Some Christians think that being “nice” is the standard to which they ought to rise. There’s nothing wrong with being nice, but if we use James as our example, we see that we have to go far beyond that. This writer knew that his readers were being seriously challenged by persecution from outside, and sin from inside. He didn’t mince words, tripping over himself trying to be gentle and inoffensive. He knew he was dealing with big issues and so he took the direct approach. You’ll see what I mean as you listen to the first ten verses of James chapter 4.
“Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”? But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.”
With these words, James both rebuked and exhorted his readers, whether 1st or 21st Century ones. When we are in the midst of interpersonal conflicts, we are quick to blame the other person. Of course, it always is the other person’s fault. If they would go along with us there wouldn’t be a conflict, right? James challenged this, almost universal, assumption with a couple of questions. He started by asking where conflicts come from. Then, just as his readers were mentally preparing to answer by pointing at the other, he headed them off by asking if the real source of discord was not the desire for earthly pleasure.
The word translated by our English word “pleasure” comes directly from the verb “to please.” Conflict breaks out when what pleases someone else is not what pleases me. I want what I want; they want what they want; and sometimes it’s impossible to have both at the same time. That, James contends, is the source of conflict.
At this point, he quit asking questions and began making straightforward declarations. He told them that they had lust — an excessive desire for things they didn’t have. They broke the law by coveting these things, even murdering to get what they wanted, but it remained out of reach. Their competitiveness with others ended up in fighting that drew others in until there was a full-blown war in progress. I suspect most of us have seen exactly this kind of thing. What begins as a mere preference, “I think we should paint the room blue” escalates to a non-negotiable, “If we don’t paint the room blue, I’ll walk out of here and take all of my friends with me. Then you won’t be able to paint it any colour.”
Next, James brought some spiritual logic into the picture. He told them that they didn’t have what they wanted because they didn’t ask God for it. Once again, we have to remember reading this book calls us to fill in some blanks. In this passage, we have to fill in the other side of the conversation. Perhaps, as sometimes happens, even today, the readers of James’ letter hurriedly prayed that God would give them what they wanted. That way, they could avoid his charge that they weren’t praying about the situation.
James’ very next statement responded directly to this. He said, “OK so you asked. You still didn’t get what you wanted because your motives were wrong. You just asked for what would please you.” This implied that their prayers were not concerned with blessing their spiritual brothers and sisters or with glorifying God. Remember, James’ initial audience was Jewish. Everyone knew the law. They knew that the most important things in life were to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength and to love their neighbours as themselves, but their attitude was turning this on its head. They put themselves first. They lusted, fought and even prayed for what would please them without regard for anyone else.
At this point, James got really heated up as he looked beneath the squabbles on the surface and got to the root of the issue. Let’s consider his words again.
James 4:4-5 “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?
If people weren’t giving James their full attention to this point, I believe they did when they got to these words. As Jews who had become believers in Jesus as the Messiah, both their background and their new faith in Jesus would have made the very idea of sexual infidelity repugnant to them. Here, out of the blue, James called them “adulterers and adulteresses.”
Of course, James had their relationship with God in mind, not their marriages, but the words are strong in either case. He told them that an intimate relationship with the pleasures of the world in this life drove a wedge between them and God — it made them enemies of God. Their focus on getting what pleased them put them in the position of being more devoted to their relationship with the world than to their relationship with God.
Just as a husband who seeks fulfilment outside of marriage is an adulterer, so a Christian who seeks spiritual fulfilment outside of his or her relationship with God is a spiritual adulterer. James used his usual mix of questions and statements as he backed his readers into a corner on this issue, closing his argument by asking them if they thought the Bible’s declarations about the jealousy of God were merely empty words.
Let’s take a moment and consider the issue of jealousy, since there is sometime confusion about it. As I begin, let me make a distinction between envy, which is desiring something you don’t have, and jealousy which is possessiveness of what you do have. The Bible consistently casts envy (an aspect of covetousness) in a negative light, but not so with jealousy. Our western culture rightly criticizes jealousy of one person over another, because we don’t believe one person can “own” another. In marriage, we voluntarily commit and submit to each other, but we don’t possess each other. We cooperate, but we don’t own each other. Thus if either a husband or a wife behaves in an unduly possessive way toward his or her spouse, perhaps limiting friendships, or in some cases even social contact, we see that as a bad thing. That’s because, marriage is voluntary and it is a mutual covenant, and does not involve a title deed or some other document of ownership. I will quickly note that the view of marriage in other cultures may be quite different.
However, jealousy on God’s part is entirely warranted. First of all, He made us, which gives him the right of ownership. When I write a song, or build a bookshelf, or make a game or a puzzle, it is mine because I made it. I used my own resources to acquire the materials and my own knowhow to manipulate them into the finished product. So I lay exclusive claim to it. If anyone tries to take it from me, I declare my ownership and do whatever I can to protect my property. In a similar, but grander way, God is jealous of us because He made us. Unlike the inanimate things that I make, we humans can walk away from God and this adds another layer of complex factors to the situation. However, God built that freedom to forsake Him into the equation. He allows it, but He doesn’t like it because He is possessive of His prized possessions.
But there is another factor. We belong to God because He redeemed us, or bought us back for Himself with the blood of Jesus on the cross. Each one of us, has taken advantage of the freedom God gives us and we have forsaken Him. To get us back, God sent Jesus to do what was necessary to make the way for us to return to Him. When I buy something, whether a chair, a computer, even a meal, it is mine because I bought it. I paid the price and now I own it. I can sit on the chair, work on the computer and eat the meal without asking anybody’s permission because by exchanging money with the previous owner, I have gained ownership and all the rights that go along with it. Similarly, because of the redemptive act of Jesus on the cross, God has bought us for Himself. Not only does He own us because He made us, He owns us because He paid the price for us. No wonder He is jealous over us.
This is why James used the strong language he did. Just as an abandoned husband might regretfully and sorrowfully use the word “adulteress” to describe his unfaithful wife, so does God when He looks at the people He made and bought, being more in love with the things of the world than with Him.
After shocking his readers with this teaching about the jealousy of God, James changed both his subject and his tone as he wrote of the grace of God. Let’s read the verses.
James 4:6-7 “But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
We don’t know just how James went from thinking the one he knew as his big brother, Jesus, was crazy to accepting that He was the Messiah. Certainly it was a work of grace and just as lack of faith in God’s provision had been prompting his readers to look to the world for comfort and pleasure, James’ unbelief kept him from accepting the truth about who Jesus was. The grace of God came to James when he humbled himself, turned his back on his old way of thinking regarding Jesus and embraced the truth that God had revealed to him.
Thus the advice of James to his readers, both then and now is to submit to God. Part of submitting to God will be resisting the devil and his lies. James offered encouragement by adding that when we resist the devil, he will flee from us. While Satan does have real power, at least temporarily, much of his influence comes from the inflated view of his importance and authority in the minds of his victims. He is a deceiver. He is happy to have undue respect paid to him.
As we move into the last verses before us today, we find two related promises separated by some very direct instructions for the people in the middle who are flip-flopping between looking to God and looking to the world for their identity, meaning, fulfilment, and pleasure in life.
James 4:8-10 “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.”
James’ challenge to sinners recorded in these verses is among the most direct you’ll find in the whole Bible. His instructions are very clear. Abandon your pursuit of the pleasure of the world. Instead, come to God and put yourself in the right relationship to him, humbling yourself before Him. This will ensure the eternal blessing of God.
Make a note of the two promises here: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you,” and “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” As we approach God, He draws near to us. As we humble ourselves, understanding who we are in relation to Him, He lifts us up.
After reading such words, we can’t help doing a little self-examination. Are we moving toward God in humility, anticipating the joy of being with Him forever, or are we arrogantly moving away from Him, hoping for the best, not sure of what to expect, but trusting that what the Bible tells us is not the truth — something our eyes have been blinded from seeing and our hearts have been hardened against receiving? Take a few moments and consider the implications of how you are responding to God.