhaps speaks of a person who finds his satisfaction in things rather than God. And you know, you don't have to have a lot of money to fall into that sin. You can just be used to being able to buy a cup of coffee or buy a Coke at a drive through every day like 95% of the rest of the people in the world can't do. And you can take a great delight in being able to do that, and the satisfaction in that to the point that you are sinning.
Hoarding of wealth is a sin, thirdly, because it shows no awareness of God's scrutiny and final judgment, that one day He will come and take account. Good money management and wise financial planning alone is not Christian stewardship. Learning to give away, to evaluate real needs, to limit expenditure on self and family is essential. Isn't that the point of Jesus' story of the rich fool in Luke 12? If our wealth use is self-use, and often disuse, then we don't have a kingdom view of wealth. In the kingdom view every dime counts.
Now we tend to be scrutinizing when it comes to the church or the charitable organizations budget, and then we tend to allow our own portion of the budget to be unscrutinized. But both ought to be scrutinized. God prospers us that we might be generous in our giving. And our home inventory itself may reveal a wealth worldliness.
III. Your lack of fair treatment of employees may reveal wealth-worldliness.
Secondly look at verse 4. Here James gives a specific condemnation of the mistreatment and lack of concern for the well being of employees. He says that your lack of fair treatment of employees may reveal a wealth worldliness. The image here is of wealthy landowners, and they are taking advantage of farm workers. Now this is not an ad for labor unions. This is not an encouragement for you to vote socialist at the next election.
The accusation here is of dishonesty and dishonorable dealings with those who are not in a position to buy with the wealth and the influence of the landowner. And it is indeed a lack of appropriate concern for those laborers, and a desire for ones own self-aggrandizement that leads this person to withhold the pay to these laborers who have worked in the harvest. And such elements in our own individual and corporate ethics reveal a deep-seated worldliness that God says that he sees and judges.
Now I suspect that there are relatively few of us who actively practice that kind of wealth worldliness. But let me ask you this. Is our biggest problem here in the area of a sin of omission? Of not thinking about those who work for us? Of not caring for them adequately; the day laborers, the people who clean our homes, and keep our yards? Are we not adequately concerned for those who are less advantaged?
IV. Your self-indulgence may reveal wealth-worldliness.
Thirdly if you look at verse 5 James identifies another area. he specifically condemns selfish extravagance in our use of wealth. He's saying that our self-indulgence may reveal a wealth worldliness. James has really started meddling now. He says, “You have lived luxuriously on earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” He attacks extravagant comfort and the softness of luxury.
What he's attacking is a life without self-denial. Any general pattern of the use of our wealth that is only self-focused and self-pleasuring is sinful. We must learn to deny ourselves. We need to ask questions like this; “What have we given up to support the work of the church or of missions, or to care for poor Christians?” Not, “What have we given?”, but, “What have we given up? What have we denied ourselves? What have we refrained ourselves in?” If our spending and our Christian giving does not have a component of self-denial, then we're sinning. And this is especially the case in light of the greatness of the needs of the world.
I was talking to Jim Stewart this morning, our minister of missions and outreach, and I said, “Wonder how much of our money, in our congregation, is thrown away on personally trivial things during the year, which if we totaled up would have made up the deficit in what we had desired to give to missions this year.” You know, I'm not sure I even want to see that number. Are we giving up in our giving? If we're never self-restraining, if we're never self-denying, then we're in sin. It's just that simple. No matter where our level of income is, if we're not denying ourselves from time to time, we're in sin. And frankly the more you have, the harder it is to deny yourself in that way.
V. Your use of (or desire for) wealth in such a way that hurts others may reveal wealth-worldliness.
Fourth, James mentions in verse 6 another area; a specific condemnation of a use of wealth in such a way that it harms others. He says, in verse 6, that your use of wealth, or your desire for wealth, in such a way that hurts others reveals a wealth worldliness. The language is strong here, “You have condemned and put to death a righteous man.” It's the language of wrongful judicial murder. It speaks of the betrayal of a willing victim.
You notice how stories from Jesus' life and parables of Jesus are behind almost all of James' illustrations here? Do you remember what that one is from? There was once a man named Judas, who all the gospels tell us, and the book of Acts as well, betrayed Jesus for money. He was a greedy man. He put to death a righteous man because of his love of money. In other words, James is speaking in general here about taking advantage of someone who doesn't resist us or fight back, perhaps because they can't. And James is condemning this kind of grasp for, and use of, wealth.
Notice again in each of James' statements, there is no condemnation of wealth in and of itself. Nothing wrong with it. This is no class warfare that's being enjoined, urging poorer Christians to resent what wealthier Christians have, but in each case it is a condemnation of how that wealth is used.
You see, wealth itself is not sin. Sin comes in in three ways. First, it comes in in how we get our wealth. Do we get our wealth at the expense of our neighbor? Secondly, it comes in in our heart attitude towards wealth. Do we love that wealth, that worldly wealth, too much rather than loving God and fearing him above all else? And thirdly, it comes in in our use of wealth. And therefore, the giving of a significant proportion of our wealth for the Lord Jesus, a giving of a significant proportion of our wealth for the aid of the needy, a moderate and modest self use of our wealth, are all three conducive to our resisting sin in these areas.
You know, we've come up, and here we are again in October, and as has almost become a routine, we're in a significant cash deficit at first Presbyterian Church, some $400,000 in the red right now. And in the past the congregation has been very faithful and generous in making up for that, and in December an overage usually comes in. This year we have a challenge before us. Because a lot of you who give from stocks and other things aren't going to have anything to give when December comes. What a wonderful challenge. Because we'll be able to sacrifice this year in order to make that up. It'll hurt. Some of us have gone through a tough year. Some of have been without jobs. Some of us have been creamed in the markets. Some of us have suffered changes in employment. And we'll have an opportunity this year to give like it hurts. Because it will. And that will tell us a lot about our own hearts. James has some strong words for us. Not just about our stewardship to the church, but about the stewardship of everything that we have.
May God give us grace to respond to his message with both generosity and prudence. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, search us out. Convict us of our sins. Change us. Make us to be a more generous people. Help us to resist the onslaught of a world that tells us that real life is in the taking, and help us to believe what Jesus says. That real life comes when we give it away. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.