IV. Hostility or Humility (James 4:1-17)


IV. Hostility or Humility (4:1-17)

4:1 You can’t have peace if you’re constantly at war (3:18). According to James, his readers engaged in fights among themselves. What caused them? What was the source? Ask people why they’re fighting, and they’re likely to point their fingers at others. But James insists that wars come from your passions that wage war within you. Conflicts emerge from within.

4:2-3 The human heart manufactures desires, frequently selfish ones. These can range from the mundane (“I want a little peace and quiet”) to the weighty (“I want power and significance”). When someone prevents you from satisfying a desire, you are tempted to view that person as an obstacle to be overcome, as an enemy to be defeated. Therefore, the natural tendency is to murder and covet. It’s not necessarily that you intend to slay anyone physically. Jesus, after all, reminds us that murder begins in the heart with hatred (Matt 5:21-26). Thus, the believers James addressed were relating to one another as adversaries.

Importantly, James says one of the reasons they did not have what they wanted was because they didn’t ask (4:2). How tragic to declare war against a friend or spouse about something that God may have granted if only asked! On the other hand, often it’s the asking that’s the problem. Many people don’t receive what they want from God because they ask with wrong motives, so they may spend it on their pleasures (4:3). The kingdom of God and the needs of others don’t factor into the equation. A helpful question to pose when we pray about something for ourselves is this: “How will God’s program be advanced through the granting of my request?”

4:4 When we want the satisfaction of our own desires above all else, we commit idolatry and worship something other than God. Worldliness and godliness cannot coexist. When Israel strayed after other gods, the Lord accused them of adultery because he was Israel’s husband (e.g., Jer 3:8). Therefore, it’s not surprising that James calls these church members adulterous people. The church is the bride of Christ (see Eph 5:22-33). So friendship with the world is hostility toward God. If you cozy up to the world and pursue worldly desires, you make yourself the enemy of God. And when you put yourself in that position, you cannot expect your prayers to be answered.

4:5-6 God wants you. If you commit adultery with the world, then, he won’t sit back and do nothing. The Holy Spirit who dwells in us envies intensely (4:5). The Lord is a jealous God (Exod 34:14) who won’t share his bride with false gods. So, what does a holy, jealous God do when his people foolishly pursue the world and treat him like an enemy? Well, God resists the proud (4:6).

If you place yourself in opposition to God through your attachment to the world, he’ll resist you. He’ll oppose you because such pride imitates the king of pride, Satan, who exalted himself above God (see Isa 14:12-14). The only solution is to humble yourself before him in order to experience the outpouring of his grace (4:6). Pride is like a beard. It grows without our cultivation, and we have to daily, humbly shave it off.

4:7-10 What does it look like to daily humble yourself before the Lord? First, you must submit to God and draw near to him (4:7-8). To submit to God is to recognize your weakness, to stop fighting, and to surrender to him as your ultimate and final authority (see Rom 12:1-2). If you had the power to live a transformed life on your own, you wouldn’t need “greater grace” (4:6). To draw near to God is to come into his presence with prayer, praise, and obedience. However, if you reserve this for Sundays only, you won’t draw near enough.

Second, you must resist the devil (4:7). Submitting to God is one side of the coin; resisting the devil is the other. In the spiritual war, we must surrender to the true King and join in opposition to the wicked usurper. Don’t underestimate Satan. He’s stronger than you, smarter than you, and has been practicing his craft for millennia. There’s only one way to resist him: the same way the King of kings resisted him—by wielding Scripture (see Matt 4:1-11). When the devil whispers his lies to your conscience, proclaim the truth of the Word of God, and he will flee from you (Jas 4:7) as he fled from Christ (Matt 4:11). But you can’t proclaim what you don’t know.

Third, regularly repent of your sin: cleanse your hands and purify your hearts (4:8). Some people don’t receive the help they need from God because they “don’t sin.” Rather, they “make mistakes.” But Jesus didn’t die for mistakes; he died for sins. We live in a culture that rejects personal responsibility and downplays sin. Those are symptoms of pride, which takes us right back to where James started (4:6) and where he ends: humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (4:10). Admit your sin and eradicate pride. Riding God’s elevator to the top always starts with a trip down.

4:11-12 In these verses, James gives an illustration of what humility requires. It demands a change in how you speak of others. Don’t criticize. Don’t speak about a fellow believer with the intent of doing harm rather than providing help. The one who defames and judges a brother or sister defames and judges the law (4:11). How? Jesus said the great commandments are love God and love your neighbor as yourself (see Mark 12:28-31). So if you judge your neighbor, you’re judging the law that commands us to love others. You’re saying to God, “I refuse to do that.” But there is one lawgiver and judge, and you’re not him! The Lord is the one who will pass judgment at the appropriate time. So who are you to judge your neighbor? (4:12). As the saying goes, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That brother you criticize could have been you. As God has shown you grace and mercy, practice grace and mercy.

4:13 God hates pride; therefore, James continues to confront his readers’ arrogance. If spoken in modern English the phrase Come now would be “You’ve got to be kidding me.” These believers had plans for the future and had sketched in the details fairly specifically. They had a timetable (today or tomorrow), a location (such and such a city), a schedule (a year), a plan (do business), and a determined conclusion (make a profit).

4:14 Let’s be clear: God is not against making plans. But it’s one thing for a believer to make plans and another to think himself sovereign over them. After all, you do not know what tomorrow will bring. These people didn’t allow for contingencies. They were definitive, had an air of self-sufficiency. But life has too many variables for you to guarantee your tomorrow. God’s kingdom agenda is assured because he’s an omniscient (all knowing) and omnipotent (all powerful) eternal King. Your agenda is uncertain at best. You’re like vapor that vanishes. Here for a moment and then gone.

4:15-17 You must acknowledge that your plans fall within a larger, controlling reality: the will of God (4:15). So make your plans (see Prov 16:9), but then submit them to the Lord for approval. God is excellent at interrupting plans. To do something “if the Lord wills” is not a pious phrase but a philosophy of life. Jesus’s “food” was doing the will of his Father (John 4:34), so put it on your menu. To accomplish his will in your life, God will interrupt your program. Will you humble yourself and accept it? Or will you boast in your arrogance about your future? (4:16-17).