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Lessons from James 4

How do prosperity and pride go together? Isn’t prosperity, after all, something we want for ourselves and our children? Perhaps the better question is this: how can we distinguish between our needs and our wants?

Rhetorical questions emerge in James 4 as a literary framing device. In fact, the chapter opens with such a question by combining quarrelsomeness with greed. However, the question reverses the usual sequence where cause logically leads to effect. Here we are first confronted with effect, and then with cause:

Where do wars and fights come from among you?

James 4.1a

To put it simply --- the real source of our belligerence and eagerness to fight (even over inconsequential matters) resides in a selfish craving for more and more. Our infighting is the blatant result of an insatiable greed for more when that more cannot be realized, consumed, or used.

We assert ourselves and even kill because of this unreasonable drive for excess. We fight because we lust, and we lust because we cannot achieve. All of our murderous wishes to have more than we need or even can use ultimately result in cycles of disappointment followed by ruin. Our lust never brings the satisfaction we desire (Jas 4.2-3).

And when others succeed where we have failed, we become envious of their success. We do not necessarily want what they have; we just want them not to have it. We know all too well that our life is petty. That it is a failure. And a failure it must be, for we either avoid prayer itself or pray to receive more than we can reasonably use. Our lust goes far beyond excessive need.

We know in ourselves that something is wrong. As adulterers and adulteresses who have no regard for the holiest of vows, we court the world’s favor. And by doing so, we place ourselves beyond the favor of God. Our friendship with the world brings about a deep-seated enmity towards God. We and the world become friends. But we and God become enemies (Jas 4.4).

There may be, as Scripture indicates, a spirit within us that lusts for envy (Jas 4.5). But God intervenes with grace.

“God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.”

James 4.6b

If we are submissive, God accepts us. If we withstand the devil, the devil flees in defeat. This resistance is a telling paradox. The proud are resisted by God; the devil is resisted by the humble in spirit. Indeed, the humility which the world considers weakness becomes the very quality which God uses to humiliate the devil (Jas 4.7-8).

This resisting of the devil, though, must be done by our renouncing of an evil past. Our shallow and empty laughter must be turned into genuine mourning and heaviness (Jas 4.9). Mere words will not suffice. We must turn to God in true regret of our wrongs. It is then at our lowest moment that God draws near and lifts us up.

Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.

James 4.10

Personal failings all too often become the topic of malicious conversation among brethren. What drives this need to seek and find fault in others? Perhaps it is our intense dislike for the world and its values that drives us into a feeding frenzy against any who may falter in their own struggle against the world. Or maybe our excessive indulgence and self-love makes the censuring of other brethren a rather easy task.

We speak evil of others. We sneer with our words. We find fault of all we see. Ultimately, we place ourselves in the smug position of lawgiver, rather than lawbreaker (Jas 4.11). Rather than doing, we judge the doings of others.

God alone is able to save or condemn. But we usurp that role in our feeble attempts to champion righteousness. Without realizing it, we assume a role which only God can fulfill. The world may make us the enemy of God, but we make ourselves into the instructor of God. Indeed, we would judge God on how this world should be run. We would become the rival of God.

There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?

James 4:12

We would do well to heed the words of the Lawgiver.