At the beginning of 2022, my church began studying the book of James. This book is so helpful and practical in many ways. But one of the ways that it helps me personally is helping me to see when I’m focused on the wrong things.
Or maybe a better way to say it is, when I’m focused on what won’t last.
The Perennial Issue
James 1:9-11 introduces a perennial issue: our relationship with wealth. More specifically, it challenges the all-too-frequent assumption in a western society that wealth equates blessing or value. But James flips this assumption entirely, writing:
9 Let the brother of humble circumstances boast in his exaltation, 10 but let the rich boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field. 11 For the sun rises and, together with the scorching wind, dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance perishes. In the same way, the rich person will wither away while pursuing his activities.
The poor, he says, have cause to boast—to be proud in a godly sense, because they have a special place in God’s kingdom. They know that all they have is from God. They don’t hear the words of Jesus’s example of how to pray, saying “Give us today our daily bread,” as a truism (Matt. 6:11). It’s a way of life. Every day, every moment, is lived by faith. This is the faith of the majority church, not just throughout history, in places like Ethiopia, in Nicaragua, in Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, China and dozens of other nations, it’s what faith looks like right now.
It’s the kind of faith that looks at their circumstances as an opportunity to boast in God, in His provision; glorifying Him with great joy in all things.
But to our cultural ears, that is strange.
When We’re Focused on What Won’t Last
In our society, the wealthy are exalted. They are our cultural icons whether they became wealthy through their ingenuity, abilities, or good old-fashioned dumb luck.
Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk… While all have different stories of gaining wealth, they’re all primarily known to us today for one reason only:
But we still esteem them. We still exalt them. And, let’s be honest, if you were as insanely wealthy as them, you’d probably build yourself a spaceship, too.
The promise of wealth is the great hope of American society, certainly in the last century has been built upon this value. It’s the goal we’re called to pursue. It’s the promise of entrepreneurship—that it’s time for you to take charge of your financial future; stop making money for someone else and do it for yourself. It’s the hope held out by lotteries and casinos—that one big win will change your life! It’s even embedded in how we look at our churches—that assets, activities, and attendance are signs of God’s blessing.
Now here’s the thing: sometimes, people actually do have their lives changed through these things. Some people do start businesses that take the world by storm. Some people do hit it big in Vegas. And some churches really do see these kinds of measurable signs of growth.
What We Need to Know About Ourselves
For every instance where this might be true, there are many examples of failure—people who have lost everything trying to get their big idea off the ground, or after an initial success were revealed to be frauds. There are people who’ve gone into ruin because they were sure that the big win was just one play away. And sadly we’ve all heard more than our fair share of stories of churches where their apparent good fruit turned out to be rotten.
What we think of as success may not actually be.
Wealth doesn’t last.
It can evaporate overnight.
Trusting in it will always fail us.
But God never fails.
God is always here. He always cares. God always helping those who cannot help themselves.
Personally, whether we’re financially affluent or we have more month than money at the end of every pay, let’s refuse to play the comparison game, the one society wants us to play. We aren’t defined by our zip code, bank account, or 401(k).
We are defined by our Creator, as being made in His image, worthy of dignity and respect. Rich or poor, that is who we are.
And if we are in Christ, if we have been saved from our sins through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are defined as God’s beloved children, and, as we’ll see in a minute, a kind of first fruits of His purposes in this world. Rich or poor, that is who we are.
Keeping Our Focus on What Matters Most
While being a wise steward of what God’s entrusted to us is a virtue, increased wealth isn’t a sign of God’s blessing. It’s possible that we’re putting our identity in the wrong place, finding our value in what moths will destroy than in the One who provides for our every need.
As individuals and as churches, it’s tempting to focus on what we don’t have, or what’s unknown. Things that are, more often than not, outside of our control. And there’s a problem with that because what we focus on, as individuals and as churches, defines who we become.
Our concerns shape our identity.
And what God wants all of us to focus is one thing: the mission that He’s called us to. he mission all Christians throughout time and space have been called to—to be disciples who are making disciples to His glory—and trust Him to meet the needs that arise along the way.