The High Road

Scripture: James 3:13-4:3; 7-8

Elias Garcia Martinez was a Spanish painter who lived across the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.   He spent of his professional life as a professor of art, and while he was a skilled painter his work never achieved a level of great fame.  One of his later works in life was entitled Ecce Homo.  It was a fresco of Jesus painted in 1930 on the wall of a church in the small Spanish town of Borja.   Today, this fresco is easily Martinez’s best known work, but it has nothing to do with him.    Due to moisture in the church the fresco had begun to show some signs of deterioration, so one of the parishioners set out to do something about it. Celcilia Gimenez grabbed her paint brushes and set out to restore the painting herself.   You can judge for yourself, but I think it is clear to say mistakes were made.  

It is easy for us to look at the results and wonder, just what in the world was she thinking?  However, Mrs. Gimenez fell victim to one of the classic human blunders:  The Dunning-Kruger effect.   This effect is a cognitive bias, where people who are unskilled or novice at something mistakenly assess their ability as far greater than it is.  Multiple studies by psychologists have been done to confirm this is a real effect, and the studies consistently show the same thing.   People are asked to rate their ability to do a task.  People with no clue rate themselves low, people with actual ability at the task rate themselves as competent, but people with only marginal ability at the task tend to rate themselves equal to or higher than the people who really know what they are doing.  The more of an expert a person is the more they are aware of their own limitations and they are more aware of what they do not know.  Those who are novice and unskilled though do not know enough to know that they do not know.  This is what happened with the fresco restoration.  Celcilia Gimenez did not have any formal training or experience in the highly technical skill of art restoration, but she had painted before so she figured how hard could it be?    There is an irony to the Dunning-Kruger effect that one of the professors who originally researched it wrote about.  According to David Dunning, ““the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect is something that we are all susceptible at falling into, and usually when it comes to our core competencies it is a bump we get over quickly.   The problem with the Dunning-Kruger effect is that sometimes people can get stuck at a novice or unskilled level, but because they consistently over estimate their own ability, they never seek to improve or do better.   I think the Dunning-Kruger effect can impact our faith as well.  Our faith exist and is based in the saving work of Jesus the Christ, but when it comes to practically living out our faith in everyday life it takes practice.  Being a faithful disciple, having a faith that works, is something that we are supposed to get better at.  However, it seems too often being a Christian is viewed as something passive instead of an active skill that can be improved.    This morning’s scripture is a reminder of why and how we can get better at being disciples of Jesus.  

            It really seems this morning’s scripture begins with James calling out the Dunning-Kruger effect when he ask about wisdom and understanding.    James was writing to a pre-dominantly Jewish audience.   The book of Acts mentions that after Stephen was stoned, the Jerusalem church was scattered, and some biblical scholars suggest that James was writing to these Christians.   This is important because we have to remember that the Jews of this time were steeped in the tradition of the Pharisees.  A large part of the Pharisee approach to faith was knowing thing, the better someone knew the scripture the wiser they were, and as the gospels demonstrated the more likely the Pharisees were to lord their knowledge over others.  Perhaps, these early Jewish Christians were competing with another to establish who knew the most about what it meant to follow Jesus as messiah.   Perhaps they were engaged in a one upsmanship game to determine who had the most wisdom and understanding about The Way.  This kind of approach to faith would certainly qualify as harboring bitter envy and selfish ambition as James wrote about.

            James points out then, just how much they really do not know.   In the kingdom of God, wisdom is not about who has the most facts memorized, it is not about who can present the most impressive accolades, or even who has the best church attendance.   Godly wisdom is not a feat that can be boasted about, but rather it is a skill that is demonstrated through pure love, through peace-making, and through full mercy.   It really seems that these early followers of Jesus fell victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.  They were new, unexperienced believers and they thought what it meant to be a disciple, only to find they had yet to fully experience the full measure of following Christ.  

            I think this is still a problem that people face today.   I remember a conversation from years ago I had in bible study that still resonates with me.    At that time one of the participants shared how they grew up in church and generally considered themselves a good person.   However, when they truly became more seriously about their faith they realized how much of their own behavior was not pure, peace loving considerate, submissive, or full of mercy.  Since that realization their faith has grown, their understanding of scripture had increased, and their love for Jesus had reached greater depths.  This person pointed out that they once thought they were good enough, but now the closer they get to Jesus the more and more they realize how much more they can change and grow to live and love like their savior.  

            This has been my personal experience as well, and I have observed it.   When I interact with relative strangers and they find out I work at a church, a funny thing happens sometimes.   There are some people who go out of their way to inform me that they are a good person.   What is interesting is the people who want to stress they are a good person the most, are the ones who (by their own admission) are not really involved with church, don’t really read the bible, and only occasionally pray.    I compare this to the most God-honoring, righteous, and humble people I have ever met.  Those people do not waste time telling others about how good they are because they are too busy doing good without seeking recognition.   Instead of talking about how good of a person they are, they talk about how great of a savior Jesus is.  

            I think there is a Dunning-Kruger effect when it comes to being a Christian.   On the novice and inexperienced side it can be easy to think that the whole point of all this is to be a good person, go to church semi-regularly, and if you do then God will bless you and give you the things you want.   Prayer becomes all about seeking blessing and stuff from God.  The belief that Christianity is about God helping you be nice while giving you nice things is a beginning point in faith where a lot of people get stuck.   In this scripture, James even encourages his original audience to get past this way of thinking and praying.  In verse three James writes, “When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”  It truly can be easy to get stuck in a place where we think we know what it means to be a Christian, but that is only because we are not yet wise enough to know what it means to truly follow Christ.  

            Thankfully James lays out in to opposing approaches to life and faith.  One way is mundane, it is low, it is the way of the world infecting faith, and the other way is a more God honoring, Christ following, high road approach to discipleship.   The low road approach to faith is to care about appearances to be envious of those who seem to be doing it better and have selfish ambition to be viewed as a superstar Christian.   The low road approach to faith is to pursue material gain, financial security, and worldly comfort above all else.  It is coveting stuff and calling it being blessed.   The low road approach is treating God more like Santa Claus who will give you what is on your wishlist instead of treating God like the creator of the universe and the final judge full of unending grace.   This is the approach of a self-centered, novice Christianity that never matures and it is worlds different from the type of disciple we are called towards.  

The high road approach does not seek to compare how good of a person we are to other people, the only measure of righteousness is how much are we living and loving like Jesus.  The high road approach is one that seeks to put others first, and to sow peace in order to reap a harvest in righteousness.  The high road approach is one that seeks God in prayer and earnestly prays “your kingdom come, your will be done.”   The high road approach is one that submits ourselves fully and completely before God.   Our talents, our time, our dreams, our talents laid before God.   This is what it means when we sung this morning, “Take my life, and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.”  The high road seeks to come near to God so that God can come near to us.

In our Wesleyan tradition we have a word for this high road, and it is called sanctification.   Sanctification is the process, it is the journey, we take to reach Christian perfection.    Christian perfection is the term for when we become like Jesus, we are love God with all that we are, we have true empathy and compassion for other people, and we do not choose to do things we know are wrong.   One of the things that I admire most about our Methodist tradition, is that Methodists are eternal optimists, because we believe that this state of Christian perfection is obtainable, that if we journey along the high road of sanctification we can reach that point.

Sanctification is the name we give to the process of being more like Jesus, but I think this morning’s scripture give a simple definition.   The process of becoming more like Jesus is learning to submit ourselves, then to God.   Learning to do this is a lifelong task, and no doubt some of you who have been faithful disciples for decades can attest that the more you learn how to do that, you realize how much more there is to learn.   Learning to submit ourselves to God, and becoming more like Jesus is central to what it means to be a Christian.   Jesus out of great love has saved us from our sins, he has redeemed our eternal life from death,  the only way we can respond to that kind of love is to love in return.   Keeping Jesus commands to love God and love others is the single best way that we can do that.

   I am reminded of a quote that a lot of people have tried to adapt and use, but it is often attributed to actress Mia Farrow.  She said: “I’m going to take the high road because the low road is so crowded.”   When it comes to our faith, may we indeed take the high road.  May we be wise enough to not over-estimate our own righteousness, and may we humbly submit ourselves to God.  May we seek to be more like Jesus in our thoughts, in our words, and in actions.   May we seek to pray with right motives, and may we earnestly seek to come near to God because then God will come near to us.