It is great to be humble - James 4:1-10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
At the beginning of this term in the evening we had a mini sermon series on the subject of ‘Doubt’- what causes it and how it might be cured. To be honest if there was anything that would cause me to doubt whether Christianity is true, it is not intellectual things like- ‘Did the resurrection take place’? That is relatively easy to deal with. What makes me sometimes wonder whether there is any validity in the Christian faith is the way Christians sometimes behave. When we show less affection and enthusiasm for the Lord Jesus Christ than members of the real ale society show for their beer does make me wonder. When things are said and done to fellow Christians by fellow Christians which would make an unbeliever blush, you do have to wonder. I am reminded of that little ditty, ‘Oh to be with the saints above, that will be glory, but oh to be with the saints below, that’s quite a different story.’ But the point is- it shouldn’t be. As a congregation matures in the Christian faith there should be an increasingly close fit between the church on earth and the church in heaven. But sadly, the reality can often be very different. But paradoxically one of the things which makes me more confident that Christianity is true and not a delusion is that the Bible itself owns up to this and is honest in recognising that Christians can behave badly and seeks to tackle the problem. That is what James is doing in the section we are looking at this morning- dealing with a dysfunctional church. Just look at the kind of language James uses of professing Christian believers- he calls them literally ‘adulteresses’ in v4; ‘haters of God’, ‘enemies of God’ ‘murderers’, ‘sinners’ and ‘double minded’ people. The way these folk are behaving towards one another must seem like a scene from the Godfather- the greed, the nastiness, the shear self-centredness is driving James to distraction- but he still calls them ‘brothers’. You see, there is still enough sin left within the flesh and enough pull from the world to make Christians do the most appalling things. The Bible does not ignore this reality it faces it and deals with it. So James adopts the stance of a surgeon who is about to wield his scalpel with expert precision to cut out the spiritual canker which lies at the heart of this and many a congregation. So hold on to your pews!
First of all, there is the power of inner desires, vv 1-3: ‘1What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.’ It seems that the members of this church have come close to blows, they are fighting and quarrelling. It is not a pretty sight. Now we might expect James to offer some sort of practical remedy, perhaps a course on anger management, or counsel the combatants with a few Rogerian grunts of the ‘I hear you variety’. But he doesn’t, instead he looks at the underlying problem which is that the external battles are symptoms of the inner battles which are the result of our ‘desires’ or as it can be translated, ‘pleasures’ –the things we love and make us feel good about ourselves and so which drive us. And he is saying that we have within us this internal tension, a pressure which builds up and builds up into frustration, so he says that you Christians want something and because you don’t get it, you end up coveting and killing. Is it really the case that murder is going on in the church? In a sense, yes. I think James has in mind the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, ‘You have heard that it was said long ago, “Do not murder”….but I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement’ (Matthew 5:21f). Jesus is making the same point, the source of the external act of murder is the internal rage of anger and that is what needs to be checked. I have seen situations where Christians have been effectively killed by unkind words and slander- it is called character assassination. I recall one church member on Christmas Day would you believe, meeting me at a church door literally white and shaking with rage and railing at me because there had been a genuine confusion about him being on the reading rota in church for that day. James is talking about Christians who have their own little agendas, their own particular likes which they want to see realised and when they aren’t that is when the knives are drawn and there is blood spilt on the church carpet- metaphorically speaking. Yes, the church can be a pretty ugly place, because our hearts can be pretty ugly-that is where it starts.
But there is another startling thing which James mentions and that is even our acts of Christian devotion- things like prayer- can be pleasure driven and amount to nothing more than an expression of our own idolatry- ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.’ For a start God is not the centre of their thinking- ‘you don’t have because you don’t ask God’ he is the last person that comes to mind as they push for what they want and don’t want in the Christian fellowship- what has church got to do with Him? And then when he does come to mind, he is seen as a divine fixer- I need my pleasure God so give it to me- now!’ So even prayer is being abused as a means to satisfy our own selfish desires, instead of it being a wonderful instrument God has given so we might submit to him and align our lives with his will and be partners with him in extending his kingdom, God becomes a divine dispensing machine. Like a child craving his chocolate bar, he puts in the coin of prayer and he expects the bar to pop out just like that. What is at the centre of our thoughts is not God- it is us or as James puts it ‘our pleasures’. Do you realise that our prayers can reveal an awful lot about us? Think of what it is we spend our time in prayer asking for? Some of our prayers can be frankly self-centred and idolatrous- all about me, my wants, my family, my home, my car, my journey, my career and so on. Of course God is interested in our families- but what do we pray for our families? Is it that little Suzy will get into a good secondary school or that little Suzy will be a good Christian? The writer John Piper goes so far as to say that this passage suggests that we can ‘cuckold’ God- which is an old fashion term to describe a wife who has been unfaithful to her husband- which is why James talks about Christians acting like this as being ‘adulteresses’ in v4. God is seen as a generous husband, the wife comes and asks for £50 and what does she go and do with it? She spends it on her lover. That is what we can do in prayer- we want things so we can spend them on ourselves and so not be any different from the world. The sad fact is that abusive behaviour can be wrapped in pious language. Have you ever had someone say to you about a course of action which you think is unwise at best and downright unbiblical at worse, ‘Well, I have prayed about it’! Worse still is when they say, ‘I have really prayed about it’- it must be alright then! Not too long ago I received from a Christian one of the most personally hurtful letters in my 26 years of ministry. And when I met with the person concerned to talk about what was frankly outrageous – he said, ‘But I prayed about it’ – so it must be alright then? No, that is not what prayer is about and we should not use prayer as a cloak to mask our own desires which sometimes means putting other Christians down in a harsh and cruel way. Our motives in prayer can be wrong, James tells us-in that they are self-centred and not God centred. Of course God won’t answer prayers like that. So that is the power of internal desires-they can be so destructive.
Which leads on to the lure of external attractions-v4, ‘You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.’ Again this is basic Jesus’ teaching- when he says you can’t worship God and mammon. There is a fundamental opposition between God’s values and the world’s values, what God wants and what the world wants. As we saw a few weeks ago, when the Bible speaks of the ‘world’ or being ‘worldly’ it is speaking about humankind in organized opposition to God, wanting to live as if this planet does not belong to him- in short it is a society which wishes God dead. As a result the focus is very much on the here and now, gratifying the senses, what looks good, sounds good and supremely what makes me feel good. And what supremely makes us feel good is when other people think highly of us, when we are made much of by them- hence so much talk about ‘self-esteem’. And let’s face it you will not be made much of by other people if you do not share their outlook and values-like Jesus you become a threat. And just how poisonous this worldliness is, James highlights by his opening accusation ‘Adulteresses’. This is Old Testament language used to describe Israel when with its worship it paid lipservice to Yahweh while at the same time sidling up to the other nations by having a live and let live with the worship of foreign gods and all that came with that- materialism and immorality. And James is saying when Christians act in ways which are indistinguishable from non-Christians, when they are just loving things that non-Christians love and their affections for God are way down on the list below loving the telly, loving the holiday, loving the shopping, loving the job, then its as if they have got into bed with someone else, they are playing the field while all the time claiming to be faithful and. God wants and deserves our deepest and most precious affections, our hearts. Could I ask: is that what he’s got?
Now when we come to verse 5 we have a bit of difficulty in getting the translation right so as to get to its proper meaning. In the pew Bibles it reads, ‘Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.’ It looks like he is going to quote Scripture but doesn’t. With this rendering is the idea that the Bible is unanimous in identifying the fallen human spirit as being corrupt so that it is full of envy. That is the way we are wired- Psalm 51:5 ‘Surely from my birth I have been sinful’ says David in the light of his adultery with Bathsheba. That is one possibility and of course it is true that is exactly what we are like and so a Christian should not excuse it. In your footnotes you will see two other possible translations, first: ‘God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us.’ This goes back to what the Book Exodus says about God being a jealous God, in that like a husband who loves his wife he guards and protects her with a holy jealousy so God wants a proper spirit in his people. That would fit the context of spiritual adultery, but the word translated ‘jealous’ is one which has evil connotations, so it can hardly be used to describe God. The third possibility is, ‘Do you think Scripture speaks in a senseless way, to be so unreasonable as to suggest that the Holy Spirit causes you to behave in this way which is jealous and greedy?’ In other words, ‘Do you honestly think that the Bible promotes self-centred greed, so that it’s all about you and not the Lord Jesus Christ?’ Well, obviously some people did think that and still do. I can’t see how the health and wealth teaching of people like Benny Hinn and the antics of some others of the God-channel is anything else but this, encouraging the type of praying James condemns as a sign of spiritual adultery- so God wants you to be rich, famous, pain free and prayer is the rubbing of the magic lamp which releases god as genie. It is amazing the lengths to which we will go to justify our behaviour no matter how obviously non-Christian it is, even to the point of saying, ‘God’s Spirit led me’. A friend of mine tells of a female Vicar herself married who ran off with another woman’s husband with the claim that God had told her to do this. So this is not so way out as it may seem. James is a realist and so in true Yorkshire fashion calls a spade a spade.
The root of the problem is not so much a negative thing- we are wanting our own way, it is more the lack of something positive –the failure to love Christ and treasure him above all else and so to enjoy him. If we did that, then these other things wouldn’t get a foothold in our lives. Instead of being driven by a passion for him and his glory, we are driven by other passions, mainly revolving around our glory- and that says James, spells enmity with God. Now we may think James is coming on strong here with all this talk of Christians being adulteresses and enemies. But when you think about it, as with physical adultery, spiritual adultery doesn’t begin with all out promiscuity- it begins by letting the married relationship drift, idling in neutral and then when the opportunity for a bit of a fling comes we are half way there. And similarly there are symptoms that our love for the Lord is not what it should be. One is the lack of desire for public worship, meeting with God’s people like this each week (as if one day a week is a big commitment!). And this can be justified by someone saying, ‘It doesn’t meet my needs’. Well, you have to ask, how self- centred and worldly is that? My needs? What about what God requires, the praise of his holy name, him wanting to extend his loving rule in our lives through the proclamation of his Word and the need to serve each other? That is like a wife or husband saying- she or he no longer meets my needs- and I will take time out of our relationship- that will end your relationship! Commitment to Christ means exactly that- commitment. But there may be other things- going shopping, the car boot sale, the day out- can we honestly say these things compete with expressing our love and adoration of the one who went to the cross for us? Are we not challenged by this as well as encouraged? James wants us to be.
So what is the answer? James tells us- the hope of heavenly grace where verse 6 is a transition, ‘But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." 7Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.’ I can’t resist spiritual drift and my heart growing lukewarm and other things crowding into my life to elbow out Christ and neither can you without having what James speaks of here as ‘more grace’ –literally ‘extraordinary grace’. We don’t deserve it, we have forfeited God’s kindness but he gives it and gives it and so is glorified yet again as the God of mercy. This is just so encouraging! And who will get this grace so that Jesus becomes their first love again? Well, not those who don’t think they need it- the proud; but those who own up and say, ‘Lord that is me in James chapter 4. I am the one who has been pushing and elbowing my fellow Christians, who has been dissatisfied and a malcontent, who has been endlessly nagging you for something and daring to call it prayer and your honour never came into it, who has allowed a thousand and one things to move me and turn me on other than you.’ In other words, it is the humble and only the humble who will receive grace- Proverbs 3:34 says so. But practically how do we go about receiving it- it is conditional? James lists several things we need to do. First, submit to God- his will not ours must come first, not whether we like it or not, but learn to like it. Second resist the devil instead of giving into him too easily and allowing him to have a field day using us to upset the fellowship. Thirdly, positively draw near to God-meet him in his Word, in public worship and the promise is that he will come near to us. How gracious is that? Fourthly, we are to act and think like Christians- wash our hands- hands are what we do things with and purify our hearts- hearts (in the bible world) are what we think with-get orientated towards God. Fifthly, feel our sin, don’t ignore it or trivialise it- exchange our superficial praise for heartfelt penitence. It is right to feel bad for some things- coming to church is not always meant to be an uplifting experience- not in the first instance. But it will become such an experience when God lifts us up ‘humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up.’
We have such a kindly God in the Lord Jesus Christ, a God who draws near to us and not away from us as we draw near to him, who tenderly lifts us up if we humbly bow down, a God who bears with us to speak to us even in such a forthright way because like any Father who cares for his children he doesn’t want them squabbling, but united in their love for him and for each other. Let us pray.
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