In “Successful Life #1”, posted on Wednesday, I suggested that in chapter three of his New Testament letter, James poses an intractable conundrum.

We human beings appear to be condemned to live with a vision of life we are unable to fulfill. We are trapped between the desire to live a truly good life and our propensity to live as something much less than we long to be. There seems to be no way out of this painful dilemma.

But in chapter four James hints at a possible way through this tangle of yearning to live in ways that we seem unable to attain.

gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
‘God opposes the proud,
   but gives grace to the humble.’ (James 4:6)

To be “proud” is to live in the illusion that, by our own efforts, determination and self-will we can live “the good life.” The “proud” assume that if only they try hard enough and exercise adequate self-discipline, they will be able to live lives that are always characterized by wisdom and understanding. To be proud is to believe that we possess the power to live lives that are pure, peaceable, gentle, yielding, merciful, fruitful, fair, and honest. Life “opposes the proud.” The “proud” condemn themselves to a life of struggle, dishonesty and self-deception.

To be “humble” is to be honest. As hard as we may try, envy, selfishness, dishonesty, hypocrisy, prejudice, and covetousness are always close at hand. Despite our best intentions, our choices frequently lead to disorder, wickedness, conflicts, disputes, and violence.

If we are honest, we know that the ability to live a consistently “good” life is beyond our capacity.

If a “good” life depends upon human effort we are doomed.

Paul understood clearly that

all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ (Galatians 3:10)

We cannot simply exert our effort and become “good” people always avoiding those behaviours, attitudes, and choices that James calls “earthly,” “unspritual,” and “devilish”. Paul was right, we all

fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

This is the human condition. We live both the “good” life and the “earthly” life. No one is ever entirely one or the other. We are all a mix of conflicting commitments, a jumble of confused motivations, a chaos of muddled feelings, thoughts, attitudes, words and actions.

“Success” lies, not in always managing to scramble to the “good” side of the ledger, but in admitting that we live on both sides at the same time. James is not implementing a make-work project. He is not exhorting us to try harder and do better.

James is asking us to be honest.

James believed that, when we are honest, we connect with a deeper reality beneath the surface tension and jumble of life. When we are willing to see ourselves honestly, we rediscover our connection with the presence of God. James calls this connection grace. Grace is a power that transcends the conflicts, divisions and struggles of the human condition. This power is the source of freedom in our lives.

Jesus said,

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:31,32)

This is not doctrinal truth. It is truthfulness, the honesty that is willing to see the whole of the human condition without judgment or condemnation.

Grace transcends judgment. It moves beyond all categories of “good” and “bad.” Grace takes no interest in which side of the ledger we live on. Grace is only interested in how open our hearts are.

Being “good” is beyond the capacity of any human being. Being honest and open is manageable. We always have the capacity to see the truth and acknowledge when we are living as something less than the luminous bright beings we were created to be. This seeing opens us to the presence and power of God at work in all of life. That is a successful life.

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