(Please read James 4:1-17)
The entire fourth chapter of James tells about the havoc wrought when worldly wisdom (see lesson #6 in Bible Helps) dominates the life. James issues a call to holiness, and he gives four guidelines which will help one achieve the goal of increasing in holiness.
1. Guard Against Self-Gratification (4:1-3)
The reference in verse 1 is to envious struggles about influence, reputation, and position. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” Conflicts among Christians have not been confined only to the past. Satan is still creating mischief within Christian groups, and so the strong words used here demand our close attention.
Just as the early church had a Diotrephes (III John 9) who loved to have the preeminence, so the church today is plagued by jealousies and quarrels and strife which is stirred up by those who grasp for power. The word “lust” (used in verse 1) is a strong desire for anything that isn’t right to have. Here it refers especially to struggles about ordinary temporal affairs—position, property, and material gain. James goes on to say that such cravings are a mark of the unregenerate life, and that quarrels of this kind indicate a life that is self-centered instead of God-centered.
Verse 2: “Ye lust, and have not; ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain; ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.” You are envious (James says); you don’t have the ability to get ahead honorably—so you quarrel and fight. The word “kill” must be understood in light of Matthew 5:21-22, where Jesus explains that “killing” does not necessarily require murder. Even to hate is murder.
In the latter part of verse 2, we learn that the reason we do not possess what we desire, is found in the neglect of proper prayer. The promises of God are given to those who pray, not to those who fight. James says it is better to wrestle with God in prayer than to wrangle with men in conflict and dispute.
Verse 3: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” To “ask amiss” (to ask wrongly) may include asking for perfectly legitimate things—but to ask with unacceptable motives. James speaks about those who wanted to satisfy their own cravings and pamper their own passions. Such things as God’s glory, and consideration for other people—never even entered their thinking. And thus such prayers are an insult to God.
Prayers for things that are desired only for selfish reasons, are prayers that God never promised to answer.
- 1) Why do we pray for God’s blessing upon our work? (So that others will think well of us, or so that persons will be enriched and saved through it?)
- 2) Why does a wife pray for the conversion of her husband? (So that things will be more pleasant for her, or so that a man without Christ might be delivered from his God-dishonoring life?)
One girl prayed: “Lord, I’m not asking for myself, but would you please send my mother a real nice son-in-law?”
The origin of feuds and quarrels lies in a carnal desire for self-gratification, and such a spirit makes effective prayer impossible. In verses 2-3 of our lesson, God calls us to guard against selfish motives in prayer.
2. Break With the Ungodly World System (4:4-6)
The Greek word translated “world” has various meanings in the Bible. Sometimes it refers to the human race (John 3:16). Sometimes it denotes the universe (Romans 1:20). Sometimes it refers to the planet earth (Matthew 4:8). In James 4:4, the term refers to the entire system about us which is regulated by principles contrary to God’s will. James says, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”
The “world” (in verse 4) is the personification of all that is opposed to God. It refers to everything that men think and do which ignores God and refuses His ways. To be a “friend” of the world is to cherish a relationship with persons (and with forces) that are indifferent toward God. Inwardly, worldliness is a spirit of love for the world. It is an attitude of the heart. Outwardly, worldliness is conformity to the pagan customs of society. James says that friendship for the world amounts to hostility toward God. One who begins to please the world is really waging war against Heaven!
The unholy alliance between the Christian and the world involves the believer in spiritual adultery. To be unfaithful to the Lord is to be guilty of spiritual adultery. To flirt with the world is like breaking a marriage vow. Our relationship with Christ is a close relationship. Our relationship with God is not like the distant relationship between a king and his subjects, but like the intimate relationship of a husband and wife. Christians (who are espoused to Christ) must not go flirting with the world and its pagan customs.
The prohibition in verse 4 does not mean that we are to stand aloof from our fellow men, or that we should abandon the ordinary concerns of earth. We are not to retire to a desert and shut ourselves up in a monastery. But we must not be ruled by the aims and the ideals of the world.
Too many of us want God’s love and forgiveness for salvation, but we do not want God’s binding moral authority upon our behavior for daily living. But we can never convince the world that we are citizens of another country, as long as we speak the world’s language and follow the world’s customs. One aged Christian man remarked: “If I were young again and had my life to live over, I’d watch carefully to see which way the crowd is going, and then I’d make it a point to go in the opposite direction.” This is good advice.
The general force of verses 5-6 is that God is a jealous God. He is not going to permit any rivals. God claims us for himself, and the Spirit who lives within us yearns jealously over us. Just as a husband is broken-hearted when his wife becomes untrue to him, so the Spirit who dwells within us, is grieved when we seek friendship with the world. Verse 6 says that God resists the proud, but He is gracious and grants forgiveness to those who are humble.
3. Submit To the Lord’s Discipline (4:7-12)
The leading thought in these verses is that we are to submit to the Lord’s control. Verses 7-8 exhort: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.” To “submit” to God means that we are to bring our wills under His control and yield obedience to His commands. And then the call for submission is followed by a command to “resist” the devil. And we resist the devil when we refuse to yield to him, when we fearlessly deny him, and when we decline to give him a foothold in our lives. If we are to resist the devil, we must meet him in the strength of God, and not in our own strength. We must resist him by appealing to the Scriptures like Jesus did (recorded in Matthew 4).
Submission to God involves not only resisting the devil, but also drawing near to God. One good way to “draw near to God” is to make a firm commitment to spend at least 15 minutes a day reading the Bible, 15 minutes a day in prayer, and 15 minutes a day in sharing the Word of God with others. One who diligently carries out the above suggestions will very likely never have the word “backslider” written across his name.
Submission to God involves purity of life. Cleansing the hands refers to the outward life; purifying the hearts speaks of the inner life. God demands clean living. Both the inner and outer life must be free from defilement. The word “sinners” however is used to describe the believer. The Christian is no longer under the dominion of sin, but he does commit sin. Therefore James does not hesitate to use the word “sinners” even though he is addressing Christians.
Verse 9: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep; let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.” This command suggests a penitent state of mind and a sober concern about dealing with the reality of sin. Repentance must be real and deep and thorough. When John Wesley preached to the miners at Kingswood (in their work clothes), they were moved to tears. They were griefstricken because of their sins. He could see where the tears had washed down over their grimy faces. There were clean white lines down over their cheeks—paths where the tears dropped from their eyes.
There are times for joy and laughter, but unseemly laughter and hilarity are more characteristic of a fool than of a devoted Christian. Jesus himself so keenly felt the burden of the world’s sin, that we find mention of His tears, but no record of His laughter. He wept at the grave of Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem, and to the women on the way to Calvary, He said, “Weep for yourselves and for your children.” James says that in the early church, the fighting (of verse 1) and the worldliness (of verse 4), call for sadness and concern, not for hilarity and gaiety and merry-making.
Verse 10 urges humility. Humility is that quality which makes one delight even in the lowest place of service. Humility bows in submission before God and recognizes His right to rule in the life. The prophet Micah exhorts that we “walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). The beginning of greatness is to be little; the increase of greatness is to be less; the perfection of greatness is to be nothing.” One who humbles himself in the sight of God (and sees himself as God sees him) will not so quickly speak slanderously of his brother. Verses 11-12 speak clearly to any of us who is inclined to “speak evil” of another brother or sister.
When I speak “evil” of an absent person, I am giving evidence of my lack of love. There are probably no other sins in the Bible that are condemned more clearly than the sin of needlessly repeating the faults of other people. James reminds us that he who speaks evilly of his brother will find himself in trouble with God. This is not a condemnation of legitimate human judgment. We are to prove all things, to try the spirits, and to condemn false doctrine—but we must never condemn with a critical, faultfinding spirit.
Some take the instructions against evil speaking to mean that we are to see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing, and say nothing. Just let things go; after all, you cannot judge! That wasn’t the attitude of John the Baptist. He could have said, “Well, Herod, I see you have your brother’s wife, but I’m not your judge.” Instead, John plainly told Herod that it was not lawful for him to have the woman. Evil speaking is something different from the rebuke of sin. Evil speaking says something unfavorably about a third person in his absence, with the intent of harming his reputation.
To summarize James 4:7-12, then, submitting to the Lord’s discipline means that we resist the devil, purify our hearts, weep over sin, and guard against critical faultfinding toward our brethren.
4. Avoid Planning Without God (4:13-17)
Many of those who received this Epistle were businessmen who traded for a while in one area and then moved on to another. It was a time of rapid city-building, and there was need for citizens to occupy the new cities. Verse 13 admonishes: “Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain.” These words describe persons full of confidence concerning the future. They talked about all they were going to accomplish, seemingly without any realization that our times are in God’s hands. They pointed to a map and said, “Today or tomorrow, we’re leaving for this city, and will spend a year there, trading and making money.” But such bold confidence about the future is denounced in no uncertain terms.
Verse 14: “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” These people boasted of a year when actually none of us can even boast of a day! Proverbs 27:1 says we should not boast of tomorrow, for we don’t know “what a day may bring forth.” A tiny clot of blood in the brain may cause instant death. An accident might quickly snuff out the breath of life. Instead of buying and selling, we might be begging for bread. Instead of getting gain, we might be suffering loss.
To call attention to man’s frailty, James likens life to a mist which appears for a little while, and then disappears. You probably remember when you were a little child—how you leaned against the window sill and blew your breath against the glass—only to see it quickly fade away. That’s the way it is with life. It is like a mist, visible for a little while, and then it quickly vanishes away. The Bible compares life to a declining shadow (Psalm 102:11), a whiff of breath (Job 7:7), and to a fading wild flower (Psalm 103:15). Since life is only very brief, we should not make confident plans for tomorrow, neither should we speak of the future as if we ourselves were the master of it.
Verse 15: “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.” It is foolish and wicked to make plans for the future without reference to God. We can make our plans, but those plans will be carried out only if the Lord wills it. The Apostle Paul planned with a consciousness of the Lord’s sovereign will. He uses phrases like “if the Lord will” or “if God will” frequently. (Read Acts 18:21; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7). There is, of course, no magic in merely voicing the words “if the Lord will”—but to use the words thoughtfully—is both honoring to the Lord and a testimony to the world. The practice of using the words “If the Lord permit,” can easily degenerate into a mere formality without any real meaning. Nevertheless, these are words that we should always be saying in our hearts, and sometimes they should be uttered with our lips.
To “rejoice in our boastings” (verse 16) is to pride ourselves in our plans. Sometimes letting God out of our plans, is simple carelessness and thoughtlessness, but to pride oneself in planning his own future, is downright conscious sin! To plan ahead without any real recognition of our dependence upon God, reflects a boastful arrogance that should have no place in the life of a Christian.
Chapter 4 is concluded with the words, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Violating God’s will is sin, but failing to do what one knows to be right—is also sin. We often seem to think that the sin of doing is much worse than a sin of not doing. Yet—to do nothing—may be even worse than doing wrong. To refuse to throw a rope to a drowning man, or to refuse to warn the occupants of a burning house—may be as bad as pushing the man into the water, or setting fire to his house. The end result is the same. In the Parable of the Talents, the one-talented man was rebuked not because he had done any definite wrong, but because he had buried a gift and had not done good with it. Thus, to leave unheeded any prompting to prayer; to fail to give a word of witness when opportunity affords; to keep silent when truth should have been defended—these things are sin!
The thought in James 4:17 is that when one is fully aware of his duty, and yet fails to perform it—this failure to perform is sin. It is not enough to know to do right. We must do what we know we ought to do!