James 1:9-11 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
To help you understand the flow of the beginning of James’s letter and to set you up to best understand and apply it, I’d like to begin this sermon by paraphrasing the first eleven verses. That is, I’d like to share with you, what I understand to be, James’s meaning in more familiar terms.
“Dear brothers and sisters in Christ. I know that you have paid a price for following Jesus. I know that on account of your faith in Jesus you have been persecuted. I know you have endured many different trials. But here’s what you need to know. The hardships that are behind and before you are all—every one of them—instruments of God to make you like Jesus. Believe it or not, they are a gift from God to sanctify you. Your holiness is far more valuable than your temporary happiness and so you must rejoice that God is making you entirely holy, even though He is doing it, at times, at the expense of your comfort.
Now I understand that all of this is tricky. It takes a kind of wisdom you know you don’t have to understand and believe and live in light of these things. But take heart in the knowledge that God (and God alone) has the wisdom you need. What’s more, God is eager to give it to everyone who trusts Him enough to seek it from Him. And more still, He will give it generously and glad-heartedly every time we ask Him for it. He will help you know how to live in a manner pleasing to Him even in these tumultuous times.
There’s something else I want you to understand too [from our passage this morning]. Instead of believing and acting on the truths I just shared, some of you have been feeling sorry for yourselves and the rest are proud of your worldly accomplishments. Instead of counting all of your trials as gain, you are envious of those who have much by the world’s standards, and those who have much are bragging about them. Do you not yet know that you are now citizens of God’s kingdom and everything is different in God’s Kingdom? Those whom the world counts as lowly, God exalts, even as those whom the world counts as exalted, God humbles. Listen to me when I tell you about your new citizenship and then trust God to help you think, feel, and live differently in light of it—in all joy, come what may.”
I hope it’s obvious that there’s a lot in all of that. Distilled, however, the heart of our passage for this morning is this: it is a gift from God to recognize the lowliness that sin has produced in all of us, because it is only the lowly who look to God for the mercy and grace we all so desperately need. When we come to God in our desperate need, He will forgive us, free us, and lift us up as His sons and daughters. And in that gracious exaltation we must boast! Let’s pray and ask God for help to see His glory in, and our right response to, all of this.
THE LOWLY ARE EXALTED
In these few verses James addressed his readers who are both lowly (1:9) and lofty (1:10-11). And to both his aim was to correct certain lies they had come to believe about the nature of their respective positions. Let’s first consider his charge to the lowly.
The Lowliness of James’s Readers Came from Following Jesus
Our passage opens with a command to “…the lowly brother…”. We’ll come to the content of the command in just a minute, but the thing to notice here is that this part of his letter was specifically addressed to a group of Christians who were in hard places.
The lowliness James refers to is primarily the product of the persecution his readers were experiencing on account of their faith in Jesus. Many had been disowned by their families, driven from their homes and homelands, lost their livelihoods, hated by many, and were being pressured by religious leaders. All of these things were a part of the trials James mentioned in vs.2-4, and most were the direct result of following Jesus.
When James wrote these words, many of his readers would have been poor and destitute. To look at many of them would have been to know that they were not people of worldly importance, but worldly outcasts. Certainly, many in the world looked at them exactly like that. The question James was addressing is how they looked at themselves. The world counted them as of no value. Evidently at least some of James’s readers agreed (or were unsure), which is why James needed to address this situation head on.
So what exactly did James command this lowly bunch? What advice would you give? Let the lowly brother…pray for mercy? Let the lowly brother…join a local church that will be able to take care of them? We can’t help but to think of the opening charge in this letter (“count it all joy, my brothers, when…”) and wonder if James’s command here will be as counterintuitive as it was there; and so it was.
James Prescribes an Unworldly Response to Lowliness
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation…
The first thing for us to notice here, of course, is that (as with trials) James describes lowliness in exactly the opposite terms that we expect. In the usual sense, people who are considered lowly are disparaged, not exalted. Likewise, lowly people tend to be ashamed, not boastful. The unworldly nature of the response commanded by James should be quickly apparent. In fact, you’ll never be able to grasp its full significance until it does.
To help with that, I invite you to picture someone who was once wealthy and powerful, but is now poor and destitute because he was convicted of some scandalous business practice. No one would naturally think of him as exalted, and anyone who heard him boast would think him nuts.
Again, we won’t be able to appreciate any of this if we don’t honestly look at our own hearts. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you see someone on the street—dirty, homeless, and disheveled? Or, kids, maybe you know someone at school that has trouble making friends, how do you view them? Do you think of those people as exalted? Are you envious of their position? If they were to brag about their station in life, would that make sense to you or would it seem strange?
Even more to the point, how do you feel when your neighbors or coworkers look down on you for some aspect of your faith in Jesus? What happens in your head and heart when you take a stand on some family issue and you’re treated like a hateful bigot? What does it do to your sense of value when the kids in your neighborhood don’t want to play with you because you don’t talk like them or won’t join them in some of the things they want to do? How does it make you feel when you share the gospel with someone and they look at you like you’re a complete fool? That’s what James’ s readers were faced with (and much more).
Let’s be honest. Generally, when we encounter someone lowly, we’re skeptical and standoffish. And when we’re treated as lowly, we’re discouraged and disheartened.
But James, once again, wants to help his readers recalibrate their value system to make it more in line with God’s. James’s audience had made another value misjudgment when it came to both the lowly position their trials had led them to and, as we’ll see in a few moments, the loftiness some still maintained. Many of James’s readers found themselves in uncomfortable conditions and were not processing their lowliness rightly. And most of the rest, it seems, were struggling to think in godly terms about their wealth. In James’s first command in our passage for this morning, he was attempting to correct their thinking in order to help them find joy in Christ and give glory to God in their hardships and resulting lowliness.
Physical Lowliness Helps Reveal a Deeper Lowliness
But how does that work? What was James’s rationale? What did he mean? Why should his readers boast in their lowliness and in what sense did it mean they were exalted?
The answer to these questions begins with the fact that God often uses lowliness in the world’s eyes to reveal a far more significant lowliness: spiritual lowliness. James wanted his readers to understand that every earthly hardship they encountered was designed by God to remind them of the spiritual lowliness He has rescued them from.
Grace, whether we recognize it or not, we are all spiritually lowly. For reasons we’ll come to shortly, it is absolutely critical for us to recognize this. But first, let me ask you a question. If that’s the case—that we are all spiritually lowly—why do we not all see it?
The problem, as always, is one of perspective. When we compare ourselves to others, it can go either way. Everyone has someone above and below them according to the world’s standards. Every low-income housing development has someone who obviously has more going for them, even as every country club has someone who everyone knows is barely able to maintain their membership. For that reason, when we compare ourselves to other people, it’s not always clear where we stand.
However, when we measure ourselves against the real measuring stick, as James was trying to help his readers do, it is impossible to be confused. Grace, the only measuring stick that matters is God. And to have even the most childlike understanding of the nature of God is to know that you are lowly beyond measure.
Perhaps the clearest picture of this is in the famous passage in Isaiah 6:1-5 where Isaiah saw God,
“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!’
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”.
Who could stand before this God and feel exalted? Who could be proud? Who would think of boasting of their accomplishments? Who would think of complaining about the inconveniences or trials of their lives?
Grace, when this is your understanding of God, when you see God as He truly is, Isaiah’s response makes total sense, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah learned what had always been true, but was not always clear: compared to God he, along with all mankind, was lowly beyond measure. And the key, once again, is that it is often through feeling the physical and emotional lowliness caused by the hardships of life that God awakens us to the deeper and more significant spiritual lowliness that is common to us all.
But how does it help us to know that?
Realizing Our Spiritual Lowliness Leads Us to God
To catch a glimpse of God as He truly is, is to be brought to a place of unparalleled lowliness. It is in that place of unparalleled lowliness that our need for God becomes unmistakably clear. And our realization of our need for God is what causes us to turn to God for mercy and grace. It is only because Isaiah saw himself compared to the glory of God that he recognized his profound, ruining spiritual lowliness, cried out to God in desperation, and then experienced God’s cleansing work when the seraphim touched the burning coal to him, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
This is why every good gospel presentation begins with a biblical description of God—not a watered-down, domesticated, safe God, but the One True God who makes temples shake and the oceans roar and the stars burn at unfathomable temperatures. We cannot even begin to grasp the amazingness of grace until we see ourselves in light of the terrible and awesome holiness of God.
James was writing to Christians who had already come to know their spiritual lowliness, cried out to God for mercy, and received it. And yet, evidently, they failed to see the connection between their earthly lowliness and the amazing grace of God. And that leads to the next link in James’s chain of reasoning.
How does recognizing all of this cause us to be exalted and to boast in it?
When Our Lowliness Leads Us to God We Are Exalted
There are two ways in which James wants his readers to understand the lowly are exalted. First, as we just saw, coming to know our spiritual lowliness leads us to turn to God for grace and mercy, which He always gives to all who come in faith. And again, the grace and mercy of God is such that He will forgive us, free us, and make us His children. Through Jesus, He takes away our spiritual lowliness and exalts us as co-heirs in the kingdom of God. Walking in this knowledge changes everything. What worldly struggle could compare to the glory of belonging to the royal family of God? How could any earthly situation bring us low when God has brought us that high? James wanted his readers to understand and hold on to this spiritual exaltation as a means of counting their physical lowliness as all joy.
Second, the lowly are exalted when they are brought low on account of their faith in Jesus. To forsake a place of worldly prominence for obedience to Jesus, is seen as lofty by God. Grace, James’s readers had lost sight of the fact that to suffer loss for the sake of the name of Jesus is to be highly exalted by the only One and in the only way that matters.
The apostles, after having been arrested for proclaiming Christ and then released, “… left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (Acts 5:41). They understood what James was trying to teach his readers.
Jim Elliot, in responding to concerns of the lowliness that missionary life might bring him said, “He is no fool to give up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot knew the exaltation that belonged to all who gladly give up their lives in obedience to Jesus.
Missionary John Patton was determined to bring the gospel to a cannibal tribe no matter the lowliness it might lead to. When warned that he might be eaten, he replied to the man, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” This is the heart James wanted his readers to have in light of the fact that they were exalted.
All of this together means that there ought to be some increasing measure of exalted lowliness in every faithful follower of Jesus. In a world like ours, one that finds God ever-more distasteful, if we are not experiencing some measure of the lowliness that James’s readers were experiencing, it is probably an indication that we are not following Jesus very closely. When is the last time you were made lowly for speaking the truth in love or for fighting for the cause of the vulnerable or for simply proclaiming the name of Jesus? Rightly read, all of this compels us to ask ourselves if there is an appropriate amount of lowliness in our lives. If not, we are not walking in obedience and are missing out on a kind of exaltation God means us to have.
James’s readers did have that kind of lowliness, but had forgotten that it was their highest honor. Rather than wallow in their affliction, then, James commanded his readers to boast in their exaltation.
It Is Right to Boast in God’s Exaltation
Finally, James told his readers that they were not to keep the news of their exalted lowliness to themselves. Instead, they were to boast in it; to publicly delight in its goodness. We see this throughout the NT, and especially in Paul.
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30).
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
Once again, James flipped the world’s wisdom upside down, revealed this to his readers, and gave them another chance to turn their morning into public joy. And in this, Grace, James helps us recalibrate our value system and especially the value we place on trials and persecutions, and the positions of lowliness they often lead us to. Do not despise this grace of God. As we heard before, grace’s worst is infinitely greater than the world’s best.
THE RICH ARE HUMBLED
To know that you are lowly is a gift from God whenever it causes you to turn to God that He might lift you up. And the lowliness produces by faithfulness to Jesus is a special kind of exalted condition. But what about being in a lofty place? James flips that on its head as well in vs.10-11.
10 and the rich [boast] in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
Most of the heart of this charge is the same as the previous one, so there isn’t a lot more to be said. The two things that I don’t want us to miss, however, are that (1) James’s charge to the rich is every bit as shocking and unworldly as was his charge to the poor, and (2) that the wealth the world counts as so significant is always fleeting and, therefore, entirely powerless to bear the weight of our hope.
Again, we’re not reading this rightly if we aren’t at least a little shocked by it. We have to ask ourselves whether this is how we see the world. What do you think when someone of worldly prominence walks in the room? What would your first thought be if a famous athlete or musician showed up at your house? What would your reaction be if a billionaire started coming to Grace Church?
Or to frame it a bit differently, how would you feel if you got a huge promotion at work or came into millions of dollars through an unexpected inheritance? Would you feel humiliated or would you feel exalted? James said that those in lofty (rich) places ought to boast in their humiliation even though that’s not what (m)any of us do by nature. It’s important, therefore, that we gain a firm grasp on his reasoning.
The rich ought to boast in their humiliation because riches always come to an end—whether through mismanagement, unforeseen circumstances, God’s judgment, or death. Worldly riches are never permanent and so it is always foolish to place our hope in them or be overly impressed by them. In this way, James said, worldly wealth is like flowers and grass—beautiful and desirable for a time, but always, eventually fading and perishing; and in those ways, unworthy of esteem.
There is a great deal of debate over whether James has a rich “brother” (Christian) in mind or a rich unbeliever. It seems most than likely to me that James intended his readers to sees a parallel between v.9 and vs.10-11. It is probably best, therefore, to read James as commanding the rich brother (Christian) to boast in his humiliation. That is, James commanded his Christian readers not to celebrate the wealth that the world loves. He commanded them not to celebrate the fact that they had escaped the persecution that other Christians were enduring. Instead, James commanded his lofty readers to celebrate (boast in) God’s gift of humility; the humility that caused them to recognize their need for a Savior in spite of their worldly wealth and esteem. Boast, brother, in the kindness of God that brought humility to you in a place that most people do not find it. Boast in your God-given realization that all of the things the world counts so precious are exactly like the flower and grass that are so pretty to look at for a season, only to wither and die when the sun scorches or the cold kills. Boast in the mercy of God that has filled you with the knowledge that riches can never sustain you through the real trials of life.
Grace, as we sang two weeks ago, may we obey James’s command and entirely forsake seeking our joy and placing our hope in what will be destroyed. Whatever amount of wealth God has given you will soon become valueless, not because of inflation, but because the currency of heaven is entirely different. Do not boast in it, do not trust in it, do not use it to build up comforts on earth, but instead give it generously to those in physical and spiritual need. And then boast in the fact that God has opened your eyes to the spiritual lowliness that caused you to turn to Jesus and become a child of God.
The heart of this passage is that the world’s understanding of lowliness and loftiness was wrong, and that James’s Christian readers ought to forsake it, lest they continue to be robbed of the joy and sanctification God meant them to have in their trials. Therefore, James wrote to them to help them recalibrate. And in all of this we see what James Manton said so well back in the 1600s, that for those in Christ, for all of the children of God and citizens of the kingdom of God, “poverty is promotion, servants are freedmen; we are poor and yet rich; humbled and yet exalted; shut out of the world and yet admitted into the company of saints and angels; slighted, yet dear to God; the world’s dirt, but God’s jewels” (Manton, James, 44).
In Christ, 9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation…