Notes on James 4:1-12

5 Aug

James unleashes some of his strongest words in the entire letter in chapter 4, verses 1 through 12. James’ concern is two-fold. He wants his readers to love God and to love their brothers and sisters in Christ. The focus of this section is to draw out the two ways people live: the self life or the grace life. Verses 1-5 describe the self life.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?

The Christians James was speaking to were in a state of conflict. We have already seen conflicts over favoritism and over poverty and riches in the book and now we see how these conflicts overflow into fights and quarrels. The end of chapter 3 told us about the life we should live: a life of mercy and gentleness and peace. But James’ readers were not living this life. They were not living a life for God but were living for self. And this living for self is what caused the conflict, because conflict is not a matter of outward controversy but of warring inward desires.

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

The self life manifested itself in self-centered desires which led to murderous action, covetous action, and fighting. And James says, “your desires aren’t met because you do no ask.” Rather than saying this as a way of telling us that we can have whatever we want, James is saying that if we drew near to God in prayer, our desires would align with His will and He would give us what we want (see Ps. 37:4, Mt. 6:33). But the self-life wants sinful, worldly desires and so even when prayer does happen, it is self-centered prayer.

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

The harsh image of adultery makes it clear that James takes the worldliness of the church very seriously. The conflict and sinful desires of the people were an affront to God, a breaking of the relationship with the One who has done so much for us, even when there was nothing in us deserving of such grace. The self life spits on grace, counts it as nothing, and goes running after other loves. The Old Testament is filled with examples of the people of Israel, to whom God had bound Himself by covenant, going off in unfaithfulness against Him. One of the prophets favorite illustrations of this rebellion is the picture of adultery. One book (Hosea) even revolves around this metaphor. Jams minces no words. Friendship with the world is an act of hostility against God. Want to be God’s enemy? Cozy up to the world.

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

This is a difficult verse in the Greek text. It could be read “The spirit He put in us yearns jealously.” This would mean that James is saying that we have a bent toward worldliness and envy, so you must be aware of this and be proactive in our pursuit of God. The other way this verse could be rendered is “He yearns jealously over the spirit He has made to dwell in us.” In this case, James is saying that God is jealous for the affections of His people. This fits well the context of spiritual adultery and has Scriptural support in the ideas from Exodus and elsewhere that God is a jealous God. I can’t say with 100% certainty which interpretation is right, but I lean toward the second one.

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

God is a jealous God. But His grace is greater. He loves us in spite of our adulteries. But He doesn’t restore us unless we are broken. If we continue in pride and worldliness, if we continue to prefer our false loves to love for God, we should not expect God’s presence and blessing. This brokenness, this humility, is not passive though, but is expressed through actions of allegiance and commitment.

Submit yourselves therefore 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. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

On the basis of the grace God gives and the humility He honors, submit yourself. It is intentional humbling of self, intentional bowing the knee. In a world where submission is dishonorable and is even viewed equated with a loss of personhood, this command is distinctly counter-cultural. Having submitted to God, we resist the devil. The order is important. We can’t stand against the devil if our heart is not submitted to God. And when we resist the devil, he will flee. His power over us is in convincing us to believe lies. So when we stop believing lies, his power over us is broken. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. What a blessed picture. How great is our God to draw near to us! How kind is He even after we have turned away from Him to restore us! How do we draw near to God? By cleansing our hands (repenting of outward actions of evil) and purifying our hearts (repenting of our inward attitudes). We rejoice in God’s grace but we mourn the sin of our lives and come to God with an understanding that we deserve nothing but judgment. The life of flippant laughter and putting on a happy face which our culture values so highly is truly worthless. But the humble life of repentance and submission brings true blessing to our lives and it changes the way we relate to others. This is what verse 11 and 12 point towards . . .

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

The grace life leads to a life of grace toward others. We are not out to nitpick people or to stand against people needlessly. We have an awareness of the grace we have received which causes us to deal with others humbly. Since we all stumble in many ways, we who are lawbreakers speak against the law when we hold others to law-keeping in which we ourselves fail. God is the judge, we are not. So we look to God to deal with all things rightly and to show us the way to interact with others. James urges us to deal with one another from the overflow of our relationship with God. People who know a lot about God but don’t walk with God tend to be harsh toward others, judgmental in tone and condemning in manner. But those who walk with God tend to be gentle, peaceable, meek, loving, and gracious. Those who walk with God take sin seriously but they take their own sin most seriously and even in dealing with the sins of others they deal from a perspective of redemption rather than condemnation. Mercy triumphs over judgment.


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