Practically Speaking: James 8

Resisting and Fleeing, James 4:1-10

How can war be ended forever?  In a world filled with anger and despair, how eagerly mankind looks for the answer to that question.  We elect politicians who promise to end war and injustice.  But who would have guessed that the most important and yet overlooked book ever written provided the answer 2 millennia ago.  In the King James Version we read this:

From whence come wars and fightings among you?  (James 4:1)

The opening of chapter 4 is in contrast to the end of chapter 3:

Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.  (3:18)

Moffatt in his translation uses this striking transition:

But how speak of peace among you? (4:1)

In verses 1-10, James examines in some detail this worldly attitude that causes so much trouble.  He first identifies the source of conflicts (4:1-3); then he reproves spiritual unfaithfulness (4:4-6); and lastly, he pleads for submission to God (4:7-10)  (Donald Burdick).

1.  The source of conflicts, verses 1-3

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Here is a profound truth:  “Wars without come from wars within.”  This is the truth James wants to drive home to his readers, and to us.  It seems as though James is addressing a problem that existed in the circle of believers to whom he is writing.  Even though he calls them “my brothers” repeatedly throughout his letter, his readers were not living in a climate of peace necessary for the growth of righteousness (3:18).  The progression of James’ argument is obvious and masterful:

If bitter envy and selfish ambition have taken root in a believer (3:14, 16);
If their world view is dominated and shaped by worldly and unspiritual wisdom (3:15);
If they have so alienated themselves from God;
Then they promote “disorder and every evil practice” (3:16).

When all that happens, fights and quarrels become the norm.  The two words, “fights” and “quarrels” are from the Greek polemoi and machai, and are words usually reserved for warfare.

What a stark contrast we have in James’ letter to our perception of the early Church, which is shaped by Acts 4:32–

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.

That picture of harmony was all but gone within a decade, to be replaced by a church full of fights, quarrels, and bickering.  James uses two very strong words as a figurative sense because he asks a deeply penetrating question, phrased in such a way that his readers could hardly disagree.  In other words, to their shame, James’ readers knew they were in the wrong.

Their conflicts were caused by their “desires,” from the Greek hednon, from which we get “hedonism.”  This gives us a glimpse into their psyche.  Believers, scattered to the four corners of the earth were still concerned with their “sensual comforts.”  So concerned, in fact, that his readers were stepping all over each other to get them.  They were certainly not showing Christian charity!

Verse 2 is another powerful verse in which James speaks metaphorically of believers who would go so far to “kill” to get what they want.  Of course, it is unlikely James has in mind his readers physically murdering each other to get what the other has.  The phrase “you want something” is a weak translation of the Greek which is much more forceful.  The sense is that of strong, never ending lusting or coveting, which led to hatred.  In Matthew 5:21-22 and 1 John 3:15 hatred is equated to murder:

Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.  (1 John 3:15)

These Christians, and remember they really are Christians, suffered inner tensions and outward conflicts (Harper) because they refused to pray.  In their quest for get the things they wanted, they had wandered so far from God that they did not even take time to talk to Him.   It’s no wonder that they God appeared to not answer their prayers, how could God answer when He hadn’t been asked?  As Kistmaker astutely remarked:

Failure to ask God in prayer results in failure to receive.

John Wesley comments,

And no marvel; for a man full of evil desire, of envy or hatred, cannot pray.

But even when these people actually went through the pretense of prayer, James says in verse 3 it was all for nothing for they were praying with the wrong motives.  Self centered prayers that ignore the will of God go unanswered.  Prayers that lack faith are actually sinful, according to Romans 14:23,

But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Hebrews 11:6 is even more pointed:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

How can God possibly answer a prayer prayed selfishly and without faith?  He cannot.  God does not listen to people who are pursuing selfish pleasure.  Greed is idolatry and that is an abomination in God’s sight.  God does not listen to prayers that come from hearts full of selfish motives.  Covetousness and selfishness are insults to God.

2.  Spiritual unfaithfulness, verses 4-6

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?   But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”

Straddling the fence can be a dangerous thing to do.  Driving down the middle of the road is also dangerous, as every driver knows, for we have been taught to say on their own side of the road.  A Christian was not made for straddling, either.  A Christian cannot be a friend of God and a friend of the world at the same time.  A Christian cannot pursue their own selfish ambitions and remain loyal to God.  To look at and desire the things of this world is to one’s back on God.

How bad is it to behave like that?  The NIV has inserted the pronoun “you” at the beginning of verse 4, but in the original the verse begins with one single word:  Adulteresses.  In the Greek it is in the feminine.   The reason is not readily apparent, so a word of explanation is in order.

In the Old Testament, God’s people were considered to be His bride, Jeremiah 31:32.  In the New Testament they are the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:23-32).  Therefore, anytime God’s people wander away from Him, it like “spiritual unfaithfulness.”  So, James used a blunt word to describe the nature of his readers:  adulteresses.

The phrase “don’t you know” indicates that his readers knew very well the truth but were ignoring it.  James refers to “friendship with the world.”  The word “world” here (kosmos) is referring to all that humans think and do that ignores God and is contrary to His will.   For James, there can be no compromise.  What does it mean to be a “friend” of the world?  Burdick’s comments are enlightening:

It is to adopt the world’s set of values and want what the world wants instead of choosing according to divine standards.  The person who deliberately chooses to be a friend of the world by that choice becomes an enemy of God.

The apostle John sternly warned his readers:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  (1 John 2:15)

John Knox once said, A man with God on his side is always in the majority.  But the person who meets God as His enemy stands alone, for the world cannot help him.

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  (Hebrews 10:31)

Verse 5 is a curiosity and its interpretation has always been difficult due to a number of factors.

Translation.  There are numerous ways to translate this verse and its meaning can actually change from translation to translation.  For example, take something as simple as a punctuation mark.  We take them for granted, but in the Greek manuscripts, there are none!   So is James making a statement or asking a question?   The other translation issue surrounds the word “spirit.”  Does it refer to the spirit of man, or to the Holy Spirit?

Unknown quotation.  James makes reference to a Scripture that no scholar has been able to find.

Consider how the translators of the NIV and the TNIV have wrestled with the verse:

NIV: Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?

TNIV: Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?

So the NIV connects verse 5 with the preceding discussion on selfish ambition.  But the TNIV assumes that James is now finished with his reproof of his readers worldly conduct and  has begun a kind of appeal for repentance.  This thought is found in the footnotes of the NIV, yet it is in the main body in the TNIV.  Given the context, it is likely that the TNIV is the correct way to understand what James is trying to say.  By favoring the world over God, believers may backslide and lose God.  But this is something that does not happen easily or quickly.  God is a jealous God who will tolerate no rivals.  When we became born again, we were given a new spirit and God yearns over this new life in us.  He uses every effort to convict us of wrongs when we sin and grow careless in our walk.

The first sentence in verse 6 really belongs to verse 5 and further buttresses the TNIV rendering.  God yearns over our often divided hearts and is hurt by our friendship with the world.  He desperately longs for His Holy Spirit to be given total control over our lives, which is something only we can do.  To help us to do that, God gives us special help:  He gives more grace to those who would humbly receive it.  In the Greek it is “a greater grace,” and Knowling comments on this:

The best meaning appears to be that the Spirit of God bestows upon those who submit to the Divine will, and surrender themselves to it entirely, richer supplies of grace to effect that complete surrender to the yearnings of the Divine love, and to count all things as loss in response to it.

But, as long as in our human pride we think we can use our own earthly wisdom, we will never be the beneficiaries of God’s “greater grace.”  The words of Julia Johnston’s hymn are precious:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin!

3.  Submission to God, verses 7-10

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.   Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.   Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.   Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

There is nothing more welcome to the traveler than helpful signs along the road that give direction.  These highway signs are short, descriptive and pointed.  James is about to give his readers some “signs” that will help them–and us–as we travel life’s highway to the destination appoint us.

Submission.  God is eager to help us, but He will not force His help on anybody.  The word is really “obey” and is the same word by Luke when he wrote about 12 year old Jesus who was “obedient to” His parents in Luke 2:51.   While obedience is implied, it is not a blind-kind of obedience, but rather the willing surrender of one’s will, which in turn leads to obedience.
Resist the devil.  Many Christians struggle with this.  They know they should not sin so they try to resist the devil but fail and time and again fall into the devil’s traps.  This happens because they fail to practice submission!  You cannot fight the devil unless you are submitting to God simultaneously.  And you cannot submit to God without resisting the devil.  The promise is clear:  if we resist the devil, he will flee.
Come near to God.   Ross comments:  Draw nigh unto God, as those who long to come into the closest possible relation to Him, in contrast to those who are His enemies and who keep at a distance from Him.  God will then draw night  unto you, to visit you with His salvation.   The call to wash hands is a command to  make ones conduct pure, and to purify the heart implies purity of the inner man.   Hands and hearts stained by sin need cleansing; hearts tainted with love for the world need to be purified, and God has grace to do all that.
Grieve, mourn, wail.  These constitute a call to repentance.  The Greek for “grieve” is talaiporseate and is a strong word meaning “to be miserable.”  James advises his readers to repent in misery.  “Mourn” is pentheo and depicts a grief so intense it cannot be hidden or covered up.  Lastly, “wail,” klausate, is similar to “mourn” in that it is an outward show of emotion, but it is in stark contrast the giddy laughter these people were looking for in their pursuit of worldly pleasures.  Some Christians have taken this verse a little too literally and teach that Christians are in general supposed to be miserable, sad people.  Of course this is not what James is teaching.  James is advising people who have been guilty of frivolity and telling them to get serious and repent.
Humble yourselves.  As if to give emphasis to what James said in verse 6, he admonishes his readers to be humble.  God helps those who are so.

So often do we as believers stray from the Lord and go our own way, we can take comfort from James’ teaching.  There is hope; we may sin and we may behave badly, but it we wash our hands and purify our hearts, God will take us back.

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