Seek Ye First
I was visiting with a friend the other day, and she asked me the regular, “How are things with you?” And I said, “Oh, they’re good. Everybody’s good.” And I shared a little about what everyone is involved with…then she asked, “Are you happy?” To be honest, it’s not something I often think about. So, it took me a minute. “Happy…I don’t know,” I said, “I am content.” You see, “happy” is associated with celebrations, with successes, with being cheery, carefree, and untroubled; while “content” is about being satisfied, pleased, and fulfilled, about not being disturbed by the desire of anything more.
That conversation came back to mind as I studied the Scripture for this week from James. The world presents constant pleasure – perpetual happiness – as not only something that is possible – something we deserve, something we ought to have.
The reality is that no one is ecstatic or overjoyed or blissful all the time, and none of us goes through life consistently cheery, carefree, and untroubled. Yet, our culture encourages us to present a happy façade. Just look at Facebook – it is a collection of carefree moments, a journal of success and a catalog of good fortune. So, when we look around, everyone else seems happy. The Joneses seem to have a perfect, loving marriage and obedient, brilliant children. Your friend buys a new car, and your coworker always seems to have newer and better stuff than you do. And none of them ever seem worried about money. And we compare our lives to the facades we see, so when we ask ourselves “Am I happy?” Inevitably, the answer is “no – not compared to everyone else!”
Now here’s where we have a choice – between being friends with God and friends with the world. For James and his 1st Century hearers, friendship was not casual. Designating someone as your friend meant that you considered yourselves to have “one soul” sharing” the same attitudes and values and perceptions.” Friends saw things the same way. And establishing a friendship was a much discussed transition in relationship.
If we choose to be friends with the world, we follow our desires, responding to our envy and selfish ambition, trying to possess happiness – a little shopping trip, a few drinks, a new car, the latest iPhone; we redecorate, flirt with the idea of cheating, change jobs, buy a new house,…yet, the spark of happiness is short-lived.
James says, here’s the problem with being friends with the world – “You want something but you don’t get it. You don’t get it, because you do not ask God. When you do ask God, you don’t get what you ask, because you ask with the wrong motives, planning to use what you get to satisfy your pleasures because you are friends with the world.”
“From our desires springs hatred, schisms, discord,…and wars (Barclay).” Jealous desires are “at the heart of all human conflict” and are the “enemy of personal peace, peace in the family, peace in the church, peace in the nation, and peace in the world (Gench).”
So, James is setting before us a basic question – a basic choice – Is our aim in life to be friends with God or the world? Will we submit to the will of God, or gratify our desires for the pleasures of this world? We can’t have the same attitudes and values and perceptions as the world and as God at the same time. The good life, the content life, is found in choosing to draw near to God.
The good life is found in seeking the Kingdom of God first. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Then, when you want something, it will be granted, because you will want the Will of God, you will be seeking the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
In choosing to be friends with God, we choose the wisdom that comes from heaven. This wisdom is first of all pure, says our translation of James. This is the word for “holy” or “set apart.” The contrast is that this wisdom’s motives are to do God’s will in contrast to the world’s wisdom that has as its motivation selfish ambition.
In choosing to be friends with God, we are peace-loving. We are not envious or jealous, so we live our lives without creating conflict.
The person who chooses to draw near to God is, our translation says considerate and submissive. The Greek words mean yielding and obedient. The one who is friends with God does not insist on his own way and seeks to follow God’s way.
Those who choose to be friends with God are full of mercy. They are forgiving people. They bear good fruit. They are impartial and sincere; they don’t play favorites and they are not hypocritical. They are peace-makers who sow in peace and raise a harvest of righteousness.
Those who choose to draw near to God, to be friends with God rather than the world, seek the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness first, not happiness. The world is sending us the message that we should be pursuing happiness. In an article on the problem from a psychological point of view, titled “Happiness Versus Well-Being,” Dr. Gregg Henriques writes that “proposals for increasing happiness are all the rage. There are books on the laws of happiness, and maximizing or engineering your happiness to greater and greater levels. A recent sociological perspective claims a Happiness Agenda has emerged, such that now the pursuit of happiness is fully legitimized and ingrained in society as the appropriate ultimate goal.”
In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry finds a mirror in a storage room at his school. When Harry, an orphan since infancy, looks in it, he sees himself with his parents. He is drawn to that mirror. His best friend, Ron, looks in the mirror and sees himself holding the House Trophy, given each year to one of the four houses in the school for amassing the most points over the course of the year – points are given for good answers and deeds and for winning Quiddich games and taken away mostly for behavior – a trophy Ron covets. The wise headmaster finds out that they have discovered this mirror…and for Harry the draw is magnetic – to see himself happy with his parents. He explains the mirror this way, “The happiest person on earth would be able to use [this mirror] like a normal mirror; that is, he would be able to see himself exactly as he is.” (DeVega)
What would you see in the mirror? James teaches us that the best life is the life that looks in the mirror of desires and sees what is rather than what is not. Those who draw near to God are content. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James. The one who is will show by behavior that is set apart from the ways of the world, that is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and forgiving, that bears good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy that he is a friend of God. The one is wise looks in the mirror and sees himself or herself exactly as he or she is. Amen.