I was sitting in my office this week staring at my computer and wondering how on earth am I going to do justice to this passage? These are the times when I think of that old Mark Twain quote “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” I have had to wrestle with this passage and have had to struggle through some tough convictions from the Holy Spirit, so today I will share with you the fruit of that struggle. I have done a lot of research on some of the concepts in this passage, and not everything is as straightforward as it seems. Some of it however is very straightforward.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:1-10
There are a few things we need to keep in mind about the context James is speaking in before we delve into the text. The first is that James is speaking to a church that is experiencing persecution from the Roman Empire. Nero had begun to display hostility to the church and Christians were being killed because of their refusals to make sacrifices to the emperor in the civil religion. Christians had to be very careful of the way they spoke so that they would not open themselves to more persecution through their writings. In the latter New Testament books you will see many references to Babylon which meant Rome, and “the world” referring to the culture of the Roman Empire. The second consideration is that James has gone through the first major disagreement in the church and this went so deep as to have two of the Apostles in a loud public confrontation when Paul and Peter butted heads. James spent most of his later years trying to clean up after the mess of this confrontation over who got to sit at the table. One of the things that I got from this text is the fact that loud public confrontations do not happen in a vacuum. There is usually a bunch of behind the scenes maneuvering that takes place, quite often outside of proper channels for addressing concerns. Paul talks about this in his letters, addressing churches that had unauthorized visitors from the faction that held one must follow Jewish Law to follow Jesus. For some reason we as human are really bad at separating disagreements from pride. We can’t face losing, and so we begin the process of rationalization of bad behavior that helps us win. Each of us can give in to these desires to win arguments regardless of the consequences, especially when “winning” benefits us in some way. You see, we have these little boxes in each of our homes, and these little boxes are constantly telling us what we don’t have that others do. These boxes tell us that we need to have an igadget, wear certain clothes or listen to certain types of music if we want to be one of the “cool kids”. There are subtle messages about us deserving these things and how these things will complete us, in the late 90s there was even a Volvo ad that claimed their car could “save your soul”. Our culture and economy is based on materialism which itself is a nice way of saying covetousness. We have been fooled into thinking what we have, where we live or what we drive defines us, and we respond to disagreement disproportionately because we feel that our identity is threatened. James is holding up the mirror to us, to me, and saying this is ugly! What are we going to do about it? Our priorities have become so entwined with the competition for “scarce” resources that this affects our life together as followers of Jesus and our prayer lives. Our relationship with God suffers when we cease to operate from his priority structure. We do not ask because we are trying to do for ourselves, when we do ask, it is with selfish motivation. God help us.
The culture around us is enticing with its promises of fulfillment on the installment plan. We do want to fit in with the culture around us don’t we? But soon through our actions we cozy up to a comfortable piece of the value system around us and we find ourselves in idolatry. The scary thing for us is that anything can be an idol. We focus on the biggies like money and other religions, but lose sight of the little things that are more easily taken for granted. Let’s open up some of the stuff that can become idols: food, romance, friends, work, shopping, exercise, our bodies, our children, popularity, personal choice, freedom, politics, and the list goes on. If you can name it you can worship it. We were designed to be worshipping beings, and the worship of God is difficult and filled with self-denial. Is it any wonder that even our bodies betray us and draw us into worship of something that feels good now? When James speaks of friendship with the world in this passage, he is speaking of the hardest piece of idolatry to fight against. He is talking about the idolatry of identifying ourselves with one of the value systems and cultures of this world so deeply that we place its priorities over God’s. This is the hardest to fight because we are going against what the society around us considers to be normal. Forgiveness is not normal. Loving our enemies is not normal. Caring for those who can’t benefit us is not normal. We must remember that not being “normal” is the greatest source of witness that we have. The truth of our faith can be more clearly seen when we order our lives by the teachings of Jesus even when it looks like following those teachings is not in our own “best interests” by our culture’s understanding of those words.
James is kind enough to not leave us hanging with the problem, but gives us a solution. This solution does not fit what the culture of his time or the culture of our time thinks about how the world works. The culture around us firmly practices “Do unto others before they do unto you.” And we, and the people of James’ day, live in societies that abide under the rule of Gold which says that “Those with the gold make the rules.” James reminds us that even though pride and covetousness and idolatry are the norm, God opposes the proud and lifts up the humble. What I am saying is that through God’s grace we can be freed from our bondage to what the culture around us calls normalcy. A long time ago I looked out and said to myself “If that’s normal, I’ll gladly choose crazy.” God’s grace is sufficient for us if we humble ourselves to the point at which we are willing to rely on it alone.
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase
To added affliction He addeth His mercy
To multiplied trials His multiplied peace
His love has no limit
His grace has no measure
His pow’r has no boundary known unto men
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth and giveth and giveth again
When we have exhausted our store of endurance
When our strength has failed
Ere the day is half done
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun
Temptation to idolatry will ask us to place our hope and sense of security in something other than God, but if we rely on God’s grace we can resist. When we resist and push away everything that threatens to master us and cling with desperation to the only true and lasting security and hope, acknowledging our own weakness and inability to stand on our own…we hit that paradoxical point of humility that is a stumbling block to the world around us. Then we are lifted up into God’s arms and the people and culture around us will start to ask: “How can people who revel in their powerlessness have so much joy?” “How can that person who doesn’t have the latest and greatest still be so content?” And we will smile with gladness knowing that because what we have is not of this culture, of this value system, of this “world” It can never be taken away by any of those entities. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters, that there is room in our hearts only for one. As we enter into open worship ask God to search your heart, mind and soul for anything that is getting in the way of your hope, for anything that threatens to draw you away from God, and ask God to cleanse you of it. Know that in my 35 years of following Christ I still must daily enter into God’s presence asking for the strength to resist the values around me and live in God’s loving grace. Join me as I pray once again for clean hands, a clean heart, and an absolute dependence on God’s grace to see me through my week.