n this second lesson of a new year, James 4:1-10 bluntly admonishes Christians to get serious about their relationship with God. With harsh language that was likely to irritate early Christians and put the readers/hearers of this letter in a defensive posture, James nevertheless clearly outlines the primary reason people find it difficult to submit to the Lord: they are losing the internal struggle to master their prideful, selfish cravings! Humans simply don’t want anyone to tell them what to do—not even God. Further, a lack of humility often prevents people from allowing God to work Divine will in their lives. As we are only thirteen days into 2019 by the time this lesson is taught, James’ words—though abrasive—ring out as a clarion call for those who make new year’s resolutions. At the top of James list of “to do’s” this year would be: “check yourself and your pride, right now, so this year can be lived out within God perfect will.” It is only through seeking first the things of God—as opposed to the things of the world—that we can resist evil and ultimately submit to God.
BACKGROUND ON THE LESSON
The letter of James is believed to be a cyclical communication written to early Christians scattered within the diaspora around 61 C.E. Filled with different literary genres—wisdom literature, prophetic oracle, diatribe, apocalyptic discourse, judgement speech and moral instruction—James seeks to persuade readers to live up to their confession in Christ Jesus while living in the midst of uncertain times. According to the New Testament, five persons are identified by the name of James:
1. James, the son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19; 3:17; Acts 12:2)
2. James, the father of Jude (Luke 6:16, Acts 1:13)
3. James, the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18ff)
4. James, the younger (Mark 15:40)
5. James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Acts 12:17; 15:23-29; 21:20-25; 1st Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19; 2:9; 11-14, Jude 1.)
While the authorship of James has been a source of considerable debate among contemporary biblical scholars, the best candidate is James, the brother of Jesus, due to his importance in Early Christianity as one of the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem until his martyrdom in 62 C.E.
Theologically, the letter of James particularly targets readers who, in theory, understand God’s identity as the creator of life, the giver of good and perfect gifts, and the source of salvation—they may even profess faith in God—but they choose to remain friends with the world, instead of embracing friendship with God. James interprets their lack of commitment as proof of the need for authentic conversion. In James 4:1-10, the author addresses members of the Christian community who have confessed Jesus as Christ, and even gather together periodically in Jesus’ name. However, their actions do not match their confessions of faith.
INTO THE LESSON
1-2a Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.2b-3 You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.
As the lesson text begins, it appears that we enter the periscope right in the middle of James’ argument. This exactly the case. James 4: 1-10, is a continuation of James 3:13-18, where the author James breaks down the evils that flow from the vice of envy coupled with ambition. James says if one has bitter envy and selfish ambition, they might as well own up to it. This type of worldly wisdom—or lack of Godly wisdom—flows from being intimately connected to the world instead of being connected to God. Where envy and selfish ambition live, wickedness and disorder dwell there as well. Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor (James 3:17-18 MSG).
James is making it clear that people quarrel and fight because they are consumed with the vice of envy. Ancient readers understood this vice as particularly dangerous because it is located in a worldview that privileges material wealth above all else as the primary determining factor of identity and worth. Thus, the competition for scarce resources (a worldly viewpoint) makes individuals selfish and cut-throat. Envy, therefore, is the source of strife, conflict, corruption, faithlessness, tyranny, war and arrogance (translated in the NRSV as pride) and ultimately murder. People are willing to kill to satisfy the lust for what they don’t have.
The fact that there is conflict among the saints to whom James is writing should come as no surprise to us. We find the disciples arguing among themselves in the Gospels about who was the greatest (Mark 9:33, 34; Luke 9:46; 22:24). We find divisions and even lawsuits among the Corinthian saints (I Corinthians 1:11, 12; 6:1-6). In the Church at Philippi, two women who were at odds with each other (Philippians 4:1-3). The difference here is that James tells us this conflict leads to murder. This description could be described as inaccurate or exaggerated. But it is used to get our attention. James wants us to understand that the conflict he speaks of is a very serious matter. These conflicts borne of envy are deadly because people who are envious will stop at nothing to acquire that which they lust after.
Ultimately, envy unchecked will lead to murder (both physical and spiritual.) How many of us have murdered someone with their tongue because of envy? According to one biblical scholar, “killing the enemy is the ultimate expression of envy.” People are willing to do violence to get what they want. The wisdom of the world even twists and devolves prayer into a wicked enterprise, because it seeks to transform God into a cosmic bellhop whose purpose is to grant wishes born of envious desires.
The reason Christians have quarrels and conflicts, is because they have allowed their fleshly desires to dominate their lives. These desires wage war within each of us, resulting in conflicts and strife with each other in the body of Christ.
4-6 You’re cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way. And do you suppose God doesn’t care? The proverb has it that “he’s a fiercely jealous lover.” And what he gives in love is far better than anything else you’ll find. It’s common knowledge that “God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble.”
Here, James pulls no punches—he is rhetorically slaying fleshly desires. He equates selfish, envious desire to being an adulterer. Elsewhere in this letter, when referring to Christians he uses the term adelphoi (brothers and sisters in Greek.) However, now James calls these wishy-washy Christians the derogatory term moichalides (meaning adulteress in Greek) to call out those who “flirt with the world.” These Christians, regardless of their professions of faith, are not friends of God. Instead, they are enemies of God and God’s way. Further, God cares that these so-called Christians are cheaters!
Although verse 5 says it quotes scripture, there is not a specific text that is translated this way in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Instead, verse five seeks to capture the sense of Hebrew scripture. God is frequently pictured as a jealous God, who is provoked to jealousy when people turn from the Divine (Deuteronomy 32:6, 21; Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Zechariah 8:2). God has placed the Divine Spirit within us, and God jealously desires fellowship with us. When we become friends with the world, it deeply grieves the Spirit of God that resides within us and makes us moichalides. According to Dr. Gay L. Byron, when James uses this term, he is saying “you’ve fallen to your lowest point and you need to get yourself together!” Literally, adultery involves intimacy with someone with whom we do not share a committed relationship. In this instance, James suggests that we are supposed to be in a committed relationship with God; thus, our intimate involvement in worldly desire constitutes infidelity.
Because God loves wholly and fiercely, God goes against the willful proud and gives grace to the willing humble. Although we are God’s children, we are still prone to sometimes stray. Thus, grace continues to work, wooing us back to God when we stray. These are words of encouragement for those who are in despair at the fact that they have messed up. As we humble ourselves in repentance, God continually pours out grace upon us, drawing us back into fellowship and communion with the Lord.
7-10 So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.
In the final verses of the lesson text, James says we must submit to God, allowing God to work Divine will in our lives. When the word of God, and the Spirit of God, convicts us about our friendly, flirty relationship with the world, all we have to do is acknowledge we have gone astray, and then humbly submit ourselves to God. At the same time, we must resist the devil, yelling a loud and resounding no to the devilish, demonic forces that we’ve been playing with. When we resist the Devil, then he or she will flee from us. The devil does not dare to harm us when we have drawn near to God. Our nearness to God makes us much more aware of His presence in our lives. drawing near to God provides the impetus to “just say no,” to the world and its worldly desires.
Although the word “repentance” is not found in the text, the concept is implied. James is telling us what repentance looks like. It begins with a deep sense of humility, which includes the absence of human pride. It manifests itself in a hatred of sin and a disavowal of sin. It involves a cleansing of our hearts and our hands, our innermost motivations and our deeds. This lesson text also reminds us that the envy, conflict, sin, war and murder in the world is a result of human freedom devolved into human bondage birthed by human selfishness. The only way this spiritual sickness can be cured is by turning back to God—repentance. When humans turn towards God, the wavering double-mindedness we exhibit disappears and is replaced with singular devotion to loving God in humble submission.