Holiness and heartbreak

Repentance. Guilt. Godly sorrow. These are good things, when experienced for the right reasons. This is not the false guilt of “Everything is always my fault.” It’s what happens when we see our sin for what it is, recognize the ways we have betrayed God and each other. We feel bad because we’ve done bad, and want to be in tune with a good and holy God who loves us.

As is often said, our hearts should be broken by the things that break the heart of God. And if we were to take with full seriousness everything we read on our news feeds, our hearts would remain broken 24/7 by the unending parade of sin and inhumanity. The things that happened that shouldn’t have. The things that should have been done and weren’t. The tragic consequences of hatred, ignorance, and even human error. The world is deeply broken and our hearts should break accordingly.

James, however, isn’t talking about headline news. His pastoral concern is more local. Do our hearts break over our inhumanity toward our very own sisters and brothers in our church community?

As we’ve seen, James has already characterized his readers’ selfish behavior as the source of the many conflicts between them. Their desires and priorities are worldly and contrary to God’s purposes. He therefore orders them to resist the devil, with the promise that God will graciously draw near when they humble themselves.

James then continues with a string of imperatives, all meant for their good:

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. (James 4:8-9, NRSVUE)

The thought of drawing near to God seems to evoke memories of the temple, the dwelling place of God’s glory. Here, James uses language reminiscent of Psalm 24, in which the psalmist joyfully approaches Mount Zion:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false
    and do not swear deceitfully
. (Ps 24:3-4)

James again addresses the “double-minded” of the congregation (cf. 1:8), commanding them to follow the teaching of Psalm 24, coming to God with humble repentance.

I am reminded here of the words of Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Those who have given themselves to the worldly pursuit of social status have lifted up their souls to what is false; they are adulterers who cannot pursue God wholeheartedly. If that truth were to sink in, they would lament and mourn. When they see how they have hurt others on the way up, how their gain came at the cost of someone else’s pain, they would no longer take joy in their status and success.

James, of course, is not saying that Christians should be joyless, only that they should take joy in the right things. He is not saying that they should weep and mourn constantly, only that they should see their behavior as God does and respond accordingly. When we truly recognize how we have broken the heart of God, our own hearts should be broken.

And as we’ll see in the next post, we might then know what Jesus meant by the “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3).

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