Yesterday I suggested what a “successful” church might look like. Today I am interested in forming a picture of a “successful” life. But it is a little more tricky than talking about “successful” church. We humans are complex beings.

It happens that the epistle reading appointed for this coming Sunday offers a compelling portrait of what a “successful” human life might look like. The Letter of James divides the human experience into two categories.

The “good life” is characterized by: wisdom and understanding. It is: pure, peaceable, gentle, yielding, merciful, fruitful, fair, and honest. It leads to peace. That is a “successful” life.

James offers a chilling portrait of an unsuccessful life. The “earthly,” “unspritual,” “devilishlife is: envious, selfish, boastful, dishonest, hypocritical, prejudiced, covetous, and selfish. It leads to disorder, wickedness, conflicts, disputes, and violence.

I want to be on the “good life” side. But, sadly I find myself frequently taking up residence in the “earthly,” “unspiritual,” “devilish” camp. All too often I see within myself those behaviours James characterizes as “devilish.” I can go through James’ list and find ways in which my behaviour manifests all possible evidence of an unspiritual, earthly principle at work in my life.

Why is it so hard to be “good”?

James in his letter provides the same answer Paul offers elsewhere in his writing. The problem James says is that we are at “war within” ourselves. (James 4:1)

Paul famously describes the situation in Romans chapter seven complaining,

I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:23)

In Galatians Paul describes it as a battle between what he calls “the flesh” and “the Spirit”:

For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. (Galatians 5:17)

“Flesh” here is not the physical body. It is a way of being in the world that centres entirely upon myself. When my life is dominated by my needs, my wants, and my desires, I experience the conflict James and Paul both apparently experienced. I live in constant struggle, caught between the luminous being I was created to be and the life I so often choose to live.

This is the human dilemma. James calls us “Adulterers!” We are unfaithful to the one who made us. We betray our true nature. We betray the power of life and give ourselves again and again to death. There seems to be no compromise between the two. In the human condition, as James describes it, we are either in tune with God or we are God’s enemy:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

We are either in harmony with life, moving towards gentleness, love, goodness, and truth or we are moving towards the darkside and creating death.

As Paul laments,

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)

What escape can their possibly be?

I am trapped. I resist the devilish side and long to open to the light. But over and over I am overwhelmed by darkness. It is tempting to slip into judgment and condemnation. Perhaps if I criticize myself enough, I will change.

But no transformation ever comes through condemnation. There has to be a better way. I have four days to figure it out for my Sunday sermon.