Sunday, 14 December 2014

A time to be miserable?

Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.  James 4:9-10.
What! What!

Doesn't the Bible tell us to rejoice in God? Aren't we supposed to be a happy, worshipping and joyful people? Surely! So what can possibly have got into James here? He sounds a right misery, to put it mildly: "Grieve, mourn, wail" - oh dear! "Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom" - surely not! What's going on? What's your problem, James?

These verses remind us of a vital rule for Bible-reading - never pluck just a verse or two out of its context and make it out to be the whole truth.

No, James isn't just a gloom merchant, determined to squelch all the happiness out of Christian discipleship. If you go back a few verses you will see that he is talking about a very particular situation. Apparently people have been falling out with one another in a pretty dramatic way, fighting, quarrelling, coveting - even killing. They have been compromising themselves with the corrupt standards of the outside world - so much so that James describes them as "adulterers".

We don’t know the details, but it’s clear that something really bad has been going on among the people James is writing to. And so, he says, it's time for a bit of heart-searching and repentance. It's a time for tears rather than laughter.

Didn’t James's big brother, Jesus himself, say something a little similar: "Blessed are those who mourn" (Matthew 5:4)? He wasn't talking about people "mourning" in the sense of having lost a loved one through death; no, he was talking of people looking at the sins within them, and no doubt all around them too, and feeling deep sorrow and regret.

Let’s be really clear. I'm glad, and I hope you are too, that the dominant note in the Bible is that of joy. Sadly, there have been times in history when God's people have forgotten that. One of my favourite quotes is from the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (born 1850), the man who wrote Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and My Hyde. One Sunday he wrote in his diary, "Went to church this morning, and was not depressed " - as if that was the most amazing thing in the world. How sad! Yes, we Christians of all people have much to be happy about - thank God for that.

But it isn't the whole story. If we lapse into sin, if we lose touch with God and do things which are against his will - if we fall into pride or materialism or immorality or dishonesty or greed or self-centredness or malicious thoughts or jealousy - then a bit of mourning is called for.

Repentance is all about honest soul-searching, turning round in our minds and hearts. It's about tears; it's about pain. In one of Jesus' most powerful stories he talks about the man who went up into the temple to pray. He felt so utterly wretched in the presence of a holy God that "he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner' ". I suspect that James knew that story his brother had told...

No, James 4:9-10 doesn't say it all, not by a long way. But there are times when it is precisely what we need - even, perhaps, in the run-up to Christmas. A word to you today? A word to me?

And let’s never forget this: once we have taken this painful step, real joy is not far behind. The last words of verse 10 are important: if we do truly grieve and repent of our sins, God “will lift you up”. Rejoice in that!
Oh God, forgive me when I am shallow and trivial, when my life is full of hollow laughter, and I am deeply in sin. Please give me tears of true repentance, and so restore to me the joy of your salvation. Amen.

Is there something in your life today that calls for tears of repentance?

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