Passage – James 4:1-12
1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 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. 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”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
11 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. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
Have you ever noticed when a mundane thing is a pristine picture of something profound? Many of Aesop’s Fables capture these moments: the simple plodding of a sluggish turtle gets you further in life than the sprint-and-nap approach of a fleet-footed rabbit. Children can ponder this story and achieve things they believed were beyond their capacity.
In this passage, James is going to walk us through what we might consider garden-variety conflict, and teach us a profound spiritual lesson. But this passage does more than use conflict as a metaphor; it peels back curtain of our limited perspective to show us the deeper (and very real) spiritual realities that happen when we dishonor one another in conflict.
The Relational Anatomy of Conflict (vs. 1-3)
James starts with a very basic question, “Why can’t y’all get along?” If we consider the plight of the original readers, we can create a long list of reasons that boil down to, “We’re frustrated. We used to have jobs, social status, and family support, but now we’re trying to survive. This stinks!” James doesn’t disagree about their sacrifices or the noble reasons they made those sacrifices, but he does reinterpret their instinctual response.
He says, “Your passions are at war within you.” It is important to note that this word passions isn’t the negatively connotated Greek word for “lust” but a positively word. James is saying, in effect, “These things you want – a job, social influence, relational support – are good, but you want them so much that it’s leading you do immoral and relationally destructive things.”
Like his big brother Jesus, James like to use hyperbole. There is no reason to think these believers were literally murdering one another, but they were assassinating one another’s character. When they didn’t get the good things they believed they deserved, they became ruthless at one another’s expense. The problem was endemic enough to their church culture that James felt no need to take sides. This passage is the equivalent of a teacher confronting a whole class for misbehaving, not just a few trouble-making students.
But then, in a strange twist, James believes the best about his readers in the next verse. Because we often make the end of verse 2 and verse 3 about prayer, instead of conflict, we miss what James is saying. To paraphrase James’ point, he is saying, “I know you people. If you were nice to another, the good things you want – things like love, respect, gratitude, compassion, help, etc. – you’d be more than happy to give to another. But you’re nasty and entitled in the way you demand these things from one another, you receive resistance instead of compassion.”
When life is hard, we tend to get demanding. When we’re demanding, even those who love us tend to be defensive. When we’re depleted and what we believe to be a reasonable request is met with resistance, we get angry. When our friend’s caution towards our demandingness is met with anger instead of understanding, they get offended. A spiral ensues that derails a goodwill relationship into an abyss of dysfunction. James is simply saying, “You’re not going to fix anything until you have the humility and courage to acknowledge what’s actually happening.”
But then James says, “It’s worse than you think,” and he pulls back the cosmic curtain so these believers can see the spiritual realities behind their cutting words and sullen attitudes.
The Spiritual Dynamics of Conflict (vs. 4-10)
If we’re not careful, “You adulterous people,” can catch us off guard. Where did this come from? But it’s not hyperbole, like James’ mention allusion to murder (v. 2); instead, it’s a literal portrayal of sin that shifts our attention from horizontal relationships to our vertical relationship with God. Sin reveals adultery against God. Sin is choosing “the world” (v. 4) over God.
The term “world” is used several different ways in the New Testament. That means we could easily get confused here. In this passage, when James says “world,” he means the way of life embraced by those who don’t know God. In this sense, friendship with the world is reverting to our pre-conversion values and way of life. It’s like a husband dating an old girlfriend. Friendship with the world declares, “God, if you and your way won’t give me what I want, I’ll turn to a different way.”
God is not indifferent or aloof when we do this. Our spiritual adultery prompts God’s jealousy. We often think of jealousy as inherently sinful. Again, we could get confused. But notice that God’s jealousy doesn’t involve control. God’s covenant love is genuine and deep. This means when betray his covenant love, it generates a response of hurt and betrayal. But God doesn’t coerce his people back into fidelity. God’s jealousy is pure because retains the wince of broken covenant without the clinch that violates the autonomy of his beloved.
But God’s pure jealousy is not passive. God doesn’t acquiesce to the preferences of his wayward children. God opposes the pride (v. 6) that claims to have found a better life in someone or something else. God who will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7). As we seek to mirror this response, it might look like refusing to pay the bills that enable the drug habit of an addicted love one or lying to protect the reputation of an unethical coworker. We cannot force them to change, but neither are we afraid to stop being a buffer between them and the consequences of their choices.
But “opposing” is not God’s preferred disposition; instead, its grace (v. 6b). When necessary, “opposing pride” is the form grace takes. It is not gracious to enable and abet destructive choices. Grace often says, “I will not take part in your sin, nor will I make it easier for you to live in sin.” When God opposes our pride, that is what he is doing.
Finally, James concludes this section with a litany of staccato commands that capture what it looks like when repentance transforms pride into humility (vs. 7-10). These are the traits that indicate God is active in our life when pride is present.
- Submit yourselves therefore to God. This is the capstone command for the list. Every God-honoring action in their current difficult situation would be, first and foremost, an act of submitting themselves to God. The alternative is to continue to “take life in their own hands.”
- Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.In this context, we get a glimpse of how mundane spiritual warfare can be. What would it look like for these believers to “resist the devil”? Simply refusing to be hostile towards one another in hard times. By speaking with compassion, they would be removing Satan’s foothold in their relationships (Eph. 4:26-27).
- Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. This command is a “how” instruction. How were they to face hardship with compassion for one another? Cast their cares on the God who cares deeply for them (I Pet 5:7). Remembering God’s care does a lot to assuage the fears that fuel our pride.
- Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. The concept of being double-minded shows up again (James 1:8). They wanted to honor God and they wanted to get their way. James is reminding his friends that they will give account for their careless words (Matt. 12:36) because these words cut their siblings in Christ.
- Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. James is again talking like his big brother, Jesus; this time echoing the beatitudes (Matt. 5:2-11). If you are grieved over the spiritual adultery of your sin, you won’t laugh when you “win” what you wanted by dishonoring someone.
- Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Instead, stay humble and allow God to provide the legitimate things you desire (James 4:1). In hard times, amongst good people, who is held in highest esteem? Those who are humble and other minded. Those who resist succumbing to a “survival of the fittest” mindset.
This section is an application of Philippians 2:1-11. In effect, James is saying, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” (Phil. 2:3-4) and trust God to be the one who exalts those who are faithful (Phil. 2:9-11).
The Banality of Conflict Done Well (vs. 11-12)
From verse six to verse ten we’ve been considering the spiritual realities behind our ordinary, daily conflicts. Based on this, you might expect James to end with a crescendo. But he doesn’t. Instead, his conclusion is simple and mundane. That’s why we use the word “banal” in this section; it means surprisingly unimpressive.
What’s James’ concluding application? In effect, “Don’t say bad things about one another. In y’alls situation, life is hard enough. Don’t make it worse by tearing each other down.” That’s not much more profound than the advice Thumper got from his mother in Bambi.
Most of us are surprised to realize conflict-done-well is a non-event. Arguments are so attention grabbing and exhausting we think the alternative has to be comparable sensational and exhilarating. It’s not. It’s banal. Rarely do we say, “I have to tell you this story of when things could’ve gone really bad, but we were both nice, so nothing happened.” The alternative to conflict is delightfully boring.
While James’ advice is boring, his rationale is more robust. When we judge one another – apparently a common trigger for drama amongst these believers (v. 11) – we begin to view ourselves as above the God’s law rather than under it. We turn God’s law into a weapon to attack others rather than tool for cultivating growth in each other. James is conveying that when we use the Bible this way – even if we are quoting Scripture word for word – we are misusing the Bible.
God gave us the Bible to make us better people (Gal. 2:24), not to make us feel better than other people (Matt. 6:1-18). James reveals how much he understood human nature when he concluded this section on conflict. Let’s return to the image of a teacher reprimanding a class of students. What are the students prone to do as soon as they get away from the teacher? Blame each other for their scolding, using the teacher’s words against their fellow classmates.
James cuts them off at the pass; not because he wants them to “pipe down,” but because he wants them to deepen their relationship with Christ instead of just not saying mean things. More than obedience to the law, they need to learn to love the Lawgiver (v. 12). It is only love for the Lawgiver that cultivates lasting change.
In this charge, James is calling his friends back to their first love (Rev. 2:4), the very reason they chose to flee persecution and leave Jerusalem in the first place. If hardship distracted them from their love for the Lawgiver, nothing in their life would make sense. The law would provide nothing more than short-term relief as they tried to feel better about themselves by pointing out the faults in others.
But if they remembered that the one who gave them the law, was also the one who fulfilled the law on their behalf, and more than this, bore the punishment their sin deserved (Rom. 3:21-26), the grace they received would overflow in how they responded to their co-sufferers. James is not shaming his friends, or “putting them in their place.” Rather he is warming their hearts towards God to soften their hearts towards one another.James is warming their hearts towards God to soften their hearts towards one another. Click To Tweet
We could summarize this passage with the simple sentence: in conflict, honor God by simply being kind and worship God by seeing all God did to make simple kindness possible for you. Most of us wish this passage were more complex. Then, we would have a better excuse for when we mess it up.
But that’s the beauty of this passage. It tells us that we don’t need a better excuse. We already have a loving Lawgiver who made the way of life (John 14:6) simple and clear. More than that, our loving Lawgiver erased the need for our excuses by bearing the penalty for our sin. The pressure is removed if we have the humility to receive that gift. We’ll treat each other better, even in the hardest times, when we do.
- What is your favorite example of mundane experience or simple story that captures a profound truth?
- For you, what are the good things you tend to want so much that they begin to become demands that you place on others?
- What is an example of when you’ve seen a sense of entitlement (demand) met with resistance and become an argument when, if the original request had been humble, it would have been honored?
- How does understanding that sin is spiritual adultery against God help you take seemingly inconsequential sins more seriously?
- How does it change your view of spiritual warfare to realize, that in this instance, “resisting the devil” was expressed in the simple choice to speak with greater humility and compassion?
- What is your response to this statement: “James is not shaming his friends, or “putting them in their place.” Rather he is warming their hearts towards God to soften their hearts towards one another”?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.