The Epistle to James and How to Sort Yourself Out

Sort yourself out

I’ve been doing Sunday school lessons on the book of James for weeks. It’s been challenging and enriching. I’ve also been listening to Jordan Peterson’s lectures for the last year or so. And in them he uses the phrase “sort yourself out” frequently. One morning, I decided I would read the book of James through the lens of “sorting yourself out.” Let’s define sorting yourself out as something like this: looking at the parts of your life that are preventing you from being what you know or at least think you should be and reordering them to pursue that good efficiently. So to sort yourself out might mean to stop buying videogames on steam sales that you’ll never have time to play when you know you need to pay off student loans or buy groceries. Or it might mean to submit your desire to get the last word in a fight for the goal of peaceable relationships.

Dr. Peterson never said this exactly, but he did, roughly speaking say something along those lines. That, I would say, is a good supposition.

 

Here’s what I found:

  1. Own your trials (James 1:2-4 and 1:13-15)
  2. Pray for wisdom before rescue (James 1:5-8 and James 5:13)
    James says to pray in the midst of trials for wisdom. This is powerful because our first instinct is to pray for difficult times to end. And James does endorse this notion at the end of the book. But it seems that prior to praying for God to miracle us out of a rough patch, James says to pray for wisdom. This is connected, I think, to two things. One is that most of us know what will solve our problems because we’ve heard wisdom and we have a conscience. And so, to ask for it from God reorders our minds to make us perceptive to what might already be present in us. But also, we’re asking God to give us genuine insight that we may not currently have to solve the problems that we’re facing. This is directly connected to owning our trials. James also says that if you ask insincerely or with a double mind, you won’t get wisdom. What does this mean? It means that if you ask for help out of your trial without a willingness to perhaps let go of the parts of your life that are causing you problems, you will not benefit from the prayer.
  3. Submit to the highest good you can imagine (James 1:17 and James 4:7)
    Saint Anselm defined God as the being which is the highest being that could be conceived. And so, whatever the highest ideal we have in our minds is, that is, subjectively speaking, our God. And then God is, objectively infinitely more true, good, and beautiful than that. And so James is saying that God is the source of all goodness and to submit yourself to God. Many of us willingly do things in a manner that does not reflect God himself or his goodness and even more so, we do not even do things in a manner that reflects our own highest conception of the good. And James says that we need to get that straight.
  4. Judge yourself, then act (James 1:21-25, James 2:14-26, and James 3:13-18)
    James then tells us that God’s moral law, contained in Scripture, is the standard by which we must judge ourselves just as we judge ourselves in a mirror. This reflection upon Scripture is meant to give us a picture of how shabby we are morally so that we can shave, shower, comb our hair, and straighten out our clothes. It’s not enough to believe that God’s law is good. And it’s actually worse to believe God’s law and use it to simply judge how bad others are. Instead we have to believe God and do what he says is best, and “it will be accounted” as righteousness to us. James also paints a picture of the worst possible version of yourself and the best possible version of yourself in 3:13-18. The idea is to simultaneously give you a future so horrifying that you run from it like hell, literally, and a future so beautiful and enthralling that you seek it like a river of pleasures and heavenly joy (Psalm 36:8 and Psalm 46:4).
  5. Let Jesus define your vision of glory (James 2:1)
    James briefly mentions that Jesus is the Lord of Glory. For Christians and maybe for any non-Christian in Western Civilization, it’s deeply important that we fully imbibe the story of Jesus in its details, broad strokes, and multiple layers of meaning. And James is telling the early Christians that the Christian faith is a faith that doesn’t reject the concept of glory, but a faith that defines glory as “whatever Jesus is.” Learning to see Jesus as the wise Lord with true teachings, the prototype of perfect humanity, an archetypal figure whose journey through chaos can be a picture of our own, the lamb who takes away the sins of the world, the second person of the Godhead, the way the truth and the life, the resurrected master of the cosmos, and so-on goes a long way in our efforts to sort out our lives.
  6. Start with the little things: the tongue (James 3:2)
    James says that getting our lives together requires taking control of what we say. But the claim seems to be but one expression of a deeper Biblical truth, that if we’re faithful in small matters, God will see to it that we have authority in larger ones (Luke 16:10). The idea is that if you can take responsibility for your tongue, then you’ll learn to control the other habits of your body. Similarly, if you can clean your room or your car, then maybe you’ll start having a better picture of how to clean your heart or your relationships at work or in your home.
  7. Let sorrow make you good (James 4:8-9)
    Sometimes, our circumstances cause us deep deep sorrow. James helps us to see the value of sorrow by encouraging it, despite the fact that earlier in the letter he commends joy in the most trying of times. How can both be true? First, many of our sorrows are our own fault. Not all, but many. If we look to them and weep as he suggests, then we may have insight into what we need to do to cleanse our hearts. Cleansing your heart, is a biblical way of saying, “Sort yourself out.” Second, sometimes our joy is false and we can only learn that we should be sad if we draw near to God and discover how tattered we are due to sins to which we’ve made a commitment which rivals our commitment to God.
  8. Virtue outlasts your achievements (James 2:5, James 4:14, and James 1:9-11)
    The highest form of success we can have is to be virtuous when we die. This idea is stoic but it’s also Biblical. Happiness as a state of life includes more than mere virtue, as the Bible speaks of a life with more goods than mere virtue (see Proverbs). But you cannot always control your possessions, family, and local economy, but you can control your actions.
  9. Resist the devil daily (James 4:7)
    Assume that Satan is the god of the earth (2 Corinthians 4:4). This means that our culture, which shapes our desires, is probably filled with bad ideas, bad habits, false knowledge, counterfeit gospels, and fake news. Not only so, but you’re a product of your culture. So, you’re full of those things, too. So to resist the devil is to resist (or re-aim) the darkest parts of yourself toward the good and to resist the temptations of civilization to stifle truth telling, creativity, love, service, or moral purity. And the devil, in the senses above is without and within. Good luck.
  10. Sacrifice your plans to God (James 4:13-15)
    The Bible is pro-planning. But it’s against holding on to plans in an arrogant way. James says to say, “if God wills we will do ‘this or that.’” The idea isn’t to superstitiously say that. In James, the word “say” reflects your intentions. And so what James is getting at is that at any moment, our best plans for the future must be subject to revision based on our understanding of the will of God. The Old Testament sacrifices are a good metaphor for this. You might have a prized lamb and it is the best possible thing your crops produce, but instead of basing your whole life on that, you must be willing, should the need arise, to sacrifice it to God. In doing this you can sort yourself out when it comes to your competent plans for the future and the level of frustration you’re willing to experience if those plans betray you.
  11. Humble yourself if you want honor (James 4:6 and James 4:10)
    Most people want honor, but few even consider that you might receive honor from the highest possible good (God). And yet, this is precisely what James says. And if we make honor itself the highest good, we’ll find ourselves doing things we regret deeply because we’ll do what the world around us tells us to do without reference to conscience, the truth, or our own intuition.[1] But if instead we think in terms of a covenant or contract with God wherein he promises to make those who humble themselves great by his standards, then we’re not constrained by culture except in the sense Paul talks about in Romans when he said to think about “what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17).
  12. Learn to save a brother without judging (James 4:11-12 and James 5:19-20)
    James also tells us that our social lives need sorting. And of course, that’s included in he says about the tongue, doing the will of God, planning our future, and judging ourselves. But a large part of it is learning to avoid having a condemnatory attitude toward others. I think that this is done by seeing ourselves as in need of judging first. This is a principle James outlines in chapters one and two. And Jesus certainly says as much in Matthew 7:1-5. But after judging ourselves and seeing the depth of darkness in our own hearts, we are now competent to observe the evil in others. And if we see it we can guard against evil people, which James talks about in James 2:6-7 and James 5:1-6. But we also have the power to gently correct those who are sinning. And I think we can do this by talking about our own struggle with sin and what was necessary to overcome. But we can also do it by warning as sternly or gently as circumstances warrant from the position of loving family rather than condemning judge.

I frequently feel the need to finish a sermon with “so there” or “take that.” Instead I’ll just say, “any thoughts?”

Footnote

[1] An interesting thing that I really need to think about for a long time is the relationship between conscience, the sinful/deceitful heart in Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and the usefulness of personal intuition and the contributions of our unique personality to our calling.

Jordan Peterson’s Online University

Over at Captain Capitalism, Aaron Clarey made a point I don’t find fully convincing.

It’s a brief and hidden point in a post I otherwise agree with entirely. He mentions Jordan Peterson’s desire to offer a liberal arts education online and calls the degree Peterson would offer worthless. 

Now, in context, Clarey has affirmed that which I affirm: that the modern university’s liberal arts program is worthless. He describes it here:

Yes, liberal arts degrees, especially the social justice warrior slop Coursera is serving up, are worthless, pointless, even damaging to the students naive enough to take them.  Yes, these courses/degrees will ruin their lives, at minimum sending them down the career path of poverty and e-begging, at worst replacing family, love, freedom, and excellence with a fervent ideological addiction to socialism.  And yes, you can learn this slop for free, with the exact same employment prospects, as going to the library and reading ALL the liberal arts/Marxist books you want.

With this I absolutely agree and majoring in that crap not only leaves you nearly unemployable, but it also makes you resentful and teaches you to reject the past and every good thing you might learn from it or that it has given you.

But I think that the vision Peterson has for a liberal arts degree is of the sort that made those degrees worth having in the past. Clarey has a “Clarey test” for whether or not a person might have good advice. One of them is whether or not they have a worthless degree and he gives history and other humanities degrees a pass if they’re before the Marxist/Postmodern shift in the universities. If Peterson’s vision is like this, and people learn to think logically, creatively, precisely, and deeply through his program then I think it would teach people to be extremely happy in an economic and spiritual sense. 

Anyway, Clarey’s book are good. I recommend them.

Jordan Peterson and the Psychology of Redemption

Psychology of God Belief

In his excellent talk on the psychology of redemption in Christianity, Dr. Jordan Peterson explains how the Christian vision of God creates balance in the people’s minds. It does do by allowing for them to pursue an ideal without treating their own personal interpretations or reductions of that ideal as absolute in themselves. How? Because God is beyond our understanding, except as the highest possible good.

A New Testament Theological Take

What Peterson’s take might mean for the Christian is that our vision of God provides an ideal to pursue. But what idea? Primarily, it is that of the virtue revealed in Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, it is the Old Testament, interpreted through Christ. Finally, the virtue evident through the study of nature. But, since God and even the highest human character possible are ultimately incomprehensible, conversations with truth-telling as the goal must occur so that we can make the course corrections necessary to attain to the ideal. This is why Paul can say that he presses onward toward the goal, but also that he does not think he has attained to the goal of perfect participation in God or in the character of Jesus Christ.

The Jordan Peterson Video:

Here’s my own take on that concept:

Here are some of the relevant passages of Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-34 ESV “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (27) And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (28) And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, (29) yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (30) But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (31) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (34) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (8) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (12) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, (2) but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (3) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (4) having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

 

Philippians 3:12-14 ESV Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.