But was it, or is it, really?
That long war came only one generation after the United States and its allies prevailed in what President Woodrow Wilson called “the war to end all wars.” Wilson optimistically proclaimed that there would be no more wars. Everything was settled. Mankind had seen the horrors of conflict and had finally learned its lesson.
Then, a generation later, came World War II. And what has taken place since then? Since World War II, the U.S. alone has been engaged in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq twice, in addition to more limited wars in Grenada, Kosovo, Panama, and the Sudan. We have experienced the emergence in our language of the phrase “ethnic cleansing,” which is a euphemism for genocide, killing off an entire people group, and it is happening in various small and large conflicts right now, many of which do not make the hourly newscasts.
The history of the world, in fact, can be told largely as a history of warfare.
Perhaps that is a bit dramatic to introduce James’ subject in James 4:1-10. But it does serve, at least to me, to illustrate that people are selfish and contentious, on both the global and individual levels.
In reading and studying today’s passage, we find that James makes it clear that our personal stories can be like the story of the world’s past and present. Stories of conflict and, well, war. Human beings bicker, gossip, hold grudges, take revenge, and find ever-more-imaginable ways to serve their own selfish interests at the expense of others. In verse 1, he asks the question that sums up the problem very well: “Where do wars and fights come from among you?”
What a penetrating question! And it leads me to ponder more questions. Why can’t we get along? Why do we rub each other the wrong way? What is it about us that causes us to rebel against the simple moral concept of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us?
The reasons for our wars and fights (1-5)
James provides some answers in verses 1-5. First, let’s look at the terminology. The word rendered “wars” in English can refer to national or personal conflicts and indicates a continuing state of hostility. “Fights” refers to outbursts of hostility or animosity. Unfortunately, we, as General MacArthur put it so well, like to believe in the myth that peace is our natural state and that conflict is unnatural. But the reverse is actually the case.
James’ answers the question by observing that wars and fights originate in the desires that battle within us: “Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war within you?” He refers to desire or lust for wealth, power or authority, self-acceptance and a positive self-image, popularity, superiority or prestige, pleasure, even the desire just to be accepted.
His term “desires” means “lust.” His word “pleasures” is the Greek word “hedone,” from which we derive the English “hedonism.” James’ meaning is pretty clear: the conflicts we experience originate in our lust for what we might call self-indulgent pleasure.
Paul deals with the subject briefly in his letter to Titus, advising Titus to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility. “For we were ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).
Selfish desires take different forms in different cultures and times. Today, for example, three of four American college freshmen say “being well off financially” is at the top of the list what defines success in life, a prescription for a lifetime of self-centeredness.
But James is saying that it is the attitude of selfish indulgence is responsible for our quarrels and conflicts.
James puts bluntly the frustration for believers in verse 2: “You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war.” When people’s desires are frustrated, conflicts arise, and they are capable of incredibly selfish acts, and because of unmet self-indulgent desires, people covet, quarrel, fight, even murder.
We only need to look at an infant to see this. Babies are cute and cuddly, and completely self-centered; they want what the want when they want it. As much as we love them, when infants are denied what they want, they go into a rage. Left unchecked by parents and teachers, every child has the potential of growing up with that same lust for fulfilling selfish needs and desires unchecked.
In verse 3, he tells us, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend on your pleasures.” I can imagine one of the problems these first century Christians were struggling with was why God didn’t give them what they prayed for. James’ answer is pretty direct. When we ask with the wrong motive, we do not receive. What is the wrong motive? We see it at the end of v.3; there’s that word again—hedonism (pleasures). Real satisfaction in God’s provision, he is telling us, is found only when we want the right things. And God gives abundantly. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 6:17 that He “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (to enjoy, be happy; a different word from hedonism).
The point in James 4:3 is that God will not allow us to use prayer as a means to our own selfish ends. Genuine prayer leads us away from preoccupation with ourselves. It aligns us with God’s purpose rather than promoting our own cause.
We find in verse 4 that a self-centered prayer life leads to a deceptive spiritual life: “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.”
James uses the word “adulterer.” His readers would have grasped the idea easily because of their cultural history. God’s relationship with His people in the Old Testament is often portrayed as a marriage. When they “romanced” other gods, it was labeled adultery. James defines this adultery as “friendship with the world” and hatred toward God. All that is wicked and opposed to God on earth is called “the world” in the New Testament. And it includes self-centered, hedonistic pleasures, which tend to lure people away from devotion to God.
So what are these hedonistic pleasures in 21st century terms? Are they alluring to us? We all know our culture affects us. As serious Christians with an ever-maturing faith, we must continually recognize that the secular culture is trying to pull us in a very different direction, luring us to experience self-centered pleasure, to have everything we always wanted. James calls it “friendship with the world.” The term “friendship” means “love and affection” (the term is “phileo,” attraction to and devotion toward).
We see advertisements every day that urge us to be friends with the world: “you can have it all, grab the gusto, have it your way” are a few ad slogans. James gives us a synonym for “friendship with the world.” His synonym is “hatred toward God.”
God told His people at Mt. Sinai “You shall have no other gods before me.” Having “other gods before me” is a conscious choice; in this case, choosing the world of self indulgence, which is a rejection of God and the truth of His word. And while in human judgment it might make sense to “grab the gusto,” in the eternal sense all of the “gusto” is temporary anyway. John puts it in context in 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”
God takes our flirtation with the world seriously: “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’?” (verse 5). Here, James refers to the Old Testament teaching that God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5, 34:14, etc.). He wants our undivided attention and devotion. Verse 5 has proved to be a difficult verse for translators. Many English Bibles have a footnote with alternate translations: “God jealously longs for the Spirit he made to live in us.” Regardless of the fine points of translation, James’ point is that God really, really desires for us to love Him above everything else and to think and live according to the Spirit that lives in us.
Gaining victory over our quarrels and conflicts (6-10)
Verse 6 begins with a conjunction that relates it back to verse 5. God’s jealousy leads not to judgment, but greater generosity: “But He gives more grace. Therefore He says ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” He demands that we love only Him and His will. He sets a high standard: wholehearted love and devotion, but He gives grace that is even greater than His demands. He provides the help we need to resist the appeal of the world and to remain loyal to Him through unrelenting grace (an undeserved gift). God gives and He forgives. What he wants from us is humility.
In the last part of verse 6, James quotes Proverbs 3:34. A literal translation of that proverb from Hebrew to English is: “Though He mocks the mockers, He gives grace to the humble.” Remember the prodigal son? When he came back home, his words were not “give me what is want because I am your son and you have to take me back” but “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” Humility can be hard. Not going for the “gusto” as our primary objective of life is possible, but not always easy.
But James does give us God’s promise in v.10: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” That’s the eternal perspective as we struggle with our hedonistic desires versus our desire to serve only God and His will.
Between verses 6 and 10, he tells us how to do it. “Submit yourselves, then, to God” (verse 7), which is a voluntary act to place ourselves under God’s authority in every single aspect of our life. “Submit” is same word that was used for signing up for service in the military, not just a passive acceptance, but an active pledge to honor and serve.
“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (verse 7) shows us the other side of the coin. I submit to God by resisting the devil and resist the devil by submitting to God. Remember, Satan wants us to be completely self-centered and world-centered, rather than centered on God. He wants the allegiance we give to God. Resisting the devil is an active, everyday task.
James then gives us the steps for resisting the devil in verses 8 and 9: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”
“Cleans your hands, you sinners” is an appeal to our outward lifestyle. His prescription is for each of us to cleanse ourselves from evil deeds; our conduct must be clean.
“Purify your hearts, you double-minded” refers to motives. In the Bible, the heart represents the place of our feelings and affections. If Jesus is Lord in our hearts, our affection is for Him, not for the world. There is no room for divided affection.
“Lament, mourn, and weep! Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” Change your laughter and enjoyment of the world’s hedonistic pleasures to mourning and gloom because your desire for the world is opposition to your Lord and Savior. It may seem like a strange way to say it, but James’ readers knew what it meant. He is calling for repentance, for Christians to acknowledge the sin of affection for the world and then to turn away from it.
Finally, when I am humble and submitted to God, His promise to me is that He will lift me up. That’s what happened to the prodigal son in Luke 15. In his deep humility, he told his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like a hired man.” You see, a hired man had virtually nothing, but he earned his way through his work. But what did the father do with this request? He showed him grace. He gave the son his best clothing, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, and held a lavish feast in his honor. The parable of the prodigal son teaches us about how God extends His grace regardless of the roads we have chosen to travel in the past.
God wants more than a wholesome lifestyle from us. He wants it to be the result of the right motives, for us not to be doubting, double-minded, or indecisive about whether He, or what tempts us in the world, is more attractive. He also wants us to remember the promise in 1 Timothy 6:17 that He “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (again, a different word, meaning happiness, not hedonistic pleasure). He does not indulge our desires for hedonistic pleasure, but wants us to realize true enjoyment of life, enjoyment and happiness found only in knowing, loving, and depending on Him.