Criticism and self-promotion destroys. Humility restores.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 August

James 4.11-17.

Continuing on his whole theme of pride and its destructiveness, James went after those Christians who took it upon themselves to critique and condemn others, and those Christians who exaggerate their big plans which ultimately aren’t gonna come to anything.

Starting with the bit about badmouthing Christians. You know the type. Every church has ’em. Sometimes they’re even in leadership.

James 4.11-12 KWL
11 Don’t badmouth one another, fellow Christians.
One who badmouths or criticizes a fellow Christian, badmouths and criticizes the Law.
If you criticize the Law, you aren’t a doer of the Law, but a critic.
12 Only one is the Law-giver and critic, with power to save and destroy.
Who are you to be your neighbor’s critic?

This passage confuses people because of the different ways we interpret katalaleíte/“you all speak evil.” After all there’s many ways to speak negatively. Might be minor nitpicking (“Her pasta sauce is bland”) or gossip (“Her husband’s banging the nanny”) or full-on condemnation (“She’s a liar”). There are lots of ways to speak negatively.

Most of the time I hear this passage used to rebuke gossips. But considering the context—James went straight to talking about the Law—it clearly doesn’t mean minor badmouthing. It’s the full-on condemnation. The stuff where Christians are accusing one another of sin. And not following the process Jesus outlined, Mt 25.15-20 but trying to work the court of public opinion. Good old-fashioned backstabbing.

Part of the problem with how people interpret this passage has to do with dispensationalism: The belief the Law used to be how God saved people, but thanks to Jesus we’re saved by grace, and therefore the Law no longer counts. So much wrong with that idea: God always saved people by grace, and the Law didn’t save anyone, but was granted to a saved people to show ’em how now to live. Yes, Jesus fulfilled large parts of the Law, but as anyone who knows their 10 commandments can tell you, plenty of it still applies. The Law still defines right and wrong.

If you think the Law no longer counts, you won’t see the problem with badmouthing and criticizing the Law. Heck, you’re already doing it yourself. And James’s instruction will go right over your head. You will—as many a Christian has—skip the Law parts, and figure it’s only about saying mean things. Stop backbiting, Christians!

Following James’s logic.

Okay, how does James figure badmouthing Christians is equivalent to badmouthing the Law?

Simple. The Law, as James quoted earlier in his letter, orders us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jm 2.8, Lv 19.18 If we’re badmouthing our neighbor, we clearly don’t give a rip about how the Law instructs us to treat ’em. Break one command and we’ve broken the whole of the Law. Jm 2.10 Doesn’t matter if we’ve not broken that command we’re so fixated about; Jm 2.11 we’re in the same boat as they. We’re all sinners.

So we all need God’s grace. Problem is, badmouthing Christians means we’re not practicing God’s grace. Which is a common problem with Christians who condemn and criticize one another by the Law: We do it wrong. A significant part of a righteous judge’s job is to be merciful. “Judgment is merciless when you don’t practice mercy,” James taught. Jm 2.13

But that’s what Christians do. We don’t judge one another with the goal to restore relationships. It’s never constructive criticism. We don’t want that. We want the sinners gone. Their sins offend us. Their sins are destroying our communities and nation. We want ’em destroyed, with extreme prejudice.

Yeah, some of this bad attitude also applies to gossip. It’s not about restoring relationships, but having juicy, entertaining material. The justification for this bad behavior is our “moral outrage” at how bad it is. But deep down, we’d rather they didn’t stop, ’cause then we’d run out of spectacle.

It’s all based on works of the flesh anyway. Our anger, divisiveness, hate, fight-picking, “investigating” of promiscuity and uncleanliness so we can critique it (or, let’s be honest, indulge in it vicariously): It’s indulging our unhealthy selfish desires, disguised as righteousness.

And this bears pointing out: Ever notice how the people who forcefully denounce one particular sin, frequently tend to get caught committing the very same sin? It’s ’cause they imagine the way to resist their biggest temptation, is to preach against it the most. Wrong. ’Cause they’re actually not resisting it: They set it front and center in their lives. Daring the fire to burn ’em.

If I assume the way to fight a porn addiction, is to preach against pornography on a regular basis… guess what I’m thinking and talking about on the regular? Yep, porn. I’d spend just as much time on it as I would if I indulged in it. Committing the sin actually isn’t much of a leap.

We Christians too often make biased, sinful, ulterior-motivated critics. So it’s best we leave the criticism to real judges: People who don’t have an ax to grind, people who truly aren’t tempted in these particular areas, people who can give a fair and godly interpretation of the Law because they’re following the Spirit, not the flesh. People who practice grace and mercy.

James didn’t even talk about such people. He leapt over them and went straight to the only righteous Judge in the cosmos. We’re to look to him for judgment. We, on the other hand, need to do our duty and follow his Law, not set ourselves up as his morals police. He judged us forgiven. We need to extend his grace to our fellow sinners.

Plans not submitted to God.

It’s not wrong to plan for the future. It is wrong to worry about things which God doesn’t want us to get wrapped up in. Mt 6.19-34 It is wrong to make plans which enrich us but do nothing for God. Lk 12.15-21 And it is wrong to make plans which don’t include God any.

As Christians, we’re supposed to center our lives around Christ, and submit everything to him. He’s to be incorporated into our plans. Not squeezed in at the last minute. Problem is, we don’t submit; we shoehorn God into our existing ideas. We don’t consult him about ’em; we just make them. If we ever do get God involved, it’s as an afterthought—“God, bless these grand ideas of mine!” And we definitely don’t want God to veto them.

James 4.13-17 KWL
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we’ll go to the city here;
we’ll work there a year; we’ll trade and profit.”
14 You who don’t know how tomorrow or life will turn out
you’re vapor. You appear briefly, then you pass away.
15 Say this instead: “When the Master wants, we’ll live—and do this or that.”
16 Currently you all emphasize your phony plans, and all such emphasis is evil.
17 So when one knows to do good, and doesn’t do it, to them it’s sin.

“When the Master wants” tends to be interpreted as, “If God objects, we won’t do it. But if he says nothing, go with the plan.” We don‘t consult God in the decision-making process. We decide, and never ask God for his opinion, advice, ideas—which are regularly way better than anything we came up with.

And certainly God’s plans are way less self-centered, greedy, or evil. We’re the ones who invent get-rick-too-quick schemes, who want money to pour like water through a broken levee, who want the big, successful, well-supported business. Or even the big, successful, well-financed ministry. Let’s be honest: Some of us aren’t building God’s kingdom so much as our own little monuments within it.

Maybe God doesn’t come dead last, but he’s obviously not first. That place is reserved for our success. Really, Mammon.

Cheap ’n evil.

Jesus teaches us to pursue God’s kingdom first, and leave everything else to be sorted out by God. Mt 6.33 James taught the same idea, but from another direction: Pursuing our stuff first, when we know our service to God takes priority, is sin.

Yeah, we’ve all seen Christians try to excuse this behavior by pasting a veneer of Christianity over it. Their business “follows Christian principles”—although considering how their employees don’t work enough hours to qualify for healthcare, these “Christian principles” somehow skipped the bit about curing the sick. Lk 10.9 Hmmm.

I’m not knocking business or capitalism. We gotta earn a living. But earning a living and growing the kingdom are two different things. If I paint your porch, do a good job, don’t cheat you, and you pay me: I may not have sinned (as no Christian should), but I still generated wealth on earth instead of treasure in heaven. Mt 6.19-21 Doesn’t make it evil; just means it’s not heavenly. Don’t delude yourself.

If I’m not earning a living—it’s a charity, like Habitat for Humanity—arguably that grows the kingdom. But Christians wanna have their cake and eat it too, and figure their Christian veneer makes their for-profit concerns “Christian.” There, they’re fooling themselves. The business doesn’t grow the kingdom, but its own bank account. That’s its purpose. Again, not necessarily evil; just not heavenly. (The lying to yourself, or the pretense, would be the evil part.)

As Christians we have a duty to be moral and ethical in business. Not just ’cause it’s good business; because we answer to Jesus. But businesses aren’t outposts of Jesus’s kingdom. And businesses which force their legalistic rules upon their employees because they’re “Christian”—well, that’s just cultish. More false religion, and doesn’t please God any.

True religion cares for the needy. Cares for employees. Gives ’em opportunities to improve themselves, a living wage, a safe environment at work, and (in the United States) provides healthcare for their families. It loves employees like family, not like mere hirelings. Yet so many “Christian businesses” take the attitude of “Can’t I do what I like with my money?” Mt 20.15 —conveniently forgetting the next part of that verse, “Or are you envious because I’m generous?”

Which leads us to James’s definition of sin in verse 17: If you know what to do, and aren’t doing it, you’re sinning.

The scriptures define sin a few different times:

  • Ignoring God’s Law. 1Jn 3.5
  • Doing wrong. 1Jn 5.17
  • Trusting other things than God. Ro 14.23
  • The product of foolish thinking. Pr 24.9

And here, willful violation of God’s expectations.

Some claim sin is when we willfully violate anyone’s expectations. That’s what my youth pastors tried to teach me, growing up: God is pleased when we obey our parents, Cl 3.20 so when your parents command you, disobeying ’em is sin. Kids will rightfully object: What about when the ’rents order us to sin? Believe it or not, some youth pastors (particularly of the Bill Gothard school of thought) insist, “Doesn’t matter. You’re not mature enough to second-guess them. Your first duty is to obey your parents.”

Well, my atheist dad had previously ordered me to not believe a word of my youth pastors’ rubbish. Now what do I do?

Ironically I’ve been obeying Dad. I’ve spent the last several decades sifting through all the rubbish my youth pastors taught me, keeping the good, tossing the junk. “Your first duty is to obey your parents” is the junk. Our first duty is to obey Jesus. His Law defines good and evil. Disregarding it is sin.

I don’t sin by disobeying humans. I sin by disobeying God, and not loving them, wanting the best for them, treating them as enemies instead of neighbors, and dismantling my relationships. God sets our standards. No one else.