James, Part 4


It’s a classic movie, but it’s wrong. God should be your pilot, not your co-pilot! If He’s your co-pilot, it’s time to switch seats!

The very first thing you notice as chapter 3 ends and chapter 4 begins is the sharp contrast between how one chapter ends and the other begins.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.  (James 3:17, 18  NIV)

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.  (James 4:1, 2  NIV)

Those were some Christians James was writing to!  Of them, he wrote:  “You desire but do not have, so you kill.”  I hope James was exaggerating.  But you never know.  Worldliness isn’t a problem unique to the American Church of the 21st century.  It’s always been a problem – the elephant in the sanctuary pastors are afraid to confront for fear of offending a member or two.  James, however, wasn’t afraid to address the issue.  And it should be addressed in the strongest possible terms because worldliness isn’t just the polar opposite of righteousness; it’s something that destroys a Christian testimony, makes God look bad, and rips apart churches.  It causes non-Christians to shake their head and roll their eyes in derision when Christians, who know better, are caught displaying worldly attitudes.

Far from being worldly, Christians are called to be righteous and to display the righteousness of Christ through their lives.  That’s a challenge for Christians today, as it was during James’ day.

Controlling your desires

If you think the early church was characterized by peace and harmony, you couldn’t be more wrong.  Just after Pentecost, we are told:

All the believers were one in heart and mind.  (Acts 4:32a  NIV)

But that didn’t last long.  Within a decade, the young church looked a lot like our churches today, filled with quarreling, hard feelings, envy, and selfishness.  In the first verse, James is likely using figurative language but his point is well taken.  Actual killing wasn’t going on, but worldly attitudes were killing relationships and breaking hearts, giving truth to the old saying:

Wars without come from wars within.

How we treat other people starts with our attitude – not about the people, but about the world.  If we set our hearts on the world and what the world can give us, we are in trouble.  When we “covet,” we necessarily end up hurting other people as the object of our desire becomes more important than the person or people in our lives may be.  A.F. Harper observes –

The basic trouble is that you allow unholy desires to possess your spirits.  Those desires if uncleansed and unchecked lead to spiritual disaster.

The Christian is potentially the most deluded person on earth.  They covet.  They desire things contrary to God’s will.  So they engage some prayerful chicanery –

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  (James 4:3  NIV)

The worldly Christian is so spiritually dull he doesn’t know what God’s will is.  He foolishly imagines that his wants and desires constitute God’s – will so much so that he prays for his wants and desires not knowing he’s wasting his time.  Naturally God won’t give him the answer he’s looking for since that answer isn’t His will in the first place!  Deluded and frustrated, this carnal Christian gets the wrong idea of God.  To Him God can’t be trusted and his faith just “doesn’t work,” so why bother?  Having a worldly attitude always results in a ruined spiritual life.

But James is also trying teach us a little something about prayer.  James had wrote –

You do not have because you do not ask God.  (James 4:2b  NIV)

We ought to be asking God for everything in our lives, but our motives have to be right.  The things we are asking for need to be within God’s will and our motives need to respect that will.  If God doesn’t give us what we’ve asked for, we shouldn’t then turn around and covet the thing.

Why is it important to control our desires?  Why is worldliness and a worldly attitude so bad?  It’s not just bad form, it’s a outright sin.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  (James 4:4  NIV)

James likens worldliness to adultery.  Straddling the line, as any driver can tell you, is dangerous.  You’re always safest on your own side of the road.  A Christian can’t straddle the line for long, either.  You can’t be a friend of God and a friend of the world at the same time.  James isn’t teaching a new thing.  Jesus said this –

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.  (Matthew 6:24  NIV)

Worldliness is like spiritual adultery.  Of this attitude, one Bible scholar noted –

Worldliness is succumbing to the seductions of a fallen world.  Worldliness is being concerned with worldly affairs to the neglect of spiritual needs.  Worldliness is the state of being directed by the outward influences of the surrounding culture.  Christians must reject worldliness.

The opposite of a worldly attitude

Or what do you think the Scripture means when it says that the Holy Spirit, whom God has placed within us, watches over us with tender jealousy? But he gives us more and more strength to stand against all such evil longings. As the Scripture says, God gives strength to the humble but sets himself against the proud and haughty.  (James 4:5, 6  TLB)

If we belong to God, our worldly attitudes necessarily have to go.  If we, for whatever reason, cherish as friend worldly attitudes, we become – we make ourselves – the enemy of God.  But the opposite to a worldly attitude is that of humility.  Augustine cleverly noted –

It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.

We’re not exactly sure what Scripture James had in mind when he wrote verse 5, but his point is well taken.  God wants our undivided attention.  God has placed within every believer His Holy Spirit, and He is intensely concerned about our attitude.  And the Holy Spirit will help any believer who wants the help to overcome any worldliness that may be lingering in his life.

It may well be that James had Exodus 34:14 in the back of his mind –

Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.  (NIV)

Our God is a jealous God and He allows no rivals; He refuses to share our love with any other so-called god.  It’s our complete loyalty, love, and devotion He’s after because those are the things He has given us.  The best thing we can do to build our relationship with God into a strong and functional one is to humbly admit our worldly tendencies and then allow the Holy Spirit to change us.

A worldly Christian is in love with himself and the world; he is always looking for ways to make himself feel good.  He may go to church, sing in the choir and to everybody appear to be a model Christian.  Yet if he refuses to come closer to God he is condemned by God because of his pride.

Get close to God

In our struggle against worldliness, there are two things we should be doing all the time:

So give yourselves humbly to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.   (James 4:7  TLB)

A great  many Christians want the latter without bothering with the former.  But the truth is, you can only resist the devil IF you first “give yourself” or “submit” to God.  Very simply that means living in obedience to God.  So if you can’t obey God, you won’t be able to resist the devil, hence you will sin, or more accurately, you’ll forever remain in the rut of sin, unable to get out of it.

It seems like such a no-brainer, it’s a wonder all Christians aren’t running around, resisting the devil all the time.  But we know that certainly isn’t the case.  As to why so few are, the answer is found in the word – humbly.  We are supposed to be submitting to God humbly, but since so many of us have problems with that part of the deal, we choose to sin.

Make God part of your life

The theme of the last paragraph of James 4 is a simple one:  Self-centered living produces Christians who ignore God’s will.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  (James 4:13  NIV)

That’s probably addressed to you.  And to me.  We all make plans, and we naturally expect God to fall in line with them.  Dr McGee, in his commentary on the Bible, makes an interesting comment about Christians who “make big plans for the future.”

It has taken me a long time to learn just to play it by ear.

That’s a tongue-in-cheek thing to write, but he’s not wrong.  We all have to  make plans, but in all our planning we have to be very careful not to plan God out of our lives.  God does exist and we need to plan our futures around Him and His will.  Being a worldly Christian doesn’t always mean behaving like the prodigal son or Judas Iscariot.  Sometimes worldliness manifests itself in something as simple as indifference – indifference to God in the form of disregarding His presence and His will.

What is the mark of a true Christian as opposed to a “cultural Christian”?  It’s this:  A true, born again believer in and disciple of Jesus Christ not only believes that God exists, but he lives like he believes He exists.  A cultural Christian believes in God but lives as though He doesn’t exist by never considering His will for their daily lives.

Why is it so important for Christians to  seek after God’s will and to live according to it?  Verse 14 provides the obvious answer:  We don’t know what the future holds.  Human beings without consideration of God, foolishly make plans as if they know what they will be doing or where they will be living years down the road.  We act as though we are secure, but the opposite is the truth.  We are frail.  We are, in God’s long view of things, here today and gone tomorrow.

Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  (James 4:15  NIV)

But really, James was just echoing thoughts of Psalm 102:11-

My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.  (NIV)

And that’s why Christians (and intelligent sinners) shouldn’t live presumptuous lives.  God should always be the “silent partner” in all our plans and work.  He should be consulted and His will followed when He reveals it to us.  As one scholar put it:

The boaster forgets that life depends on the will of God.  The right feeling is, both my life and my actions are determined by Him.

It’s not what we say but how we live that shows the world that we belong to Christ.



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