Monday, September 29, 2008

Come Near to God: Receiving the Promise

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 9B
James 4:8
Bob Rakestraw

In the last posting I introduced James 4:8 as the text of the month: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” There are very few verses in the Bible that I have leaned on more frequently and more expectantly as this one. Many, many times during my Christian life I have approached God with this text in mind, and have found that God’s Word here is rock-solid, consistently reliable and filled with hope.

Reciprocal Grace

In the last piece I did not write much on James 4:8 itself, but on the principle of reciprocal grace lying behind the verse. Reciprocity refers to the back-and-forth movement of grace between God and us. This does not mean that we give grace to God and then he gives grace to us. All grace flows from God to us. But we do need to respond in faith and humility to God’s prior approaches and gifts of grace to us, and in that sense God receives from us our devotion and desire to serve. When God sees our godly response, “he gives us more grace” (James 4:6). We then welcome these further gifts of grace in order to love and serve God more, and the reciprocal action continues throughout our lives.

I also explained that grace is not only God’s kindness and favor, but also his power and strength. This latter perspective on grace is not as often emphasized as the former, yet it is very helpful for the full understanding of the Bible’s teaching on God. An example of grace used in the sense of God’s power and energy as well as his favor and kindness is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This truth is greatly encouraging and, literally, powerful!

Seeing the Whole Picture

The scripture text for the month appears to stand alone, complete in itself: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” But the longer I study the Bible the more I see that seemingly self-contained verses such as James 4:8 need their broader contexts to be fully understood and practiced. Someone might complain that this text “does not work.” They may have called out to God in prayer (“Come near to God”) yet say that he does not “come near” to them in a reciprocal way. I know of Christians who say this, and my encouragement to them is to look carefully at the verse in light of the whole book of James, especially James 4:6-8. In these verses we see the broader picture of God’s reciprocal action.
But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
‘God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.’
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

The focal text of the month seems quite simple when it is engraved on a plaque and hung on the wall. And it is simple. But it is not simplistic! Viewing the whole section above—verses 6-8—helps us to see the fuller range of thought God intends for us to see. Strictly speaking, there is only one condition we need to fulfill in order to have God come near to us: “Come near to God.” However, it is essential for our total comprehension and well-being that we “come near to God” according to the teachings of James 4:6-8, the whole fourth chapter, as well as the rest of the scriptures.

The Problem of Pride

Pride is exposed in James 4 as the major blockade to receiving God’s grace. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The word “opposes” is a very strong word. It means to “stand against,” and evokes the image of God stationing himself in a fixed position, with all of his divine power against the enemy. This is a frightening picture (especially in light of James 4:1-4), and makes me want to follow verse 10 with all of my will: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”

The Bible does not tell us in explicit terms how to “humble” ourselves, but the Author of scripture assumes that when we read these words (as well as the similar passage in 1 Peter 5:5-10) we will know by the inner voice of his Spirit, and the specifics in the context, how to do this. An attitude of submission to God and those in authority over us, and a stance of resisting the devil, are foundational, according to both James and 1 Peter. And thorough, God-wrought purification is absolutely necessary as well. I am truly grateful that God takes charge of this cleansing when we come to him with a broken spirit and a heart eager for his righteousness (Psalm 51:17).

A Plea

I want to close with a plea from my heart. I sincerely and eagerly urge you, my readers, to come near to God. The reason I desire this for you is the same reason I desire it for myself: the Bible says that God will then come near to us. And if God is near to us, then we don’t have anything to worry about. We are very safe, dear friends, when God is near us. God will handle the most difficult situations we are facing.

The present financial crisis is affecting all of us, some very severely. If God is near you, you need not worry. I have to remind myself of this often or I will lose heart and be overwhelmed by anxiety. Some of you are afflicted by health issues, as I am, and these will devastate us if we give in to fear. With others, the stresses on you may pertain to your children, relatives, educational plans, debt, home, job, relationships, personal failings and lack of hope. With every ounce of my being I urge you to come near to God. Read this essay again if God has already used it to quicken you, and spend time alone with God and the scriptures as soon as you are able. Nothing else is as important right now. God will come near to you, he promises!

Peter reminds us: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you,” and then gives us all a deeply comforting benediction.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:7, 10-11)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bob, for opening to us this verse, the context, and the complex and wonderful power and presence of God's grace. These are words for me to ponder and consider - there is so much depth in them, and in this verse that has for so long stumped me.

Thank you for sharing your insights with us, as well as your call to rest in God's grace.