From: A Torah Commentary on James 3-5 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
Overview: How the Themes are Developed
Fifth Test of Our Faith:
Strife and Arrogance
Conflicts Between Church Members Arise From
Unfulfilled Desires and Self-Centeredness
That Leave God Out of the Picture
ATP text: 1 What is the source of the “wars” and conflicts that are
waged among you? Do they not originate in the various desires that are
waging war within you? 2 You passionately desire and do not obtain so you
virtually resort to murder to do so. You covet and cannot obtain so you fight
and act like you are in a military campaign to gain your goal. Yet you do not
have because you do not bother to pray for it. 3 Furthermore, even when you
ask you do not receive, because you ask out of the wrong intentions so that
you may spend it on your pleasures.
Development of argument:
At this point we discover that James was not merely concerned with how the poor were treated or human control of the tongue. There was something envolved that went far beyond such a narrow context. There was a rottenness in their souls, a self-centeredness that made the abuse of the tongue quite logical. And contempt for the poor as well, for that matter: Of what possible importance could they be compared to me?
[Page 183] This had a “spill over” effect not just on individuals but upon the congregation in general. His language in verse 1 makes plain that their intra-church conflicts were sometimes so serious that they amounted to little short of “wars” and “fights” (“conflicts,” ATP) among themselves.
Think the divisiveness in 1 Corinthians but without, apparently, being done in the interest of supporting factional leaders or by them to egg it on. This sounds far more like “every man for himself and against everyone else” who might stand in the way.
Hence the problem springs not from external encouragement but from internal desires for “pleasures” (“desires,” ATP, 4:1) in their many forms (4:2). Facing roadblocks to the fulfillment, they lash out to “fight and war” (4:2).
That there is no moral justification for what they are doing is seen in the use of “murder” to describe these actions (4:2). That word also suggests the utter unscrupulousness of the “fighting” and “wars”—there seems nothing they are unwilling to stoop to.
On a literal level, the “murder” is hypothetical. Yet we still speak of destroying, killing (i.e., “murdering”) a person’s influence or reputation. What we would be horrified at on a literal level, we are self-indulgent about on these “intangible” levels. But the pain, the horror, the anguish—the permanent psychological and spiritual damage can be just as intense and lasting.
[Page 184] If you have needlessly driven someone from the faith, aren’t you just as guilty of murder as if you blew their brains out? Indeed, perhaps the latter would have been more merciful.
Irony: In a very real way, after all the fussing and fighting, they still aren’t satisfied. They still haven’t obtained what they wanted. (Perhaps a hint that they have fundamentally misjudged what they truly desired in the first place?) Since the path of chaos has proved itself a failure, there is still another option available to them: pray and have God help them obtain their wishes.
That possibility has occurred to some of them, but not all. For James begins with how they don’t bother to ask (4:2) but then notes that if and when they do ask, it still does no good for all they seek is purely self-centered; they simply wish to obtain whatever provides them their desired “pleasures” (4:3). Even when they go to the right place (God), they are still foredoomed to failure because of their self-centeredness and selfishness.
The common translation here of “pleasures” (plural or singular) is occasionally rendered “passions” (RSV), which also—to us--conveys a clear-cut sexual overtone. Hence it is common to put the most negative and sinful connotation on the term: “James shows that while they lust, and pursue their sinful craving, that desire becomes a frustrated desire.”
But the term is actually broad enough to
convey anything that would please us, whether sexual or not. Hence such occasional translation as “you
pray just for selfish reasons” (CEV) and
[Page 185] Indeed these fit the context far better: they have a major problem with teachers and their behavior (chapter 3) and they have “wars and fights among you” (4:1). Whether in regard to self-absorbed troublemakers in general or ego-driven teachers in particular, the thrust is on those “pleasures” that are self-centered and building up their personal sense of importance and influence. Building up their wisdom is not in the mix, probably because people like this assume they already have all the wisdom they need. More might be nice, but without it they won’t be missing much.
Such “pleasures” can include “position” (secular or religious) that permits one to claim “superiority” over others. It may even be nothing more than purely social recognition, to be a recognized “leader,” with or without a confirming title. But to do it—and to keep others from sharing in the privilege—no behavior is off limits that might accomplish the goal. “Wars and fights,” pretty much does sum it up—concisely and to the point (4:2).
The self-centered aspect of these goals and prayers should not be overlooked either: “that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4:3). Not that long ago people spoke of the “me generation.” Truth be told, is there any generation that is not?
They were certainly manifesting that mentality—“I must get what I want and because I want it any and all means are fair to keep others from denying it to me.” Hence the “gloves” come off their behavior and they do whatever they “have to do” to obtain their goals. Victims are mere collateral damage because the almighty “I” must be reverently served.
[Page 186] If we limit the goal to merely material things rather than including position and recognition, the self-serving aspect is still singled out as unworthy and to be condemned. Blomberg and Kamell suggest that this provides a blunt condemnation of a popular contemporary theology,
They are apparently asking for material “things” so that they can spend their money and flaunt their possessions. James makes it clear that believers ought not to be asking for selfish gain and that God does not honor those requests. How dramatically this verse contrasts with the so-called “health and wealth” gospel! The evil in James’ audience’s asking is evident, because “the gift-giving God is being manipulated as a kind of vending machine precisely for the purpose of self-gratification” (Johnson, The Letter of James, 278).
Implicit in James’ rebuke is the need for them to bring these desires / pleasures under control and under restraint. They need to control the desires rather than the desires control them. The book of 4 Maccabees, chapter 3, deals with it explicitly in terms that James would likely have found quite congenial—your reasoning and thinking abilities exist for the very reason to enable you to do it!
 In pleasure (utilizing the same Greek word in 4:1; “desires,” ATP) there exists even a malevolent tendency, which is the most complex of all the emotions.  In the soul it is boastfulness, covetousness, thirst for honor, rivalry, and malice;  in the body, indiscriminate eating, gluttony, and solitary gormandizing.
[Page 187]  Just as pleasure and pain are two plants growing from the body and the soul, so there are many offshoots of these plants,  each of which the master cultivator, reason, weeds and prunes and ties up and waters and thoroughly irrigates, and so tames the jungle of habits and emotions.
For reason is the guide of the virtues, but over the emotions it is
sovereign. Observe now first of all that
rational judgment is sovereign over the emotions by virtue of the restraining
power of self-control.  Self-control, then, is dominance
over the desires.  Some desires are mental, others
are physical, and reason obviously rules over both (Revised Standard Version).
Note how James’ rebuke in this section seems structured to cover both possibilities that can occur: the person who thinks they are so entitled to something that they don’t even bother to pray (verse 2). It is—or should be—there’s by right. Everyone should recognize it without being told. Why then pray? (Or if you wish a kinder interpretation: Why bother God with it?)
Then there are those who believe that since it should be there’s, who better to go to--to seek it from--than God Himself? Fellow mortals might not understand for reasons good or bad, but surely He will readily grasp the situation!
James’ response to both mentalities is that they’ve elevated the criteria of getting what they wish from what they need and is best for them to getting what will make them feel emotionally satisfied with having their individual “pleasures” (good, bad, or neutral) sated. The fact that they’ve ignored every other criteria and acted as if they are the center of the entire universe hasn’t phased them in the least. At least not yet.
These Misplaced Priorities Are a Form of
World-Centeredness that Makes God our Enemy.
Yet They Can Still Be Overcome.
ATP text: 4 You are like spouses unfaithful to their mate! Do you not
know that friendship with the world shows you are hostile toward God?
Therefore whoever desires to be a friend of the world turns God into an
enemy. 5 Do you think that the Scripture speaks empty words when it says,
"God passionately cares about the spirit which He has made to dwell in us"?
6 Since He gives strong abundant favor, He reminds us, "God opposes
everyone who is arrogant, but gives His generous support to the humble."
Development of argument:
Some suggest we should interpret the beginning of verse 4 as the powerful conclusion for what had been said in the previous verse, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses!” Luke T. Johnson argues the case this way,
Is the Greek word adequately translated by “wrongly”? Better would be “wickedly.” Why is this important? For one thing, the term “wrongly” could be taken to mean that they did not follow the right method of prayer, whereas it is really a question of praying wickedly, in a perverted way. How is this? They are trying to use God as one more means of gratifying their desires: “[You ask] to spend it on your passions.” They see God as part of a closed system with themselves. This is, of course, the attitude characteristic of idolatry: to regard God solely as the fulfiller of our desires.
In this case the desires are what we want regardless of whether it is compatible with what God wants and His moral standards.
[Page 190] Interpreted either “backwards” (in connection with verse 3) or “forward” (in light of what comes next in verse 4), in either case the language of sexual betrayal carries the image of believers being pictured as if married to God and the “world” as the other party in the adultery. This is surely building on Jesus’ assertion about the eternal gap between God and the things of this world, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew ).
The “adultery” being described here is not sexual—at least that is a very distant secondary concern at best—since the text immediately goes on to tell us why he utilizes that description, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God.” Its not that you’ve “crawled in bed with” a human lover; it’s that you’ve embraced yourself passionately and with full interest in whatever the current world offers. Which covers a whole lot more than the mere sexual.
“Spiritual adultery,” would be the expression most would likely favor, though one may wonder if even the word “spiritual” is broad enough to encompass the degree of enmeshing intended. Most strictly, the term “spiritual” might seem to more naturally refer to just “spiritual” alternatives to Jehovah, such as the pagan gods in the Old Testament. What the ancient Israelites did with the rival gods, Christians were doing with the world and everything within it. Something far broader since there is no hint that they were falling back into the older errors of polytheism.
Conversion is based upon the assumption that we’ve made a drastic break with the past and entered into a new and exclusive relationship. We’ve divorced the world and, so to speak, married the Lord. I liked the way this preacher described it,
Take your pick: Are you married to God or to the world? Can you
imagine a couple that gets married, and a month later the husband tells his
wife, “I’m going out tonight with my old girlfriend”? “I love you, but I want
to keep in touch with her, too!” Needless to say, that marriage is in big
trouble! When you get married, you vow to forsake all others and be
devoted exclusively to your spouse.
In the same way, when you come to Christ as Savior and Lord, you
say goodbye to the world. It used to be your companion and [closest] friend.
You spent many hours running with it. But you can’t bring it into your
marriage to Jesus Christ. He brooks no rivals. You are either [closest]
friends with the world and an enemy of God, or friends with God and an
enemy of the world.
Neither James here nor Jesus in Matthew is asserting that everything in the world is bad. It certainly isn’t. To have some of the “toys” of life is certainly fine. To have the recognition you’ve earned due to hard work and sacrifice is simply a laborer receiving the reward for his labor (1 Timothy 5:8).
The problem arises when these become so much the center of attention that any price will be paid—in the sacrifice of our core moral principles and in lies and deceit toward others. The things of this world become our highest priority and even our religion is lucky to run second best. They cease being the blessings of this life and become the reason for this life.
Perhaps more challenging is that the people of this world become our highest priority rather than the things of this world since they are the ones that facilitate obtaining the latter. After all, it is normally through them that the physical niceties of life are obtained: People who can recommend us for the best jobs, individuals whose friendship brings us higher status in our positions and communities. On the other side of the coin, individuals who expect that we will speak well of them, boost their reputation, and do whatever they stand in need of when the occasion arises.
At its best, it is a wonderful relationship to have. At its most abusive—by us or them or both—it becomes a moral corrosive that eats away our integrity. Religion, principle, honesty—virtually anything can be bent to preserve it and develop it further.
It is not merely a one way occasional relationship; it is developed as an ongoing one. This becomes the kind of “friendship with the world [that is] enmity with God” (4:4b). This is not mere “casual” friendship; this is bonded-to-one-another friendship. Friendship of the closest and most intimate nature.
And “friendship” had exactly that kind
of connotation in Greco-Roman society. Laelius’ friendship with Scipo was described
[Page 193] Of course James is dealing with the flip-side of this—where friendship has not been an elevator of the individual but a denigrator. Since there is so much evil in the world and so much evil is accepted, embraced, and endorsed by the world, the kind of close intimacy that results—when accepted and desired as our primary goal (as James assumes) inevitably has a destructive impact on Christian spirituality. As Luke T. Johnson explains the Greco-Roman concept of the closeness of friendship,
The word “friend” was not used lightly in these circles, nor was friendship considered simply a casual affection. On the contrary, it was regarded as a particular intense and inclusive kind of intimacy, not only as the physical level but, above all, at the spiritual. Already in the Orestes friends are called “one soul” and Aristotle quotes this among other proverbial expressions of the sort by means of which the Greeks typically expressed their deepest perceptions. To be “one soul” with another meant, at the least, to share the same attitudes and values and perceptions, to see things the same way. Indeed, the friend was, in another phrase frequently repeated, “another self.” Still another proverb had it that “friends hold all things in common.” ”
In such cases it was vital to remember that Scripture provides a warning about the spirit and jealousy (4:5). (The divine spirit or the human? See the Old Testament precedents and Problem Texts chapters.)
[Page 194] Philip W. Comfort notes that the two alternative Greek readings are “The spirit which He caused to dwell in us” (i.e., the language of the purpose being given) while the alternative is the more restricted “the Spirit which dwells in us”—which only conveys a fact rather than giving us the reason behind the fact as does the Greek text more normally accepted. He argues, however, that the two have “nearly the same meaning.” To this commentator there seems a clear-cut and major difference, however, between expressing a fact and providing an explanation for it.
Assuming that the “purpose” language is genuine—rather than that it expressing the “mere” fact that the spirit is in us that is under discussion--then, “This could mean that God placed His Spirit within the believers He wanted it to protect them from straying in their love for him (God).”
The reaction of many to such a rebuke would still be, “I just have to.” It’s where acceptance and success lie. It is where those who can advance my interests are and if I don’t embrace their world interests, it will lower my own acceptance among those whose approval is absolutely essential. Hence, again, “I have to”—but in different words.
To be blunt, however, in life there is only one thing we ever have to do and that is die. Everything else is what we want to do or permit ourselves to do or time and circumstance impose upon us. And yes, it’s a lousy fact of life that things have to work out this way, but life is always full of decisions to make and some have to be made out of “outdated” principles such as personal honor and integrity. And might we throw in as well, a love of God?
James assaults the denial that one can ever change for the better by insisting that grace is not static: God can give “more grace;” in this context surely the strength to handle the pressures steering us in the wrong direction. Another way of expressing the [Page 195] Pauline thought given to the Corinthians who might give in to similar pessimism, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The truth is that our own underlying arrogance and conceit is getting in our way of both accomplishing what we wish and to admitting that we have given up far too much scruple and principle seeking success at, literally, any cost: Quoting the Old Testament, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). But He sure won’t be pouring it out on those to whom the only thing is victory and to whom personal honor is a detachable virtue that we can hang in our closet till its time to get dressed for church on Sunday.
To Overcome These Failures
Requires Resisting Those Allures
and Admitting Our Guilt to God
So That He Will Forgive Us
ATP text: 7 The conclusion then is to submit to God. Furthermore
you must battle against the devil and he will flee the fight against you. 8
Draw near to God and He will come near to you. Clean up your behavior,
you who violate God’s will; purify your hearts, you who are of two minds as
to what to do. 9 Lament your behavior and grieve and cry in sorrow over it!
Let your laughter be turned into grief and your jubilation into gloom. 10
Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord and He will lift you up back
Development of argument:
It may sound odd to speak of a Christian being able to defeat Satan. He’s like a heavyweight champion while we, at our best, seem like mere lightweight amateurs. S. Michael Houdmann asks the obvious question that follows that recognition, “Why will resistance cause the devil to flee? Because he knows he cannot have victory over us if we are prepared to do battle against him.” Our strength alone won’t do it; but God’s strength working through and with us can.
[Page 197] Houdmann explains why we can have that certainty by invoking Paul’s instruction to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians -18). To simplify the text, Paul speaks of how our faith will protect us through our embracing the gospel truth and living by its standards. The apostle to the Gentile speaks as if he saw no great difficulty in them doing this. In other words, they were already sufficiently well grounded in their faith that this would not present a major problem.
James clearly does not have that degree of confidence in his readers. Hence he provides them the needed rebuke so they can get to the point of being able to wear and use that armor. He does this in this four verse section (4:7-10), by painting a verbal picture of the repentance that is essential, though without actually utilizing the word. This repentance involves three aspects. First is committing ourselves wholeheartedly to God.
(1) Obeying him: “submit to” (4:7). “Place yourself under” (GW). In the Biblical scheme of things we aren’t self-directed; God is in charge. His standards and what He has revealed. We are the implementers of that will and not its writers.
An interviewer on television in December 2012 actually told a prominent preacher that “you need to amend the Bible”—because it didn’t agree with dominant society’s present stance on a certain matter. Will a person with that kind of mind frame ever obey God? Highly unlikely, isn’t it? Until we recognize that there is a Higher Power than us and that it is recklessness to needlessly offend Him, it isn’t likely to happen.
The Bible is full of the recognition that in varied areas of life, submission to others is essential,
You can go to seminars on how to be more assertive, but I’ve yet to see a seminar on how to learn to submit! It’s not a popular concept, but it is a biblical one. The word means “to put yourself in rank under” someone, implying a hierarchy of authority. It is used of the obligation to submit to government authorities (Romans 13:1, 5; 1 Peter ); to elders in the church (1 Peter 5:5); of mutual submission of husbands and wives to one another, and of wives to husbands, in marriage (Ephesians , 22; 1 Peter 3:1, 5); and of slaves to masters (1 Peter ).
The mythology that a degree of hierarchy is not required in the world is one that personal pride and political ideology argues vehemently in favor of. Without a reasonable degree of it, militaries collapse in defeat. Governments crumble due to inbuilt, uncorrected and uncorrectable incompetence. And relationships are destroyed because we are so self-centered that we refuse to recognize the fact that we are not the center of everything—that there are times that autonomy needs to, at least partially, be surrendered.
And if that is ever the case, surely it has to be in the case of the Creator of our race and our planet.
[Page 199] But note how the admonition is made: “submit to.” It is presented as a voluntary act. No one has the proverbial “gun to your head.” You are doing it because you realize—finally?—that it is the right thing to do.
The prodigal in Jesus’ story had to suffer
the bitter fruit of his misjudgment, but in the end—if there was to be a return
to his father at all—he had to make the decision. God deals with us in a similar manner. He may even send us through the “school of
hard knocks,” but even then it remains our decision whether to learn our lesson
and start to change.
(2) “Draw near to God” (4:8). “Come near to” (NIV); “come close to” (GW, ISV). The implication here is that our living independent of the Lord has driven us further and further apart. Curing this requires action on our part—the “draw(ing) near.” God’s willingness to be reconciled is already guaranteed (“He will draw near to you,” 4:8). But since we created the rupture, it is up to us to do our part and take advantage of His generosity.
For illustration, think of the prodigal son. It took a lot of disaster before he finally “came to himself” and vowed to return to the Father he had rejected (Luke ). “Came to his senses,” is a common alternative rendering (BBE, CEV, GW, Holman, ISV, NASB, NIV, TEV).
He was insane, so to speak, and tragedy broke him through to reality. Or (far more likely the intent) he had acted stupidly and unwisely and wisdom was finally penetrating the proverbial “thick skull.” He could now see what was wise, while previously he had been blind to it. Either way, initiative was required by the person who caused the problem—in order to right the situation.
[Page 200] The concept of “drawing near” is easy enough. But how do we accomplish it? Obviously it involves actions—our actions. It means becoming God-conscious in all aspects of our life. “Drawing near to God is spending time with Him, worshiping Him, praying and talking to Him, inviting Him into every aspect of our lives.”
This envolves honesty with ourselves rather than whitewashing what may well already be obvious to others. “I learned a long time ago that I am not going to get very far with God by playing spiritual games. God doesn't play games! I soon discovered that the only people playing the game were me, myself, and I.” Self-deception will block reconciliation; only honesty and candor will make it possible.
The results affect our attitude and behavior both. These alterations might vary according to the individual person, their age, their status in life, and the many other factors that make us unique individuals. As to James’ audience in particular, he spells out that two of them envolved, for example, controlling of what they said and helping the needy among them. Being concerned about both rather than being oblivious to the difficulties their actions and omissions had created. The need for a fundamental change in attitude to accompany such changes is also elaborated on further in this verse (see below).
[Page 201] (3) “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord” (). “Humble yourselves before” (ESV, NET, NIV). Change requires humility. The arrogant individual will have none of this for he is already “perfect.” If there are problems then, by definition, it is someone else’s fault. It requires considerable humility to admit to God, “I did wrong.” Or perhaps an equally appropriate way of saying the same thing, “I was flat stupid, wasn’t I?”
The second aspect of repentance is embracing the good and opposing the evil: changing both what we think and what we do.
We have to acknowledge that evil is evil. Without that we are merely claiming to be on God’s side but are avoiding doing anything that might demonstrate in word or behavior that we are actually opposed to evil. We are willing to go through the outward forms that are demanded: Prayer, certainly. Public decorum instead of crass disrespect for good.
A studious neutrality if you will. But in war, ultimately, there are no
neutrals! Hence the two aspects that
must go together of obeying God (“submit to”) and opposing the devil
(“resist:” “battle against,” ATP; “make
war on,” BBE; “withstand,”
The image here is one of battle and the devil recognizes himself as loser for “he will flee from you” (4:7) because now God and His superior power is being brought to bear on your behalf. Before you fought alone; now you have the Ultimate Power on your side!
In 4:8 the transformation in the individual is expressed as involving,
(1) A change of behavior: “Cleanse your hands:” “Wash your hands” (NIV); “clean up your lives (GW). Symbolic of outward behavior for we use our hands to do things. The imagery of “cleanse” implies that those hands are dirty—not from the taint of hard work but from the taint of sin. This kind of cleansing, soap will never cure; only God.
Note once again the emphasis on the individual making his own decision. However desirable your change would be, He is not going to turn you into a robot. Since you have the freedom to act “programmed” into you, you have to make that decision of what to do. God will tell you through the Scriptures what the decision should be, but to preserve your independence, He leaves it totally in your hands whether to act upon it.
(2) A change of inner
attitude and priorities: “Purify your hearts:” “make your hearts pure” (
Hence to produce the outward actions that are necessary, the inner “heart” has to be purged of its slavery to sin as well. Behavior can subvert the purity of the heart, but the subversion of the heart can likewise ultimately change, for worse, the outward conduct as well. Indeed, the inward desire normally comes before the outward misconduct for what makes us most receptive to a temptation is that part of us that finds it—well, rather appealing.
[Page 203] In Old Testament days both “cleansing” and “purifying” were required in a ceremonial sense to be prepared for various religious rituals. Here James applies the language in a moral reformatory sense for it fits so perfectly what he is driving at.
Upon occasion the Old Testament uses this language in a similar moral sense, however, “3 Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Psalm 24).
The obvious parallelism in 4:8 between “cleanse your hands” and “purify your hearts” should be noted as a further indication of the vital interlocking of behavior and impetus. If one’s inner motivational standards of right and wrong are skewed, then one’s behavior is going to be affected. Only when the right standards are being acted upon, will that behavior measure up to the ideal.
Also note the parallelism in the verse between “sinners” and “double-minded.” This may seem an odder combination at first, but if one’s standards are dual—seeking two different and significantly inconsistent goals—how can one’s actual behavior avoid crossing the line into actions that are also inconsistent? And since some of those goals are presented as inherently sinful, how can it avoid pushing an individual into transgression and into becoming an open and obvious “sinner”?
[Page 204] (3) Eliminate one’s “double-minded(ness)”: “you doubters” (GW); “you who are
half-hearted towards God” (
Yet the principle is true of other areas of life as well. One can not serve both God and woman chasing as the highest purpose of life. One can not serve both God and being elected to office as the highest rationale of life. One can not serve both God and being popular as the highest accomplishment of life.
None of these alternatives is likely to be verbalized as our ultimate goal, but from the time and effort put into them, they often are such. This creates a person who is “double-minded,” trying to fulfill two contradictory purposes at the same time. One or the other ultimately has to take second priority.
At its most extreme it becomes a matter of being virtually two separate identities, two different people—living two dramatically different lives at the same time . . . yet within the same body. A kind of moral schizophrenia. It is no longer focused on some one particular strength or weakness but infects virtually all areas of life. One preacher describes one form this can take,
Sometimes you think this double minded man is all for the Lord, and then you conclude he is all for the world. He may talk nicely in Bible Class on Sunday morning, but he talks as nicely around the bar or perhaps the x rated movie house the rest of the week. He may even teach a Bible Class, but on Monday he can just [Page 205] as easily gather around the crew at work and tell or listen to obscene stories. He thinks the church good and ok, and perhaps even online pornography. He can show a very pious face when with Christians, but his week day associates would never suspect that he was a Christian. He may say grace at the table at home, but then swear at the shop.
Either in its more limited form or in its more comprehensive one, it leaves the person torn between two worlds. And never being willing to decide which is preferred. Unless he or she is willing to heed James’ admonition.
The third aspect of repentance that is mentioned is feeling and expressing guilt: “Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (4:9).
“Lament:” “Grieve” (NET, NIV) “be wretched” (ESV); “be miserable”
GW, ISV, NASB); “afflict yourselves” (
“Weep:” “Weep aloud” (
“Mourning:” “grief” (
“Joy to gloom:” “joy to sorrow” (Holman); “joy into despair” (NET);
into shame” (
[Page 206] Normally we cry and mourn because something bad has happened to us—a personal health disaster, a death of someone we love, an unexpected firing that has gutted our ability to pay our bills.
In this case, the sorrow is produced by our candid self-evaluation compelling us to admit how far we have fallen beneath the Divine standard. Having, theoretically, committed ourselves to God, we discover that we are frighteningly far from measuring up to that standard in our daily lives. To use a drinking analogy, “we have sobered up.”
And the natural result of our self-inflicted failure is humiliation as expressed inwardly and outwardly. We have “made fools of ourselves” and the delusion of acceptability is gone. Would any other reaction possibly be appropriate? We “weep” at our madness and “mourn” at our blindness.
This, of course, is in contrast to the gloating pride that we had been taking in our “successes” that involved taking advantage of others—morally, financially, or in any other way. We came off happy and satisfied; they went away abused and misused. Perhaps, in some way, the opportunity will occur to at least partially right the wrong we previously did? For some (many? most?) earthly situations there is no practical way to remedy the past, but one can always feel guilt and the obligation never to repeat our folly again.
To avoid misunderstandings: James is not advocating depression and grief merely because we “should” have it. An act to go through because it is—well, commanded. Instead, he is advocating it because there was a profound reason for it: If one’s basic relationship to God has been seriously compromised and on shaky ground, what other appropriate reaction would there be? What other could there be?
[Page 207] Just as one would look ludicrous mourning during the time of rejoicing at a wedding feast (Matthew ), keeping a happy smile and a joyful countenance when we realize we have ruined our relationship with God would be just as absurd.
Indeed the final two sections of the verse, in part, may use the words they do—“Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom”—because what brings “laughter” and “joy” to us may be coming from the very evils we need to shun. A few of the many ways this can be true are suggested by Paul Shirley,
The question that we must ask ourselves is what are we laughing
about and what brings us joy? Is our laughter at the expense of other
people? Does our laughter come from inappropriate things that we see on
TV or in movies? Where does your joy come from? Does it come from the
pursuit of your earthly desires like the adulteresses we read about [in verse
4]? . . .
The truth of the matter is that all people will eventually mourn over
their sin. If you have not already done so, trust me, you will. You can keep
putting it off until it is too late. And mourn over your sin in eternal
judgment. Or, you can mourn now, repenting of your sin and the Lord will
give you grace.
Hence the reason why James had to include his rebuke: Its presence would make absolutely no sense if he believed there would never be answerability for our moral lapses and that grievous consequences would never flow from them being uncorrected. Since these don’t always occur in the present life, his teaching carries the unspoken “freight” of an ultimate time of Judgement beyond any that may occur in our own lifetime.
We may mourn now and have “joy in the morning” or we may ignore reality and have the tears in the morning of the resurrection. God made us free to choose. And with that freedom comes answerability for how we use it.
The result of this change in mind and behavior is that God
accepts us back. “Humble
yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” ():
“will exalt you” (ESV, Holman, ISV, NASB, NET;
It’s a matter of taking it one step at a time. “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” But that is in regard to what humility ultimately leads into in the next life.
In the current life, all of our repentance and humility may come too late to change our personal earthly consequences of disease, loss of respect from others, justified retribution and punishment. Having shot the “boat of life” full of holes, God hasn’t promised to remove those earthly consequences of our actions. Yet even there, there may yet be grounds for hope.
1 Now it came to pass, when Rehoboam had established the kingdom
and had strengthened himself, that he forsook the law of the Lord, and all
Shishak king of
transgressed against the Lord.
5 Then Shemaiah the prophet came to Rehoboam and the leaders of
Judah, who were gathered together in Jerusalem because of Shishak, and
said to them, “Thus says the Lord: ‘You have forsaken Me, and therefore I
also have left you in the hand of Shishak.’
” 6 So
the leaders of
king humbled themselves; and they said, “The Lord is righteous.” [Note that
they are not even going to make the pretense that they had done the right thing
previously. They knew better. Just like the penitent in James 4.]
7 Now when the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, the word of
the Lord came to Shemaiah, saying, “They have humbled themselves;
therefore I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance. My
wrath shall not be poured out on
Nevertheless they will be his servants, that they may distinguish My service
from the service of the kingdoms of the nations.” 12 When he humbled
himself, the wrath of the Lord turned from him, so as not to destroy him
completely; and things also went well
They endured pain and injury, but nowhere near as much as it could have been. So, paradoxically, even in God’s retribution they had something to be thankful for.
A Manifestation of Such Strife and Arrogance:
Needless Condemnatory Judgments
Upon Our Co-Religionists
ATP text: 11 Do not speak reputation destroying unjustified things of
each other, comrades. The one who speaks evil of a comrade and unjustly
judges spiritual kin, speaks evil of law and gives a condemnatory judgment
against the law itself. If you sit in judgment on law, you are no longer an
obeyer of law but claim to be a judge superior to it. 12 There is only
one real Lawgiver and Judge, One who is able to both save and to destroy.
Who then are you to act as judge against another?
Development of argument:
James now rebukes the individual who makes unfair and unjust accusations against his or her coreligionists (-12). Presumably these criticisms are made in the effort to domineer and gain precedence over others--the mind frame that is alluded to in the first three verses of the chapter.
Although these remarks are a continuation of those in chapter 3, which began with teachers specifically in mind (3:1), James’ language throughout has been broad enough to encompass both them and everyone else. Since the kind of faults discussed are never limited in the “real world” to teachers alone, it seems certain that he wanted all church members to pay attention to his admonitions and recognize the potential personal application. Does any student of the text really believe that James was going to “let off the hook” other members when they were doing the exact same thing?
The ATP renders “speak evil of one another” as “speak reputation destroying unjustified things of each other.” The reason is to make explicit the implicit claim that the “evil” is imaginary or blown drastically out of proportion to the real situation. In short, unjustified. Not something right and deserving to be said because they are really guilty. (Like the evils Paul points out in the Corinthian church.)
[Page 212] If things were otherwise then we would be in the right and they in the wrong for their sin. Any transgression on our part would relate to motive and behavior in the criticism and not, as here, in the mere fact of criticism.
The NIV has the same thought as the ATP: “do not slander one another,” an approach favored by the GW, which speaks of “stop slandering each other.” Indeed, this is the meaning of the Greek term utilized and we have simply chosen to stress what slander is: destructive, reputation destroying, falsehoods.
Some commentators who admit that it can have this connotation, insist that the term could have a less biting edge as well—“speaking carelessly, foolishly, or the like.” In a context of spiritual “wars and fights” (4:1) and of excessive pride (), James certainly sounds like he is talking about classic “grudge matches,” with “no holds barred.” In such a context the stronger meaning of the term is surely intended—slander.
It should be remembered that one can slander and gut reputations through unverified stories and not just through tales invented out of whole cloth. If you are going to repeat a story you should think long and hard about whether you understood things rightly and whether the earlier source did as well.
If not, you have better have a whole bunch of caveats to hedge what you say. The fact that you are sincerely trying push the matter “for the good of the congregation” doesn’t change facts one iota: if you don’t have the facts right, your good intentions will not compensate for it.
The Marxists had the telling phrase “useful idiots” for individuals blind enough to readily swallow their most twisted misrepresentations and thereby further their agenda. We should never allow ourselves to blindly embrace tales that others are pushing for their own biased agenda either.
The point of “law” is to set standards and condemn us if we violate them—it lays down the rules and regulations. When we substitute our own independent critique, then we are condemning the law for we are treating it as if inadequate to fulfill its purpose (). We strip ourselves of our rightful status as subject to the law and claim the de facto superiority of a “judge” deciding what parts to embrace, what parts to modify, and what parts to reject.
Judges in all ages are supposed to follow the law but inherent in their position is the power to arrogate to themselves, effectively, a superiority to it. Political cynics today call this “judge made law”—with considerable or total justice since gymnastics are played with the actual language to make sure it condemns or allows just what they want it to. Original intent or responsible exegesis need not apply. We have “evolved” in our understanding of what is truly desirable and the text must be made to “evolve” with it. That way the law now demands what would once have been considered impossible to attribute to it. And we have the judge(s) decision(s) to prove it!
Doing this with human law, we are manipulating a manmade concoction. Indeed, our manipulations may actually sometimes result in an improvement since the writers of that human law were also mere mortals.
But when we are dealing with Divine law, we are dealing with the one, unique Lawgiver () who demonstrated His power and wisdom in a created world that functions quite well without His having to manipulate things on a daily basis to keep things functioning right. In short, He got law “right” the first time around just like He got creation “right:” perfect and complete to fulfill its allotted role.
[Page 214] If we think we can finesse it to create a more perfect understanding of what scripture “really” means, we should proceed with the greatest caution. There is a fine line between exegesis and imagination, between necessary inference and fanciful invention. The further we get from a clear-cut violation of explicit teaching or principle, the greater carefulness that should be exercised.
Hence the arrogance, the pure arrogance when we act like we can rewrite the scriptural rules for other people—either to permit or prohibit--when we don’t even have the right to rewrite them for ourselves. A reality demonstrated in the previous section in the discussion of how one who wanders from the Divine will needed to set his or her personal world right and return to serving the Lord they claim to reverence and obey.
Our negative and unjustified judging can take two forms. In one version it is all a pretext; it is merely a tool to “get” someone and damage them. They are in the wrong so anything they do can and will be “spun” in a direction to make them look even worse. Since James seems to have outright slander in mind that is what is at the forefront of his attention: not just verbal “barbs” but verbal “knives” intended to do serious harm.
What others cannot see—but God can—are the psychological motives for our behavior that we may even be hiding from ourselves. The hidden arrogance behind it has us acting like we can better and more authoritatively read what is their true intentions and motives than we can sometimes read our own! Cathy Deddo discusses one form of this type of character assault,
The kind of judging James has in mind here is when we speak a "final" word about another's character, behavior, or value. We may be dismissing them as a "hopeless case." When we make statements like "he'll never..." or "she always..." then we are in danger of pronouncing judgement. It seems to me that often our jealousy of others can lead us to this place of speaking evil against them. We want to put them down, to get back at them somehow because they seem so much happier or better off than we think we are and we are angry and upset. It makes us feel superior to someone else when we speak as if we know who he or she is and their "real" problem.
. . . It is funny to me when I stop and think about it--how ridiculous it is that I think I know all of what is going on in someone else's life and that I can analyze them and explain away their behavior. The truth is that I don't even know all of who I am and what makes me behave as I do. I can't even be the judge of myself and I am placing myself in God's shoes when I berate [others] as a hopeless case.
How great that God alone knows us and can discern the truth about us. And if He still has hope about me or someone else, who am I to be hopeless? If God has not yet pronounced the final word, who am I to do so? . . . When we are tempted to speak evil against others or ourselves, we can hand those thoughts over to God, realizing that He alone knows "the whole truth" and can be confident that He will handle all things according to His good and gracious character.
The other form of unjustified judging is unmentioned, but should not be forgotten, however: matters that may be unwise, but not necessarily sinful. We need to provide “breathing room” between considering something bad judgment that could lead to sin . . . and something that is unquestionably sinful.
Not to mention when, where, and how we make our criticism even when it is fully justified. “Going volcanic” immediately—will it be likely to convince them or merely send them into an immediate rage? For that matter are there many situations in which it would ever be justified to become that angry?
One preacher provides this example, “I know
of another case in
But even in that case, was that really the place to be having a hissy fit—even if one was right? (And seeing so much of what passes for dancing today it wouldn’t particularly surprise me if it did fall into the category of lasciviousness!)
Would it not have been far wiser to raise the matter in a less explosive context? Both sides might well still get upset, but when one undertakes correction under conditions that guarantee the most unreceptive response, we can only make the situation that much worse.
A Second Manifestation of Such
Conflict and Overconfidence:
of Our Inevitable Economic Success
ATP text: 13 Listen now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go
to such and such a city and spend a year there--to do business and turn a
profit.” 14 You do not know what will happen tomorrow! How certain is
your life? It is like a mist that appears for a short while and then disappears.
15 Instead of blind confidence, the proper course would be to say, “If the
Lord thinks it best, we will survive and carry out this or that plan.” 16
Instead you manifest your arrogance by boasting. All such bragging is evil.
17 Therefore, whoever knows what is the right thing to do but fails to do it,
has committed sin.
Development of argument:
The rest of the chapter seems to dramatically change direction (-17). Here the issue is the businessperson who is so confident of the future that the mere fact of knowing what one intends to do to make money creates the
delusion that the success of the endeavor is inevitable.
They might encounter
serious safety problems in their foreign travels—they were foreigners after
all and in a tense and uncertain situation guess who is going to get the blame
for unexpected local problems? For that
matter things might go awry and they might not even make a profit. The places they are going to might be going
through a bad period economically and the money simply isn’t there. Or . . . they could be lucky to break
even. Weather might turn foul and a ship
they are on goes down—along with their goods.
(Think the shipwreck of Paul on
But let us give them the benefit of the doubt. They are going into regions they are well known and the economy is going well there. But, even so, are they as sure of the future as they think they are?
James zeroes in on only one of the things that might abort even the most reasonable plans: unexpected death (-15). Furthermore, they had left God out of the matter entirely: “If the Lord wills, we shall do this or that” (). He then chooses to stress the moral evil as well: their attitude is nothing short of boastful arrogance; therefore inherently evil ().
Let us briefly look at each of these strains of thoughts:
[Page 219] (1) Unexpected death. Death is inevitable. At some level of ourselves we all recognize that as a reality. What we don’t know is the timing. James is telling them that even in the midst of their most confident plans, they should recognize that even the life span to accomplish them was far from a guaranteed certainty.
In a sense, they surely already knew all of these cautions. What merchant hasn’t seen things go the wrong way? Optimism is always desirable, but what is the fall-back plan if things don’t go right?
Worst come to worse, death may be out there as well. I had a heart attack in my cardiologist’s office! I knew a church member who dropped dead—immediately after walking out the door from his physician’s office! The same thing could happen to one of them. It wasn’t something to become obsessed over, but something to never fully forget either.
(2) In particular, they had left out the possibility that God will have significantly different plans for them than they have for themselves. His role in their thinking is conspicuous by its very absence. They were Christians but in a sense they were “practical atheists”—God never enters their planning and the impact He could have on them. They aren’t doing evil as are so many others criticized in the epistle, they are simply leaving out of their planing an indispensable element—God’s concurrence.
The Bible doesn’t encourage idle chatter. Hence when James speaks of how “you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that’ ” (verse 15), he isn’t giving a formula to idly recite. After all, Jesus had warned that “for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matthew ).
[Page 220] Do words stop being idle simply because they have a religious content? No, they become “idle” when they become mere “filler,” words used because they are expected and not because they are meant. Hence when James urges them to say “if the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that,” he is referring to them adopting that principle as part of their mind frame—as a fundamental part of their plan making.
Just as much as they must consider when to go and what to take, they must also keep in mind the possibility that God may yet alter whether those plans will succeed or only be partially carried out. This reins in their pride and makes God’s co-operation an acknowledged essential part of their way of thinking.
Not to mention it reminds them that wherever they go, God will be there as well. Knowing how they act and how honest they are when away from those they most desire to keep a good reputation in front of.
If one insists upon using these words aloud, they certainly haven’t done anything wrong. But if they haven’t also made it part of their core thinking, then they may only have a form of religion without having the substance of it. Haven’t we all seen how much easier it is to recite expected words, than to embrace them as part of our way of thinking?
(3) Their confidence had clearly crossed into a kind of arrogance akin to this: I have decided it; so it will be. They were under the delusion that they were in control or, to put it better, that they were in full control. Without even mentioning God in their plans at all, they are boastfully confident that there is no doubt that they can do exactly what they have decided. No one should question it. It simply can’t be any other way! James bluntly rebukes them: “You boast in your arrogance” (verse 16).
[Page 221] Steven J. Cole points out that, “ ‘Arrogance’ (4:16) was originally used of wandering hucksters who were full of empty and boastful claims about their cures and other feats that they could accomplish (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament). It came to apply to any braggart.” Braggarts have mere words behind them; until they actually accomplish what they claim, they only have dreams. And that was true of these merchants as well.
James wants them to be as humble as others and recognize “it might not just work out the way you plan.” Even doing what is right and desirable and honorable does not guarantee success. Even having the best and most reasonable plans does not guarantee the desired outcome.
Some of the most spectacular examples of this come from military history and tell us of generals and political leaders who were so overwhelmingly self-assured that anything about God and His feelings on their behavior and actions were irrelevant. Perhaps the twentieth century’s most vivid example of this was Adolph Hitler. When warned that one of his policies would deeply anger the current Pope he responded, “How many divisions does he have?” Nothing else mattered.
From the previous century, the example of Napoleon is even more germane because of its verbal similarity to James’ point,
Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius,
but his pride led to his downfall. He
was about to invade
Napoleon angrily snapped back, “I dispose
as well as propose.” A Christian upon
hearing this remark said, “I set that down as the turning point of Bonaparte’s
fortunes. God will not suffer a creature with impunity to usurp His
prerogative.” Sure enough, Napoleon’s
James’ rebuke (along with the content of the first third of the following chapter) reminds us that the early church not only had many poor people but that it also had individuals who were traveling businessmen (4:13) and even those who were outright rich (5:1). The first century church was, in short, a varied group, as was contemporary Judaism and contemporary society at large.
But that still brings us back to why does James place this where he does in his letter. Is there a scenario that would explain this without there being that dramatic a drastic change in direction after all? Perhaps it is found in the denunciation of pride and arrogance throughout the current section. Is not pride and arrogance at least one of the major causes they would feel justified in whatever criticisms they gave of others (section -12)? Is not an abundant conceit and haughtiness implied by the self-humbling demanded in section 4:7-10?
[Page 223] Indeed is it not part of the undercurrent in verses 1-10 as well, which ends in the quotation, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:10)? In short, the dangers of a puffed up mind frame is dealt with throughout this chapter and the reason he places this particular criticism where he does might well be because of his repeated used of that implied or explicit theme.
One other thing all of the matters discussed in chapter four have in common is that we have the opportunity to do good and we will be judged according to how we use it. In fact this segment of text contains the quite emphatic, “to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” ().
Sometimes folk argue about “the sins of the ignorant” and to what extent does God hold them accountable. James prefers to center on “the sins of the knowledgeable.” People who know better—or should—and choose the wrong path in spite of that. They are simply without excuse.
Some commentators have called a “harsh indictment.” The important thing is not whether it is harsh, but whether it is true. Unfortunately, some truths are “harsh” for they reflect an image of ourselves we prefer not to have. We prefer to gently “dance” around our problems and never being brought face to face with the “demon” that haunts us. But it’s like dealing with a good counselor: if we are never going to face reality, what good can it possibly do us?
File, “True Faith is Not a Friend of this World—Part 2: James 4:1-6.”
 McKnight, James, 330.
 Blomberg and Kamell, 189.
 Moo, 181.
 Luke T. Johnson, “Friendship with God: A Study of Discipleship in James,” in Discipleship
in the New Testament, edited by Fernando F. Segovia (
 Among very many, Steven J. Cole, “Spiritual Adultery and Resolving Conflicts (James 4:4-6).” At: https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-15-spiritual-adultery-and-resolving-conflicts-james-44-6. [May 2014.]
 Amic. , as quoted by Hartin, 213.
 Amic. , as quoted by Ibid.
 Johnson, “Friendship with God,” 173.
 Comfort, 730 .
 S. Michael Houdmann. “What does it mean to resist the devil, and why will resistance cause the devil to flee?” At: http://www.gotquestions.org/resist-the-devil.html. [May 2014.]
 Steven J. Cole, “Resolving Conflicts God’s Way (James 4:7-10). At: https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-16-resolving-conflicts-god%E2%80%99s-way-james-47-10. [May 2014.]
[Page 225]  David M. Edwards, “Draw Near to
 Blomberg and Kamell, 194.
 Ibid. 194.
“A Double Minded
Shirley. “James 4:9.” Part of the “Cup of Coffee Talk”
 Andrew Murray. “Humility.” At: http://www.heavenreigns.com/read/ read_html/humility/humility_13.html. [May 2014.] -- 18 words quoted.
 McCartney, 220.
 McKnight, James, 360.
 McCartney, 220.
 Cathy Deddo. “James 4:11-17.” At: http://www.trinitystudycenter.com/james/ james_4-11-17.php. [May 2014.]
 Jacob Prasch. “Judge Not?” At: http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com/ judgenot.html. [May 2014.]
 On safety and profit see Blomberg and Kamell, 207.
Jones, “James —The Boast.” Posted
[Page 226]  Well worth reading is the unidentified author with the Sovereign Redeemer Assembly who argues that these words must always be used. For one thing, he provides a good illustration of how they can actually be abused into a verbal justification for not actually doing what was said! His article is also interesting in showing what would seem to many to be the verbal gymnastics required to recognize situations where it would not be necessary to use the expression . . . while simultaneously arguing that it is “always” necessary. Except in these particular cases. To distinguish between the two would seem to guarantee anguished souls and needless guilt trips. [Anonymous,] “If the Lord Wills.” At: http://www.outsidethecamp.org/index.htm. [May 2014.]
 McKnight, James, 370, 377.
 Steven J. Cole, “Life Is a Vapor.” At: https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-18-life-vapor-james-413-17. [May 2014.]
 Wall, 222.