I go to church. I hear the Word, not just on Sundays, but in my own reading. I meditate on it in my own prayer times. I hear what I have to work on. I understand moral behavior. I hear commands and law. And I get to work. I think that by hearing, I will improve.
Why do I think that? Because that’s how everything in my life has always worked.
I rowed crew in an 8-person boat. That doesn’t include the coxswain, who steered and yelled at us. And a lot of yelling there was, because we had so much to work on. We would get up, our team, early in the morning to practice before college classes. We would come down to the lake in the evening and practice some more. We slowly improved.
I studied medicine, poring for hours over books and diagrams. Memorizing facts. Practicing on patients. As scary as that last phrase is, it was necessary for me, and for other students like me, to improve. Practice makes perfect, right?
If you tell me what the goal is, if you give me instruction on what to do, I will get to work. Because it has always worked for me.
That’s why James is soul-crushing. Because what he tells me has no solution in my methodology. He proclaims that my tongue is full of poison, and gives no solution. He points directly at my heart and says my problems, the conflicts in my life, are based on my bad desires.
Am I supposed to work on my desires, then? Improvement by force of will? Imposition of external behavior? Tricking my mind to think that though it longs for chocolate ice cream, asparagus is actually what it desires?
If what James was saying was that I just need to eat asparagus, I would force it down gladly. But he essentially says I have to like it, too. That’s why it is soul crushing. I can’t actually change desires. I can’t give my heart anti-coveting instructions. I’m helpless.
I am humbled by my failure. And there is grace in the finished work of Christ. There is grace for when I slip with my tongue, or when I have conflict. For when I sin behaviorally.
But I am even more humbled when I see how shallow my successes are. When James convicts me that even though I choked down the asparagus, I didn’t love it. And that’s an inescapable problem. When I finally realize that my best actions are still threaded through with desires that won’t be tamed. Desires that no matter how hard I try, bring conflict and pain.
When I really look at myself, James 4:6 becomes even more amazing: “But he gives more grace.”
I am unworthy. You are too. But he gives grace. And as life continues, and I see even more of my sin, my desires off, my words imperfect, he gives more grace.
I am caught in the wonder of a love that loves me when I have failed, that loves me when I am weak and not strong, when I am unclean, when my wrong desires are exposed. A grace that covers me even when—especially when— I am trying to repay a debt that has already been paid.
O my Savior, I am amazed by your love. You give more grace.