You can’t find the good life by yourself

Photo: Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash. Photo: Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.

A good life. That’s what we want for ourselves and for others. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” James asks. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3:13). 

Our faith is a commitment to the goodness of life for all. James offers guidance on how to live that kind of life. 

He offers it in the form of a guidebook for congregations. He points out what to stay away from, in terms of behaviors that hurt a community. He describes what to cultivate, in terms of a practical spirituality that sustains us. 

He centers our attention on how to treat each other, because this world is cruel, life is hard, and we need the help of a community of relationships. We need the help of a people, not just to struggle through day after day but to experience life as good, life as a blessing from God.

James knows our tendency to mess up, to make mistakes. We’re at war within ourselves. That’s the language in chapter 4 — the self as a cluster of contrary motives: “your cravings that are at war within you” (4:1). We’re always sorting through the voices in our heads, the desires in our hearts. 

James confronts us with our temptation to pick those voices, to choose those desires, that sabotage our lives — the way we let envy, covetousness and ambition take up residence inside of us, to let those voices call the shots. Left to our own devices, we become our own victims, unable to rescue ourselves from our internal conflicts. 

We get stuck in our own heads, which leads to a vicious cycle of frustration. We’re thrown into a confrontation with the fact that we betray our best interests. We want what’s not good for us. We think we need to possess more than we have and take what has not been given to us. 

James, apparently, has seen how these internal clashes become external resentments that result in violence. Conflicts inside of us spin us out of control, and we lash out at others. “So you commit murder,” he says (4:2). 

Jumping all the way to murder sounds a little dramatic to me. But I can see how James gets there. The war within each of us gets to the point of self-consumption. It turns us into people we never thought we would become. No one wants that to happen.

Here’s the point. James offers a diagnosis for all the ways we undermine ourselves, how we sabotage the community that we actually need for our well-being. 

For him, the problem begins with our internal life, the conflict within ourselves — the “bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts,” he says: the way we, when we’re left to our own devices, become “false to the truth” (3:14).

We deceive ourselves. That’s the problem. When I’m stuck with myself, I’m not very good at seeing clearly. 

You don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. We aren’t in the best position to fix ourselves, even though we try and try again. 

This leads to despair — the fatalism of isolation, of alienation, of thinking we’re alone.

There are plenty of rule books for the good life. So many methods, so many solutions. So many people claim to know the secrets of happiness, the techniques to unlocking your true self. 

I don’t know the secret. Christian faith doesn’t offer that kind of secret. Instead, what we offer each other is the gift of gentleness. We make a commitment to hold each other in a gentleness born of wisdom. We promise to become a community of gentleness where we can grow into wisdom together. We resolve to learn from each other how to live in God’s goodness — to draw near to the God who draws near to us (James 4:8).

The promise of the gospel is that we are not alone. You don’t have to figure out your life by yourself. 

Church life is our baptism into the life of God. We experience this life with the people who sustain us, who nurture goodness in us. 

These are the kinds of relationships that allow us to confess we can’t fix ourselves. We depend on others to draw us into God’s gentleness. 

Divine grace touches our lives through the help we provide to one another. 

With our lives, as a community, we make room for people to know themselves as alive with the promises of God. 

Isaac S. Villegas

Isaac S. Villegas of Durham, N.C., is president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and an ordained Mennonite minister. Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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