The Good and the Bad: which angel is on your shoulder?

I’m quite sure that many of you have heard the story about that time when my son was about five years old. It is a favorite of mine. He came in one day and announced that he was having a difficult time making a decision about something, and he said, “You know how it is dad, on your shoulder there’s a good devil and on the other one there’s a bad devil.”

He had been inspired of course by those cartoons which depict a character trying to make a choice in which there is often depicted a devil on one shoulder, and an angel on the other one. It is a familiar motif, one that I just saw recently in a car commercial—there’s the one voice saying something about the safety rating of the vehicle, but the bad voice saying something about the performance rating of it. “Go ahead,” the wrong voice was saying, “you know you want it.”

But in my son’s instance, I responded, “that’s your problem. One of those voices is supposed to be an angel. They’re not supposed to both be devils.” One of the voices is supposed to be a influence for good.

Now, it is said as theologians that Saint Paul and Saint James mix with about as much success as oil and water, or fire and ice. That’s because with Saint Paul it is all about justification –being made right with God—on the basis of faith and faith alone.

But James’ approach is entirely opposite. He’s the persistent thorn that keeps reminding us that faith is absolutely worthless if it does not have correspondence between the way in which we work, live and act. The faith that we proclaim on Sundays is supposed to have some connection with the grittiness of the rest of our lives. So James keeps demanding how you are demonstrating YOUR faith by the works YOU do.

Commentators notice how both of them have a highly different vocabulary and theological categories. Martin Luther thought that the Epistle of James should be entirely discarded from the New Testament. In his kinder moments, he called it an epistle of straw—in other words entirely worthless.

But let’s not be so quick as to dismiss James’ point of view. Actually, although their vocabulary and their categories are entirely different, in some ways both Paul and James are appealing to us to live by a higher nature. Both are trying to get us to listen to the angel of light rather than the demon of darkness on our shoulders.

So, Saint Paul talks about the importance of living life fully in the power of the spirit. He points out how the old self needs to be put to death so that the new creation—your identity in Jesus Christ might flourish. And he reminds us time and time again that those who are fully alive in the power of the spirit will demonstrate the presence of the spirit, and the fruits of the spirit: as he reminds us in Galatians 5.22f: the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, kindness, patience, and self-control. And what do we say about Saint Paul—well we tend to say that he is way to theoretical for most of us who are pragmatic, down to earth people. And we find him obtuse, and hard to understand.

James, by contrast, as we have him these last several weeks is probably a little too unvarnished, a little too blunt for our liking. But, he too would appeal to your higher nature.  It is show and tell time. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness, born of wisdom. Show the wisdom that comes from above: that wisdom is not like what passes for human wisdom. What passes for human wisdom is often the ability to engage in rationalization and negative thinking. 

When I had been in Wellsboro for a couple of years, one day I was just outside the Penn Wells. It was the height of leaf-peeper season. Outside the hotel there was a bus. Walking past the bus, I noticed a familiar smell. It was the smell of what I would now call city air—exhaust fumes pouring into the air. It is not fresh air. What passes for wisdom when it is not wisdom from above is like breathing the exhaust fumes from the bus. And James reminds us that there is nothing refreshing about breathing the fumes of rationalization and negative thinking. The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and with good fruits, without a trace of hypocrisy.

That vision does not describe the tenor of the times in which we are living. Maybe in our efforts we have been listening to the good devil and the bad devil too long.  Maybe it is that we too need to be reminded that one of the influences is supposed to be for good. For building and finding a way forward.



Canon Greg+


About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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