Below is the text of the sermon I gave at the “Night in the Light” on October 21, 2016.
In the fourth chapter of the book of James we come to a section that addresses two questions that have always plagued the church: 1) Why do Christians, who should be known for their love, often fall prey to infighting? 2) Why do our prayers often go answered, even though Jesus said, “Ask anything in my name and I will give it to you?” These two questions eventually present themselves to every Christian and to every church context. James not only addresses these questions, he gives a prescription to remedy the underlying ailment.
Before we jump into our text, let’s review its immediate context. James 3 concludes with a statement connecting wisdom from above with a righteous peace. This wisdom is contrasted with the selfish ambition and jealously that permeates worldly wisdom. The section ends with James 3:18: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” In the Hebrew mind, peace was not just an absence of fighting; it referred to a wholeness and harmony with self, others, and God. When Jewish people greeted each other with “Shalom,” the Hebrew word for peace, it was a deep blessing. For this reason, true wisdom went hand in hand with Shalom because true wisdom was having righteous peace with God and others.
In this context James 4:1 asks the question, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” This question presents itself in every church context. We know that God gives wisdom from above and gives his Spirit so that we love others as God first loved us. If this is true, there shouldn’t be quarrels among us – but there are. Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If this is true, there should not be quarrels among us-but there are. Quarrels and infighting within the church have caused countless people to leave churches. Quarrels and infighting have kept many people from considering Christianity because the claims of love don’t seem to match reality. Yes, inquiring minds want to know, what causes quarrels among Christians? James’ answer: “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” What we want takes over; it becomes more important than our neighbor. When someone gets in the way of our desires, we quarrel because our desires are more important to us than that person – even though God instructs us otherwise. In short, fighting happens because we serve our pleasures/passions more than we serve God. The sad truth is that whatever we serve, whatever takes preeminence in our life, is our functional god. The underlying cause of quarrels and infighting, therefore, is idolatry—idolatry of self, idolatry of pleasure, idolatry of fulfilling our self-centered desires.
This idolatry follows a common pattern: we do not have something we feel we need, so we take measures into our own hands, using and abusing people in the pursuit of our pleasures. If, on the other hand, we pursue God instead of idols, we trust Him to give us what we need. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”(Matthew 7:7-8) When faced with unmet desires, Jesus tells us to ask the Lord. James echoes this sentiment at the end of verse 2 saying, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Much like the ancient Israelites were told NOT to turn to idols when they wanted fertile crops or protection, but to turn to God, James says ask the Lord to fill up what you lack.
But before we get too comfortable, James immediately adds (verse 3) that when we do ask God, our prayers often are not answered: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” God is just and loathes idolatry (worshiping as God something that is NOT God). He will not give us something that fuels our idolatry because idolatry will further alienate us from the Lord. He will not facilitate my making of something into a god that is not God—that would be at odds with the truth and conflict with the reality of the universe.
James’ answer to the two questions that have plagued the church (why is their infighting, and why does God often not answer prayer) is that these problems are caused by idolatry. Idolatry is not ALWAYS the cause of infighting and unanswered prayer, but it one of the primary causes. Idolatry caused Israel to stray from the God who had loved and rescued them. The covenant of love that God made with Israel was often compared to marriage. When Israel fell into idolatry, the Old Testament (OT) often referred to it as adultery. I think James, in a similar way, refers to the people living by their passions as adulterers in verses 4-6:
“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. 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’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”
When Israel followed the world around them, they left their marriage to God and committed spiritual adultery. This is also what the Bible means when it says God is a “jealous God.” God is jealous not OF us, but FOR us; God wants our loyalty because that is what is right and best for us. God gave us what was most precious to Him – His son- so that in love, God would be most precious to us. James 4 calls people out because our passions are more precious to us than God or people. Instead of reflecting the love, peace, and wisdom of God, we reflect the worldly systems of self promotion and self-centeredness. We live for self and for pleasure instead of living for God.
When James says not to be a friend of “the world,” the “world” refers not to creation but the fallen state of humanity that is separated from God. We can’t follow those running from God and God at the same time. We can’t be devoted to God and the world. As verse 5 says, “God jealously yearns for the spirit that HE placed in us.” This verse gives interpreters fits, but the idea is that at the final judgment the things of God (like his Holy Spirit given as a pledge to his children) will be separated from the things of the world arrayed against God. The warning is to make sure that the Lord is your God because when the judgment comes you will have to rely on your god. If your god is yourself or any other earthbound thing, then you will be in quite the predicament since God is judging the earth! As verse 6 suggests, however; there is not only the judgment of a jealous God. There is the grace of a loving God: “He gives more grace.” The “more grace” that God gives is Jesus! James then quotes Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Those who are proud and put themselves in place of the Lord will be opposed by God. The judgment will be true – you will be given over to your “god” on the day of judgment. The humble, who rightly recognize that the Lord is God, and they and their passions are not, will receive grace.
How does one turn from the idolatry of self to humility? In verses 7-10 James gives a set of ten commands that move us toward that place to receive God’s grace: “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. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Submit yourself to God. Resist the Devil. Radical autonomy that sets ourselves and our pleasures as the standard must give way to submission to God. This submission in itself is resisting the Devil, but the command to resist the Devil speaks to the active opposition that causes the Devil to leave. Pushing the envelope by trying to get as close to sin as possible is not resisting the Devil; it is bargaining with the Devil. Many engaged Christian couples set boundaries in terms of physical intimacy, but they set boundaries to get as much as THEY want without regard to what would glorify God the most. This mindset is not a true humility and submission—it is bargaining.
In contrast to the active resistance against the Devil that causes him to flee, we draw near to God. Drawing near to God is a phrase often used in the OT when someone goes to worship God in the temple through songs and prayers in the covenant community. This connection to the temple imagery of worship becomes stronger with the command to “cleanse hands and purify hearts.” When drawing near to the holy God, we realize we are not holy. Much like when Isaiah drew near to the presence of God in Isaiah 6:5 he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” The contrast between even a righteous prophet like Isaiah and the Lord of Hosts is stark. The Lord not only sees what we carry in our hands, He sees into our hearts. We cannot be double minded in his presence. As we draw near to him, we confess our sin and hypocrisy because we have to agree with God. Agreeing with God is the first step to opening ourselves up for His cleansing as well as the first step to submitting to him.
Verse 9 sounds pretty negative, telling us to be wretched, mourn and weep and to turn our laughter into mourning. Why such a downer? These words refer to repentance. We don’t joyfully boast in ourselves or our accomplishments; we repent. After realizing our double-mindedness, we cleanse our hands and purify our hearts through repentance. While sorrow for sin (the mourning and lamenting) is an important part of repentance, repentance is literally a turning to God – following Him and not the world or other idols. Without drawing near to worship, without repentance, there is no true humility. Instead, there is most likely idolatry.
If that idea is convicting, here is the wonderful truth: when we humble ourselves before God, in worship and repentance, He exalts us! (v. 10) He satisfies those deep longings that we try to satisfy by our own means (and usually at the expense of others). When we rightly worship God alone, that Shalom exists in our relationship with God and others. If we humbly follow the Lord, we don’t need to fight our way to the top. When we cast off our idols and humble ourselves, God exalts us and we become rightly related to God, others, and the world. This proper perspective puts the Lord on the throne, which spills into how we treat others as verses 11-12 describe.
James 4:11-12. 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. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
Slander and being judgmental are closely related. When we speak ill against someone, it is usually because we have judged them already. This is a dangerous attitude because there is only one judge and lawgiver, and we are not Him. We must humbly keep God on the throne; this mindset affects how we treat others.
This warning against judging does not mean we can’t judge right from wrong; it means we trust what God says and lovingly and humbly hold one another to following God (after all that is what James is doing here. Also See 1 Cor 5:12). The sense of judgment here is not one that lovingly seeks someone to get right with God, but a judgment that is more interested in putting the person down. Because when we are really interested in bolstering self idolatry, we will use whatever we can, including religion, to serve OUR purpose. But when we recognize the Lord as the only judge and God, we humbly see our proper place in relation to God and others. This perspective causes us to be at peace with God, others, and ourselves. But idolatry, especially self idolatry, throws that all out of balance.
As we look to our own lives and churches, we must ask ourselves are there quarrels? Are there unanswered prayers? The underlying cause could be idolatry. Idols come in many forms in our world. Whatever you live for and arrange your life around is probably your idol. Usually, good things that we should be purse often push us into idolatry. For example, a job is good; it is God’s provision for you. If, however, your career becomes the principle that you arrange your life around or what you look to for your sense of self-identity and worth, then you have placed a job in the place where only God should reside. Likewise a spouse is a gift from God, and we must treat our husband/wife as precious. If, however, our sense of worth and identity is dependent on our spouse (or on finding a spouse), then a good thing has become an idol. When idolatry creeps in, your relationships suffer because someone is going to get in the way of serving your idol. Moreover, when you ask God about it, He may not answer because giving you what you ask would give you better access to idolatry, and He wants you in right relationship with Him, not running to idols. Make the Lord your God; humble yourself before God and He will exalt you – God gives grace to the humble.
Increasingly in America, we even make idols out of shallow things like entertaining ourselves. We arrange our life around leisure pursuits and entertainment. This trend makes James all the more applicable. We are wasting our blessings on entertaining ourselves. Think about how much importance, time, and money we spend on leisure activities and compare that to what we devote to God. James is spot on when He says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” We pursue our pleasures more than we pursue God. Make the Lord your God, not your desires.
Our idolatry usually shows up first in how we spend our time and money. We will invest in what we value. James focuses on the money aspect in the next section. As you and I look at what we spend our time and money on, it will very objectively reveal what we value, what we serve, and what is our god. Whatever our god turns out to be, that god is the one we are throwing our lot with to save us, to bring purpose to life, and to guide us in all our relationships. Who is our god based on those objective measures?
As we objectively examine how we spend time and money and how we arrange our lives, we may be surprised to see a god other than the Triune God. Perhaps that is not what we intended, but as we look at life, we see idolatry present. Perhaps that is why we have quarrels in our relationships, and why God seems distant and not answering.
James’ call today is make the Lord your God. Humble yourself through worship and repentance. Do not take for yourself prerogatives reserved for God—like judging other people. The promise is that when we humbly step off the throne and invite God there, when we resist the way of the world and reserve for God the prerogatives that only He deserves, He gives grace and exalts us. He will forgive and draw near to us today. He wants to be our God. He is the only thing worthy of that place. When God is on the throne, quarrels cease, shalom prevails, and the Lord blesses His children.