James, Devotion #3: What is Your Purpose?

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Here’s what I hope you discover today:

  • All people will eventually ask themselves this age-old question: What is my purpose?
  • The great philosopher Aristotle believed the answer was happiness, or better, a life of human flourishing through rational contemplation.
  • James answered this question differently – we are to be perfect!

In our last devotion on the book of James, we finished midway through 1:4, and today I would like to take an excursus, or digress for a moment, as we come to an incredibly important Greek word that is used twice in verse 4. I believe understanding a little of historical background surrounding this word can assist us in discerning how James uses it. The Greek word I’m talking about in James 1:4 is the word telos, or as it is commonly translated in English “perfect” or “mature”.

To begin our excursus, I love Greek philosophy and it’s philosophers! They were courageous men who dared to question the traditional answers of the day, and seek new answers to their queries. Aristotle, along with his mentor Plato, undoubtedly were two of the greatest thinkers from that era, and laid the foundation for all philosophy for the next two thousand years.

For instance, Aristotle questioned why are we here, or in his words, what is our telos, or our goal, our purpose. In his day, as in ours, many thought our goal or purpose was pleasure, or honor and fame, and even to attain money and great wealth, but Aristotle knew these were futile goals to base a life on, or simply means to another goal. Aristotle even went so far as to state that people who based their life on pleasure or amusement were living a life of slavery fit for “grazing animals.” [1] Why? Because so much effort and suffering are a part of life, it would simply be “stupid and excessively childish” if all we had to look forward to was brief pleasures and idle amusement.[2]

Consequently, the great Aristotle surmised the telos of mankind must be:

“Moreover, we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, 7, 15)

Put another way, Aristotle believed mankind, as with everything, has a purpose, a telos, and whatever it is, it must be whatever allows for human flourishing, so that the human being performs in an excellent, or perfect manner! For Aristotle, as he investigated all of nature and mankind, he concluded the purpose of life for humans must be an active life of virtuous living by using our reasoning abilities.

IN THE WORD

What in the world does this have to do with our study of the book of James? Plenty! Read again what James proclaimed in James 1:2-4:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB)

We’ve already discovered that trials will come our way, and we are to joyfully accept them, knowing they are not purposeless. One purpose for trials is that they produce “endurance” or “perseverance”, or as I translated it “a willingness to cling to God no matter what.” But, that’s not the end of the story!

Here’s what else James tells us:

  • He reminds us that having the right attitude and thriving through trials produces “a willingness to cling to God no matter what”, but also that willingness to cling to God no matter what itself produces something – we become “perfect” and “whole”, or “entirely sound”.
  • While some scholars note that the use of “perfect” and “whole” together can simply imply we are to achieve moral integrity, I believe more is being said here. Why? Jesus said the same thing as James, and used the same word – “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)
  • Consequently, our telos, or our goal and purpose for living is not to:
    • Chase after physical pleasure
    • Make all the money we can
    • Become famous and popular
    • Or even to tell others about Jesus
    • Give all our money to the poor
    • Etc. etc., etc.

IN THE WORLD

 Our telos, or the reason we exist, is to daily become more and more like God, because we were created in the image of God, and Jesus came to show us how that looks and he gave us the power to live the holy life, by the gift of His Spirit! All else is secondary to this because, for one reason, nothing else will satisfy and fulfill us.

In the past, I was hesitant to translate telos as “perfect”, thinking that meant we had to be sin-free, but now, as I shared above, I believe “perfect” is the best word when it is used in this way: Jesus is our standard and the picture of what human flourishing looks like!

So see, Aristotle was right, and also wrong – we all have a telos that enables us to flourish as human beings, but he was simply wrong on how to achieve it – we must have a meaningful, vibrant relationship with our perfect Creator, growing more like Him daily as we live as Christ lived (see Ephesians 4:12-13)! Consequently, we are not just the epitome of rational creatures as Aristotle believed, for we are more: we are meant to be perfect!

Let’s conclude with these thoughts:

  • What is your telos today? Or, to be more explicit, what have you been living for?
  • I really liked Aristotle’s comparison of the life of pleasure to slavery fit for “grazing animals.” Have you ever heard anything like that in the Bible? Even though Aristotle was writing hundreds of years before the New Testament, read Romans 6:16 for a comparison. Now, do you see what he meant by the futility of such a life and how we simply become a slave to our desires?
  • Incidentally, as you aim to be perfect, and more and more like the Father, living as Jesus lived, you will naturally do things like tell others about Jesus, give to the poor, serve gladly, and much more. But this – striving to be like Jesus – should be first. For a reaffirmation of this, read Matthew. 22:36-40.

So, what’s your telos?

RA

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition, Translated by Terence Irwin. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1999) p. 4, Book I, Chp. 5.

[2] Ibid, Book X, Chp. 6, p. 162.

A Newspaper and the Bible

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It’s been said to read both the newspaper and the Bible every day.

This past Saturday morning I was pretty depressed and downright angry.

Why?

I read the newspaper (online!), and the Bible much later.

Ugh!

Every morning I follow a similar routine. After I get ready for work, I first go to a local coffee shop to drink coffee and eat breakfast. The thing to know is that I’m not there for the coffee or food. My distinct purpose is to read the daily news, and then at least begin my Quiet Time with God, which will usually continue as I get to the office or go to a local college library to do further research on various projects.

As I was doing this Saturday, I was overwhelmed by three of the first five stories I read online. To put it bluntly, I was aghast at what I repeatedly read from one story to another because of the brutality and the complete disregard for the gift of life! Here’s a brief summary of three of those stories based on various sources (as of Saturday morning);

  • 43 college students in southern Mexico have been missing since September. They were last seen traveling to the city of Iguala for a protest seeking to raise money for their school. Last week a break in the case finally came when three people were arrested and supposedly said the mayor of the city ordered the students to be abducted and turned over to a Mexican gang because their protest would interfere with the mayor and his wife’s plans for the day! The gang promptly killed the students, burned them for hours among tires and any other debris they could find, and then dumped the remains in the river.
  • A mother and her boyfriend were arrested this week on charges of murdering and torturing her three year-old son. The alleged reason for this heinous crime – her son wouldn’t eat his breakfast! For that, the report says, they hanged him by his feet, bashed his head into a wall, whipped him with various implements, etc. The police have said it’s the worst case of child abuse they’ve ever seen.
  • In 2010, a husband, wife, and their two young sons were murdered by blunt force to the head in their home outside San Diego. After being killed at home, they were buried in shallow graves in the Mojave Desert. Their remains were finally found in late 2013, and this week, the husband’s business partner was charged with those murders. Why did this business partner allegedly murder this entire family? Investigators don’t have a clue!

You see why I was so upset? So without finishing my quest for the latest news, I finally turned to the Word of God, and this is one of the many verses that distinctly spoke to me:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;

  ensure justice for those being crushed. 

Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,

    and see that they get justice.”

Prov. 31:8-9 (NLT)

This, and several other verses challenged me not to simply feel sad and despondent about the stories, but to realize we as Christians are called to do something about them:

  • Never live by ‘putting your head in the sand’. It’s easy to think, “Just stop reading the newspaper”, but we must be aware of what’s going on around us, no matter how depressing it might be.
  • Speak and demand justice for the victims who can no longer speak! We must hold our government officials and court systems (federal and state) accountable for ensuring justice occurs in our land.
  • Care for the families that are suffering.
  • Feel the pain and despair, and even cry! Stories like this should make us cry and yearn for that day when we will no longer see stories like this.

The misery and hopelessness of the world should never overwhelm us, but should be a call to action as the people of God: “Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21 NIV)

And lastly, always remember we should read the newspaper and the Bible every day – both will give us a proper perspective on life: one, what life is like around us, and the other, how we should live in the midst of such a life.

RA

James, Devotion #2: My Trials and Struggles Have a Purpose! (James 1:2-3)

Here’s what I hope you discover today from James:

  • Trials are not a time to gripe but grow!
  • Trials are meant to produce endurance, or as I call it the virtue of clinging to God no matter what!

Last time we looked at James, we summarized what an ‘adequate’ or truly biblical view of suffering looked like. Here is what we summarized:

  • Suffering is to be expected (as we learned then!)
  • Suffering has a purpose (this we will learn today!)
  • Suffering is to be received with joy (this we will learn next time!)

IN THE WORD

Let’s start today by reading James 1:2-4:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB)

So, according to James, what are the purposes of my trials and tough times?

  1. Trials are not a time to gripe but to grow!

Most Christians would have to admit, and I certainly do, that when tough times come, one of the first things we do is question God. We say things like, “Why God, why me?” and “I thought you loved me?”, and then complaints usually ensue. For a picture of this, you can see this demonstrated repeatedly in the Old Testament with the children of Israel: almost every time a challenge occurred during the Exodus event, the Israelites wailed at what was occurring, and griped at God, even at times wishing instead to return to the enslavement of Egypt! This is a natural response to tough times, but as Christians, James challenged us to live supernaturally by proclaiming our trials have a purpose!

James declares that the supernatural response is not to gripe, but to see the challenging times and trials as what they really are – a “means of testing” with a purpose. In other words, when tough times come, God is not mad at us, nor has he left us, but is seeking to determine how tough our faith really is. And the word that is used in this context also suggests that the testing will show your faith to be approved, as fine metals coming out of the fire prove their genuineness and value! So, along with 1 Corinthians 10:13, we actually can see God does not test us beyond what He knows we can handle![1]

  1. Trials are meant to produce Endurance!

Additionally, in order to have a supernatural response, James informs us the time of testing is also critical and needed for what it can produce in us, and that is    ?   . That question mark is not a typo, because it signifies the difficulties of translating James’ next word. Scholars have translated it in variety of ways – ‘endurance’ (NASB/NET/HCSB), ‘patience’ (KJV), or ‘perseverance’ (NIV). All of those are worthy translations, but still fall short of the intended meaning because the essence of the word is ‘to remain under’, ‘to abide’, and stresses a constancy no matter the circumstances![2] Consequently you can see the problem with trying to find one English word that describes all of that. In my humble opinion, I translate the word with a phrase – the testing of your faith produces or results in a willingness to cling to God no matter what! Think of it this way, when trials come, we either cling to anger, fear, or bitterness, or cling to God knowing there is a purpose and strength to be found in Him. And, as Paul in Romans 5:3 and 15:5 reminds us, this is not something that comes from us, but God gives it to us – again a supernatural experience, and further affirmation that we are never alone during our trials!

IN THE WORLD

Reflect on these questions:

  • How would it change your view and attitude of trials and sufferings if you would undeniably acknowledge what you are facing has a purpose?
  • Have you seen this “perseverance” or as I called it “a willingness to cling to God no matter what” as an outcome of your own trials? Describe its presence in your life.
  • How have you been reassured by the book of James today that you are never alone during your trials?

Next time we will look at another purpose James has for our trials.

 

[1] If you remember from our previous lesson on James, the word for trials can mean both external sufferings and challenges (such as persecution, etc), but also the inner temptations we face (as James will discuss later in chapter 1). Although Paul uses the same word as James does in 1 Corinthians, to be contextually accurate, I do believe Paul is using the word more in reference to the temptations we face, but I still believe the promise holds true with either emphasis of the word.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, James: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) p. 49. I like how they explain this word based on the RSV’s ‘steadfastness’ stating this is ‘not a passive virtue but a steady clinging to the truth within any situation.’ And Douglass Moo in The Letter of James: The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), p. 55 says the essence of the word usually translated ‘perseverance’ is best seen as “the picture of a person successfully carrying a heavy load for a long time.”

A Profound Answer Regarding Prayer

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Yesterday I came across an interview with Timothy Keller, author of the new book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. In that discussion, click here to read it all, the interviewer recalled a question Keller received earlier on twitter: “Why do you think young Christian adults struggle most deeply with God as a personal reality in their lives?” Keller response was profound: “Noise and distraction. It is easier to Tweet than pray!”

I thought about Keller’s response all day. How can that be? Could the reason people don’t have a meaningful relationship with the Creator of the universe be something so simple, so basic? But then when I began to look at my own life, and remembered two prominent values in our culture today, I realized the profound truth of that statement.

We live in a culture that abhors solitude and embraces distractions. In other words, we’re afraid to be alone, and we must always be busy! Ironically, Keller will declare in his book the two things needed for meaningful prayer are solitude and the Word of God. Did you catch that: to be successful at prayer means we must be counter-cultural because silence and a singular focus on the One your meeting with are essential for genuine communication with God.

May I ask you some of the questions I asked myself yesterday?

  • How noisy is your world?
  • Are you so distracted by the trivial things of the world that have such little value, yet they’re keeping you from the One who is to be valued above all?
  • Is it time to ‘unplug’ so you can ‘plug-in’ to the One you need to hear from?

I pray Keller’s words disturb you too today.

“And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.”   Luke 6:12 (NASB)

 

James, Devotion #1: Change the Way You Think of Trials (James 1:1-2)

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As we begin our study of the book of James, here’s what I hope you discover today:

  • James wrote his letter to Christians going through trials in order to describe what authentic faith looks like;
  • Everyone will ‘hop from a host of hardships’;
  • Most Christians have an ‘inadequate view of suffering’.

IN THE WORD

Read James 1:1-4

Some quick facts as we start the book of James:

  • James was the half-brother of Jesus, and an important leader in the early Jerusalem Church (see Gal. 1:19 and Acts 15:13ff);
  • He wrote this letter to Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, who no longer lived in Jerusalem or Palestine, but had scattered to other places (he uses the term ‘diaspora’ which refers to the Jewish people living elsewhere during and after the exilic period);
  • Since the above is true, that means the book of James is probably the first book of the New Testament written, most likely in the mid-to-late 40s AD.

The book of James is concise, practical, and controversial:

  • Concise because it is only five chapters long, so it is direct and to the point;
  • Practical in that it seeks to describe what real faith looks like and how it should work;
  • Controversial because many believed it contradicted the Apostle Paul and his teachings regarding faith and works (which it doesn’t)! For these reasons and more, I love this book!

For today’s study, we will look at only one verse: James 1:2

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” (NASB)

Let me emphasize two crucial points gleaned from this passage (and which coincide with our above bullet points):

1. Everyone will ‘hop from a host of hardships’ (my translation)

I like my cute, alliterative translation better than most others because while the New American Standard (NASB) gives us a good literal translation of the text, it ignores the alliteration that is in the original Greek among the words ‘encounter, trials, and various.’ This alliteration is important to acknowledge as a literary device, because it was intended to augment the importance of the statement: You will face many different kinds of trials!

Let’s briefly unpack this first statement:

  • All Christians (‘my brethen’) will face trials! James could have said “if” you encounter trials, but he chose to say “when”, stressing even more the importance of learning how to respond to tough times since we will all face them!
  • “Trials” is a rich and broad term that can refer to both outward struggles such as persecutions, or the inward struggles such as sins like greed, lust, etc. Context will dictate which is being emphasized, and here the context surely refers to the outward struggles, as James will talk about the inward struggles a few verses later (V. 13ff).
  • “Various” reminds us that trials can be of many different kinds. In other words, stop comparing your trials to your neighbor’s, and instead, focus on how you are suppose to get through your struggles.
  1. How do we have an “inadequate view of suffering” today?

This is a great quote, and also I believe accurate assessment, from the German theologian Helmut Thielicke.[1]

Personally, I struggled with this for many years because I listened to other people and false teachers instead of the Word of God. What were some of these inadequate views I held onto? Lots of things that honestly I wanted to hear: things like, “If you belong to God, nothing bad will ever happen to you!” Another one I believed: “If bad things happen to you, there must be some sin in your life; consequently get rid of that sin and you will get rid of the suffering too!” I could go on, but you get the point.

Slowly I began to realize that these views of suffering did not correlate with the Word of God. For instance, here in James, he boldly informs us that we should not be surprised when tough times come our way, but in fact, tough times and trials must be expected! Accepting this point may be half the battle in learning to respond properly.

And not only that, but in the days ahead you will learn that an adequate view of suffering reminds us:

  • Suffering is to be expected (as we just learned!)
  • Suffering has a purpose (this we will learn in the next post!)
  • Suffering is to be received with joy (this we will learn soon!)

IN THE WORLD

Prayerfully answers these questions:

  • What trials/suffering are you going through today?
  • How are you responding during your trial?
  • Evaluate your view of suffering – is it ‘inadequate’ like the two examples I gave above, or biblical?

Lastly, pray to God thanking him for the truth of his Word, and the power, by His Spirit, it has to correct all of our ‘inadequate’ views.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg. and Mariam J. Kamell, James: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), p. 49. This is one of my favorite commentaries for the book of James.

What is In the Word and World?

If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life Is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less. (The Apology, 38a)

 I love this quote from Plato reportedly said by his hero Socrates during his trial. Why? It reminds me of two things that I also earnestly believe:

  • We should desire to speak with people about virtue, or excellent things daily;
  • We should examine our lives daily.

That is what I hope to achieve through my writings in In the Word and World. I am Randy Allison and here are some quick facts about me:

  • I am a man of faith desperately trying to understand more of what faith is while also striving to understand how we should live as people of faith in today’s world;
  • I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am! The older I get, the more I truly understand what Socrates purportedly said, “I know that I don’t know.”
  • I love to teach, whether it’s God’s word, religion, philosophy, or whatever! I love that moment when people learn something new for the first time, and hopefully it’s something that can make their lives better and more meaningful;
  • I’m a better speaker than writer – hope it’s not too obvious!
  • I love reading, especially about the Christian faith, but also anything concerning ethics and philosophy;
  • My life went off-track fourteen years ago from my preconceived notions, and I still can’t make sense of it!
  • Lastly, I love bullet-points!

IN THE WORD

If I may return to Socrates, I believe he was right but unfortunately also lacking. He was right to seek to converse with people about virtue, or excellence (for instance, how could a human live an excellent life?), but he was lacking in his definition of excellence. I believe excellence begins with Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture and that is what we should seek to talk with people about. And then, each and every day we should examine how we are living, and to make sure our lives match Jesus’ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Consequently, I have three purposes for launching this blog:

  • To inspire people to read the Bible daily
  • To assist people in understanding the Bible
  • To suggest ways of applying God’s truth to their lives

If I can achieve those lofty goals, then we will be talking about excellent things, hopefully with other people, and each will be given the opportunity to examine our lives.

I commit to you I will:

  • Post at least three times a week (and hopefully more in 2015!);
  • Live what I post (by God’s power and strength);
  • Not be boring (life’s too short and I’m too busy!)

To wrap up, let me conclude with a verse from Scripture that declares what I’ve just stressed – that Jesus is the true and excellent One as declared in Scripture:

“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20 NIV)

IN THE WORLD

How would you answer these questions?

  • Today we were reminded to discuss excellent things/truth with each other. How much of our conversations with others tend to be about trivial matters? Give a percentage.
  • Why is the ‘unexamined life’ not worth living?
  • Lastly, take a moment to pray confessing any sins you know of to the Excellent One, and then ask for the power to live life as exemplified by our Savior Jesus.

In the next post, we will begin a study of the book of James. It will be great to have you along for the journey!