The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Applying James 4: Railing at Rebels


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This is a continuation of Applying James 3: Warnings to Teachers.

As we begin the fourth chapter of James, it becomes clear that things aren’t going well among the group of Jewish Christians that James is speaking to.

What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires. (Jam. 4:1-3)

This bit about “You do not have because you do not ask” is a favorite among those who like to yank Scriptures out of context and then throw them in God’s face as a reason for why He has to give us what we want. And yet is God really the kind of Father who won’t feed His children until they come and ask Him to do so? Not hardly.

The New Testament writers had a very weak grasp of God’s intimate involvement in our lives. The way that a man prays says volumes about his theology, and when we examine the prayers of Paul, we realize he had no faith in God’s care of him. It’s from the New Testament writers that we’ve learned this terrible habit of constantly updating God about what’s happening in our lives as if He is off in another universe ignoring us. Then we plead and beg Him for solutions which we’ve worked out using our own flawed wisdom. Well, no, this is not how God wants us to talk to Him. God is not some workaholic father who is so absorbed in his own life that he forgets we’re alive until we come tugging at his pant leg. God is intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. He is constantly providing for us, and He doesn’t require that we ask Him first. God doesn’t want us to become insecure regarding His love for us by rehearsing doubt filled prayers. Prayer is supposed to be about communing with God and inviting Him to mature us into who He wants us to be (see Why Pray?).

You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires. (Jam. 4:3)

So does this mean that every time God says “no” to your request it’s because you had rotten motivations? Not hardly. There are many times when we’re asking for things that seem very correct to us—things that should be in God’s will according to what God Himself has taught us. Yet still God turns us down. Why? Not because our motives were wrong, but because He has something better in mind for us at the moment.

Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward Yahweh? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes Yahweh’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously? But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says: “Yahweh resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (Jam. 4:4-6)

That last quotation is probably James’ summary of Proverbs 3:34:

Yahweh mocks the mockers but is gracious to the humble.

Now throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh compares idolatry to adultery in order to help us understand how much He hates it. When we lust after other things in God’s place to the point that our SOULS are turning away from Him to worship those other things, God gets furious (see Idolatry: The Problem & the Cure). This is what James accuses his audience of doing: of being so into the world, that they’re turning their backs on God. Now if this is how bad he thinks things are, it helps us understand why he’s been going on so much about the importance of good works. Yet as logical as it sounds to try and beat carnal Christians back onto the right path by guilting them into doing good works, this simply doesn’t work (see Overcoming Carnality with Guilt). The BEHAVIORS are not the problem—SOUL REBELLION is the problem. You can’t correct soul attitude by changing behaviors. In the Old Testament, Yahweh vocalizes His disgust with good deeds that are done by souls who are steeped in rebellion. We are judged by our SOULS, not our actions. James’ crowd could go from murdering to ministering, and it wouldn’t make them any more pleasing to Yahweh if their souls remained rebellious. Good deeds are worthless when our souls are defying God. When our souls are right before God, the good deeds don’t make us more pure in His sight. We are judged ONLY by our souls.

Therefore, submit to Yahweh. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to Yahweh, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you. (Jam. 4:7-10)

It is to a crowd of rebellious sinners that James fires off this volley of famous one-liners. When we examine these comments in their original context, we realize that this is simply James urging rebellious Christians towards repentance—it isn’t a stack of glorious promises that we can use to manipulate God. The reality is that Satan won’t always flee from us the moment we resist him, nor will God always draw near in some perceivable way when we’re reaching out to Him. More problems arise as James orders fallen humans to cleanse their hands and purify their hearts. We can’t do these things on our own. All we can do is repent of our rebellion, which means going from a soul attitude of “Stuff, You, God, I don’t care what You want,” to an attitude of “Pleasing You is more important to me than pleasing myself; I want You to have Your way in my life” (see What it Means to be Aligned with God).

Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you. (Jam. 4:9-10)

We need to be careful with this language. Repentance is not some long, theatrical affair. The Jews were theatrical people, and they liked to tear their clothes, wail at the top of their lungs, and throw dirt on themselves to show everyone how upset they were. God has no use for such self-exalting activities. Instead of trying to get the whole world to pay attention to you, just change your soul attitude. Repentance takes one nanosecond to do, and once we do it, God is over it. He doesn’t hold grudges, He doesn’t harp on the past. He moves forward with us. If He wants us to do something to fix some mess that we’ve made, He’ll tell us clearly. If He wants us to stay out of it and let Him deal with the mess by Himself, then He won’t tell us to get involved. James is wrong to say we can only correct rebellion with some dramatic show. Humbling ourselves before the Lord is about changing our soul attitudes, not about putting on some kind of performance. God has no use for us working up a bunch of phony tears in public just so other Christians will be impressed with how sorry we are. Rebellion is a private issue between us and God, and it should be resolved privately. While it can certainly be helpful at times to discuss our struggles with others and get help with moving on from the past, we don’t want to go around trumpeting, “Everyone look at me! I’m the terrible sinner who is humbling himself before the Lord!”

Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the Law and judges the Law. But if you judge the Law, you are not a doer of the Law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver and Judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (Jam. 4:11-12)

James has been doling out all kinds of criticism and judgment in this letter, but naturally he doesn’t feel he’s out of line to do so. It’s just all those other Christians who need to stop judging. Well, this is ridiculous.

When God calls souls to shepherd His flock, He uses those souls to instruct and encourage the flock. Prophets are notorious for being God’s Voice of conviction to wayward souls, and it’s quite valid for a pastor or prophet to deliver a sermon that causes many souls to squirm. We have to be careful with these blanket “dos” and “don’ts”. Each soul needs to be focusing on the Holy Spirit instead of looking around at what everyone else is doing. When the Holy Spirit tells us to say something, we need to say it using the tone and words that He gives us. That tone won’t always be friendly. Beware of this “speaking the truth in love” doctrine that has become code for “pleasing human egos is more important than obeying God.”

When we speak convicting words because God tells us to, our motivation is to obey a specific directive from Him, not to judge our brother. A correct understanding of our own depravity makes it impossible to address anyone else’s sin without recognizing that we are also guilty of failing. The common complaint that we oughtn’t to judge because to judge is to say we are superior to others is not always valid. When we are actually listening to God in conviction situations—which we rarely are—we will find no pleasure in pointing out where our brother is going astray. The serious Christian wants no part in judging others, because he recognizes how unqualified he is to do so. But when God gives us a clear command, we must obey out of reverence for Him, and He should be the only One we’re focusing on when we are vocalizing His convictions to others.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it. (Jam. 4:13-17)

James’ frustration with these Jewish Christians is very clear. Now he gets on their case for a lack of reverence for God. When we plan out our lives and act like the lords of our own destinies, we are certainly disrespecting the Ones who made us, for life is about pleasing our three glorious Creators. Now does this mean it’s a sin to ever plan ahead? Certainly not. God loves variety and He created humans with many different temperaments. Some love to blow with the wind while others like to plan way ahead. Some like to make lists and others like to improvise. There is no one right way or one ideal personality type. You need to recognize that God was purposeful in giving you the personality and temperament that He did. God loves variety. Within each style, there is a way to honor God, and the Holy Spirit will show us what that looks like. The planner needs to invite God into his planning process and be shaping his agenda with God’s priorities in mind. The improviser needs to learn how to tell the difference between God’s promptings and the impulses of his own flesh and then choose to follow God’s. But in all of these things, the Holy Spirit will guide us if we are open to being taught by Him. God is very easy to succeed with.

UP NEXT: Applying James 5: Concluding Foolishness

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