In the early 1900’s, humorist Finley Peter Dunne said that “The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.” Many of us have heard that expression “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable” and wondered where it came from. Some assume that it came from scripture, and might be disappointed to discover that it came from the lips of 1900’s era comedian!
Although the words “comforting the afflicted” and “afflicting the comfortable” are not found in scripture, that is the very thing the word of God does. In fact it is true for the passage we are going to study today, James 1:9-11. Here James gives us truths which should comfort the poorest and most afflicted among us; and humble the most lofty in our midst. Let’s read this chapter together again, and then bring our attention to :9-11, and see how these words challenge each one of us, whatever our material and financial standing, to look to the Lord.
He begins this verse with “But”, transitioning from :6-8, about how the one who does not have a total commitment to the Lord is unstable in ALL his ways. He says, “BUT” – you who are totally committed to the Lord, whatever your station in life, whether men consider it to be high or low – you need instead to see yourself the way that GOD sees you. When you do, it will indeed “comfort the afflicted” and “afflict the comfortable.”
I. Comfort to the Afflicted
:9 “But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position.”
“The brother of humble circumstances” refers to a person who is not well-off financially. It is contrasted with “the rich man” in :10, so we know it is speaking of material poverty.
There were many poor in the churches James was addressing in his letter. James said he was writing to those who were “dispersed abroad” – they had been forced out of Judea by persecution and had sought new homes in Syria and northern Palestine. So they were what we would think of as “refugees”, and many of them were not well-off as a result. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1 that there were “not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble” among the early church, and scholars have examined letters that some of those early Christians wrote to each other, and they do indicate a lowly background. We also note that Paul took an offering from the Mediterranean churches back to the church at Jerusalem. Many of them had lost their jobs and businesses due to being ostracized because of their faith in Christ. So there a number of people in the early church were poor.
But notice that James didn’t say to them: “Oh poor you!” Instead, he encouraged them to see by faith how well off they really were. He offered comfort to the afflicted. What comfort is there in being poor & afflicted? First of all, we need to recognize that he is not saying that ALL poor and afflicted people are blessed. There is no inherent merit in being poor! James says “Let the BROTHER of humble circumstances” glory. The word “brother” means he is speaking about a Christian who is poor. He says a Christian who is poor can “glory in his high position.”
What is his “high position”? James explains in Chapter 2:5, “Listen my beloved brethren, did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” He is saying, you may be poor, but if by faith you can recognize that you have sinned against the God who made you to love Him, and believe that Jesus died to pay for your sins, and to bring you back into a relationship with God, and now your sins are forgiven and like James 2:5 says, you “love (God)”, then you are RICH!
In Revelation 2:9, Jesus told the church at Smyrna, “I know your tribulation and your poverty – but you are RICH”! They were poor according to the world, but Jesus called them rich because of what they had in Him.
— I Peter 2:9 says: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.”
— Ephesians 1:3 says you have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”.
— I Peter 1:4 says you have “an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you”!
He says, you are RICH in Christ Jesus!
— You may be poor presently, but you will be rich eternally
— You may be despised by men, but you are loved by God Himself!
— No one on earth may know your name – but God Himself knows you personally!
— You may have a shack here on earth, but “(you) have a home in Glory land that outshines the sun”!
THAT is the attitude of faith which “the brother of humble circumstances” is to remember. Don’t let anyone “feel sorry” for you! There is no reason for it! You are rich in Christ Jesus! You are a child of the King!
This summer, Prince William of England and I each had a birthday in June. His might have been a little more significant than mine; since he turned 30, he inherited almost 16 million dollars which in the terms of his mother’s will would be given to him at his 30th birthday. Do you think when he was 23, 24, 25 years old, and didn’t have all that money, that people felt sorry for him? Do you think they said, “Oh that poor boy, he doesn’t have anything?” Of course not! Everybody knew that even if he wasn’t “rich” yet, in just a few years, he was going to come into a huge inheritance! It was only a matter of time.
The Bible says that if you are a Christian, a similar thing is true for you. However lowly your status is on earth, you are a child of the King, and in a very short time, you are going to receive an inheritance beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, kept for you by the power of God in heaven! Don’t feel sorry for yourself; and don’t let anyone else feel sorry for you, either. “Glory in your high position” James says!
It is also significant that James does NOT say “Let the brother of humble circumstances trust that God is going to make him rich in THIS world.” This Biblical teaching flies in the face of the “Your Best Life Now”-type prosperity preaching. These false teachers assert that if you are poor, and you have faith, then God will make you rich. You don’t see that taught in James. In Chapter 2 he says, “God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in FAITH and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.” It does NOT say God has chosen the poor to be rich here on earth! It says He has chosen for them to be rich in FAITH, and heirs of His KINGDOM. The poor are not guaranteed their “best life now.” Thank God for that! I don’t want my best life NOW – this life is too short! I want my best life for ETERNITY! And THAT is what God promises you in the gospel. You may have poverty for a few years now – but you will have your best life forever in the Kingdom of God if your faith is in Jesus. There is a HUGE difference! “Your Best Life Now” is not even biblical Christianity; it is “another gospel” of materialism and worldly “success.” It is not the gospel of the Kingdom that the Bible preaches. You’ll have your best life in heaven; that is what James says should be your focus.
This verse is a call for Christians NOT to buy in to the world’s evaluation of who you are and what you are worth. The world will look at you and judge you because of the neighborhood you live in, or the car you drive, or the school you attend, or by your looks or your clothes or your figure or your money. And if you are not careful, you will find that you are evaluating yourself by those same worldly standards. James says, DO NOT buy into that! He says in Chapter 2 that God has chosen you to be “rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.” Many of us need to constantly “preach the gospel to ourselves” every day, and say to yourself what GOD says about you. Some of us need to look in the mirror every day and quote Ephesians 1:3, “I have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ”, or I Peter, “I have an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, which will not fade away, reserved for me in heaven”, or James 2, “I am rich in faith, and an heir of the kingdom which God has promised to those who love Him” — and remind ourselves that we are not what the world sees in us. We are far more. This word is a word of “comfort to the afflicted.”
II. Affliction to the Comfortable
We tend to think that those who are well-off in this world have it “made.” James tells us in :10 that they don’t: “And let the rich man glory in his humiliation.” James was using a play on words here, which he does often in this book. The word “humiliation” here is the same Greek word (tapeinos) that he just used to describe “affliction” of the poor man. So you could translate it literally, “Let the afflicted glory in his high position, but let the rich man glory in his affliction.” So James really IS literally “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”!
Now, I will tell you that there is a big discussion among Biblical scholars over whether “the rich man” James is talking about here is a Christian or not. He says, “Let the BROTHER of humble circumstances” – that is obviously talking about a Christian. But then he just says, “but let the rich MAN’ glory in his humiliation.” He doesn’t specifically SAY “rich brother.” So some say he is talking to LOST “men of the world”; others believe he is talking to Christians who are more well-off. The debate is like 50-50 on who believes what, so I don’t think you can say absolutely for sure which it is. But I don’t think you need to. The bottom line is, in either case, whether a rich person is lost or saved, you need to make sure that you don’t put your confidence in riches, but put your trust in Christ instead. He says if you are rich, then “glory in your humiliation, because like flowering grass you will soon pass away.” That applies to every one of us who have money.
And I know most of us would say, “I am not rich”; there might not be one person in this worship center today who consider themselves “rich”. By some standards we might not be, but by world standards, virtually ALL of us here are rich. When you’ve been to people’s homes in India, and see that whole home of about a billion people in India is not as big as the bathrooms in many of our homes in Moss Bluff, you begin to see that by world’s standards, every one of us is rich. And James’ warning here applies to us He says, “like flowering grass you will soon pass away.”
The analogy of mankind as being like a flower is one that was used repeatedly throughout the Old Testament. Isaiah 40:6-7 says, “All flesh is like grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of grass. The grass withers, the flower fades. Surely the people are grass.” Psalm 102:15-16 “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer.” James could see that happen every day in Palestine: when the sun rose, the little flowers of the anemone and cyclamen would wither, and the wind would blow them away.
James says that is what YOU in all your wealth and riches are like! He says, you think so much of yourself, and others think so much of you, because you are what the world calls “well off” – but, he says, that is NOT going to last. You and all your wealth are just like one of those flowers. You need to realize that in a moment, it will all be gone – no matter how great or powerful you currently are.
In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, Hamlet contemplates the skull of Yorick, a jester whom he had known, whose grave had been dug up. He asks his associate, Horatio, if he thought “Alexander the Great” – as rich and powerful as he was — suffered a similar fate to this clown? The answer, of course, is yes he did. There is no difference in rich and poor; one and all die, and their bodies return to the dust. Hamlet then says:
To what base uses we may return, Horatio!
Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe, Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
Shakespeare dramatically makes the point that every one us – whether lowly court jester, or mighty Caesar, live but a short time, and will return to dust. We will all “pass away” like James says here. One day, the “flower” of your life will fall to the ground. And so James says, you need to recognize the weaknesses of your wealth and position; they will not last. So, James says, “glory in your humiliation.” Recognize the frailty and weakness of your wealth. You can do this in several ways:
1) Realize that all your riches can be taken away in a moment of time. Anyone remember what happened in 2007-2008? Most people lost about half of the value in their stocks and investments in a very short period of time. You think that can’t happen again? You think somehow all your wealth is insulated from calamity? It isn’t! Proverbs says a rich man’s wealth is like a high wall in his own imagination. If you think you have security in your riches, you are delusional; there is no security in material wealth. It can all come crashing down in a moment – and may at any time. James says, keep that perspective. Glory in your humiliation.
2) Recognize that what you can do with your money is so limited. It is not the panacea that so many people think it is:
Sylvester Stallone has made multiplied millions of dollars, and his face is known all over the world through his movies. But his fame and fortune have not necessarily bought him happiness. In a media interview several years ago, Stallone said that he wanted something that his money could not buy: a happy home and a good marriage!
Money can’t do everything for you. It can’t heal a broken heart. There is no amount of money that can fix that. And the Bible makes it clear that money certainly can’t buy you a place in heaven. Recognize that there is so much your money cannot do.
3) In fact, far from getting you a place in heaven, prosperity can actually be a stumbling block to keep you from heaven. Jesus said in Matthew 19, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When His disciples heard Jesus say that, they were astonished; they were used to the rich having the advantage, and here was Jesus saying that most rich people would not see heaven! He did add: “With God all things are possible”. A rich person can be saved, but it is SO against the grain for them to be able to do what it takes to be saved. When you have money you are used to getting what you want on your terms. There is a pride, a self-reliance. And if you bring that into the spiritual realm, it will send you right to hell. You must humble yourself like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is hard for a rich person to humble himself. How many rich people do you see walking down these aisles? It is almost unheard of! In that case, their money (and resulting pride) is a CURSE to them! Better to be poor, and humble yourself and be saved for all eternity than to be rich for a few short years on this earth and burn in the fires of hell forever! You CAN be saved if you’re rich, but you must throw away all your confidence in your riches and humble yourself and seek God’s mercy through Jesus for your sins, in the same humble way as the poorest person you know! James says, rich person, if you are going to be saved, you’d better “glory in your humiliation” – because humbling yourself is the only way you will ever see heaven.
Now understand: the Bible doesn’t teach that money is bad. Scripture never says “money is the root of all evil.” There is nothing wrong with being rich; just make sure that your real riches are just like the poor Christian’s – in heaven with God! However much money you are allowed to have, make sure your real treasures are in heaven. Heed Jesus’ words of warning in Matthew 6:19-20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” If God has blessed you with money, then heed James’ words and “glory in (your) humiliation” – voluntarily humble yourself and follow in the steps of Jesus, who humbled Himself for YOU like Philippians 2 says.
What James teaches here in verses :9-11 is a great equalizer. He reminds us that all ground is level at the foot of the cross. All have the same requirements for heaven; there is no “first class seating”! It raises the poor up to glory. And it humbles the rich and makes them become servants of all if they would be truly great. And it reminds us that death treats all the same. There is a “democracy in death.” It shows no favoritism to money. Jesus’ story of The Rich Man & Lazarus shows the kind of complete role reversal that James is talking about here. Poor Lazarus, who so destitute on earth that he begged for crumbs from the rich man’s table, went straight to comfort and glory in heaven. And the rich man, despite all his wealth on earth, went straight to hell, where he begged for just one drop of water to cool his tongue in the flame.
Many of us will experience that same kind of reversal: the richest of us will be stripped of our riches — and the poorest of us may be rich forever. “The afflicted will be comfortable, and the comfortable afflicted.”
And the thing is, this will happen before you know it. That expression in :11, “IN THE MIDST OF HIS PURSUITS”, is a key phrase. We picture our lives ending when we have finished everything that we hoped to accomplish. But this says, no, it is “in the midst of his pursuits” that the rich man will pass away. In Luke 12:13-21 Jesus said it was while the rich man was planning to build yet another barn to hold all of his many goods that God said to him, “You fool, this night your soul is required of you.” It was “in the midst of his pursuits” that his soul was called to account. It may be the same way with us: “in the midst of your pursuits” you will be called to face God.
And on that day, it will not matter how much your annual income is; it won’t matter whether the square footage of your home was 1100 or 5100 or 11,000. It will not make one whit of difference how much you had in savings or in your IRA. You will not drive a car to heaven; you will not be clothed in your finest. You will take out of this world just what you brought into it – NOTHING! You will stand before God a naked soul. And the judgment you face before Him will be the same for everyone – rich or poor. Yes, there is a great “democracy in death.” It “comforts the afflicted” who give their lives to Jesus, and “afflicts the comfortable” if they will not humble themselves and turn to Him.