Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?
2 You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.
3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.
4 Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
5 Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously “?
6 But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.”
7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
9 Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.
10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
James 4 continues on in the line of logic from distinguishing false wisdom from true wisdom going back to James 3:13 and following. Much of what James says towards the selfishness on display in verses 1-4 is still in sync with James 3:14-16:
14 But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. 16 For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.
We have to wonder in James’ questioning in v. 1 if he is asking them a rhetorical question to which they are already informed or whether he is probing an area of blindness. The connection between 3:13-18 and 4:1-10 may be this: wisdom is manifested in humility (4:6-10) and foolishness is manifested in selfish pride and the behaviors that come from that (4:1-5).
Let’s first consider the negative manifestation of selish pride as a sign of foolishness:
Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. 4 Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously “?
Fools are potentially aware of information but fail to put it into practice. Fools act in both arrogance and ignorance. When Christians should be foolish, they choose to submit to the old idols of their hearts rather than the God who has saved them. Make no doubt about it, this is the wrestling match of the Christian life (consider Romans 7:14-25): choosing every day and every moment whom we will serve.
James says that fights are the result of deep desires. Interestingly, the Greek word for “pleasure” in v. 1 is hedonon from which we derive the words “hedonism” or “hedonistic”: pleasure-seeking and pleasure-driven self-indulgence. Furthermore, at heart the act of hedonism comes from pleasure-worshipping.
Whenever we take a good thing (such as pleasure) and make it an ultimate thing, we have displaced God and erected an idol to worship. Pleasure, comfort, control, power, love, security, etc. are all emotional states that often determine how we relate to others, to money, to material goods, to work, and to God for starters. Think about this: in addictive behaviors, the addict is not actually seeking the substance nearly as much as they are seeking the emotional state that that substance has taken them to. Aside from addictions, all sin functions on the same premise of temporary emotional states in exchange for a compromise in morality and ultimately in obedience to God.
Total deprativity is the doctrine that we are tainted in all parts of who we are: intellect, emotion and will. Not that we’re as bad as we can be, but that all parts of us bear the stain of sin.Heart idolatry will shape your dreams and desires, prayer requests, what a “good day” means to you as well as what a “bad day” means, and that’s just a handful of the ways it affects you or me. The reason not everyone is affected the same way by similar situations is in part because of idolatry; if I worship something and everything frustrates that (I want to be happy), I will have a bad day. If you should have a similar day but aren’t driven by happiness, you may not be as affected by it as I was.
When James says the people are warring, fighting, murdering, etc., notice that he ties it all to both having desires and those desires going unmet. As an alternative to asking God for things (needs/wants), they take matters into their own hands and sin to achieve their desired ends. They compromise. When they do ask God, they ask for the wrong reasons, to appease those idols that they worship which would be to their detriment: they are seeking to fulfill their pleasure. A good understanding of the nature of God should remind us that God is in the business of removing idols, not appeasing them; therefore, He allows His children at times to suffer frustration as a result of their unmitigated greed. God is jealous for His children and is more invested in where He is taking them than what they want along the way. The issue of adulterers and adultresses is found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament in that when people give away their loyalty and hearts to anything other than God (often false gods), He often reminds them both of their adultery and His holy jealousy for their worship.
Secondly, let’s consider wisdom as it is manifested in humility and I think you will see that in the passage:
6 But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
God gives grace; grace to live without our desires being met, grace to endure when life is hard, grace to meet what we truly need. Contextually, He gives grace in response to humility. He stands against pride; He does not reward pride nor does He serve to enable it. I am reminded very much that when anyone starts approaching God more as a dispenser of desires than our Master and Lord, we run the risk of assuming mastery over God. Prayer was never meant to be a dictation of our wants and desires that put God in a bind to perform in response to what we want; far more, it pulls us into alignment with His plans rather than calling Him to submit to ours. Humility is prerequisite in a meaningful prayer life.
James further identifies some of the necessary elements of humble repentance: drawing near to God, cleansing hands and purifying hearts (repenting of sin both in heart and behavior). Purifying the hearts of the double-minded means clearing up the wishy-washy division of direction and aligning one’s self to God’s desires. “Choose whom you will serve,” says Joshua in Joshua 24:15. Furthermore, lament (be distressed) and mourn (sorrow over your condition) and weep (cry)–these are all signs of conviction and repentance. They are the physical alterations that take place when someone really feels sorrow and grief.
James makes it clear that laughter and joy are not always appropriate, nor are they always the goal. Laughter, joy and pleasure all stand as witnesses against those who should not be so! There are times when people live in sin and it would be better for them to be overcome with feelings of conviction because their state of happiness comes from arrogance, not humility. Humility before the Lord leads to God’s exaltation of us rather than our own manufactured exaltation. There’s nothing better for the soul than being in sync with God.
As I’ve tried to “state my case,” I believe this passage is referring to wisdom as displayed in humility versus foolishness as displayed in selfish pride. It is good for us to be humble before God, to feel conviction that sometimes overwhelms us for our sin and carelessness, and it is good for us to wait on the Lord when we are in such a state of brokenness. It is not good for us to be held in the clutches of our sin and idolatry, living lives full of selfishness and insensitivity, but it happens quite easily and is a daily battle.
One of the simplest questions we can ask ourselves as a result of reading this passage is, “Why do I do what I do?” We might also ask, “Who am I living for?” It is a call for deep self-examination, for if we are in a broken, sinful condition, hopefully God will help us to see it that we might be convicted and repent. That would be mercy and mercy is what we need. One of the greatest kindnesses of God is to show us places where we’ve had “blind spots,” to move us to see it and feel it, to sense conviction but then to move us into humbling ourselves before Him. Awareness of our condition is a sign of God’s mercy. Awareness that we cannot fix this condition but that it’s only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is mercy and grace. Humbling ourselves before God and casting ourselves at His mercy only to find grace? That’s the heart of the Gospel. We’re not done learning the intricacies of this Gospel, no matter how long we’ve been saved, you know?
Thank you for your time and may God bless you as you ponder His word today.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.