I’ve always held to the “you-can-catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-with-vinegar” philosophy. When I spoke with church members needing correction, I usually did it with gentle, kind words. James, on the other hand, went heavy on the vinegar. But he ends this scorching segment with unexpected, sweet grace.
New Testament letters are occasional documents—most topics occasioned by issues in the recipient church. Because so much verbal violence is raging in the churches of these dispersed Jewish Christians, James can’t band-aide their conflict; he has to shovel to the cause and root it out. Hence he starts with questions . . .
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? (4:1, NIV).
The root cause of their rage is no mere difference of opinion. They’ve each got a desires-war within. The Greek word translated “desires” is haydomay)— “lusts”, used of natural, uncontrolled appetites. Their fallen nature’s desire for self-gratification wars against their new-birth desire for righteous living. Hence they are fiercely frustrated . . .
You 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. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:2,3, NIV).
Hard to imagine they were actually murdering one another. Either James is using “kill” in the sense Jesus did for “anger” (“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment”—Matthew 5:21,22), or he means (as the TEV translates) “ready to kill.” Either way, they’re coveting what belongs to a brother and, unable to get it, frustration erupts in verbal war.
Can church members really behave like this? After a lifetime of pastoring—yes. My situation was never this bad. But even when hostility between groups of members simmered beneath the surface, it was dreadful.
James prescribes prayer . . .
“You do not have because you do not ask God for it.”
We shouldn’t miss the import of James’ diagnosis. Jesus promised:
“As bad as you are,
you know how to give good things to your children.
How much more, then, will your Father in heaven
give good things to those who ask him!”
(Matthew 7:11, TEV).
And the psalmist taught:
“Seek your happiness in the Lord,
and he will give you your heart’s desire”
We’re to see our Father as our source of satisfaction and ask him for our heart’s desire. Then rest in his answer, whatever it is, as good. The alternative (to try to grab for ourselves, especially at others’ expense) leads only to fights and frustration.
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:3b, NIV).
Motives matter. Why didn’t they receive when they did ask God? Because their passion in prayer was only their own desires. “Pleasures” translates the Greek haydonays–used of indulgence or lack of control of natural appetites. “Lusts” or “lustful pleasures” would be a good translation.
Jesus used”spend” (Greek, dapanaysata) of the prodigal son who “squandered his property in wasteful living” and “spent everything” (Luke 15:13,14). So we might translate: “that you may waste all you get on your pleasures.”
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. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? (4:4,5, NIV)
“You adulterous people”. No address could shock these Jewish Christians more. Their prophets used it often of Israel’s shameful unfaithfulness to God . . .
Oh, that I had in the desert a lodging place for travelers,
so that I might leave my people and go away from them;
for they are all adulterers, a crowd of unfaithful people.
Then in the nations where they have been carried captive,
those who escape will remember me–
how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts,
which have turned away from me,
and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols.
They will loathe themselves for the evil they have done
and for all their detestable practices.
What does James mean by “the world” that friendship with it is “hatred (hostility, animosity) toward God”? The “world” (Greek kosmos) is all of humanity alienated from God and hostile to Christ. To be on friendly terms, then, with humanity that opposes God in Christ, is to identify yourself as one with God’s enemy.
The church in which I grew up often identified “worldliness” with outward things—girls wearing short skirts, movie-going, dancing, etc. Rarely was coveting “stuff” for yourself mentioned. But the “unmentionables” are usually more insidious.
Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?
A notoriously-difficult question to translate from the Greek. Is “spirit” the Holy Spirit who is jealous for us? Or is it our spirit that envies what others have. I lean toward the latter, but will just leave it there to move on to unexpected, sweet grace.
I’m surprised at James. For five verses James has excoriated us. Had I been one of those church members I’d feel mentally skinned alive. He’s called us adulterers, God-haters, selfish and greedy pray-ers, friends of this fallen world. I’m no better than the pervert who runs to a prostitute. No more righteous than the evangelist who begs poor widows to give another offering so he can buy a new jet. Instead of loving my brother, I’m angry enough to kill him.
But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6).
This “But” is a stream of cold water in a desert. ” . . . he gives more grace.” God’s grace (his “generous, active, effective help far beyond anything we deserve or have right to expect”–Adamson, The Epistle of James) is greater than sin in me. By it God saves me from my adultery, my God-enmity, my selfish and greedy praying, my cozying-up to this fallen world.
Not, however, if I proudly refuse to lower myself and admit my sin. Then God will surely set himself against me.
But if I humble myself and confess my sins, God will give grace greater than my adultery, greater than my God-enmity, greater than my selfish and greedy praying, greater than my corrupting friendship with this world. This is Gospel: simply a humble confession from my heart that signals my desire to turn from sin is enough for God to pour in his always-greater grace.