Learning from an ancient Christian philosophical treatise.
I’ve written about busyness elsewhere, but in the following I would like to reflect a little further on the topic; this time, using a biblical text as a starting point for our thinking. The text is from the book of James, and is given below. This book, which is included in the New Testament canon, has fascinated me every since I first read it as an enthusiastic teenager. With its startling pragmatism and ostensibly lacking theology, the book of James has had its fair share of both fans and critics over the centuries. Martin Luther certainly wasn’t a big fan. In terms of genre, James is not an ancient letter, but more likely some kind of Christian philosophical treatise on how to live a good life.
First, I shall make three general observations; then, I want to consider more closely the final phrase in the midst of a busy life; before, finally looking more broadly both at why Christians need not and should not be busy. Let’s turn to our text:
“Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” (James 1.9–11)
The general idea that this short passage communicates is the importance of contentment. Whether you are lowly or rich, whether being raised up or brought low, the reader is encouraged to boast. This language of boasting, I would suggest, has to do with being at peace with one’s present circumstances, being satisfied or content with one’s lot in life. To boast in one’s own situation is to own and acknowledge it. A famous ancient Jewish-Christian writer, called Paul, shows us what this boasting looks like: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Phil 4.11–12).
Notice the wonderful analogy that James employs. The image of the flower in the field that withers in the heat of the sun is meant to suggest something of the transcience of life. Compared to eternity, the span of one’s life is as fleeting as a beautiful yet fragile flower basking in the morning sun; as the sun rises in the sky to reach its full height and midday heat, the flower withers and perishes. A sobering image, and a powerful metaphor. Indeed, the metaphor’s long use both in Christian and Jewish tradition attests to its effectiveness. Any first-century reader (or more likely hearer) of the text who was acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures would undoubtedly have been reminded of Jewish poetic texts such as this one: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103.15–16).
Thirdly, and my final general observation. Attention seems to focus on the rich, and particularly on the futility of their busyness. After the first clause, Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, the passage swiftly hones in on discussing the state of the rich. I speculate more on what that means below, but for now let’s move on to the intriguing final clause: in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
When I first began to ruminate over this text, one phrase especially caught my eye: in the midst of a busy life. This expression is how the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) renders the Greek, but when I turned to the original language I was surprised to find the word busy not actually there. The Greek says en tais poreiais autou (ἐν ταῖς πορείαις αὐτοῦ), and is literally translated as “in his ways.” The NRSV somehow gets “busy” from the word poreia. But, if poreia (a hapax legomenon of the New Testament, with the exception of Luke 13.22) simply denotes a “going, journey, or trip” (as it does, according to the lexicons), how is this rendering legitimate? If I want to talk about busyness, why am I using this passage?
Well, let’s go back to the text: the rich will disappear like a flower in the field…the rich…in the midst of a busy life (“in his ways”)…will wither away. Here, in the context of the rich, the word poreia could be taken to refer to the particular comings and goings of business ventures, or, more broadly, general habits and ways of life. The various English translations take the Greek in different directions, reflecting one of either the particular or general senses just described. For example: “in the midst of a busy life” (NRSV); “in his ways” (KJV); “in the midst of his pursuits” (ESV); “even while they go about their business” (NIV); “with all of their achievements” (NLT). While we could discuss all these individual renderings, I want to focus on why I think the translation in the NRSV is both fair and helpful for our discussion on busyness. Indeed, it actually makes good sense.
As we have seen above, the basic meaning of the noun poreia (πορεία) is a “going, journey, or trip.” Interestingly, the same noun is used by earlier Greek historians, such as Thucydides and Xenophon, to speak of the “march” of an army. Picture that image: the relentless onward march on an army, ever on the move, looking on to the next destination as soon as one has been reached. A persistent plod. Grinding drudgery. If anything of “busyness” is here conveyed, it is not a frantic busyness, but one that is tiresome, unceasing. One lexicon pushes the point home: “the force [of poreia in James] lies in the idea of the rich man’s perishing while he is on the move, before he has attained the state of restful enjoyment which is always expected and never arrives.” The word busy in the NRSV, well captures the sense of poreia: of being ever on the move, relentlessly marching forwards. It’s that feeling of being not quite there yet.
So what does this all mean? Likely, for the first readers of the text, James looks especially to comfort the lowly and poor. As mentioned above, the emphasis is on the rich, and the meaningless of their ongoing busyness in the grand scheme of eternity. Perhaps many of James’s first readers were in hardship (see James 1.2–8, 12–16), economic or otherwise, and were inclined to envy the apparent comfort and success of those more wealthy than they (compare Psalm 49). Indeed, I was surprised on rereading James to find such a focus on wealth, our attitudes to it or its beholders, or the means by which it is accrued (2.1–9; 4.13–15; 5.1–6). In our text, James 1.9–11, the message seems clear enough: “Don’t envy the rich! Don’t think the answer to your problems lies in sheer busyness or greater resolve.”
The text’s message meaningfully applies to our own day. Given the modern obsession with busyness, the constant need to be defined by what we accomplish or achieve, we too can learn from James: true contentment lies not in riches or poverty, or the latter striving after the former; it is found in God. The many different “riches” that we so often seek after — money, status, power — are, indeed, transient. They wither away, like the flower of the field. The answer to Paul’s boasting, to his contentedness, as quoted above, lies in what he writes next: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have… I can do all things through him [God] who strengthens me” (Phil 4.11–13). And this “do all things” about which Paul speaks does not refer to being a busybody; it means being contented in all circumstances, because ultimately God is good and God is with him.
When you walk through life with God, you become initiated into a topsy-turvy way of viewing the world. You are transformed. Your identity changed. You are no longer defined merely by the commonplace categories of our day — rich, successful, popular, or not — but become a beloved child of God. In life with God, there is a different kind of wealth. And that wealth is one of love and grace. In the economy of God’s grace, this wealth is given and bestowed, not earned or sought. In this new, greater economy, we are all beloved and all beneficiaries. And though some stay poor and others remain rich, these markers of identity are utterly relativised. In the abundance of God’s grace, we are all equals. To be raised up or brought low, as our text says, I think speaks of this levelling — God’s grace is the great equaliser (see Gal 3.28; 6.15). And this equalising is an really an elevation for all, rich or poor, the greatest or the least, because it’s an elevation to a greater and fuller way of life.
If you’re journeyed with me this far, let me attempt to summarise all of what’s been said. Busyness, and the associated pursuit of some transient, withering wealth (riches, reputation, or renown), is not the way to true contentment. Rather, true contentment is found in a different kind of wealth — the permanence of God’s love, and the abundance of his grace. There is no need to prove yourself. No need to make yourself busy in the hope that in your tiresome busyness you’ll somehow find peace. Find your contentment in God.
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