[Adapted from A Walk Thru the Book of James: Faith that Endures, a small group study guide from Walk Thru the Bible and Baker Books. This small group study and others can be found at www.walkthruguides.org.]
The church was in turmoil, but that's often the case when the budget is tight and factions have developed. Everyone has an agenda, usually tied to pet programs and ministries. Competing priorities make everything an issue: the building project, the style of music, the youth ministry, the missions budget, the education curriculum, the sound system, the amount of parking, the community outreach, the fellowship dinners, the quality of leadership, the recreation outlets, and even the color of the carpet. All can be justified as a spiritual necessity in the minds of various advocates, and most can be minimized as non-essential in the minds of opponents. Even in the setting of the fellowship of believers, "spiritual" can turn to "selfish" in a heartbeat. Why? Because the peace of the Spirit is usually farther down on our agenda than getting what we want.
If that can be true in churches, it's even more evident in other areas of life where grace isn't the official climate. Competitiveness is an admired quality in much of society—sports, politics, the marketplace, the workplace, academia, and more—so it's easy for us to absorb a competitive culture. But in all honesty, scripture doesn't condone striving for what we want at the expense of others. It urges submission to God and humble dependence on his provision. There's nothing selfish about that.
That doesn't mean our desires are irrelevant or even bad. Many of them have been placed within us by God himself. But when those desires become the source of discord, something's wrong. Our motives are exposed, and they aren't always selfless.
As Christians, why do we do the things we do—even when those things are good? Do we attempt to be pure and to love our neighbor as ourselves because we know that's what God commands and, as a result, find ourselves mechanically obedient while harboring deeper desires for the things of this world? It's important to dig deep and examine our motives for what we say and do. Often, we find a lot of "self" in the way we relate to others and even in how we try to serve God.
James 4:1-10 asks what causes fights and quarrels among his readers specifically, knowing already the general root of conflict among human beings. They come from cravings, wants, desires—a word from which we get "hedonism." Unfulfilled desire, says James, comes from either not asking God for what we need or asking with wrong motives, and it results in conflict both within ourselves and with others.
The motives behind many of our desires, James implies, is friendship with the world. And that isn't as innocent as it sounds; friendship with the world is enmity with God. We choose either to seek his character, ways, and blessings or the world's character, ways, and blessings, but we can't seek both. And the reason it's an either/or proposition is that the Spirit within us is jealous for our exclusive affection (see Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24, for example). Therefore, in all humility, we are to submit to God—to make ourselves low and line up under him, just as a soldier lines up under his superior's authority—and resist the devil.
James 4:7-10 functions essentially as a recipe for repentance and victory over sin. James gives numerous direct instructions: submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, have clean hands (behavior) and clean hearts (motives), grieve your condition, and humble yourself. And as much as we depend on God to work his will into us, these things are presented as our responsibility. We don't wait for God to humble us; we humble ourselves. We don't wait for a heart that grieves our own fallen nature, we choose to grieve because we already recognize the futility of that nature.
Those are hard and not very encouraging words, but the intent is not to crush us. It's to bring us into alignment with the heart of God and put us in a position from which he can lift us up. This counter-intuitive path that seems so self-defeating is actually the way to great victory. Submitting and drawing near to God is like rolling out a welcome mat for him to intervene in our lives. Resisting the enemy actually causes the enemy to flee. Clean hands and hearts are readily usable by God. Mourning, as a famous beatitude reminds us, allows us to experience God's comfort (Matthew 5:4). And humility results in being lifted up by God, which is much more powerful than trying to lift up ourselves. James' prescription, though apparently gloomy, actually ends in profound joy.
James wrote some harsh words to his readers, but something had to jolt them out of a self-centered way of life. Maybe those words can be just as effective to a church in the midst of a self-centered culture today. When we encounter futility and strife—whether at church, at work, or in any other area of life—the way out is radical humility. And the results of radical humility are the presence of God, the absence of the enemy, and a very high position for those who have made themselves low.
Adapted from A Walk Thru the Book of James: Faith that Endures, a small group study guide from Walk Thru the Bible and Baker Books. This small group study and others can be found at http://www.walkthru.org.