The only way is down - James 4:1-12

This is a sermon by Tim Benstead from the Riverside Church service on 1st March 2015.

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The ‘ness’ mess

 

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don't do it."

 

"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.

 

"Well, there's so much to live for!"

 

"Like what?"

 

"Are you religious?"

 

He said, "Yes."

 

I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"

 

"Christian."

 

"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"

 

"Protestant."

 

"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"

 

"Baptist."

 

"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

 

"Baptist Church of God."

 

"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

 

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

 

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

 

He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

 

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

 

Why is it that Christians are some of the quickest people to take offence with one another over what are often such minor things? We argue over the way we baptize, the type of clothes we wear, whether we have communion often enough or too often. We too often assume the worst over things that are said or done and we then sugar coat our faces for the Sunday morning service.

 

Why is it that when we hold so much in common, about the divinity of Christ, the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, his ascension into glory, the sending of the Spirit, the real and visible return of the Lord Jesus in glory, that we then get so het up with one another?

 

Well James provides us with a very clear insight into such behaviour.

 

 

 

4 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 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. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

4 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. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” q

7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. [1]

 

I will call this the ‘ness’ mess.

 

Quarrelsomeness – 1-2a

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.

 

James is very practical and clearly teaches that faith must work out in practice. As Christians, we don’t have the option of saying we believe the truth, without then living that very truth out in our day-to-day existence.

 

The question James asks is what causes wars and battles among you? This is a question to the church where clearly there are wars and battles. We may have all sorts of answers to such a question. Well he said ‘so and so’ and she said ‘such and such’ and that’s why things are all wrong. It’s his/her/the minister’s fault. Just circle that which applies.

 

Interestingly, James only has one reason why there are wars and battles within the church and tells us to look at ourselves. The rhetorical question James asks is, ‘Don’t they come from your desires (passions) that battle within you?’

 

The answer he expects us to agree with is, ‘of course they do’. I am the cause of wars and battles, because I am at war within me. I am filled with competing passions (a word from which we get hedonism). My desires drive me and, sadly, not Gods desires.

 

All of us know the truth of what James is telling us here. All we have to do is get in our cars and wait for someone to cut us up, or perhaps where we have cut someone else up. When they do it to me they are terrible drivers and are doing what they do just to wind me up. When I do it then they should just get over it. We are, all of us, hypocrites who want forgiveness for our wrongs and yet are so unwilling to forgive in return.

 

Closer to home (or church), we have a meeting and we argue for a certain view or outlook without recognising that God in His sovereignty rules over all and that getting our way is not the end of all things – loving one another is.

 

I am at war within me; my own passions fight with one another and with the desire I may have to be godly. I want what I want and if this means that you don’t get what you want then that is fine by me. Let us ask ourselves if that is what the fruit of the Spirit looks like.

 

At the beginning of verse 2 we get an interesting turn of phrase - You desire but do not have, so you kill. Does this mean that there were actual murders within the church? I am not sure – I don’t think so – rather I think James is applying the principle Jesus taught at the Sermon on the Mount: if we are angry with anyone then we have murdered them in our hearts. Indeed, we know the truth of all terrible actions is found not in the initial deed but the thought process that led up to the deed. It was after the Nazis had started to think of Jews and others as rats that it became easier to exterminate them; after all they were vermin.

 

Murder and covetousness are linked together and paralleled by James: You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.

 

Is this not always the way? We have all been taught well in church, but too commonly when we start to speak or argue with one another, it is usually the world’s way of thinking that we bring to the table. Once we have accepted the way the world works applies to the way in which the church functions, then what I want becomes the dominant thought and as I am not going to get my own way I will take my bat and ball away.

 

So many people swap churches because of perceived sleights from leaders or other members; so many of us are unwilling to sort these minor issues out when they are still small because we would rather hold on to our ‘un’righteous anger.

 

There are very real practical implications of our fights and quarrels. Do we not see the logic that if we want to retain our covetousness and our passions then we cannot on the other hand invite people to accept the Lord Jesus as the one who changes lives? If our lives have not been changed we are proclaiming a lie and people see that for the hypocrisy it is.

 

Here is the answer to such ways of thinking and acting: On the night before Jesus was crucified he gave a new commandment – ‘That we love one another as He (Jesus) himself has loved us’. If we are truly a people who desire to live lives that please and glorify Jesus then we will lay aside our quarrelsomeness and ask forgiveness of one another and in this way we will show ourselves truly to be his disciples.

 

There is a second ‘ness’ that is a problem.

 

 

Prayerlessness

You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

 

I once heard someone described as getting all his begs into one ask-it! When is prayer – prayer? Certainly not when it is there simply to feather our own nests! We all remember reading the story of the two men at the temple praying – one, the Pharisee, stood at the front and prayed about himself, the other, the tax collector, stood at the back and begged for forgiveness as the sinner.

 

The church was and is a strange hybrid of people who are both saved and yet under reconstruction – we call this process sanctification. Whilst this state of affairs exists, we will all be tainted by our own desires as we try to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

 

It takes time for our thought processes and inner desires to align with Gods. Indeed, the likelihood is that we will often be praying for things that we personally may not agree with simply because they align with God’s own desires.

 

When we pray it will often start with a list of generalisms and then we ask for members of our own families and perhaps now and again church leaders and so on and we are less than surprised when our prayers are not answered. We pray because we have been taught to pray and yet our thoughts are not yet aligned with God’s thoughts. This is why so often we use patterns and models. We use the Lord’s prayer as a pattern in such a way and at other times we model certain Psalms. These are all good things, but we still will often find that there is little emotion or even desire involved and so we give up praying altogether.

 

James even has an answer to our prayerlessness - You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

 

We pray for our own benefit and really should not be surprised when such prayers are not answered and the heavens are as brass. As parents we are not about to give our children what they want just because they ask for it or when they stamp their feet, cry and paddy about it. In the same way, God is not beholden to His naughty children.

 

Prayer is not primarily an emotional response to life’s circumstances – that is not to say that our emotions do not play a part. Prayer is primarily an act of the will and the content and desires contained in our prayers is also an act of the will. We cannot pray for my will to be done just after we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer asking for His will to be done!

 

There is a song, I think originally written by Janis Joplin, that goes something like this:

 

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.

Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,

So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

 

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a colour TV?

Dialling For Dollars is trying to find me.

I wait for delivery each day until three,

So oh Lord, won't you buy me a colour TV?

 

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?

I'm counting on you, Lord, please don't let me down.

Prove that you love me and buy the next round,

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?

 

Everybody!

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,

Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,

So oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

 

That's it!

 

So what is the counter to prayerlessness? James clearly tells us that our motives matter. We are not to be a people who pray for our own good, but for the good of others. We are called to be a people who both do good and pray good! This is not to say we don’t pray for our families, rather we are not to pray only for our families. We are to pray for our leadership and then to act for the good of that leadership. We are to pray for one another and then do good to one another. We are to pray for our politicians and then be good citizens. We are to pray that God’s kingdom will come and then act in such a way that that kingdom will come.

 

There is though a third ‘ness’ that lies at the heart of the problem.

 

Worldliness

4 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. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” q

 

James is never one to beat around the bush. He is not the Pastor who is afraid to tell it as it is just because those who hear the message might get upset. Can any of us imagine anyone standing up and telling us things quite so bluntly? He speaks plainly and we should not find it difficult to understand what he is teaching us.

 

What is adultery? We all know it when we see it or hear of it don’t we?

 

One dictionary describes adultery as ‘Consensual sexual intercourse between a married person and a person other than the spouse’. Adultery therefore, involves the giving or taking that which is not ours to give or take. As a married man it is adultery when I have sex with a woman who is not my wife – simple. I have given to another that which wholly belongs to my wife.

 

However, we know that Jesus taught that like murder, adultery does not truly occur at the act rather when my own desires give thought to the act.

 

So James is telling his readers that they are giving to someone else the love and devotion that belongs to God and God alone.

 

Who was this rival lover? It was the world. These people were more in love with their world than they were with God!

 

There is offence intended to be given here: this is like a slap to the face. You are behaving like adulterers. We belong to God and God alone and yet we are playing footloose with the world. So what does James mean by ‘the world’?

 

Clearly, he does not mean the globe on which we stand and which we share. The world is the term the Bible uses for the mind-set that ignores God’s claim on lives. All mankind owes to God its very existence and yet the vast majority of men and women live their lives indifferent to the claims God makes on them. Furthermore, men and women actively live in direct opposition to the righteous demands God makes on them.

 

The ‘world’ is James’s term for life that is lived as if this present world were all that there is. It is life that is lived without regard to God. It is life that is lived according to the values, desires and aspirations of this temporal realm. What is worldliness? It is thinking like the world, talking like the world, acting like the world, and dressing like the world. The warning is clear from James: friendship with the world is to make God our enemy. He will not share our affections with another.

 

Verses 5 and 6 are a little hard to understand, but I think that here we have something of the tender heartbeat of God. God’s desire is for our affections to be solely towards Himself, for in being wholly devoted to Him we find our greatest joy. So God yearns jealously for the spirit He has caused to indwell us, and it is this same Spirit who enables us to turn towards God even in the midst of the passions that are at war within us. We are not on our own in our troubles and turmoils. James is not telling his readers to pull themselves together, but that God Himself is with them in their struggles to become holy as we live our lives, for this same God gives us more grace to overcome this sick world’s way of thinking and working.

 

 

Conclusion

What is practically to be done? 7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. The call in verse 7 is a military term – God is our Commander and it is the duty of a soldier to obey his/her commanding officer. This means that it doesn’t much matter whether we like what the commander requires; rather we are to align ourselves with his will. Secondly, we are to actively participate in resisting the Devil – we are to resist him completely with every fibre of our being. As soldiers we stand at the frontline and take a stand.

 

James then uses ceremonial language:

8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. [2]

 

This time we are taken to the temple (e.g. Ex 19:22) and the requirement for priests to be clean before they enter God’s presence. God’s invitation is for us to enter into His presence and as we do then He will also draw near to us. God responds to faith – even just a little bit of faith – just enough trust that what God says will be enough.

 

When we want to draw near to God what are we expected to be like – clean! The priests used to undergo ceremonial washing and in a sense so are we. We are to spiritually wash our hands – to repent of our attitudes and actions and to be in fellowship with one another. We must cease being double-minded. We cannot speak one way and then live another. Let us be a people who are consistent to the glory of God.

 

Finally, James calls the reader to mourn for their sin. Sin is not funny. Being out of fellowship with a bother or sister is not something to joke over and if we are, then James has already told us that my internal passions are the problem.

 

But God is faithful and rich in mercy and when we do humble ourselves then God will turn to us in grace and mercy. He is a loving Father whose greatest desire is for His children to be like Him – we are to grow in Christlikeness. His Spirit lives in us to that end and we are a people called to fully cooperate with the same Spirit as he changes us from one what we are to what, in Christ, we will become.

 


[1] The New International Version. 2011 (Jas 4:1–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. 2011 (Jas 4:1–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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