The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each whispering what to do, is a trope you see repeatedly in cartoons, advertising and comedy. It also is an external picture of a very real internal battle we each face every day.
James calls us to take this battle very seriously, moving toward a place where the devil finally flees. So, how do we move toward that place of peace, the life where the Holy Spirit whispers wisdom to our spirits and is heard without interference?
The first step will be obvious to many in the room, but it bears repeating because inevitably, at least a few people here will be struggling with that step. James is describing this battle between good and evil from a Christian perspective, declaring Christ as Lord and Savior and emphasizing that God works among us now.
It is a truth we all have accepted or are called to accept. The day we accept it, we say we believe there is something going on more real than what we see in this world, and we commit ourselves to being a part of that greater thing. Specifically, we commit ourselves to participating in the great mystery of what God is doing in this broken, sin-stained world through Christ’s sacrifice.
This idea goes right along with our broad church vision, that we will one day see the world conformed to Jesus Christ. The will of God will be fully expressed in creation, with every part of creation behaving in every situation as God would have it behave.
It is a big idea to absorb. The world is in front of us, immediately affecting us at all times. To accept the work of Christ is to say we’re going to ignore what is obvious and choose to pursue what we cannot immediately see.
Once we’ve made that leap of faith—once we’ve chosen to call ourselves Christian and really own the vision—the battle between God’s goodness and the evil within us is on. That most immediate expression of God, the Holy Spirit, begins to work inside of us, contending with the world for our very souls.
God is going to win, of course, so long as we allow God to win. God’s desire for us to be free beings is the only impediment to swift victory; he lets us choose to keep him out, but will rush in wherever we let him. The more we let God work, the more complete the victory within us becomes.
And in all of this, we actually begin to experience this other world Christ represents, this greater reality that before was so hard to see.
James lays out a simple plan so we can better allow God to go to work in us. He says:
- Submit to God. That’s fairly simple to understand. Know who you are relative to God. Know that God knows better. A lot of people find this hard to actually do, however. Their pride is so intense that they cannot imagine submitting to anything.
- Resist the Devil. Don’t panic; you don’t have to do this alone. You could never win on your own, anyway. But God calls you to participate in the fight against evil, knowing God is with you throughout, strengthening you for the task. Along these lines, James tells us to draw near to God and he will draw near to you. I’m reminded of the story of the prodigal son, of how the father rushes toward his battered boy when he sees him at a distance, the boy returning home along the road.
- Cleanse your hands, sinners. I see this as a call to put right the wrong we have done, at least as much as humanly possible. Again, we have to trust God to make the ultimate, great fixes to the universe, but he wants us to involve ourselves in the process.
- Purify your hearts, you double-minded. It’s a restatement of what we’ve been talking about throughout this sermon. Stop letting this world pull you away from Christ. Stop reserving places in your emotions or your intellect for ideas or impulses that are not of God.
As God is more and more present in every aspect of our lives—as we become single-minded—the devil will flee. What is unholy cannot stand a strong dose of what is aligned with God.
Next week, we’ll draw on the elements in this exhortation as we hold a service of healing, believing we can see God’s dawning kingdom as undeniably present among us.