Chapter 4 of James’ letter continues the line of thinking we read in chapter 3. We observed in the last lesson the problem of worldly wisdom. Having bitter jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition reveals that we are following the wisdom of the world and not the wisdom of God. The result of worldly wisdom is disorder and every vile practice. Following the wisdom of world not only causes ruin to ourselves as individuals, but also causes problems for a local church. Christians fighting with other Christians. Divisions, hurt feelings, tension, and strife are readily seen by outsiders. The local church becomes dysfunctional as it cannot be a light in the community because they are fighting with one another. In this section, James is going to further identify the sinfulness in their lives that is causing these problems.
Worldly Wisdom Also Leads To Fights and Quarrels (4:1)
We live in a pleasure driven society. Do what you want to do. Make sure you are happy. Obey your passions and your thirst. James asks the question: Where do you think these quarrels and fights come from? The answer is that your passions are at war within you. What is interesting is that the language James uses was typically used of national warfare and political battles. That is why the HCSB and NKJV read, "Wars and fights." These words were used for military war. But James is speaking in spiritual terms. His concern is not about Germany attacking France or Iraq attacking Kuwait. We know this because he speaks of the fights among you. We saw this language in James 3:13, "Who is wise and understanding among you?" He is talking to groups of Christians, and is observing the problem of quarrels, fights, and strife between Christians.
James’ answer is not the answer we give. The answer we give about why there is strife is because of something outside of us. We blame the other person. We blame things that were said. We blame actions that hurt us. But that is not the answer James gives. James says that the problem resides within us. Battles and fights come from our selfish hearts and our desires for pleasure. We have passions that are ruling our hearts and bodies. The problem is that we have not conformed to the wisdom of God but have conformed to the wisdom of the world.
Go back to James 3:17-18 and see this connection. When we are operating by the wisdom of God, what will we be? Peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits (3:17). What is the result of living by the wisdom of God? A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace is the result (3:18). So where do fights and quarrels come from? They do not come by obeying the wisdom of God! They do not come by being wise and full of understanding! Fights and quarrels come because of our selfish passions and desires that are at war within us.
It is wrong for there to be fights, quarrels, and strife among Christians. People are obeying their passions and obeying the wisdom of the world, rather than submitting to God’s wisdom when there is strife. We are seeking our own physical pleasures, our own power, our own honor, our own reputation, or some other selfish pursuit. Unfortunately, the life of the elders and the evangelists can be trying to put out fires between Christians or within families. Quarrels and strife are completely out of place in the Christian family.
Why You Do Not Have (4:2-3)
James explores further our sinfulness. We desire and do not have so we murder. We covet and cannot obtain, so we fight and quarrel. James again points out that there is a problem of self-centered thinking. As we pointed out in verse 1, I do not think James is speaking about literal fist fights and warfare. James is spiritualizing the language to show the gravity of the sinfulness in quarreling Christians. I am going to be consistent and believe that James is not speaking about literal murder. I do not think that there was an epidemic of murder breaking out among Jewish Christians. I do not believe Christians were coming to church with weapons to take each other out in the parking lot. I believe James is using hyperbole to drive home how sinful and evil their actions are. Notice in the first two sentences there are parallels. "Desire and do not have" parallels "covet and cannot obtain." Also, "murder" parallels "fight and quarrel." What James is doing is revealing the malice and animosity in some of these churches. So James is using some shock value in the same way that Jesus did in Matthew 5:21-22. Jesus taught that hating your brother was a sin just as murder.
James explains why they do not have. There are two reasons. First, they do not have because they do not ask. It appears that the prayer life of these Christians had completely died. They were not asking God for the things that they needed. They had desires just running amuck without any control or discipline at all. They just want, want, want. The writer of Proverbs said, "The leech has two daughters: Give and give" (Proverbs 30:15). We are very bad about this. We just want and want. We think we deserve to live in houses and drive cars. And not just houses, large houses in nice neighborhoods. The degree of materialism we can show is overwhelming and sinful. We also desire power, respect, honor, popularity, and the like. James is asking us to examine our desires. Are we asking God, or are we self-seeking?
The second problem is not only were they not asking God, but when they did ask of God, they were asking wrongly. Have you ever thought about the possibility of praying wrongly? We might of thought that all that matters is praying. But how we pray does matter. James says that they prayed asking for things that they could spend on their passions. To state this another way, they were praying selfishly. They were not praying toward God’s will or what would best for them spiritually, they just prayed selfishly. I do not mean by this that is wrong to pray for ourselves or things that are going on in our lives. What I mean by selfishly is that they were praying to fulfill these passions and desires. It is the picture of turning God into the genie of the lamp who will fulfill our wishes. James says you do not receive when your prayer life looks like that. Do we only run to God when we have a selfish need? Or do you have a relationship with God so that making requests of God comes from a love for him? It is the difference between our children who have a loving relationship with us so that we want to give to them when they respectfully ask of us and show appreciation and children who are bratty and ask of you only because you have the money, not because they love you.
Friendship With The World (4:4-5)
James exclaims, "You adulterous people!" The sin of adultery has not been the topic that James has been dealing with in this section. I am going to maintain consistency and state that James is speaking of spiritual adultery. Jesus repeatedly called the people, "A wicked and adulterous generation" (Matthew 12:39; 16:4). Jeremiah and Hosea described the sins of the people as adultery against God. James, again for the shock value to wake these Christians from spiritual lethargy, calls them adulterous people.
The affair against God is explained further in verse 4. Friendship with the world is breaking the covenant we have with God. Friendship with the world is to be an enemy of God. What does it mean to have friendship with the world? James does not mean that you cannot have friends that are not Christians. This concept is not about individuals. Friendship with the world is to adopt the world’s values and standards. It is to adopt what the world wants instead of choosing according to divine standards. Friendship with the world is to put our passions and desires ahead of the passions and desires of God.
Friendship with the world can be seen in so many areas of our lives. I will list a few things to get your mind moving down the right direction, but this is not an exhaustive list. When we think like the world in terms of morality we are friends with the world and enemies of God. When we have no problem with sex before marriage, adultery, and other sexual sins then we are friends with the world. When our definition of modesty matches the nakedness of the world rather than the shame that God commands is friendship with the world. When we have no desire to serve God, to worship God, or to gather with one another to study or fellowship, we are observing that we friends with the world. Our fighting and quarrels reveal that we are enemies of God and are not friends with the world. When people in the world do not see us a different from them because our actions match their actions, we are friends with the world.
Now we might think it is okay to be friends with the world. We excuse these behaviors because everyone in the world is doing it. God, do you want me to look different on the beach or at the pool than everyone else is wearing nearly nothing? Yes. God, do you want me to be different because I go to worship more than once a week? Yes. God, do you want me to be different and not live with my boyfriend or girlfriend? Yes. God, do you want me to not have sexual relations before marriage? Yes. God, do you want me to define right and wrong and speak against sinful activities? Yes. God, do you want me to be different and remain in my marriage all my life and never divorce? Yes. God, do you really want me to be faithful and pure in my marriage? Yes. These may seem like some outlandish and difficult things, but is shows how much our thinking has been corrupted by the world. We must live by God’s social and moral standards, not the world’s. It is not okay to be like the world. This is James’ point in verse 5.
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"? (James 4:5 ESV) There are a number of different translations of this verse because the Greek is difficult. But I believe the ESV has the translation that makes the most sense and fits with the context the best. God is jealous for you. God does not want to share you with the world. He will not share you with the world. It is unclear to me why we have a difficult time understanding that God is jealous for our lives? We understand it in marriage. When we marry, we are leaving family and friends at second place and the marriage is where attention rests. Something is wrong with the marriage if you are spending time with every person but your spouse. In the same way, there is something wrong if we spend our time with every person but God. We are showing our friendship with the world. We are cheating on him, rather than being united to him completely. He is jealous for us and will not accept second place. God will not accept our leftovers. Serve God completely or don’t bother because he will not be the third wheel in the relationship.
But God Gives More Grace (4:6)
After crushing our hearts in an effort to see that our friendship with the world has separated us from God, James says something that gives us hope. "But he gives more grace." I needed to hear those words at that moment. We see that we have fallen well short of the relationship that God demands of us. We have been listening to the wisdom of the world and become friends with the world. But God gives more grace. God can overcome our sinfulness. There is always enough grace to redeem us from what we have done because of Jesus. It is not time to give up. It is time to seek grace.
This grace comes to those who humble themselves, not to the proud. There is no grace to the self-centered and those who act selfishly. There is no grace to those who continue to practice jealousy and envy. There is no grace for those who ignore his call and continue to be friends with the world. But those who humble themselves will find grace. Those who will admit that they have not been living in a way God demands and come to the Father seeking grace will find grace. God can and will overcome your sins if you will humble yourself before God. Stop being self-seeking and become God-seeking. God can fix this if you will seek him and give yourself to him.