James 4

James 4  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 7
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THE LAST NOTE struck, as we closed chapter 3 was that of peace. The first note of chapter 4 is the exact opposite, that of war. What lay behind the peace was the purity that is the first mark of the wisdom that is from above. So now we discover that what lies behind the wars and fightings, which are so common among the professed people of God, is the impure lust of the human heart, the lust connected with that wisdom which is earthly, sensual, devilish. You will notice that the marginal reading for “lusts,” in verses 1 and 3, is “pleasures.” That is because the word used means the pleasure that comes from the gratifying of our desires, or lusts, rather than the desires themselves. If our desires run riot and we find a sinful pleasure in their gratification, we at once have the root of endless contentions and warfare.
Verses 2 and 3 tell us the way this evil works. First, there is the desire for what we have not. Now this desire may carry a man to the point of killing in order to achieve his end, but at any rate it fills him with envy if he cannot accomplish his desire. And after all there is a very simple way in which we may receive what we desire, if indeed we are Christians. We may struggle and strive and move heaven and earth, and yet receive nothing. Yet the Saviour Himself has told us to ask and we shall receive. We have not, because we ask not.
Does someone say in a rather aggrieved tone, “But I have asked, time and again, yet I have never received.” The explanation may be that you have asked “amiss” or “evilly”; your object in asking being simply the gratification of your own desires. Had you received it, you would have just spent it upon your own pleasures. Hence God has withheld from you your desire.
How plainly this teaches us that God looks at the heart. He scrutinizes the motive that lies behind the asking. This is very searching, and it explains a lot of unanswered prayer. We may ask for thoroughly right things and be denied, because we ask from thoroughly wrong motives.
You may be serving the Lord. Perhaps you have started to preach the Gospel, and then you certainly desire that your words may be marked by grace and power. Is not that right? It is eminently right, yet beware lest you ask for this just because you have an over-mastering desire to be a successful preacher. Your prayer will sound quite beautiful to us all, but God will know the thought that lies behind it.
Here I am, writing this article. I have asked the Lord to guide so that it may bring light and help to many. Yet I ask myself very seriously, Why did I ask this? Was it that I had a genuine care for the spiritual prosperity of others, or was it just that I might enhance my reputation as a writer of magazine articles of a religious sort? Again I say, this is very searching.
Verse 4 brings in another consideration. We cannot very well be set on our own pleasures without becoming entangled with the world. The world is, so to speak, the arena wherein pleasures disport themselves, and where every lust that finds a place in man’s heart may be gratified. Now for the believer alliance with the world is adultery in its spiritual form.
The apostle James is exceedingly definite on this point. The world is in a state of open rebellion against God. It was ever thus since man fell, but its terrible enmity only came fully to light when Christ was manifested. Then it was that the world both saw and hated Him and His Father. Then it was that the breach was irrevocably fixed.
We are speaking, of course, of the world-system. If it be a question of the people in the world, then we read, “God so loved the world” (John 3:1616For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)). The world-system is the point here, and it is in a state of deadly hostility to God; so much so that friendship with the one entails enmity as regards the other. The language is very strong. Literally it would read, “Whoever therefore is minded to be the friend of the world is constituted enemy of God” (ch. 4:4). It does not say that God is his enemy, but the breach is so complete on the world’s side that friendship with it is only possible on the basis of enmity against God. Let us never forget that!
And let us also never forget that we, as believers, are brought into such close and intimate relations with God that if we play Him false and enter into guilty alliance with the world the only sin amongst mankind with which it can be compared is the very terrible one of adultery.
Verse 5 is difficult, even as to its translation. The New Translation renders it thus, “Think ye that the Scripture speaks in vain? Does the Spirit which has taken His abode in us desire enviously?” (ch. 4:5). The force then would seem to be—Has not the Scripture warned you of these things, and does it not always mean what it says? Can you for one moment imagine that the Holy Spirit of God has anything to do with these unholy desires? If we read it as in our Authorized Version we should understand it to mean that all along the Scripture had testified that man’s own spirit is the source of his envious lusts. The truth to which it leads us is the same, whichever way we read it.
The chapter opened with the lusts of the flesh. It passed on to warn against alliance with the world. Now in verse 7 the devil is mentioned, and we are told that if resisted he will flee. But how thankful we should be for the verse which precedes this mention of the devil, containing the assurance that “He giveth more grace” (ch. 4:6). The flesh, the world, the devil may exert against us power which is much. God gives us grace which is more. And if the power against us becomes more and abounds, then grace super-abounds. The great thing is to be in that state which is truly receptive of the grace of God.
What is that state? It is that condition of humility which leads to submission to God and consequent nearness to Him. This comes out very clearly in these verses. God gives grace to the humble while He resists the proud. The wise king of olden time had noted the fact that “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:1818Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)); though he does not tell us why it is so. Here we get the explanation. The proud get no grace from God but rather resistance. No wonder they go down. And with none is the fall so manifest as with proud believers, since God deals promptly with His children in the way of government. The worldling He often leaves untouched until the final crash comes, as eternity is reached.
If we are marked by humility we shall have no difficulty in submitting to God, and as we submit to God we shall be enabled to resist the devil. All too often things work the other way round with us. We start by submitting to the devil, which leads to our developing the pride that marks him, and consequently resisting God; and as a result of that God resists us and a fall becomes inevitable, with its consequent humiliation. If only we were humble we should escape much humiliation.
The order then is clear. First, humility. Then, submission to God, which entails resistance as regards the devil. Third, drawing near to God. No one of course can draw near to God except as happily submitting to Him. Drawing near to Him He will draw near to us. This is the way of His government. If we sow the seed of a diligent seeking of His face, we shall reap a harvest of light and blessing from a realized sense of His nearness to us.
Let us always keep clear the distinction between God’s grace and His government. In His grace He took the initiative and drew near to us, when we cared nothing for Him. From that all has flowed. But saved by grace we are brought under the holy government of God, and here we reap as we sow. If we seek Him He will be found of us, and the more we draw near to Him the larger will be our enjoyment of His nearness and all its benefits.
Immediately we think of drawing near to God the question of our moral fitness is raised. How can we draw near except as cleansed and purified.
Hence, what we find in the latter part of verse 8 and in verses 9 and 10. James speaks very strongly as to the state of those to whom he wrote, accusing them of sin and double-mindedness and a good deal of indifference to their real condition, so that they were filled with laughter and jollification in spite of their sorry state. What they needed was to purify themselves not only externally—the “hands”—but internally —the “hearts,” and also to repent, humbling themselves before God.
Are we sometimes conscious that our hearts are far from God? Do we sometimes feel as though it were impossible for us to draw near to Him? These verses then will explain matters for us and show us the way. The only road into the Divine presence that is available for us is that of purification, within as well as without, of repentance and of freshly humbling ourselves before God. Then it is that He will lift us up, and we shall be in the full enjoyment of the light of His countenance.
In verses 11 and 12 The Apostle again reverts to the matter of the tongue. No sin amongst Christians is more common than that of speaking evil against their brethren. Now those to whom James wrote were very familiar with the law and greatly reverenced its commandments, so he reminds them how distinctly the law had spoken on this very point. Knowing what the law had said, to speak evil of and judge their brother would be tantamount to speaking evil of and judging the law which forbad it. Instead of obeying the law they would be setting up to legislate for themselves. These early Jerusalem Christians were “all zealous of the law” (Acts 21:2020And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: (Acts 21:20)). But that only made the matter more serious for them. We are not under the law but under grace, still it will do us all good to remember the word which the Lord spake unto Moses saying, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people” (Lev. 19:1616Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:16)).
Another sad feature of those days was a lack of piety, and as to this James utters words of rebuke in the paragraph extending from verse 13 to the end of the chapter. The Jew true to his nature was out for gain and moved from city to city buying and selling. If unconverted he thought of nothing but the demands of his business and laid his plans accordingly. The converted Jew however had claims which were higher than the claims of business. He had a Lord in heaven to whom he was responsible, and every movement must be planned and made subject to His will.
True piety brings God and His will into everything. It is wholesome to recognize our own littleness and the brevity of our days. In a boastful spirit we may begin legislating for our own future, but it is evil work. We have no power to legislate, since we cannot even command what shall be on the morrow. But why should we wish to legislate when we are the Lord’s, and He has a will about us? Shall we not recognize His guidance and be satisfied with that?
Not only should we recognize His guidance but we should be glad to acknowledge it in all our ways and by word of mouth also. We “ought to SAY, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (ch. 4:15). And notice please that “we OUGHT to say” (2 Chron. 10:1010And the young men that were brought up with him spake unto him, saying, Thus shalt thou answer the people that spake unto thee, saying, Thy father made our yoke heavy, but make thou it somewhat lighter for us; thus shalt thou say unto them, My little finger shall be thicker than my father's loins. (2 Chronicles 10:10)). It is not something which we may say, and find that God approves of it. It is something we must say if we wish to give Him His proper place in our lives.
Knowing this let us be careful to do it, for a very striking statement closes our chapter. Sin is not only the doing of that which is wrong: it is also the not doing of that which we know to be right. Hence to know is a great responsibility.
Shall we therefore shrink from knowledge? But that would only make matters worse, inasmuch as it would entail closing our eyes against the light; and those who do that will have no ground of complaint against God, should He do for them what long ago He did for others, and shut them up in hopeless darkness. No, let us welcome the light, and let us look upon the responsibility to put into practice the good that we know, as being also a very great privilege.