Handling Hardship: Sunukjian’s Invitation to James

invitation_to_james_cover_courtesy_publisher_1200x1200Sunukjian, Donald R. Invitation to James: Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-941337-25-7.

Invitation to James is part of a series on “Biblical Preaching for the Contemporary Church,” with current or forthcoming titles on James (the present volume), Philippians, the life of Jacob, Galatians, Mark, and Joshua. As such, its official purpose “is to offer models of the principles presented in the textbook” by the same author, Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance (xi, back cover). Like other books in the series, Invitation to James is a collection of “slightly edited” sermons that Sunukjian has previously preached (xi), aimed primarily at current preachers or preachers-in-training who might benefit from model sermons, particularly those who are using or have used Sunukjian’s textbook. Books in the series may even include “stage directions” at times (Ibid., emphasis removed), a phenomenon I noticed only once in Invitation to James (58).

Since I have not read Sunukjian’s textbook and do not preach, I cannot review Invitation to James in terms of its utility to students of Sunukjian’s textbook or to preachers. (Since this is the only book I have so far read by Sunukjian, I also cannot compare its usefulness to other books in the series.) Books created from expository (“verse by verse”) sermons do generally strike me as good reading for preachers, particularly for preachers who preach predominantly or exclusively topical (“pick and choose”) sermons, but I say this as a consumer rather than creator of sermons. I will therefore focus my review on the value of the text to Bible-believing readers more generally.

Overall, Invitation to James makes excellent devotional reading. Christians seeking clear and practical guidance in the application of God’s counsel to their thinking and actions will certainly find the book worthwhile. Whereas some treat James as “simply a loose collection of exhortations without…any overall unity” (1), Sunukjian presents James as essentially a handbook for responding properly and faithfully to, and so benefiting from, hardships. His overall stance is nicely summarized and persuasively supported in his brief introduction (1-4), though in truth the stronger support for accepting that James really is about “Persevering Through Trials to Win the Crown” is how this understanding illuminates James throughout the text.

The sort of difficulties James has in view, Sunukjian emphasizes, are “not…the results of your foolishness [or sin] or the normal challenges of life”; rather, “the kind of trials he’s talking about are those where you didn’t do anything to deserve such difficulty, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop it” (10): persecution at the hands of unbelievers, financial difficulties due to “economic forces outside your control,” physical difficulties due to disease or age, and the like. When believers find themselves in the midst of such hardships, they can be sure God is putting them through them for a good purpose, to make them more like Christ. Invitation to James works through the entire book of James in light of this theme, helping readers to discern what specific issues the Lord might be working on in their particular hardships, how they must respond if they are to derive the intended benefit, and so on. Some of these insights are things slow learners like myself have taken a very long time to figure out on our own, thus (perhaps) prolonging our hardships unnecessarily; Sunukjian’s text may help shorten the duration of some hardships by allowing believers to “get with the program” more quickly. (This isn’t to say that all or even most trials can be shortened by a proper response, only that some might be, since hardships only need continue until their purpose is accomplished.)

One thing I especially like about Sunukjian’s approach to James is the way it shows so much of the book to be an outworking or application of Jesus’s teachings in the gospels. While Sunukjian does not make these connections explicit, anyone familiar with the gospels is sure to notice them. (And surely one would expect such connections in a work by the Lord’s own brother [1].) For instance, Sunukjian’s discussion of James 3:1-12 (Chapter 7, “Tongue in Check,” 56-66) reads very much as an application of Jesus’s teaching on how one should not attempt to judge and correct one’s brethren until one has gotten one’s own life in order (Matthew 7:1-5).

I’m not perfectly happy with everything in the book, however. Though nothing in it troubles me greatly or would incline me to withhold my recommendation, a couple things in it trouble me a little and seem worth noting.

The first things that troubles me is a certain inconsistent bias first seen in Sunukjian’s treatment of James 2:1-13 (Chapter 5, “Impartial Love,” 40-49). Initially, Sunukjian offers the following description of James’s position on proper Christian impartiality: “If you are really committed to following Christ…and you find yourself in this situation—when the influential and insignificant, the attractive and unattractive, the rich and poor are both in your church—you must treat them absolutely the same. You must treat them equally, without thought of gain, without regard for any benefit you might receive. You must love them impartially….you must not show favoritism” (43-4). Again: “Do not treat people differently based on what you might get from them. Be absolutely impartial. Love them equally” (44). (It should perhaps be noted that “love” here, as throughout Scripture, points to committed benevolent action, to behavior, not to an emotional state. This definition of “love” is evident, though not explicitly stated, in this chapter. It is even more obvious in the next [Chapter 6, “Living, Loving, Lasting Faith,” 50-55].)

This is all very sound and biblical. Unfortunately, the rest of the chapter doesn’t quite live up to its own call for an impartiality that shows no favoritism and treats rich and poor “absolutely the same.” Instead, it shows a certain bias against the rich in favor of the poor. In order to correct a bias in favor of the rich that seems to have been prevalent among those to whom he is writing, James notes how certain “rich men” with whom they’ve dealt have in fact oppressed them, taken them to court, and blasphemed the Lord (James 2:6b-7; I’ve quoted the King James Version [KJV] wording; Sunukjian quotes the New International Version [NIV], which speaks of “the rich” instead of “rich men”). While I would see James’s point here as being that believers should abandon any thought that wealth is evidence of divine favor, as well as any deluded idea that just because someone is rich means he is going to help you in some way, Sunukjian sees James’s point as more broad. “James’s point here,” he writes, “is that more often the rich are the ones who have no use for God in their lives” (47). No doubt it is true that great wealth makes sinful (God-ignoring) self-reliance easier and makes more and bigger sins possible, so that the wonder of God’s grace is especially evident when the rich are saved (Matthew 19:23-6), but presupposing that rich persons, because they are rich, will “more often” prove ungodly, or that the poor will more often “have the richest and deepest walk with God” (46), is not impartial. God, indeed, has chosen persons who are poor to be “rich in faith” (James 2:5 KJV), but impartiality does not permit one to assume God “more often” chooses poor than rich or to assume that a given poor person is more likely a sincere believer than a given rich person.

Related to this, Exodus 23 contains an interesting pair of verses I don’t frequently see quoted together. The second of the pair warns one not to show bias in judgment against a poor person (v. 6). The first, however, and perhaps less popularly, warns one not to show bias in judgment for a poor person (v. 3). The New King James, as it happens, words the first verse in a way directly relevant to the issue of “impartial love”: “You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute” (v. 3). (The KJV warns one not to “countenance a poor man in his cause,” which perhaps makes the sort of bias in view even clearer.) Impartial love for persons irrespective of wealth does not mean preference for the poor over the rich. Impartiality in one’s judgment and treatment of rich and poor does not mean a biased starting assumption that the rich are innately more likely to sin than are the poor, or that the poor are innately more deserving of your time and attention than the rich. James’s remarks to correct a favoritism being shown toward the rich, and to refute any latent assumption that material wealth is evidence of divine approval, should not be taken as a warrant to routinely assume the worst about the rich. Yet, after a listing of stereotypical misdeeds of the rich and sinful (46-7), Sunukjian only grant that “not all rich people are this way” (47). Normally, when one says of a whole group that “not all” members of that group are a certain way, one means to imply that most persons in that group are that way. This is bias, not impartiality.

When Sunukjian takes up discussion of James’s imprecations against sinful “rich men” (James 5:1 KJV; NIV “rich people”), his lack of impartiality between poor and rich, his bias for the poor against the rich, still seems evident (Chapter 12, “Money Talks,” 95-104). The chapter, however, mainly provides guidance on how Christians can ensure that any wealth they acquire is earned honorably and used righteously, and what Sunukjian has to say on these topics is mostly sound and biblical. One example he offers of unrighteous (inappropriately self-centered) behavior someone with wealth might engage in does merit criticism, though. “In our day,” Sunukjian writes, “violence and injustice at the hands of the rich may be a bit more sophisticated [than that seen in 1 Kings 21 and Isaiah 5:7-8, discussed in Sunukjian’s prior paragraph], but it still occurs….[various examples, then:] Through turning apartments into condos, they evict elderly tenants and sell units for large sums, thumbing their noses at rent controls designed to protect the vulnerable” (103).

An endorsement of “rent controls,” combined with condemnation of property owners for opting to sell properties rather than continue to rent them out and maintain them after such controls have been imposed, is something I was a bit surprised to see showing up in a sermon. Now, if someone (or a group of someones, such as profit-seeking investors) purchases an apartment complex, his (or their) reason for doing so is typically the same as that motivating the rest of us to seek employment or sell products or services: to make money. What he plans to do with this money once he has it, whether or not he believes the Bible and will give the “between five percent and fifteen percent” Sunukjian says would show he is not an ungodly hoarder (99-100), cannot be determined from the mere fact that he owns an apartment complex. If government imposes a cap on the rent he may charge, he loses the ability to take advantage of changes in the rental marketplace to offset losses due to changes in the maintenance marketplace and in other marketplaces where he must spend his income. At some point, he may, even if he is a charitable man loath to harm his tenants, decide that shrinking profits have made the ongoing effort and expense too much to endure.

A Christian property owner financially capable of doing so might well wish, might in fact feel a moral obligation, to reduce profit or take a loss on a given rental property as an act of charity toward a fellow believer or even an unbeliever in dire financial circumstances. A preacher might even be right to urge such a choice on financially-capable Christian owners of rental properties. Prophetic witness to moral obligation is quite a different thing from endorsement of government short-circuiting of free market processes in service of (what are popularly called) “social justice” objectives, however. As well, endorsement of rent control seems morally suspect. As one writer observes, rent control is “legislated plunder of providers of rental housing” (Robert Batemarco, “Three Fallacies of Rent Control: We Can’t Always Have Everything We Want,” The Freeman, 01 June 1997, accessed on the Foundation for Economic Education [FEE]’s Web site 14 November 2014). In other words, it is theft from persons who have (unless some fraud can be shown) honestly acquired property at their own risk and expense. No matter how much they want to help vulnerable low-income renters, Bible-believers must oppose theft (Exodus 20:15, Deuteronomy 5:19). Any owner of rental property forced by government to charge less to renters than the market rate, or condemned by a preacher for refusing to retain ownership when denied freedom to charge market rates, might ask, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (Matthew 20:15b KJV).

As it happens, evidence does not support the belief that rent control helps the vulnerable anyway. The Mises Wiki offers the following brief summary of one study’s findings on the topic: “Rent control produces the opposite of promised results; it is an initially well-intentioned but ultimately destructive housing policy that actually reduces supply, hurts the poor and displaces the needy” (“Rent Control” entry on the Mises Wiki, accessed 14 November 2014, citing Rolf Goetze’s 1994 study, “Rent Control: Affordable Housing For the Privileged, Not The Poor,” to which a link is provided in the Wiki article). An Urban Institute writer draws the same conclusion from his survey of available data: “Given the current research,” he writes, “there seems to be little one can say in favor of rent control.” Still willing to help those in need, he asks, “What, then, should be done to help renters obtain affordable, decent housing? A better approach may be adopting policies that encourage the production of more diverse types of housing…, implementing strong regulations and practices to ensure housing quality and to protect tenants from abuses; and providing targeted, direct subsidies to people who need help paying their rents” (Peter A. Tatian, “Beware the Comeback of Rent Control: There’s very little evidence that rent stabilization protects poor or vulnerable renters,” CityLab Web site, accessed on the 14 November 2014). Not only is endorsement of rent control unbiblical favoritism, it is favoritism that fails to achieve its goal.

A second thing that troubles me is Sunukjian’s seeming willingness to treat statements by a “voice” in one’s head as a source of justified true belief, as something sufficient to let one say one “knows” something (121-2). Though a voice in my own head indicates that persons who in our day hear voices in their heads answering on behalf of God are just hearing their own thoughts, I will not assume this voice in my head has any special authority to overrule the voices in others’ heads. Instead, I will only assert that a subjectively-interpreted voice in one’s own head cannot be considered sufficient basis to justify any belief. Even if something the voice “predicts” actually happens, this doesn’t prove much about the voice unless (perhaps) the thing predicted is something extremely unlikely to happen by chance even given all empirical indicators one has observed consciously or might have perceived unconsciously prior to hearing (or imagining) the voice. (The “voice” that Sunukjian heard as a young pastor predicted passing of a kidney stone in a situation where I suspect a good percentage of stones, of both believers and unbelievers, end up passing. I leave it to statisticians to confirm or refute my suspicion.) I realize credulity when it comes to subjective experiences and impressions is common among Christians today, even among generally sound thinkers with extensive education, so that my objection to this minor point in one of Sunukjian’s messages may be judged bad form, but when I suggest to the voice in my head that I should just leave it out to make for a more agreeable review, the voice insists that would be unacceptable.

As I’ve said, however, these things that trouble me do not trouble me much. They are minor flaws, brief annoyances, in a quite edifying text I enjoyed reading and do not hesitate to recommend.

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