The Subtle Snare of Self-Sufficiency

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. James 5:1-6 ESV

It would seem that much of the conflict within the congregation to which James wrote had to do with the haves and the have-nots. There was obviously some kind of tension taking place between the wealthier members and those who were of less fortunate means. James has already addressed this cause of disunity several times in his letter.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements. – James 1:9-11 NLT

In chapter two, he addressed their problem of showing partiality to the rich while treating the poor with contempt. He even presented them with a hypothetical scenario that was probably more fact than fiction.

suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:1-4 NLT

James pointed out that those who attempted to flatter the wealthier members of their community were doing so for the wrong reasons. They were motivated by greed and hopeful of winning over the very ones who were making their lives miserable.

…the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

It seems that some of the believers were inviting their affluent oppressors to visit their worship services where they treated them like celebrities. But in doing so, they were discriminating against the poor whom God had chosen to extend His grace and mercy. In fact, James reminded them that God had chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Not only that, they stood to inherit the Kingdom God had promised to all those who love him (James 2:5).

In chapter four, James addressed the curse of self-confidence. He pointed out that there were those who somehow believed that they were in control of their own lives.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” – James 4:13 NLT

This describes a person of means, someone with the financial resources to relocate to another city in order to set up a new business. Only a person with substantial capital could afford such a costly and potentially risky proposition. But just because they have the financial wherewithal to pull off such a grandiose plan doesn’t mean they should. James warns that their sense of self-sufficiency was a bit presumptuous because they had no way of knowing what the future held.

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT

The problem with having ample financial resources is that it can create a sense of autonomy and an attitude of independence from God. James wanted the wealthy to understand that their capacity to make things happen could cause them to replace God’s will with their own, and that would be a risky proposition. So, he encouraged them to put their money and their means at God’s disposal, to do with as He saw fit.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

It was Jesus who said, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money” (Matthew 6:24 NLT).

Money is amoral and not inherently evil. But it can become a source of temptation and a means of living outside the will of God. Rather than waiting on God to confirm His will through the provision of resources, the wealthy can formulate and fund their plans independently. It is this propensity for prideful self-sufficiency that James addresses in this section of his letter. In a rather prophetic and unapologetically harsh tone, James calls out the privileged class. He doesn’t seem to be differentiating between believers and unbelievers but is pointing out the fate of all who use their wealth for unjust purposes. And he is unsparing in his criticism.

Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment. – James 5:1-3 NLT

To a certain degree, James is also addressing the have-nots within the local congregation by opening their eyes to the less-attractive side of financial independence. They all aspired to have more. They longed to experience all the pleasures and benefits that money could provide. But James wanted them to understand that wealth could be both a blessing and a curse. It is as if he had in mind the words that Paul wrote to Timothy.

…people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:9-11 NLT

With wealth comes great responsibility. And the rich to whom James referred were guilty of abusing their responsibilities by taking advantage of the less fortunate. They were lining their pockets by defrauding their employees. They were increasing their wealth by fleecing the poor and defenseless. But James warns them that their immoral and unethical actions had not gone unnoticed.

For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – James 5:4 NLT

This is a direct reference to the Mosaic law, where God warned His people against abusing their less-fortunate laborers.

“Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. You must pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. If you don’t, they might cry out to the Lord against you, and it would be counted against you as sin.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-15 NLT

James is continuing to remind his readers that faith is always tied to behavior. That’s why had told them, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17 NLT). To know the will of God and then fail to carry it out was nothing less than sin and worthy of His judgment. To claim to have faith in God but to live in disobedience to the will of God rendered your faith lifeless and impotent. There was no evidence of transformation. And regardless of whether someone was wealthy or poor, they had an obligation to demonstrate the sanctifying nature of their faith through acts of righteousness. In this passage, James is simply supporting what he said earlier in his letter.

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. – James 2:17 NLT

And James declares that the wealthy to whom he referred had more than proven the lifeless nature of their faith. Their works gave testimony to the worthlessness of their so-called faith in Christ.

You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you. – James 5:5-6 NLT

James is merciless in his condemnation because of the serious nature of the problem. He seems to infer that the unethical actions of the wealthy had resulted in the deaths of innocent people. Whether James is speaking hyperbolically or literally is unclear. If these affluent landowners were guilty of underpaying their employees, it could have easily resulted in the starvation of some of the more destitute among them.

“. . . for day laborers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just (5:6).” – Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead

Our behavior should be a reflection of our beliefs. The presence of wealth or poverty should not determine the nature of our lives. For the Christ follower, the indwelling Holy Spirit should be the motivating force behind our every action and activity. The apostle John provides a much-needed reminder that we should emulate Christ in all that we do. His love for us should show up in our love for others, and be evidenced by our willingness to use every resource at our disposal to benefit those around us.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. – 1 John 3:16-19 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.