Humble Before the Lord
1 What is the source of the quarrels and what is the source of the fighting among you? Is it not out of this, that your sensual pleasures wage wars within your parts? 2 You desire and you do not have, so you murder; you are filled with envy and you are not able to obtain, so you fight and are hostile; you do not have because you do not ask, 3 you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so that you can spend it on your pleasures. 4 You adulterers, do you not know that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? If someone then desires to be a friend of the world he makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think it for no purpose that Scripture says, “With jealousy he longs for the spirit which he established in us,” 6 but he gives greater grace. Therefore it is said, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Therefore be subject to God, and set yourselves against the devil and he will flee from you, 8 draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Purify your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and joy into gloominess. 10 Let yourselves be made humble before the Lord and he will exalt you.
Outline of the Text
- Vv. 1-3 – The Source of Strife
- V1a. What causes quarrels and strife?
- V1b. The warring of passions within
- V2a. Desire but do not have
- So you murder
- V2b. Covet but cannot obtain
- So you fight and quarrel
- V2c. Failure to obtain due to failure to ask
- V3. You ask but do not receive
- Because you ask wrongly
- To use what you receive for your own passions
- V4a. James is addressing adulterous people
- V4b. Friendship with God means enmity with God
- V4c. The one being friends with the world becomes an enemy with God
- V5. God is jealous over our spirit
- He placed that spirit within us
- V6. God gives more grace – his followers benefit more than those who are friends with the world
- Proverbs 3:34, reinforcing the above point.
- V7a. Submit yourselves to God
- V7b. Resist the devil
- He will flee from you
- V8a. Draw near to God
- He will draw near to you
- V8b. Cleanse your hands you sinners
- V8c. Purify your hearts you double-minded
- V9. The state of repentance
- Be wretched
- Let your laughing be turned to mourning
- Let your joy be turned to gloom
- V10. Humble yourselves before the Lord
- He will exalt you
What do you think is the root of your own sinfulness? If you could peel back the layers of your sin, look beyond this or that particular sin you struggle with, what do you think you will find at the core? And what do you think is the proper antidote, the proper response to your sin that will bring healing and a pure life? These are the questions James addresses in our passage this morning, James 4:1-10.
We don’t know exactly who James was writing to, but from the tone of his letter they must have had many struggles. Among those struggles were conflicts within their own body. They made up a local body of believers and yet they lacked unity. They allowed certain petty differences to come between them, creating divisions.
James begins this section by exploring what is the root of their division. The people are quarreling and fighting, he even says they murder each other! What could lead one brother in Christ to treat another brother in Christ in this way? James tells us that their sin was caused by an even deeper problem – worldly desires. This is what he means when he says that their passions at war within them.
They want things. They long for stuff. They look around at the people around them and see their neighbors will all the things they want to possess, and they grow jealous, envious, they desire to possess what they do not have. When they cannot get what they want, they grow tempted to murder in order to obtain. They fight with one another. They think, “If I cannot have his stuff, I will at least have the greater respect of the community!” And so there was bickering and fighting, clamoring for social status, as we have seen in previous weeks.
This bickering was not always directed against those who had the things they wanted. Often it was against those who were of lower status. As we saw back at the start of chapter two, the people were mistreating those who were poor, treating the rich with special favor. The poor were treated unjustly while they tried to win special status with the rich. And at the root of all of this were their own selfish desires, their sinful pursuits of the pleasures of the flesh.
James gives two reasons for their not having the things they were seeking. For one, they simply were not asking. Scripture time and again tells us to approach God in prayer, to seek from him the things that we need in life. If what we ask is favorable to the will of God, then God will grant us those things. But it has to be favorable to his will. God does not exist to serve our whim. I do not care what the latest televangelist prosperity preacher has said, God does not exist so that you can be healthy, wealthy, and wise. His primary plan for your life is that you would bring him glory. Just behind that is that you would live a holy life. Each of these goals might mean something other than a life of ease and luxury. God does often call for his people to suffer. Do not fear such things, but trust him.
The second reason they did not have what they sought is because on the rare occasion that they did ask, they asked with the wrong motives. God saw their request for what it was: a selfish scrambling for pride and power. God does not bless us so that our own lives can be enriched. God blesses us so that we can use the blessing for the good of many people. And these people James writes were seeking no one’s good but their own. They were looking for their own pleasures. They could care less what happens to the poor man down the street or the old woman on her deathbed.
These people were not displaying any of the characteristics of a believer. Instead their lives looked very much like the world. The last time we were in James we compared God’s wisdom with worldly wisdom as described in James 3:13-18. Godly wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, merciful, bears good fruits, impartial, and sincere. By contrast, the wisdom of the world has jealousy and selfish ambition and breeds only disorder and every vile practice. Which do you think these people were living? Which are you living? What kinds of things motivate your life? Is it your desire for ease and luxury, or is there a desire for the glory of God so that you do not seek your own good but the good of others? Are you living according to the flesh or according to God?
These people were seeking friendship with the world. We often share many of the values of the people we have as friends. You usually are not friends with people radically different from you. Just so, these people, though they were believers, lived lives much closer to those of the world than those of God. And so they sought friendship with the world. But one cannot live as a child of God while being a friend of the world. Jesus died to bring forgiveness of sins and to free us from the chains of the flesh, of worldliness. While we lived according to the pattern of the world we were enemies of God. But God in Christ has made us free and has reconciled us to God. Why would we go back to that old life in the flesh wherein we are the enemies of God? James makes this point very clear – to be friends with the world is to be an enemy of God. Are you friends with the world? Then you make yourself an enemy of God!
Verse 5 contains a somewhat cryptic message that isn’t helped by the fact that different Bible versions offer different translations. The NIV and the King James say something like, “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?” while the ESV and some others say, “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’?” On this the ESV does the better job of translating the passage. Every translation has its strengths and weaknesses, but since we are dealing with translations rather than the original language it is helpful for us to rely on several versions when we are working with a passage. This does not diminish the value of any one translation, the NIV and the King James are both good translations to use, but it does show we need to be careful when studying the Bible. For your devotional reading every day, just pick a translation you like. But if some verse in particular catches your eye and you want to study it deeper, it will be helpful to read the same passage in a variety of versions to see how the different translators handled the original language.
But in this case the verse best reads, “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’?” Each of us has been created as unique individuals with characteristics that make us more than just a biological machine. We are like the other animals, but we are not animals, per se. Because we have been formed in the image of God and brought to life by the breath of God we are of a different order than the beasts of creation. One difference is the spirit that has been created within us. I don’t want to dive into this too far, in part because I really don’t understand it myself, but I will demonstrate the spirit with another passage, Luke 23:46, when Jesus dies on the cross: “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” It would be that part of you which makes you you. Something more than just the functioning of the mind. Something which, I believe, is distinct and unique in each person. And our passage in James says that God yearns jealously for that part of you. He is not interested in your flesh, the physical form you carry around. This is why he is willing for that part of you to suffer or even be destroyed. He is interested in YOU.
In this part of the passage there is a lot of imagery from the Old Testament. Throughout much of the Old Testament we find the people of God living in rebellion of God and turning to the gods of foreign lands. Particularly toward the end of the Old Testament the people are living in open rebellion and idolatry. The language God often uses through his prophets is this language of love and longing for his people, that he yearns for them. We are told in the ten commandment, Exodus 20:5, that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God”. God doesn’t react idly when we turn aside to idols, whatever those idols may be. He is jealous over us. Will we do like the ancient Israelites and turn aside to the lusts of the flesh, the delights of the world, when the creator of the universe is jealous over us?
In verse 6 James tells us that God gives greater grace. Here he is comparing the benefits of following God with the benefits of following the world. The only thing you can gain by following the world is the status of being an enemy of God. That is it. That is the only thing of significance that can come from living in rebellion against God. But to live as a child of God is to live in the comfort of his grace and love. And so James quotes Proverbs 3:34 in reminding us that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” If you act as an enemy of God then you will be treated as an enemy of God, receiving opposition from God. But if you humble yourself before him you will experience all the more grace.
Here we begin to see the antidote to our sinfulness, the antidote to the worldliness that dwells within. Humility, not pride. Seeking God, not seeking things for self.
In verse 7 we are told to submit ourselves to God. Literally the verse reads, “be subject to God”. God already holds all authority in the universe. We are already below him. We are already under his authority. The question is whether or not we are willing to recognize the fact. Will you live in the knowledge of the authority of your God? Or do you live as though he were nothing more than one of the many forces in the universe and you can choose which you want to follow at any given moment? Will you recognize the authority of God and bow to that authority? Bow in worship and obedience?
Submit yourselves to God. Doing this involves several things. For one, it means opposing his enemy, the devil. Once you were friends of the devil. Once you were as those Pharisees Jesus addressed in John 8:44 when he called the devil their father. But now you have submitted to the rule of God and have turned aside from the ways of the world. So now you oppose the devil. You resist him! When he comes with his temptations of worldly delights you do not pay heed but you resist him through the power of God. And he will flee from you. One thing Satan hates is to see the power of God at work in the life of the believer. This might mean he wants to attack you all the more but never will he overcome you. Each time he will flee from the power of God.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Have you felt a great distance between you and your Father in Heaven? It could be that he is growing your faith in him, testing you to strengthen you. Or it could be that you have not drawn near to him. You go through your days wondering why God is not with you when you have not gone after him yourself. Seeking him in prayer, in Scripture, in service.
The end of verse 8 issues a call for repentance: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” How can we do these things? Not by any works that we perform. None of our actions are able to bring cleansing and purity. Only God can do that. And so to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts is to approach God with true repentance. Taking our sins to him and trusting in him to make us whole and new. Turning aside completely from worldliness, approaching him in humility, and seeking his forgiveness.
Verse 9 may seem somewhat puzzling but it goes along with repentance. Why does James tell us to be wretched, mournful, and weeping? Why should we turn from laughter and joy to mourning and gloom? Because we are sinful creatures and we have finally learned just how severe our sin is. Do you realize what sin lives within you? Do you realize just how much you rebel against God? Do you know that by your sin you make yourself an enemy of God? That sin is a foul stain in the presence of the Lord? Be wretched and mourn before God as you go to him in repentance. James is not saying one should always be this way, but when you go to God with repentance, this should be your attitude. Not some happy-go-lucky frivolous approach from God in which we sort of just dance up to him with our sins knowing he will forgive us. No, realize the severity of your sin and what your sin means to God. Once you rejoiced in your sinful ways. But let your rejoicing be turned to mourning as you go before God to confess to him your sin.
James wraps up this section in verse 10 with another call for humility. Humble yourselves before the Lord your God. What an enemy pride is. What a struggle it brings for most of us. How deadly it can be, for through pride we make ourselves enemies of God. As enemies of God the only end is to be crushed to the earth. But we must be humble before God. Once again James literally says, “be humbled before God”, reflecting the fact that in truth we are already humbled before him, before the God who is so much greater than we are. The question is whether or not we will live in recognition of the fact that God is great and we are small. Though small God loves us and sent his Son to die for our sins, to give us the way of repentance, the way to life with him.
When we humble ourselves before God we will then be able to experience the kind of life God wants us to live. With the life of God we will not be crushed to the earth but we will be exalted. Paul says this in Colossians 3:3-4 “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Experiencing and sharing in the glory of God should not be what motivates you. If it is then you will not experience it for you have fallen back into worldliness, selfish desire. Bringing glory to God should be what motivates you. Desiring to submit yourself before him, humbling yourself before him, so that all of your life is a testimony to his greatness and his grace. Not drawn aside to the lusts of the flesh which lead only to enmity with God, but following faithfully after your Savior, trusting him with all things.