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Book of James: Week 2

James 1:12-25

“Just one,” I told myself.  Just one cookie.  I had made a whole platter of chocolate peanut butter no-bake cookies for an event, and then the event got canceled.  So those cookies were just sitting there, calling to me.  I decided one would be fine.  And it was better than fine.  It was delicious!  So I decided one more wouldn’t hurt.  And then…well, I’m not going to tell you how many of those cookies I ate.  But I will say that when it was all said and done, I had a stomach ache and no appetite for dinner.  I gave in to the temptation of those cookies, and all I could say afterward was, “What was I thinking?!?”  And yet, the next day, I found myself craving just one more cookie.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about.  Maybe you’ve never heard the siren song of chocolate peanut butter no-bake cookies.  Or maybe cookies aren’t your weakness, but there’s something else that calls to you.  Potato chips, perhaps?  Or jelly beans?  You may not be tempted by food at all, but maybe you find it hard to resist biting your nails, or doom scrolling, or overworking, or yelling at people in traffic.  Of course, sometimes our cravings can turn into unhealthy addictions, particularly in the cases of alcohol and drugs, gambling and pornography.  But whether or not we identify as addicts, all of us experience temptation in one way or another.  All of us have desires and cravings that can sometimes lead us to ask ourselves, “What was I thinking?!?”  Even the Apostle Paul had such moments.  In Romans, chapter 7, he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do.  Instead, I do the thing that I hate.” We are all creatures of desire.  We all have cravings and temptations that can lead us to do things we hate.   (1)

James is well aware of this tendency within us.  In today’s scripture, he notes that we are all tempted by cravings, and he warns that if we’re not careful, those cravings can turn into sin, and that sin can lead to death.  Now, that might sound a bit extreme to some of us.  I mean, how could my craving for chocolate peanut butter no-bake cookies possibly lead me to sin?  It’s not like I’m going to rob a grocery store just so I can satisfy my cookie craving.  

But the truth is, the objects of our cravings are often just stand-ins for some other internal hunger.  We’re craving peace, and we seek out a cookie.  We’re craving connection, and we dive into overworking.  We’re craving comfort, and we numb out on our phones.  Is that sin?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s our brains’ way of trying to find a quick fix for whatever is really going on.  And sometimes that might be necessary just to get through the day.  But when we only try to satisfy our cravings with external things that don’t, in fact, ultimately satisfy us, we can become disconnected from ourselves and from God.  Therapist Aundi Kolber calls this disconnection “white-knuckling,” when we either consciously or unconsciously deny warning signs from our minds and bodies in order to cope with situations that we find overwhelming or disturbing. (2) When this happens, we become less of who God calls us to be, and it can be more difficult for us to love God, ourselves, and others well.  And this can, in the words of James, give birth to sin.  

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  One scholar points out that James is a “keen observer of human nature and he pays close attention to the details of everyday living.” (3) James seems to understand the connection between our internal experiences and our outer behavior–the ways in which our cravings can lure us away from ourselves and from God; and the ways in which this can affect our relationships with others.  The remedy for all of this, as James sees it, is for followers of Jesus to internalize the word of God–to cultivate God’s word within us, just as a gardener would nurture a precious seed.  “Welcome the word planted deep inside you,” he says, “the very word that is able to save you.” 

But in order to cultivate God’s word within us, it’s helpful to be keen observers of our own inner landscape.  We’re called to pay attention to the needs of our bodies, minds, and spirits, to be honest about them and tend to them.  Richard Rohr notes that when we take the time to be present with ourselves, we will eventually and always experience the presence of God.(4)  And when we do this, we intentionally provide a hospitable environment for God’s word to take root and grow.  In her book, “Consider the Birds,” author Debbie Blue recounts a retreat on prayer led by a Catholic priest and theologian named James Alison.  According to Alison, Blue says, “prayer is the place where we allow our desires to be reached by God.  [...]  In prayer we own up to our desires, [...] whether or not they seem acceptable.  It’s not helpful to hide–to pretend [that] what we want is what we ought to want, instead of what we really want but we can’t mention.  When you don’t admit you want things”, Allison says, “it runs you.  [It’s] only when you can bring together the words I and desire that what you want becomes alterable.  In prayer, [...] we open ourselves to the one who wants to give us desire that will lead to life, freedom from slavery, love, relationship–intimacy.  God does not desire to repress or oppress us,” Allison says, “but rather to bring us more fully to life.”  (5)

In other words, in prayer, we can admit to ourselves and to God what we’re truly craving.  We can be attentive to our inner landscape--what’s going on in our bodies, minds, and spirits, and we can allow the gift of God’s presence to tend to us–to help meet our needs and transform our desires.  This allows us to respond to life’s struggles and anxieties, and our own cravings, with intention, rather than reactivity or compulsion.  It reminds me of a prayer by St. Augustine, who wrote, “You move us to delight in praising you; for you have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”(6)  Our hearts are restless until they find rest in God.

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that prayer is a magic cure-all for every craving and addiction.  I don’t believe that most people can simply pray away unhelpful coping mechanisms, especially when they’ve been turning to them for years.  When we’re really struggling with cravings or addiction, it’s important to seek the help of a therapist or a 12-step group.  And yet, I do think that prayer can help to ground us and heal us from the inside so that our outer behavior more consistently reflects the person God created us to be, no matter what challenges we face.

And this, I think, is the hope that James has for his readers:  that God’s word isn’t just something that goes in one ear and out the other; something that we forget about at the first sign of distraction or struggle.  But that God’s word would grow and flourish within us so much that we put it into practice in our everyday lives, in all that we say and do.  In the end, this will not only help us to love ourselves and God better, but it will help us to love others better too, as we’ll be quicker to listen, slower to speak, and slower to grow angry.

So, friends, wherever you are right now, whatever is going on in your body, mind, or spirit, I’d like to invite you to sit in silence for a moment.  This is an opportunity to be present with yourself and open yourself to the presence of God.  If this is new to you, it may feel a bit uncomfortable, and that’s ok–just try to hang in.  If it helps to have a prompt, you can ask yourself what you’re feeling right now.  How does your body feel?  What emotions are coming up?  What do you desire right now?  And then just offer all of that to God.  After about a minute, I’ll close us in prayer….

O God, just like a deer craves streams of water, so we thirst for you.  We ask that you would be present with us, even as we try to be present with ourselves.  Help us to pay attention to our bodies, minds, and spirits, so that your word can grow and flourish within us.  May we love you, may we love ourselves, and may we love others well, no matter what challenges we face.  We ask all of this in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Romans 7:15, CEB.

[2]  Aundi Kolber, “Try Softer,” Carol Stream:  Tyndale, 2020, Pg. 19.

[3]  Archie Smith, Jr., “James 1:17-27:  Pastoral Perspective,” Louisville:  John Knox, 2009, Pg. 14.

[4]  Richard Rohr, “The Naked Now:  Learning to See as the Mystics See,” New York:  Crossroad, 2009, Pg. 59.

[5]  Debbie Blue, “Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible,” Nashville: Abingdon, 2013.

[6]  St. Augustine of Hippo, “Confessions,” 1, 1.5, (paraphrased).

Discipleship Guide James Week 2
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