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. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
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. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
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. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
- James 4:1-17
Noted Biblical Scholars, Teachers, and Preachers Comments
James 4:2 ‘desires’: “Worldly desires, however strong they may be, do not in many cases obtain what they seek. A person longs to be happy, but he is not. He pines to be great, but he grows more ordinary every day. He aspires after what he thinks will content him, but he is still unsatisfied. One way or another his life is a disappointment. How can it be otherwise? If we sow the wind, must we not reap the whirlwind and nothing else? If a person’s desires are the longings of fallen nature, if they begin and end with self, if the chief end for which one lives is not to glorify God but to glorify self, then one can desire but will not have.”
James 2:8 ‘Draw near to God’ “First, we see that the text is not merely an invitation; it is a command. We need not entertain any fear that we will be an intruder when, in the exercise of his gracious sovereignty, God says to us, ‘Come!’ Next, notice that he would not call us to himself if there were no road by which we could come. Once there was a great gulf fixed between us and God, but Jesus bridged the awful chasm. So draw near. The road to God is open to all who believe in Jesus. Finally, notice the encouraging promise. There is nothing about his casting out, spurning, or rejecting. We will be received graciously and loved freely. The promise is emphatic: ‘He will draw near to you.’”
- Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes
James 4:8 ‘spending time with God’: “Some of us have tried to have a daily quiet time and have not been successful. Others of us have a hard time concentrating. And all of us are busy. So rather than spend time with God, listening for his voice, we’ll let others spend time with him and then benefit from their experience. Let them tell us what God is saying. After all, isn’t that why we pay preachers? …
“If that is your approach, if your spiritual experiences are secondhand and not firsthand, I’d like to challenge you with this thought: Do you do that with other parts of your life? …
“You don’t do that with vacations … You don’t do that with romance … You don’t let some one eat on your behalf, do you? [There are] certain things no one can do for you.
“And one of those is spending time with God.”
- Max Lucado, Just Like Jesus
James 4:8-9 ‘Drawing nigh’: “At the base of all true Christian experience must lie a sound and sane morality. No joys are valid, no delights legitimate where sin is allowed to live in life or conduct. No transgression of pure righteousness dare excuse itself on the ground of superior religious experience. To seek high emotional states while living in sin is to throw our whole life open to self-deception and the judgment of God. ‘Be ye holy’ is not a mere motto to be framed and hung on the wall. It is a serious commandment from the Lord of the whole earth.
“The true Christian ideal is not to be happy but to be holy. The holy heart alone can be the habitation of the Holy Ghost.”
- A. W. Tozer, God’s Pursuit of Man
James 4:11-17 ‘evil-speaking’: “We must not speak evil things of others, though they be true, unless there be some necessary occasion for it; much less must we report evil things when they are false. Our lips must be guided by the law of kindness, as well as truth and justice. 1. Because you are brethren. 2. Because this is to judge the law. 3. Because God, the Lawgiver, has reserved the power of passing the final sentence on men wholly to himself.
“We are cautioned against a presumptuous confidence of the continuance of our lives, v. 13, 14. Reflect a little on this way of thinking and talking, call yourselves to account for it. …
“We are taught to keep up a constant sense of our dependence on the will of God, v. 15. …
“We are directed to avoid vain boasting, v. 16. …
“We are taught to act up to our own convictions that we never go contrary to our own knowledge (v. 17).”
- Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Scripture quotations are not in bold/italics)
James 4:14 ‘tomorrow’: “It is a great folly to build hopes on what may never come. It is madness to risk everything on the unsubstantial future. Life is like a vapor. Sometimes these vapors, especially at the time of sunset, are exceedingly brilliant. They seem to be magnificence itself when the sun paints them with heavenly colors. But in a little while they are gone, and the whole panorama of the sunset has disappeared. Such is our life. It may sometimes be bright and glorious. But it is still only like a painted cloud and the color in it are both gone. Therefore, if this life is unsubstantial as a vapor – and nobody can deny the fact – let us regard it as such, and let us seek for something substantial elsewhere. Unless we purposely live with a view to the next world, we cannot make much out of our present existence.”
- Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes
This chapter, in many cases, can be a lesson, one sentence at a time, but there is an overall theme as well, even with the seeming shift in verse thirteen. To carry over the theme of letting your mouth (or tongue) get you into trouble from James 3, boasting is one way to do that. Boasting betrays us when considering the quarrels that occur due to having improper desires that starts off the chapter. Boasting says that you accomplished your desires. This does not show love for those who might also desire what you have, but it takes the focus off God and places that focus squarely between your shoulders. Thus, there are ties to James 3 and the entirety of James 4 fits.
There are many verses in the Bible that tells us to ask God and He will deliver. Almost all these promises clearly show that God delivers our needs and/or extras to us when our desire is the things of God, especially more of God’s attributes themselves. James 4:1-3 is graphic, even stating that we could kill in order to receive what we desire. And in verse 3, we are desiring the wrong things for the wrong motives, focusing on our pleasures instead of God, God’s kingdom, and furthering that kingdom here on earth. This restating of other “ask and receive” statements flips the narrative to focus on our earthly desires and how God wishes that we would separate ourselves from them.
James 4:4-6 takes that a step further, again flipping the focus of other Scripture. It states here that we become an enemy of God if we desire earthly pleasure. This seems harsh, but the point is that God wants a relationship with us. If you had someone who wanted you as a best friend, and you became distracted by someone or something else at every turn, that person would start looking for a new best friend. God is faithful to us, but you can see the message we are sending to God each time an earthly pleasure distracts us. We are saying, “God, you are important, but for the moment, this other activity seems much more exciting….. Ummm, I’ll get back to You later.” And yes, we all do that on occasion. Maybe less often if we actually said those words. Those words are not nice words to say to your best friend.
And how does humility tie into seeking earthly pleasures instead of God? If we lay our lives, humbly before God in service to Him, we are in the right frame of mind. When we act upon our selfish desires to do something contrary to God’s service, then we are elevating ourselves and, maybe ever so temporarily, ignoring God.
And then in James 4:7-10 we get the practical applications. And in the midst of the laundry list of things to do, James includes washing hands. In this time of the pandemic, washing hands is one of the primary suggestions that is given in curbing the transmission of disease, but as people get bored with the routine and self-centered with regard to their sacrifice, they forget others. And come on people! Washing your hands is not that much of a sacrifice! Too often have I gone into the restroom at my old place of business to see a company executive finish up in a stall, after wiping his bottom (I suppose, not actually watching) and then walk out without washing his hands. Now with the potential for deadly viruses, that doorknob not only has the usual bacteria, some of which could be deadly, it has new germs, viruses, that could be even more deadly. Not that you could die more than once, but the bacteria may have a better form of cure than the virus. Both living and growing on door knobs everywhere.
But the first practical thing to do, after submitting to God, is to resist the devil when he tempts, and he will flee. This suggestion carries a promise. For those that have resisted temptation in such a manner, they know that the devil does not go far away, even pretending to agree to play nice if you let him back in. Then, the next suggestion also has a promise, that when we get nearer to God, God gets nearer to us. In a physical dimension sense, that is simply natural. When I take a step toward my wife, she is now closer, but I am closer to her as well. This is also true in the spiritual realm.
And when it speaks of washing hands, this is metaphorical other than ceremonial washing. It is similar to baptism in that we are metaphorically washing away the sins, repenting of them, and leaving them behind as we throw out the bath water, even when we “dry wash” our hands. As for the gloom and doom, I do not think that James is speaking of us going around with long faces all day, but rather we should jettison our desires, what the focus was at the start of the chapter, because if left to our own devices, we want to be happy. Our pursuit of happiness can get out of hand quickly. The key word in all the grief, mourning, and wailing, is to act humbly before our God.
Then in the next paragraph, the focus shifts to slander and standing in judgment. Slander is speaking ill of someone when it is not true, but Matthew Henry goes beyond that to warn us against speaking something that is true when passing judgment upon someone else – when God is the judge anyway. Remember that Matthew Henry was trained as a lawyer before entering the ministry. He probably knew firsthand how courtroom drama plays out. The judge may decide one way or the other. One side wins, but in certain ways, both sides lose. Back to the beginning of the chapter, avoiding the quarrel in the first place, especially based on earthly desires, jealousy, envy, covetousness, or simply comparison that he has more and could afford to give me some.
And is it more? I have known people who played the “woe is me” card and got people who could not afford to give money giving them money when they did not really need it in the first place. They were simply well practiced at saying “woe is me.” Whenever I have said “woe is me,” the response has been for me to grow up, cry-baby. I must be doing it wrong.
Then in verse 13, it seems to shift to boasting, but all the earthly desires, quarrels, lack of humility… What do those things point towards? Is our desire that we would love to shut up the boasting person by doing a little boasting of our own, but we have nothing to boast about, so we are tempted to do bad things in order to have something in which to boast? Could that be a bit of it?
While boasting is the overall problem in these last verses of James 4, it starts by making plans that are not God’s plans and feeds back into those earthly desires that James warns us against in the beginning of the chapter. We are really going full circle. When we quarrel and puff ourselves up due to earthly gain, we plan for even more of that gain, instead of seeking God. And I have seen it far too often, that when people gain even more earthly gain, that earthly gain becomes their god and they chase after that earthly gain instead of God, in time, totally ignoring God. I have even had people tell me that this diversion is not sin, because it is “natural.” Well, yes, it is “natural” because it is near the core of our sin nature. But it is most definitely sin. In fact, James ends this chapter with a different wording of how the Apostle Paul ends Romans 14. If it has nothing to do with faith, it is sin.
This may seem a hard line, but as you dangle your toes over the line, ask of how this innocuous fun thing advances the kingdom of God. You may find yourself avoiding those “fun things.” In recent weeks, people have asked me about the latest book that I have read, and all I can think of the Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel and Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus. The mystery novels do not seem to have that much import in my consciousness, and may soon disappear, except for a few carefully selected authors. When asked about television shows, there are only about six fiction shows that I watch over the course of the week. I usually watch the weather and Christian inspirational programming. As for sports, I watched a rare hockey game on television Sunday afternoon. I gained necessary rest from my labors. … And the local team won, which wasn’t so bad either. But I watched less than half of the Super Bowl. I wanted the AFC team to win and they were not winning, so why watch? And should it matter? That thought ties back to those earthly desires.
It is not even a conscious decision to get closer to God and farther away from earthly pleasures. I simply find God’s promise in James 4:8 to be working in my life. As I grow closer to God, God gets closer to me. Now if He can just help me more when I try to chase the devil away when I’m tempted… Ah, that may be the last thing before He takes me home.
Some Serendipitous Reflections
“1. What is your usual response when your desires are frustrated?
”2. How is the ‘world’ trying to get you to be its ‘friend’ now? How is that related to your faithfulness to God?’
“3. How is James’ cure (vv. 7-10) applicable to you as you struggle with the world’s seduction?
“1. How does James relate to your plans for the future? Ever omit God in your planning? How do you specifically involve him?”
- Lyman Coleman, et al, The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups
There are two question 1 due to James 4-5 being split into three study sessions in the Serendipity Bible. There is logical overlap between the end of James 4 and the beginning of James 5.
If you like these Thursday morning Bible studies, but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Thursday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.