When I was growing up, World Championship Wrestling was popular among us boys. Our heroes were Andre the Giant or Hulk Hogan.
It used to be great fun watching them on TV. Or else, imitating their moves on each other. Practicing a knee drop, or a coat hanger or a choke hold. It was all fun because we knew there was a fair bit of THEATRE in it. Of acting and entertainment. It wasn’t that DANGEROUS.
I wouldn’t go so far to say it was FAKE. But there was certainly A ROUGH SCRIPT the wrestlers followed.
These days, wrestling is STILL popular. But there’s a new kind of FIGHT that’s attracting attention. It’s ULTIMATE fighting, or mixed martial arts. This is basically no gloves, no rules, no holds barred. A combination of boxing, wrestling, jui jitsu and anything else you like. Fighters regularly break noses, bleed freely, dislocate joints. And fights often end with one contestant choking the other until he loses consciousness.
It’s brutal and violent.
And as James thinks about the arguments and disagreements within THE CHURCH, he describes them more like Ultimate Fighting, rather than World Championship Wrestling.
We might think the odd disagreement or impatient word within the church ISN’T THAT BAD. That no one’s really getting hurt. More World Championship Wrestling than Ultimate Fighting. But James calls it for what it really is. Brutal, destructive, worldly, slanderous, envious, judgemental, bitter MURDER.
He’s just finished chapter 3 talking about PEACE. About how wisdom from heaven produces a whole lot of fruit. It’s pure and peace-loving and considerate and submissive and merciful, impartial and sincere. Wisdom like that results in people who MAKE peace. People who produce A HARVEST OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.
That’s what churches SHOULD be like.
But instead, straight away James launches in to what they’re OFTEN LIKE INSTEAD. V1 he identifies the problem.
4:1 What causes FIGHTS AND QUARRELS among you?
There SHOULD be wisdom from HEAVEN, but instead there’s WISDOM that’s EARTHLY and DEVILISH. There SHOULD be peace, but instead there’s fights and quarrels.
And what’s depressing is that James can write this as a GENERAL COMMENT to Christian communities scattered all over the place. It’s not just for one particular group. This is relevant to ALL his readers.
We’re ALL guilty of fights and quarrels at SOME time, to a lesser or greater extent.
At the moment I’m on a presbytery visitation committee to a church in our area that’s got huge problems because of disagreements. Mature Christians who should know better speaking unwisely, jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst, making hasty impatient decisions, taking sides.
And the whole mess is tearing the congregation apart.
And James is seeing those sorts of things going on in churches ALL OVER THE PLACE.
But that’s just THE SYMPTOM. James goes on to his DIAGNOSIS. What’s CAUSING the symptom. The second part of verse 1 says
Don’t they come from your desires that BATTLE WITHIN YOU?
That’s a PLURAL “you”. Desires that battle within YOU ALL. He’s thinking about desires within an INDIVIDUAL that battle. The desire to serve OTHERS fighting the desire to serve SELF. We know what we SHOULD do, but we just don’t WANT to do that.
But it’s also the desires within TWO INDIVIDUALS battling EACH OTHER. The desires of ONE person clashing with the desires of ANOTHER person. ONE person wants to be first, but so does the OTHER one. Two people both want to be first, or best, or liked, or appreciated.
That’s what causes fights and quarrels among you.
And then he goes on to describe HOW those passions battle. V2. (I’ll just change the emphasis to help make a bit more sense of it)
2 You want something
…. but don’t get it.
and you covet,
…… but you cannot have what you want
….. You quarrel and fight.
Three steps. Repeated. It’s parallelism, like a Psalm. Two lines, both saying a similar thing. The desire comes first. Then the unsatisfied want. Then the reaction.
Someone sees something he wants, and he COVETS it. It might be possessions, it might be attention, or giftedness or popularity or friends.
Most of the time he doesn’t get what he wants. A lot of the time he wouldn’t dare TRY to get it, because it just wouldn’t be RIGHT. But the COVETING is the sin.
And then after NOT getting what he wants, the coveting SHOWS itself in some way. In feelings of wanting to see the other person HARMED or BROUGHT DOWN. Which is not much different from KILLING.
Or it shows itself in harsh words or reactions. Jealousy EXPRESSED. In quarrels and disagreements.
Or perhaps it’s NOT expressed. There’s just a growing COOLNESS to the person. You never make the first move. You always wait for THEM to initiate the conversation. You don’t mind at all if they’re not at church for a few weeks.
Which is no less sinful than if the desires and frustrations ARE expressed.
And James picks up the description again down in v11. More symptoms.
11 Brothers, do not SLANDER one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or JUDGES him speaks against the law and judges it.
In legal language slander refers to DEFAMATORY LIES. Here the word is literally do not SPEAK EVIL AGAINST one another. Which is broader than just LIES.
You might criticise or drag down a brother, and it might be TRUE, but that doesn’t make it RIGHT. And it’s no excuse for saying it. It’s not just the LIE that’s sin, but the HARMFUL INTENT of the words. The SUPERIOR JUDGMENTALISM.
True or false, speaking EVIL against a brother is to put yourself ABOVE him. To judge yourself SUPERIOR. And we’re not to DO it.
We see more of the diagnosis for the fights and quarrels back in Ch 3 v14.
14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
Can you see the same thing happening here? There’s a desire on the INSIDE. And that SHOWS ITSELF in fights. In this case it’s bitter envy and selfish ambition. Envy – same word as covet in 4:2. And it’s BITTER. Just like the bitter spring that can’t produce fresh water back in v12.
Envy is BITTER. It’s unattractive, and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s not being content with what you have, and wanting what belongs to another.
And that’s combined with SELFISH AMBITION. Which wants to see YOU lifted up at the expense of someone else. Which wants to see you BUILDING UP A SUPPORT GROUP at the expense of someone else. Dividing church down the middle. Those who SUPPORT you, and those WHO DON’T.
James says if you recognise those things in yourself, don’t BOAST about it. Don’t deny the truth. Don’t think of them as GOOD qualities. That’s something the WORLD says. Employers want people who are AMBITIOUS. Who have ASPIRATIONS. Who want to IMPROVE themselves. People who are STRONG and who STAND UP FOR THEMSELVES.
And sometimes Christians think attitudes like that are good for THEM to have.
People like that might increase a company’s PROFITS, but they won’t improve A CHURCH. V15
15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is EARTHLY, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
It’s more than just HUMAN fallenness, there’s a SATANIC element to attitudes like that. Such wisdom is FROM THE DEVIL. The devil ENCOURAGES attitudes like bitter envy and selfish ambition because they lead to such DESTRUCTIVE CHARACTERISTICS in churches. To DISORDER and EVERY EVIL PRACTICE.
So what can we do about ENVY?
At an INDIVIDUAL level, envy can be starved by contentment and thankfulness. Envy can be starved by contentment. Being SATISFIED with what you have. And THANKING GOD for it. Both those attitudes say, “God you know what you’re doing in my life. You’re giving me exactly what I need. You know what would be BAD for me to have. Thank you for giving me all these blessings. And thanks for withholding what would make me more worldly and less heavenly.”
The OTHER thing we can do to fight envy is AT A CHURCH LEVEL. I think a lot of our envy comes from unrealistic expectations. We see someone’s car, or abilities, or relationship with their spouse, or clothes. And we WANT it. But it’s only PART OF THE PICTURE. We don’t realise that there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on in people’s lives that’s NOT so attractive.
And we can HELP that misinformation by being HONEST with each other. Not necessarily sharing all our family secrets. But being OPEN about our struggles. Asking for prayer. Admitting weakness and mistakes.
And that helps us ALL not to envy the BETTER bits of each other’s lives.
And I think we’re doing that pretty well. Can I encourage you to KEEP doing that?
That’s a description of the DIAGNOSIS of the PROBLEM. Passions that work themselves out in all sorts of disorderly, bitter and disruptive ways.
The condition (4:4-5)
Next we see a description of THE CONDITION. There in v4 and 5. What’s BEHIND the diagnosis. Where those attitudes COME from. We’ve already seen it at the end of ch 3. There’s two sorts of wisdom. EARTHLY wisdom and HEAVENLY wisdom.
And James says, in Ch 4 v4, the two can’t go together.
4 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.
It’s ONE thing to be IN the world. We can’t escape the world. We have to work, and travel on trains, and buy groceries, and get our car serviced. The kids play sport, we buy new clothes, we listen to music and enjoy a restaurant meal or a holiday.
But it’s ANOTHER THING to be FRIENDS with the world. To LOVE the world at the expense of loving God.
Paul wrote to Timothy about another of his co-workers. 2 Tim 4:9-10
9 Do your best to come to me quickly, 10 for Demas , because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.
Demas, presumably, was a Christian. But he had the choice to keep supporting Paul in prison. To keep taking up his cross daily. Or instead, to take the easy way out. To love comfort and self-satisfaction and ease more than he loved obedience and sacrifice and walking as Jesus walked.
And he loved the WORLD more than he loved Christ. And that’s what James means when he says that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.
It’s desiring the things the WORLD values MORE than the things GOD values. That’s where ENVY comes from. It’s choosing STUFF over RELATIONSHIP. To COVET rather than being CONTENT. It’s choosing quarrels rather than unity. Taking sides rather than working together.
And for people who might argue that you can love BOTH. That you can have the best of both worlds. James says NO WAY. It’s nothing more than ADULTERY. It’s like the husband who has an affair. But won’t give up either. Who says he loves his wife AND his girlfriend.
But you can’t LOVE your wife, and then treat her as if she’s SECOND. LOVE means your wife comes FIRST.
And it’s the same with God. The first and most important of the ten commandments. (In fact, you can argue that all the rest are logical outworkings of the FIRST.) “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt… YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.”
If God is God then he’s NUMBER ONE. There’s no place for any other contender. James says it in the difficult v5. His Spirit ENVIES INTENSELY. Which I think means that when he puts his Spirit in us, he doesn’t like to SHARE. He doesn’t like the Spirit of the WORLD taking up space in us AS WELL. Two into ONE DOESN’T FIT.
It’s another way of saying that God’s a JEALOUS God. We sometimes confuse jealousy with envy. But they’re different. Envy is wanting something that isn’t rightfully yours. Like someone else’s car, or abilities.
But jealousy is wanting what’s RIGHTFULLY yours. Like a husband who’s JEALOUS for his wife’s attention. It’s RIGHT that he alone receives it. It’s what she PROMISED him.
Or God who’s JEALOUS for the honour of his name. It’s RIGHT that people honour it. Or jealous for the loyalty of his children. Which is what he’s jealous for here. That we’re loyal to him alone.
He’s sent Jesus to win us back. He’s paid the price of his Son. He’s chosen us. He’s forgiven us. He’s changed our status from condemned to righteous. He’s given us his Spirit. He gives us life and hope and joy. He’s promised us eternity and an inheritance.
And we want to make light of all of that. To minimise its significance. To substitute OTHER affections instead. Is it any wonder James says
4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?
The cure (6-10)
That’s the condition. And James is quick to move on to the CURE. Which is just as well, because he’s been so tough in his diagnosis people might assume there’s no hope.
V6. Yes. God is JEALOUS. He won’t put up with rivals. But… HE GIVES MORE GRACE.
How beautiful are THOSE words!? We’ve really come to the centre of the book. The hinge on which the whole thing swings. The solution to all the problems. The answer to all the questions.
You MAY love the world more than God. You may be envious and ambitious. You may find yourself cursing men straight after praising God. You may show favouritism, preferring the rich and popular to the poor and rejected. You may overlook widows and orphans, or be struggling against the pollution of the world. You may give in to temptation, and even blame God for BRINGING the temptation. You may doubt, and like a wave of the sea be being tossed all around.
Your sins and failures might be piling up to the ceiling. So high, you can’t even see the top.
But God gives MORE grace. Four simple words that cover all the rest. God gives MORE grace.
Paul puts it like this in Romans 5:20. “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Or where sin ABOUNDED, grace SUPER ABOUNDED.
Then James quotes Proverbs 3:34 is support. God gives GRACE to the HUMBLE.
And that’s the KEY to unlocking the rich storehouses of God’s grace. HUMILITY. Recognising your need. Your LACK. Your POVERTY. And TURNING TO THE ONE WHO CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. v7.
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.
Over and over. Different ways of saying the same thing. Submit yourself to God. (Recognise your sin, turn from it. And come to him in repentance). Draw near to God, and he promises to be FOUND. (He’ll never play hide and seek with the genuine God-seeker.)
Wash your hands. Purify your hearts. (Both metaphors for REPENTING. Perhaps washing hands is about repenting of ACTIONS. And purifying hearts is about repenting of MOTIVES AND ATTITUDES.)
Grieve, mourn and wail. Recognise you’re not who God wants you to be. You might be better than the next person. But you’re a long way from godly. So mourn at your sin.
Do it FOR THE FIRST TIME. If you’re not a Christian, if you’ve never turned from your rebellion and self-satisfying. Then bow the knee before God TODAY. And he promises to wash you clean because of Jesus. Humble yourself, and he promises to LIFT YOU UP.
But don’t just do it ONCE. We’re to do it again and again. To DRAW NEAR TO GOD. Using the means he’s given us. Through his Word, and through his people. And through his sacraments.
Dwell on his promises, remember his goodness, be encouraged by his faithfulness to his people, stay strong in trials, pray for grace to persevere.
Repent together. Forgive together. Pray together. Live together.
Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Humble yourself before the Lord and HE WILL LIFT YOU UP. He’ll give you hope and joy. He’ll give you peace and contentment. He’ll keep his promises, and answer your prayers. He’ll grow you into the likeness of Jesus.
He’ll give you the wisdom that comes from heaven. That’s pure and peace-loving and considerate and submissive and full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
He’ll raise in you a harvest of righteousness.
And eventually, he’ll bring you into glory. And seat you at his table. And celebrate with you and his people forever.
How could we be envious of such little things when we have such RICHES in God?! How could we be friends WITH THE WORLD, when we have A FRIEND AS GOOD as God?!