The power of humility

James 4:1-12

4 March 2012

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


James begins this chapter with a question, What causes fights and quarrels among you?ref And when I read that, I want to respond with a question: how does he know???

James's letter is addressed not to one particular church, but to the church scattered among the nationsref. It is a general letter, yet he is able challenge them on a specific issue: What causes fights and quarrels among you?ref

Sadly, we ought not be surprised. Fighting and quarrelling has been the mark of the church almost since day one. In the New Testament we see it in the church in Corinth, the church in Philippi, the church in Ephesus. We see it in the scattered churches that James writes to.

In 1670, the philosopher Spinoza wrote,

I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.

And perhaps the existence of an estimated 38,000 Christian denominations worldwide today is evidence that things have not improved. Someone has said that "The study of church history is the study of conflict and fighting".

Of course, there are some things which we must fight for, such as the correct understanding of the gospel message. But the vast majority of strife between church members is not about such noble themes.

So James' question is an excellent one, one we desperately need to wrestle with: What causes fights and quarrels among you?ref And what on earth should we do about it?

Well, in these verses, James identifies three causes and one cure. He tackles the causes first, and we find them to be that familiar trio of the flesh, the world and the devil.

The causes of quarrels

Cause 1: the flesh. v1-3

The first cause of quarrels and fights comes from within. Verse 1 again, Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?ref

Here, James is describing what the Bible calls our "flesh", or what the NIV often translates as our "sinful nature". The fact is that every Christian is an unfinished restoration job. Within every Christian there are two natures: our new Christ-like nature which God has planted in us, and our old sinful nature (or flesh) that is still very much active and not dead yet. In Galatians we read that those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.ref That old me might be nailed to the cross, but it's not dead yet: it's definitely very much alive.

So we have these two natures within us, one God-loving and one God-hating, and, as James says, they are at war with each other.

We know this, don't we? It is our everyday experience. We want to be—we long to be—godly, gentle, kind, wise and loving, don't we? But over and over again we find ourselves impatient, rude, angry, thoughtless and quarrelsome. Or is it just me?

Fundamentally our flesh makes us selfish. Note that "flesh is" is an anagram of "selfish": flesh is selfish. And it is this selfishness that leads to the fighting and quarrelling. Verse 2, you want something but don't get itref. This section seems to follow on well from the end of chapter 3 where James talks about "selfish ambition" in verses 14 and 16. So it's likely that what these brothers were fighting over is power. They were power-hungry and ambitious for their own gain.

And, James says, this led to killing and coveting and quarrelling and fighting. I doubt they were literally killing each other, though that has happened over the centuries. More likely, their selfish ambition gave rise to anger, which, Jesus, of course, puts on a par with murder in the Sermon on the Mount.

A sure sign of the flesh being strong in our lives is prayerlessness. These people badly needed wisdom, and God promises wisdom to all who ask, James 1. But they weren't asking, verse 2, You do not have, because you do not ask Godref: alongside selfishness sits self-reliance. Even when they do pray, verse 3, they ask for the wrong things with the wrong motives. They should be praying to the glory of God; but they are praying only to indulge themselves.

Cause 2: the world. v4-5

So these people quarrel and fight firstly because they had given in to the flesh, and secondly, because they were in love with the world. The flesh influences us from the inside; the world influences us from the outside.

Now, James normally addresses his readers as "brothers", but in verse 4 of chapter 4 he changes his tone. You adulterous peopleref he calls them. Literally, "you adulteresses!" don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God?ref

James is picking up here on a common Biblical theme of God's people as God's bride. So, Isaiah 54, verse 5, For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his nameref. The prophets use this picture several times, and in each case we find that Israel, the bride of God, is unfaithful. She is an adulteress, abandoning her husband and seeking pleasure and satisfaction outside the marriage relationship.

And God is jealous! In verse 5 there is some ambiguity in the translation, but I think the right understanding is the first footnote that the NIV gives. So verse 5 should read, Or do you think Scripture says without reason that God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us.ref

As human beings we each carry a spirit—it is the life that God breathed into Adam at his creation. And God jealously yearns for this spirit; God is our Creator and he loves us with an exclusive love. God is passionate about us. In the book of Exodus, God says, Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.ref

Imagine that your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend flirted with others, or sought a deeper relationship with others than with you, or, God-forbid, slept with someone else. You would be desperately jealous, wouldn't you? If you weren't, I'd say that there was something badly wrong. We rightly expect utter faithfulness from our partners; anything less is a rejection of your relationship. And so it is between us and God.

Therefore, says James, we are adulterers. We have chosen to be friends not with God, but with the world.

Now, in the New Testament, "the world" means everything around us that is opposed to God. It is corrupted creation, everything and everybody that God has not yet renewed. And characteristics of the world are pride and selfishness and greed.

What does it mean to be a friend of the world? Well, in common with many, I spend most of my week in a "worldly" environment, surrounded by worldly attitudes, such as anger, frustration, greed, deception, envy, ambition, manipulation, materialism, judgementalism, cynicism, self-centredness, lewdness, swearing and all the rest. And, let's be honest, these rub off on me. Back in chapter one James said that one should keep oneself from being polluted by the worldref. But these things do rub off on us, and when they do, we are being a friend of the world and an enemy of God. This is adulterous behaviour! It is a betrayal of our exclusive commitment to God.

The Bible's clear teaching is that we are to be "in the world, but not of the world". We are in the world as salt and light; yet we so easily lose the saltiness, the light so quickly dims. We ought to be influencing the world, but instead it often influences us.

If we are not extremely careful, we each bring these worldly patterns back to the church, and so they fuel our quarrels and fights.

Cause 3: the devil. v7

Thirdly, we are under attack not only from the flesh and the world, but the devil as well. James abruptly mentions the third member of the trio in verse 7, and just as abruptly dismisses him: Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.ref

John tells us that the whole world is under the control of the evil oneref. He will seek to draw us into his sphere, into worldliness. And he will feed and tempt our sinful natures. But we have no excuse for giving into him. He has no power over us. Jesus decisively defeated the devil and the devil knows it. If only we would resist him, he would flee. Yet so often we fall for his temptations and we let him get among us in the church where he will do what he does best: spreading confusion, enmity, fighting and quarrelling.

The cure for quarrels

So with these three lined up against us, what's the cure? How can we resist the flesh, the world, and the devil and become an exception to twenty centuries of church history: a church without quarrelling?

Well, the cure is in verse 6. We need God's grace, and there is only one way to get it. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humbleref. Verse 10, Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.ref

Verses 6-10 are an out-and-out call to repentance.

Being humble means, verse 7, submitting ourselves to God. That is, laying aside our selfish, worldly concerns and devoting ourselves to the glory of God. It seems so simple, but it is much harder than it sounds, because we are very, very proud. This is what we did when we first came to God and said to him, "no longer my way, but your way. I belong to you". And this is what we need to do again every single day of our walk with God.

James shows us what repentance looks like in a number of ways. As we've seen, we are to resist the devil, but the counterpart to that is that we are to return to God. As we turn our backs on the devil, he will flee; as we turn towards God, he will come near. Perhaps the best picture of this is the father at the end of Jesus' story of the prodigal son. As the repentant son dejectedly returns home, his father sees him from a distance and runs to him—not walks, but runs!—and throws his arms around him, and holds a welcome home party for him. God is not reluctant to take us back if we come humbly. Come near to God and he will come near to you.ref

Then James says we must repent of both our external deeds and our internal attitudes: Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.ref James began his letter with double mindedness in chapter 1 verse 8, and the contradiction in our lives between godliness and ungodliness is a big theme for him. Now he urges us to be determined to be single minded about God's glory.

Stop trying to trust both in God and in your old sinful desires; stop trying to look both at God and at the world; stop trying to listen both to God and to the devil: be determined to devote yourself single-mindedly to God.

And we need to show remorse for our sin. In verse 9, James uses powerful language, Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.ref It is not a small thing for the church to be quarrelling. Of course, our normal Christian walk ought to be full of joy—it is the very topic that James starts his letter with in chapter 1 verse 2. But stubbornly sinful people have no right to joy in their walk with God.

The only way to joy in our own lives and in our worship together as a church is through humbling ourselves before God. Verse 10, Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.ref It is as we seek to be humble that he will exalt us. And so God gets the glory.

Our sinful hearts just can't make sense of this, the world doesn't understand it, the devil doesn't understand it. But it is a common theme in the gospels. When Jesus tells the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector praying at the temple, he finishes by saying, For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.ref Ultimately, James is arguing, we must follow in Jesus' own footsteps, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.ref

It is a paradox that, if we seek joy like the world seeks joy, as an end in itself, we will never find it. These believers James was writing to wanted power; they wanted to exalt themselves in the church. But the way they sought it was through selfish, worldly, evil means. They slandered and cursed each other and; they showed partiality and played politics. If only they had humbled themselves, God would have lifted them up, higher than they could possibly imagine.


Let's conclude.

Ultimately, it takes two to fight. If you find yourself engulfed in a quarrel, if you find yourself at odds with a brother or sister, then there is something you can do.

Our first reaction is to grasp selfishly on to what we want and to fight with the weapons of the world, and in doing so we give the devil a foothold.

What God would have us do is to humble ourselves. And God's promise is that he will lift us up. We need to hand over the struggle to God and trust him to work things out, rather than pretending that we can fight on his behalf. Don't feel that you need to oppose the proud: it's God's job; he's promised to do it.

The most powerful weapon in the Christian's armoury is true humility - it will kill off our flesh, disconcert the world, terrify the devil and glorfy God.