Boasting in Exaltation and Humiliation
By James Fraser
James’s New Testament letter is packed with wisdom for believers, and in chapter 1 he has something profound to say to Christians who find themselves at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Those who are low down should consider themselves to be exalted, while those who are rich should take pride in humiliation. Why? Because although our temporary material circumstances do have practical implications, it is our status in Christ that has ultimate, eternal significance.
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In his New Testament letter, James was writing to Christians who were familiar with the experience of trials. And those trials almost certainly included persecution and oppression. After mentioning that at the start of chapter 1 he then goes on to say this in verses 9-10.
9 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.
James gives instructions here to two different types (or groups) of people: first to the lowly – and by that he means those who are low down on the socio-economic scale, those who have little or no influence in society; and second, he speaks to the rich – and they are the very opposite, they are high up on the socio-economic ladder and they have a measure of power and influence in society.
And it seems in both cases that James is speaking to Christian believers. He talks about the lowly ‘brother’ and the way the sentence is structured, implies that the rich person is also being addressed as a brother.
And James wants them to appreciate that although they are in two very different sets of circumstances, in the kingdom of God the way we think about wealth and position should be radically different to the way that the world thinks about these things.
So first he says that the lowly brother should boast in his exaltation.
There are some familiar Old Testament ideas behind this statement. Psalm 113 is one example:
4 The Lord is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
5 Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
6 who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
What an encouragement it is for the oppressed to understand that their cause is known by God. That even though they occupy the lowest position in human society, their circumstances and their sufferings are seen by God – the One who sits at the very highest point of the universe. And not only does God see them, but in His compassion, He reaches down to lift them up and give them a place of royal privilege.
And of course, there is also a profound New Testament truth behind what James says. Through faith in Jesus the lowly brother has been raised up with Him. As the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2, ‘God, being rich in mercy… made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places…’
What a picture of exaltation that is. No matter what our position is in the socio-economic ladder, no matter what country we live in and where it sits in the global index of GDP, no matter what marginalised group we might belong to, as Christians we occupy the heights of the universe with Christ.
So the lowly brother is to boast in his exaltation. And the rich, is to boast in his humiliation. What does that mean? Well James gives us a clue by pointing out the temporary nature of the rich. The people who society celebrates and promotes to a position of influence are actually very transient. Like a flower of the grass, even though it appears beautiful for a while, they will very quickly pass away.
But the rich brother is someone who has had his eyes opened to this. He has come to understand that his wealth can’t buy him eternity. In fact, it is the very opposite. Instead it was the recognition of his spiritual poverty that first opened up the way for him to come to God – the realisation that despite his riches there was nothing he could bring to the table. From his high position in the world this is a humiliation for the rich brother, but it is a humiliation that brings him into relationship with God – and that is worth boasting about.
Let me finish with two challenges:
First, how do you view persecuted Christians who find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic heap? We should feel compassion for them in their suffering and we should do all we can to alleviate that suffering, but we have to do that as their equals. There can’t be even a hint of us looking down or feeling sorry for them. God Himself has raised them up with Christ. They are our equal brothers and sisters.
And secondly, how do you use the resources God has given you? As Christians living in the UK many of us will have a level of wealth that is simply unimaginable to most people in the world. And yet, as we have seen, that wealth is transient. Even as we speak it is slowly slipping through our fingers. It’s not wrong to be wealthy, but we will be held to account for how we have used our wealth, especially in a world where our very own brothers and sisters face deprivation because of their faith.