In his singular epistle in the New Testament, James addresses communities of Jewish Christians who are experiencing conflicts among themselves. I would hypothesize two main problems for the conflict they are experiencing. Firstly, there are a
However, it appears based upon James 2:14-26 that a distorted version of Paul’s message of grace and justification has permeated the church, where people think firstly a) justification can be had by faith at the exclusion of works and that b) faith and works are divided among the people like the spiritual gifts. This may also be combined with Paul’s struggle to manage the two different patterns of life that are had by Jews and Gentiles, that is in a misunderstood way used to reinforce the separation of faith and works. My speculative intuition would suggest that his distortion has come from the Corinthian community.1 James and 1 Corinthians shares many similar themes, such as faith and works, distinctions between two contrasting forms of wisdom,2 the role of internal desire in sin, etc. If this connection is the case, then the problem of ambition and status in Corinth may have also had a
Whether my Corinthian hypothesis is correct or not, however, my hope is to highlight the role of status and ambition in the problems James addresses. This provides the setting for what James writes in 4:13-17:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.NRSV
What strikes me as particularly opaque about this passage upon first glance is the relationship between people’s ambitious visions for the future and then the committing of sin through omission of the right thing to do. James uses the logical conjunction of οὖν so there is clearly a relationship, but it doesn’t appear clear to our modern eyes. What does ambition have to do with sins of omission? It doesn’t seem immediately apparent to us. I would suggest the Western ideology of objectivity has, ironically, blinded the more intellectual of us in unrealized subjectivity such that we can readily overlook the impacts our own purposes and dreams can have upon what actions we perform.
But, to draw an illustrative analogy some of us may be familiar with, either personally or from a distance, imagine a male who grew up in the
When we develop ambitions and big goals, our decision making changes. As we experience the movement towards these
This establishes the probable connection between ambition and the sins of omission that James exhorts against. If one is ambitious, thinking they will engage in a somewhat respectable business trade and make for themselves a better financial situation for themselves and their family, one can become susceptible to sins omission, as their values and decision making begin to shift. Their decision making becomes more and more defined by accomplishing these longed for goals, and, if not careful, can lead them to see the world only through these goals. Therefore, they hesitate to live in the proper relationship to each other in the community,
However, James instruction isn’t a criticism of dreams of a better future in and of itself. It would be unsympathetic, if not downright unempathetic, to suggest that people’s whose lives are mired in struggles should not wish and hope for a better future, that they should have no ambitions or dreams. It is understandable and even commendable under certain conditions to want to experience a different life. James
As a consequence, one’s view of the world and life becomes increasingly abstract, where we focus on simply the features of our experience that are relevant to our most cherished, valued goals rather than to all that is happening and occurring. Everything else becomes inconsequential and out of consciousness in the impassioned pursuit of a better life.
However, acceptance of the Divine contingency stipulates that we are not in entire control of our futures. It isn’t a denial of human action, as if we develop some sort of deterministic, divinely ordained fate that is automatically ours, whether we want it or not. God is not some legitimate-er of the prideful who feel their positions are assured and their entitlement. Nor is God heartless to the circumstances of the poor and oppressed. There is no hint of a Divinely determined fate in James’ letter, but his own rhetoric from the OT Scripture about God’s opposition of the proud and grace to the humble implicitly contradicts the notions of some secured fate. Human circumstances can change for the better and one can potentially enjoy a place of status and security, but it entails a basic attitude of the person who will “Submit to God and resist the devil.” (James 4:7)
When we accept the Divine contingency upon our lives, we do not deny our own responsibility or even the possible pursuit of dreams and hopes. However, it entails a degree of distancing of ourselves from our ambitions, to not let the determination of whether we are on the right path in life being made solely upon whether we are accomplishing these specific dreams and goals. When we do not give our ambitions center stage, our hearts are flexible and malleable enough to shift the way we evaluate the different circumstances we face in life. While in one circumstance, we may sacrifice time with friends so we can study and pursue our goals, in another circumstance, we can let go the furthering of our ambitions for the purpose of helping those in need. We can still continue to know the good thing to do and not allow the pull of temptation for one’s ambitions to overwhelm one’s sense of what is truly good and to be most valued.
However, when ambition and pride enter into people’s lives and the community, it can tear them apart, inside and out. The people whose ambitions have been legitimated by their positions and status can marshall this power against those who they deem a threat to their ambitions, whether this is true or not. Those who have been looked down upon and forgotten may resist, and themselves pursue an ambitions to compensate for the pain they experience. In the world whose understanding exhibits and is determined by the ‘wisdom’ of competitiveness in alignment with the realities of survival of the fittest that Darwin and others have observed, it can overlook the wisdom of love, peace, and compassion that is at the ultimate heart of the Creator God. Selfish ambition motivated by competitiveness, whether this desire for competition is rooted in compensating for injustices done to you or simply pure selfishness and sense of entitlement, selfish ambition that thinks God has guaranteed and legitimated your ambition and status so that you are free to pursue this goal no matter the other costs to yourself and others, this is the friendship with the world that James warns against and that injures people consciousness, so that the good they know is something they fail to do.
I remember during my time in seminary my own ambitions and dreams. I had a purpose on my life, a purpose that I felt God was leading me into, where I would pursue a PhD in Biblical Studies and try to be engaged in the life and work of the local church. I wanted to combine the academy and the local church in my own work as hopefully inched towards being a teacher, ideally of future Christian leaders and ministers. Meanwhile, I wanted a family of my own. I had, essentially, embraced the standard American dream, to make something of yourself and to have a family. I was conscious of this, and even initially knew that I could not let these things define me. Furthermore, I knew they were no guarantees, and I had a long ways to go both intellectually, relationally, and in terms of leadership to ever accomplish this that I might not reach these goals. But, as conflict and pain entered into my life due to a failure on my part, leading to other people who felt their own ambitions and entitlement, including in what they felt they deserved from me and my own life that they covered with, legitimated with, distorted from, and overgeneralized from their sense of grievances against me, I saw myself progressively change from the naive and occasionally immature but ultimately well-intended and caring person to a person who was rushing headlong towards my dreams to compensate for the pain, to win in life and to shame those who had crossed more boundaries and caused more pain than they could even imagine, and one could even begin to see the emergence of vengeance, to inflict the pain onto them that they had so callously inflicted onto me. Meanwhile, people would see who I really and was capable of and see me as someone who had enough value as friends, perhaps even for a female to grow close to and find me worthy Meanwhile, growing irritation and hostility towards others began to emerge from me, deforming my normally mild but friendly sarcasm into an increasingly biting cynicism. In the end, my life was becoming defined by my ambitions in a self-protective and hostile way, even as I started off in a genuine manner with good intentions.
But, as life would have it, my ambitions would not materialize. My academic progress was halted by the lack of acceptance to a further degree, my mind having been overburdened by the pain, my relationships to other people becoming reduced to the most basic attachments to my immediate family, fearful of any potential romantic attachments, my capacity for ministry in the local church hindered as I dealt with the
But, as I have grown to realize with the benefit of hindsight, prayer, further experience, and more study, while yes I was subject to a deep sense of unfairness that would make anyone grow defensive, brandish their anger and even make them lose their mind, in the end I never truly distanced myself from my ambitions with the Divine contingency. They were mine to possess, as I even had my own confident reasons for God’s leading of me; they were mine to protect, because it was God’s calling on my life; they were my entitlements, because in my mind God had made it so. And while certainly and truly, we are responsible for being faithful and unfaithfulness can potentially undercut and hinder any future that God may preferentially set out for us, never did the Divine contingency distance my own hearts towards the pursuit of these ambitions. Even as I was the recipient of injustice, I myself had a heart that was torn between peace and love and the developing attitude of mirroring the competitive, status-oriented, ambition-protecting, feeling of entitlement that had molded and controlled the nature and shape of the conflict in the first place and the latter was progressively encroaching upon my heart more and more. Darkness was prevailing over my heart as I began to embrace as fixed and fated the reality of the darkness I was thrown into.
It can be good to dream; it can be good to have ambitions. But if these ambitions and dreams are not embraced in our hearts in faith that recognizes the Divine contingency, our dreams and ambitions became the source of the problems, they can
- I won’t go further into my reasons for this hypotheses, because my ultimate purpose in what I am writing here doesn’t ultimately hinge on whether this is the case or not.
- However, I will state that if James is addressing a misunderstanding that came from the Corinthian community, James and Paul have differing views on the role of earthly wisdom. James charactization of it is as a source of evil, whereas Paul consider this wisdom as a potential source of evil but also as something that can be salvaged when taking captive to Christ.