This chapter seems to make a break with chapter three, but it does not introduce a new subject. Rather, by bringing up the problem of quarrels and fights among the members of the churches, James is stressing the need for wise people – that is, for peacemakers. We can put these two questions together:
4:1 – “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” (ESV)
3:13 – “Who is wise and understanding among you?”
There was a need in these churches of the diaspora for people of wisdom who could bring an end to the quarreling and fighting among the Christians.
What were the community problems that James mentioned here in chapter 4? The people were fighting with one another; James even mentions that they were killing one another. Should we interpret this as literal murder taking place in the church? Remember that the Jewish Zealot movement was very active at this time, so their fighting could have resulted in death. But it could also mean that their fighting sometimes became violent and caused injuries.
In other passages, James talks about how we “murder” people with our tongues. The actual meaning is not clear, but it is obvious that James was greatly upset by the selfishness and bitterness among Christians who were causing strife.
“Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Is it not precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves?” (4:1 NJB) The people were lusting for things and could not satisfy their ungodly desires. Rather than repenting and solving the problem of lust – in this situation, lust for material things, lust for power and control – they took out their frustration by fighting among themselves. Frustrated desire breeds intense strife in community.
An important question is, what were they actually asking for? We do not have the answer. What we do know is that James was pleading with them to ask for God’s wisdom. James 1:5 – “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” It is clear from the context in chapter 4 that the Christians there were very secular in their thinking and lifestyles. They may have been praying for wisdom, but they were not asking in the right way. James 4:3 – “When you do pray and do not receive, it is because you prayed wrongly, wanting to indulge your own passions.” (NJB) If they were asking for material things, they did not receive them because they wanted to indulge their pleasures. If they were asking for wisdom and did not receive, it was because they were seeking for recognition as leaders, or for special positions within the church. God searches our hearts and knows our motives, even when we pray.
James forces us to ask ourselves a key question: Will we be friends with God? Or friends with the world? He reminds us that God is a jealous God (4:5), and the Spirit, who dwells in us, guards God’s jealousy and will not allow us to compromise with the world. James must have shocked his readers with his words in James 4:4. Throughout the letter, James has referred to the people as “my brothers,” or “my beloved.” Now he calls them “adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” The form of the noun is feminine. He is speaking to his people as the bride of Christ, similar to the way Hosea spoke of God’s people. Why was the bride of Christ loving the anti-God world? James calls this committing spiritual adultery.
What were some of the reasons James spoke such shocking words to them? Looking back over the earlier chapters of James, we can see the reasons.
- 2:1-13 – They were imitating the world by their prejudices against one another, creating a gap between the rich and the poor.
- 3:1-12 – They were speaking negatively about one another.
- 3:13-18 – They had bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.
- 4:1-3 – They were pursuing their own destructive pleasures.
The crisis this creates is that they were becoming enemies of God. Even more dangerous was the fact that God was becoming their enemy!
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught that the root of sin is pride, and that the greatest pride is spiritual pride: man refusing to admit that he is a sinner.
James says, in 4:6, that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (ESV)
Pride and selfish ambition was the mark of the churches that received James’ letter. They were in danger of having to do battle with God. Have you ever found yourself opposed by God because of your pride? This passage in James became very meaningful for me at one of the turning points of my ministry as a missionary. I share it only because it showed me clearly that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
A Personal Experience
It happened in the early 1970’s, when my wife and I realized that we were not bearing fruit in our ministry; we seemed to “have the form but not the essence” of life in Christ. We knew there must be something more. We took a sabbatical in Atlanta, Georgia, and I began graduate study in the Atlanta Theological Consortium, with joint courses at Columbia Theological Seminary, Emory University, and Atlanta University’s Martin Luther King Center. But I still could not find what I was searching for, even in that wonderful academic community.
We joined a small prayer group of mathematics graduate students at Emory University, and they introduced us to the baptism with the Holy Spirit. I was well aware that I had already been baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13.) They all agreed with us, but introduced us to the “other baptism” – not the baptism that the Spirit gives, but the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” that Jesus Himself gives, as He promised in Acts 1:5 – “You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” The Holy Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ at our conversion; but Christ baptizes us with the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can be His witnesses. (Acts 1:8) The Spirit who lives in us comes upon us with power.
We finally realized what we were searching for! As I was praying, I suddenly felt that the Lord was leading me to James chapter 4. I began to read in my NASB Bible . . . “You adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? . . . God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble . . . cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep: let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (4:4, 6, 8-10)
I was looking for an experience where I would be overwhelmed with joy. I was indeed overcome with joy, but only after I was overwhelmed by my own sense of pride. I was a man of deep pride; I lacked humility. I was just like the Christians who first read James’ letter. I was looking for power in ministry, and for the sense of overflowing joy that I thought would come when I began to minister in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I could see myself as a spiritual leader, but God saw me in a different way, because He knew that I was still loving the world at the same time as I was loving Him.
My wife and I are both thankful that it took a long time for us to be able to receive the gift that Jesus freely gives. The long days of waiting, the deep times of repentance, were very precious to us as a couple. Daily dying to the world and to my great self-centered plans, of repenting of my pride, of looking only to Jesus and not just to the gifts that He gives, of realizing that the Holy Spirit only fills empty vessels – this was all necessary in order for me to become a friend of God, and not His enemy.
After many months of seeking and praying, Jesus came and baptized us both with His Holy Spirit. The greatest sign that came to me was my weakness and emptiness, because the Holy Spirit took away my human strength. I realized that I had nothing to give to the world, or to the students to whom I ministered. But in my weakness, I was overwhelmed with the awareness that the Spirit of God had been waiting for me to become broken so that He could fill me with God’s absolute, unconditional, eternal love; and with His strength that is made perfect in our weakness.
I continue to battle with pride; and have discovered that my pride is what causes the greatest sorrow to the Lord. I can no longer read the Letter of James in an academic way. It is God’s Word to me, and my desire is to give myself completely to God in His Word, to submit to God’s Word so that God may rule over me in every way.
The good news is that if we turn away from pride and return in humility to the Lord to be healed, the Lord will welcome us back as His sons and daughters who have turned from their wicked ways, and restore us to fellowship with Him and with other Christians.
James concludes this section with a reminder that humility is our strongest weapon against Satan. When humility is the mark of a community, Christians no longer judge one another; our tongues have been brought under control, and we no longer speak evil of one another.
Humility also delivers us from presumptuous sins, from depending on ourselves and making plans for our lives independently of God. We are no longer in control of our lives; we cannot boast in our pride and arrogance. We cannot even make human plans that exclude God, because we “do not know what will happen tomorrow.” (4:14) We desire to die to our own wills so that God’s will may be done.
Questions to consider:
- Have you experienced praying for something and not being able to receive an answer? Has God ever caused you to realize that you were praying for the wrong reasons? How has this affected your prayer life?
- How have you solved the problem in your own life of the conflict between loving the world and loving God?
- How would you define pride? Humility? How have you dealt with the problem of pride in your life?