The Perils of Playing God

Bible Book: James  4 : 11-17
Subject: Judging Others; Self-righteousness; Slander; Playing God; Pride

James 4:11-17

I’m sure all you football fans out there remember that for the first three weeks of last year’s NFL season replacement referees took the place of the regular refs on the playing field. The team owners had locked out the regular refs because they couldn’t agree on a new contract and the sad consequence of this decision was predictable. I mean, the replacement refs missed calls, took too long to make the right calls, called too many fouls, and in the process made coaches, players, and fans furious. All that anger came to a head in the third week of the season when this angry coach, Bill Belichick, of the New England Patriots, got so ticked that he GRABBED one of the replacement refs and was fined fifty thousand dollars by the league for doing so. Then the game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks was decided by THIS call - a call on the last play of the game that was so clearly wrong the whole country was talking about it the next day. The media pointed out that because of the missed call, 150 million dollars changed hands in Las Vegas.

Suffice it to say that using these inexperienced refs marred the credibility of the game. Players didn’t know what to expect on the field and worried about injuries. Newspapers routinely used the word “outrage” to describe the reaction from millions of fans. ESPN declared, “Let’s cut to the chase - the replacement officials have lost control of the game.” Even an NPR blog chimed in. It said: “It’s the talk of the nation today as fans beg for the league and its regular officials to settle their differences so that the ‘real’ refs can come back.”

Everyone questioned the abilities of these replacement refs. Everyone thought, “Who are they to make judgments?! They are obviously not capable! They have no business wearing those striped shirts! Make them turn in their whistles!” Just curious - how many of you were upset by the calls of the refs during those weeks? How many of you felt that they were just not able to do their job? I confess to having felt the same way and I don’t watch that much football. I remember thinking, “Who do these guys think they are? How can they accept a paycheck for a job they are obviously not capable of doing?!”

I decided to bring this up because we do the same thing these replacement refs did. In life there is a sense in which we set ourselves up as “refs” –

 all the time - making judgments and calls we are just not capable of making. But actually we are even WORSE than these NFL replacements because we make judgments - we “ref” - as if we were God Himself. Before you get defensive and “throw a ‘flag’ on my sermon” at this point, take your Bibles and turn to James 4:11-17, because this is exactly what James says. In these verses James describes TWO WAYS that Christians often live and behave as if they were the “ultimate referee” of life. Follow along now - and as I read see if you don’t feel your own behavior being described in James’ words.

11 – Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.

12 – There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One Who is able to save and destroy. But you - who are you to judge your neighbor?

13 – Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”

14 – Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

15 – Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

16 – As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.

17 – Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

Did that text hit home a bit? It did with me. James’ words here are a reminder that all Scripture “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). I can see times in my own thoughts and attitudes when I’ve played God in the ways that James describes. I think you can as well.

(1) We Play God in the Way We View Others

For example you and I - we often play God in the way we view OTHERS.

According to James we EXPRESS our view of other people - our opinions or judgments of them - in the SLANDEROUS statements we make behind their backs. A few weeks ago we studied what James had to say about how much damage we can do to people in the way we use our WORDS and in our text he addresses this issue again. I think this repetition is God’s way of emphasizing just how evil it is for us to use our tongues to hurt.

What exactly does it mean to SLANDER someone? Well the Greek word that James uses here is “katalalia” and it literally means, “to talk down.” And that’s what slanderous words are: “talk downs” or PUT DOWNS - verbal cuts or slashes at another person’s character - those words that we utter with the goal of diminishing another person’s worth. William Barclay describes it like this: “Katalalia - SLANDER - is the sin of those who meet in corners and gather in little groups and pass on confidential tidbits of whispered information which destroys the reputation and good name of those who are not there to defend themselves.” We’ve all been the subject of those kinds of conversations and we know how much slanderous words hurt - how they hurt us deep within.

In his book, Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, Walter Wangerin shares a lesson in entomology - the study of insects - specifically spiders. He’s not an entomologist but he uses this little science lesson to help us understand the kind of damage slander can do. Wangerin explains that a female spider has a dining room that doubles as a morgue and he puts it this way because a visiting fly will be caught in her web…much like the one in this picture. And in what happens next the fly will be granted the ILLUSION of wholeness. That is to say he’ll look like a fly but his look will literally only be skin deep because the spider will have drunk his insides so that he has become his own hollow casket. The reason the female spider does this is that she has no stomach and is incapable of digesting anything. So, when she catches a victim in her web she makes tiny punctures in his body through which she injects digestive juices, enzymes that break down the fly’s insides and turn them into a warm soup of sorts. Wangerin writes, “She swills this soup in the same way that most of us swill SOULS of one another after having cooked them in various ‘enzymes.’ There are the ‘enzymes’ of guilt, humiliations, subjectives, cruel love - there are a number of fine, acidic mixes. And some among us are so skilled with this, the hypodermic WORD of slander, that our dear ones continue to sit up and to smile, quite as though they were still alive.”

I know this is a bit gruesome, but it is a good metaphor to describe the destructive power of evilly intended words. Of course words don’t dissolve organs and nerves - but they can dissolve souls.

And since they can, the world is populated by walking caskets because countless lives have been dissolved and sucked empty by the slanderous words of others. I’m sure anyone who’s been on the receiving end of slander can identify with Wangerin’s metaphor. Personally, I think slander is more painful than an actual physical wound. Wouldn’t you agree?

And you know, even our fallen culture recognizes how catastrophic slander can be. I say this because we have passed laws that make it possible to sue those people who slander us for defamation of character. Well, the Bible has a great deal to say about this issue. In fact it denounces the sin of slander more often than it does any other sin. Perhaps this is because the first act of slander in human history - satan’s slanderous talk to Eve concerning God’s one law - led to the first sin. And people have followed satan’s example ever since by sucking the life out of each other with their derogatory words.

  • No wonder in Leviticus 19:16 God says, “You shall NOT go about as a slanderer among your people.”
  • The seriousness of slander caused David to say in Psalm 101:5, “Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy.”
  • In Matthew 15:20, Jesus said that slander, “…defiles a person.”
  • 1 Peter 2:1 says, “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and SLANDER of every kind.”
  •  Psalm 15:3 says that it is the mark of a GODLY man, “…that he does not slander with his tongue.”
  •  and Romans 1:30 says it is the mark of the WICKED, “…that they slander others.”

Why is slander such a big deal? I mean, sure - it hurts people - but so does stealing and adultery so why does God’s Word speak against it so much? James answers this question by saying that SLANDER is a “big deal” for two reasons.

A. With Slander We Put Ourselves Above God’s LAW

First of all in verse 11 he says that when we slander - when we attack other people with our words-we are putting ourselves above God’s LAW.

The law James is referring to is the law of love - Jesus’ command in John 13:34 that we love one another. Do you remember that one? Our Lord said it was second in importance only to our command to love God. Well, when put each other down - when we hatefully hurt other people with our words - we are declaring this law of God to be null and void and inoperative in our lives. In fact, as James points out, when we slander EACH OTHER we are actually slandering God’s LAW. With our verbal actions we are saying that this particular law of God is not worth obeying, and this leads to a second reason James says slandering is such a big deal.

B. When We Slander We Put Ourselves In God’s PLACE

You see, when we attack others with our words - when we judge someone with our opinions, we are putting ourselves in God’s PLACE.

Verse 15 says there is only ONE Lawgiver and Judge - there’s only one “Ref” in life - and it’s not us! Only God is Holy and Perfect - so only He is capable of judging the behavior of others. Plus, only He is able to see the heart. Only God knows the full story.

Charles Swindoll tells of a time when he was a seminary student and a missionary came to speak at chapel. Swindoll said that afterward he joined others in badmouthing the missionary’s message. He says, “We ripped him apart with a smug, critical spirit. And we weren’t concealing our scorn because an underclassman heard us. He came to me and said, ‘Chuck you guys don’t know the facts. Did you know that two hours before the message the missionary’s wife called and told him their youngest son had been killed in an auto accident? Did you also know that three months ago she was diagnosed with terminal cancer? And in spite of all that he still came and spoke at chapel?”

Like Swindoll too many of us criticize and judge before we get all the facts. We judge as if we were God Who knows all - and we are not - and we don’t. So, when we slander others, we overstep our boundaries and encroach on God’s territory.

Let me put it this way, when I slander it’s like me buying a striped ref shirt and running out onto Fed-ex field during a Redskins game blowing my whistle and throwing yellow flags. I am not capable of that job. I don’t know the rules. I don’t know the players. It’s not my place. Well, it is not our place to put ourselves in judgment above others either. That’s God’s job! This is why James responded to the slanderous actions of the Christians of his day by saying, “Who are you to do this? Who died and left you in charge of the universe?”

By the way, the Greek word for “slander” comes from the same Greek word that means “blasphemy.” And there is a VERY real sense that when we sinfully criticize others with our words, we are committing that sin - the sin of blasphemy, for we are attacking - judging - the handiwork of God Himself. Let me give you an example to explain what I mean. My daughter Sarah is a great photographer. I’m a little biased but I think she’s got real talent in that area. Well, what if I went on her little photography website and then called Sarah to tell her that her pics were lousy. Sarah would be offended - hurt. She’d probably tear up and start crying. Now why would my comments cause her distress? After all, I wasn’t putting down Sarah. I was putting down her photo. But you see the truth is, when you put down what a person makes you put down the person who made it!

God made humans. He loves them. He considered them worth the death of His only Son. So when we attack another person with our slander we are criticizing God’s precious handiwork and in a very real sense that is blasphemy! No wonder James confronts the sin of SLANDER so forcefully! It IS a BIG DEAL!

Now - please don’ t misunderstand me here. James is NOT saying that it is wrong to lovingly rebuke a fellow Christian who persists in unrepentant sin. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus commanded us to do exactly that - to go to a fellow believer who is sinning and IN LOVE admonish them for their behavior. Doing that is not slander. Slander is talking about someone behind their back or to their face with the intent to hurt. The motive behind admonishing someone to their face with the truth of their sin - the motive behind this action is to help, to heal, to restore - not hurt.

Okay - according to James you and I do often play God in this way - in the way we VIEW OTHERS - a view that is seen in our slanderous, hateful, comments. But in verses 13-17 James says there is a SECOND way that we play God.

(2) We Play God In The Way We View OURSELVES

James says this is seen when we make plans in life without consulting God - living according to OUR WILL instead of HIS. Behaving in this way - giving God’s WILL a backseat - shows that we VIEW OURSELVES far too highly! In verse 13 James cites the example of the Jewish merchants of his day who would say, “Today and tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” These guys acted as if they were omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent in that they planned the WHERE and the WHEN and the WHAT of their lives without consulting God. Their pride-filled behavior reminds me of the familiar words from Henley’s classic poem: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

You and I often make the same mistake, for there are many times in life when we delude ourselves into thinking that WE are the final authority and proceed to make our plans without consulting God. Like the sin of slander, this TOO is a big deal – a definite “no-no” for any Christian.

I say this because the Bible teaches over and over again that nothing more clearly summarizes the character of a genuine believer than a desire to do the will of God instead of the will of self.

In Psalm 40:8 David wrote, “I delight to do Your will, O my God.” In Mark 3:35 Jesus taught that, “whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.” And then do you remember the solemn warning Jesus gave in Matthew 7:21? He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the WILL of My Father.” No wonder Peter exhorted Christians to “…no longer live for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:2) As Proverbs 3 commands, we are to acknowledge God’s will in “all our ways.”

And you know, the truth is, not doing this is foolish because we aren’t God. We aren’t omniscient - we don’t know what lies in the future. Only God does. Only He knows what waits around the bend in life and He graciously promises to “direct our paths.” All we have to do is ask. So, it is silly to plod ahead without taking advantage of His guidance! James says ANOTHER reason it makes no sense to live life according to our will instead of God’s is because our lives are so BRIEF. In verse 15 he points out that at best our entire life span is but “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” This passage is based on Proverbs 27:1 which says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

Now we don’t like to think about it, but James is right. Our lives are BRIEF. The truth is the moment we are born we begin to die. As someone has said, “The wood of the cradle rubs up tightly against the marble of the tomb.” I once heard of a life-insurance agent who had presented a plan to a potential customer. He closed his presentation by saying, “Don’t let me frighten you into anything. Go home and sleep on it. And, IF you do wake up in the morning, let me know what you think!” This “super-salesman” was trying to key in on this basic unavoidable principle of the brevity of life. And, in view of the fact that our lives are brief, it is foolish to disregard God’s will. It makes much more sense to follow Moses’ advice in Psalm 90:12 and ask God to “teach us to number our [limited] days ARIGHT, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” We must not follow the example of the man who said, “I have made two mistakes in life and both mistakes are mathematical. I have misjudged the BREVITY of life and the LENGTH of eternity.”

In verse 17 James says another way we disregard the will of God is by NOT doing what we know we should do - acts that are referred to as sins of OMISSION.

A sin of omission is knowing what is right to do and failing to do it - knowing God’s will and stubbornly deciding to ignore it. This particular form of sin comes in three basic varieties.

A. Sin of Omission Involves Self-Centeredness

First there are times when the sin of omission involves self-centeredness. I’m referring to those times when we don’t LOVE enough.

In John 13:35 Jesus said, “By this will all men know you are My disciples…if you have love for one another.” Many times we disobey this command and the reason we do is because they get too caught up in ourselves. We care too much about our own needs and hurts to become involved in loving others and when we get this self-centered, we sin.

B. Sin of Omission Involves Silence

A second example of a sin of omission is SILENCE - the sin of not SAYING enough.

I’m referring to our unwillingness to speak up when God gives us an opportunity to share our Christian faith. In Acts 1:8 Jesus told His first disciples, “When the Holy Spirit has come upon you…you shall be My witnesses.” Unfortunately many churches are filled with silent Christians, those whose only witness seems to be a nonverbal testimony to the world that says Christ is really not all that important.

You know, I believe that if more of us lived according to God’s will - if more of us lived TRULY CHRISTIAN lives - we would constantly have people coming to us asking us about our faith - asking how we have hope in the midst of life’s troubles and pain. And then if we were ready and prepared to answer their questions - well, the aisles of churches would be filled with people publicly professing their faith in Jesus. The sad truth is too many Christians aren’t prepared to answer people’s question, so they ignore the God-given opportunities they have to share their faith. Too many believers don’t reproduce themselves spiritually. They don’t share the love of God that people so desperately need. They sin by NOT doing the all-important task of WITNESSING.

The Christian scholar Larry Taunton launched a nationwide campaign to interview college students who belong to atheistic campus groups. After receiving a flood of enquiries, Larry and his team heard one consistent theme from these young unbelievers. They often EXPECTED but didn’t FIND more spiritual depth from their Christian neighbors and co-workers. Larry writes:

“Some [of these young atheists] had gone to church hoping to find answers to [tough questions about faith]. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: ‘I really started to get bored with church.’”

In contrast, these young atheists expressed their RESPECT for those ministers who took the Bible seriously. Quoting Larry again, “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed [positive] feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced Biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us, ‘I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me. Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.’”

I wonder - have your co-workers and neighbors seen the life-changing difference Jesus can make in you? Have they HEARD your faith in the way you earnestly show it - and share it? People, all around us here in Montgomery County there are people who are searching for the Truth which will set them free. We know the Truth. So, to be silent - to refuse to share the good news of the gospel - is a sin against God.

We sin by omission when we don’t LOVE enough - when we don’t SAY enough.

C. Sin of Omission means we simply Don’t DO Enough

But basically we sin by omission when we simply don’t DO enough.

In Mark 8:34 Jesus issued the call to discipleship, saying, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” We are to walk with the Master and serve others in His name every day. Hearing that challenge many Christians amen - then sit back and do nothing. Jesus called us to set the world on fire - yet many times they settle for simmering. Jesus commanded us to follow Him with everything we have, yet many Christians are satisfied with a halfway, part-time, when-I-feel-like-it commitment - and others are satisfied with no commitment at all.

I remember a cartoon strip which showed Charlie Brown lying on his back on the ice all wrapped up with fur cap, muff, boots, and mittens. He had fallen on the ice and could not get up. The next frame showed SNOOPY coming along. He looked curiously at Charlie Brown as if to say, “What are you doing down there?” But, Snoopy did not do anything to help. He just laid his head down on Charlie Brown’s stomach and fell asleep. The last frame showed Charlie Brown with a look of unbelief as he said, “Good grief.” Well God must feel like that sometimes! People in this world are hurting and need someone to help them. There are countless lost people who need to be reached - and in the midst of all this need, many Christians are in essence simply laying their heads down and going to sleep. The truth is, our greatest sin as believers is not the bad that we do but the times we fail to do the good we SHOULD do.

You know, the word “wicked” is a very strong word in Greek and it is not used very often in the New Testament. One of the few places we find it is in the parable of the talents. Remember that story? The man who had ten talents got busy and multiplied them, as did the man who had five. But the man who had just one was afraid he would lose it, so he hid it and did nothing with it. Understand - he didn’t squander it. He just did NOTHING with the money and his master rebuked him saying, “Thou WICKED and lazy servant.” (Matthew 25:26) You and I might have called him cautious or disorganized or frightened, but the Bible refers to him as “wicked” because it is sinful to know what God wants us to do and decide not to do it. That is a principle we need to hear and understand today, for as I said, many times the greatest sins we commit as Christians are not the HORRIBLE things we DO do - but the good things we FAIL to do.

In 1744 King Louis XV of France was smitten with an illness that threatened to take his life. Historian Thomas Carlyle tells us that when the news spread France was in terror and Paris seemed like a city taken by storm. The churches resounded with supplications and groans, and the prayers of priests and people were continually interrupted by their sobs. This widespread manifestation of tender interest and deep affection for Louis XV brought him the surname of “Louis the Well-beloved.” The love of the people for their young king was not inspired by what he had done, but by what they hoped he would do. You see, for years the nation had been crushed under the heel of a cruel tyrant, and they regarded the accession of Luis XB to the throne as the dawn of a brighter and happier day. They loved him because all their hopes rested in him. That was 1744.

Thirty years later Louis XV again lay sick. But this time the churches did not resound with excessive groanings. Sobs did not now interrupt any prayers, for no prayers were being offered. In fact, “Louis the Well-beloved” had become the most hated man in France. In 1744 he might have asked, “What have I done to be so loved?” and in 1774, “What have I done to be so hated?” The truth is he had done NOTHING.

You know, the sad truth is you and I have come to believe that it is not nearly so bad if we DON’T do something as it is if we DO do something - but as James reminds us, BOTH are sins in God’s eyes.


We come now to our time of invitation-that all important portion of our service in which we give you an opportunity to publicly or privately respond to God. This morning what is He calling you to DO? Is He knocking on your heart’s door-asking to come into your heart and life as Savior and Lord? Is He reminding you of a co-worker or neighbor who needs to hear your witness? Is He convicting you of your need to LOVE someone who is hurting enough to HELP them. Is He calling you to repent of your sin of slander? Is God calling you to serve Him as a member of this church? Anything that God calls you to DO - commit to do it right now. Yield to His will by coming forward and sharing your decision with me as we stand and sing.