The way one gets on the right path for life and the way one progresses on that path are at it’s core, the very same in nature. It consists of two things done initially, then over and over again: (1) realize your relationship with God and (2) humble yourself before God. Your lack of being on or progressing on this right path, this wise path, this heavenly path, indeed this Christian path, is due to your lack of 1 or both of these things James lays out in this section of his letter.
1. Realize your Relationship with God (vv. 1-6)
Where does war and fighting come from? (v. 1)
“The cravings that are at war within you.” (v. 1). What’s the problem? The cravings/desires. Where are these desires? In us. There within. And they fight with other desires but they become so overwhelming that it becomes the dominating desire and then one has to fight to see it fulfilled (but I move ahead of the text on this last note).
In the 1930’s, when The Times of London asked Britain’s leading intellectuals what they thought was the biggest problem in the world, author G.K. Chesterton sent back a quick postcard response saying, “I am.”
What’s wrong with your desire? (vv. 2-3) [unfulfilled, self-reliance, selfish motives, selfish goals]
Unfulfilled (v. 2a) – when you don’t have what you desire and can’t obtain what you covet, what do you do? You desire, murder, covet, fight, and war. If the desire is met, then there is no war for the fleeting moment.
Transition: Why don’t you have what you want?
Self-reliant (v. 2b) – “because you don’t ask.” Why don’t you ask? Because your self-reliant and you think you can get things on your own (not realizing how many contingencies there are outside of your necessarily instrumental effort).
But, you may say, “I do ask God! So why don’t I get it?”
Selfish motives (v. 3) – Because you ask with wrong motives!
How do I know they are wrong motives?
Selfish goals (v. 3) – “so that you can spend it on your evil desires.”
Let’s not forget the source and result of this mentality (3:14-16): demons and disorder.
Every fight you have is because there is sin involved in the situation. Either it’s your sin or it’s your fight for holiness in your own life (by not being passive) and your fight for holiness in the lives of those you clash with who love their sin.
Don’t fight over non-sin issues (examples in my life: toothpaste tube or towel on the floor for getting out of shower or car accident we caused for not turning on headlights).
What to do when in conflict: (1) pray; (2) examine your own heart, motives, and goals by the Scriptures; (3) confess any known sin and repent from it; (4) seek to understand the other person and restate what they think in a way they’d agree with (don’t put words in their mouths!); (5) pray for the restoration of the person your clashing with; (6) righteously and graciously deal with the other person’s sin.
What is your relationship with God like? (vv. 4-6) [adultery, enemies, grace contrasted with either God’s jealousy or our envious adulterous hearts]
Adultery (v.4) – see Ezekiel 16 for a dramatic description or Isaiah 54:5-6 (p. 405).
Enemies (vv. 4-5) – the world is hostile to God. If you befriend the world, you are hostile to God. In this sense God is a fundamentalist. There is guilt by association and there is no neutral ground. You must pick sides, in fact you have picked a side, and your living and choosing one side is your opposition to the other. There is no middle ground or compromise in the sides James lays out in this passage.
So we are God’s enemies! So we actively oppose and attack God!
We also betray him like a spouse betrays a spouse. This betrayal is the deepest human betrayal because marriage is the deepest relational union between persons.
You can easily understand how there is no neutrality in adultery. Your spouse can’t just come up to you and say, I wasn’t against you, I was for the other person I slept with. He wasn’t your enemy, because that would be against you, but you didn’t even know this guy (or gal). What would you think if your spouse came up to you and said that? Of course I feel betrayed. Of course I feel violated. You are mine. I am yours. We are one. And you took this union and joined it to another person?
Sin is not merely the breaking of impersonal laws, sin is primarily betraying the personal God, creator, Father, and redeemer. It is adulterous. It is war and enmity.
Grace vs. Jealousy (God’s) (vv. 5-6)
God is jealous.
Exodus 34:14 – You are never to bow down to another god because Yahweh, being jealous by nature, is a jealous God.
Deut 4:24 – For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
Josh 24:19 – But Joshua told the people, “You will not be able to worship Yahweh, because He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not remove your transgressions and sins.
He’s not jealous in a paranoid, self-centered, helpless, insecure type of way, but in a righteous, violated, we are committed to each other and that ought not to be broken type of way.
Transition: We are evil, selfish, adulterers, and attack God’s holiness and incite his righteous jealousy. But God is also firm and gracious (v. 6 quoting Proverbs 3:34). So what are we to do to get on the right path or make progress?
2. Humble yourself before God (vv. 7-10) – Four overlapping characteristics:
Submission/Resistance (v. 7)
Submit to God – “muslim” – this is a willingness and a trust that drives oneself to obey the one he submits to, even (or especially) when one does not understand or in a strong sense disagrees.
Resist is the opposite of submission – that is to not give in or obey, but rather disobey, be insubordinate, rebel against, and be contrary to the one you are resisting.
Notice that these two actions are done simultaneously in a real sense. I’m not saying the devil tempts you personally every time, but you’re always choosing one agenda or the other. Like in the case earlier, there is no middle ground.
The result is that the devil will flee from you.
Draw near (v. 8a)
This speaks of knowing God personally and getting close to him. Communing with him. Bonding with him. Connecting relationally with him where you feel you are getting to know and enjoy him better personally and experientially. This is done often through the means of grace (bible reading, bible teaching, prayer, singing, gathering, solitude, obedience, repentance, the Lord’s Supper, etc.). This is one of the primary reasons we gather weekly.
The result of this is that God will draw near to you. It’s a two way street and God is drawing us and drawing to us. He’s the initiator and main actor, but in this text the emphasis is on the active role we play. We are not fatalists.
Cleaning (v. 8b)
Hands – actions – get rid of sin – wash it away. Think of something you don’t tolerate being on your hand too long. For me, it’s changing diapers after the baby goes number 2. It’s not a drudgery to wash my hands. I don’t feel forced or coerced or indifferent. I’m passionate and enthusiastic and driven. The same should be natural to us if we understood the dirtiness and the grossness of our sin (but we’re born in and live with it so it doesn’t seem as bad as it actually and always is).
Hearts – attitudes and direction (contra “double-minded”) – purity is a whole thing. It’s goal is not partial but complete. A drop of urine in a pitcher of water is not acceptable at the dinner table. Why not? It’s mostly pure! More than 99% of the liquid is pure. But it’s impure, right? So you drink pure water or water only after it’s been purified. So here, our attitudes and desires and goals are often impure and selfish. We negotiate with God. God tells me, stop being content with impure motives, attitudes, and goals. Purify your heart moving toward 100% purity (which will admittedly not be accomplished in this life).
Devastation without Despair (v. 9)
This is a hard verse to apply so I’ve been praying for it. But we need to be devastated by our sin. Look at the commands here: be miserable; mourn; weep, stop laughing but instead mourn and be sorrowful.
Jesus said, “Woe to youwho are now laughing, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25b). Laughter is often the mark of a fool in the OT.
“A carefree, “devil-may-care” attitude is typical of those who are ‘friends with the world.’ They live the hedonist philosophy of ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ a worldview that ignores the terrifying reality of God’s judgment. But even the committed Christian can slip into a casual attitude toward sin, perhaps presuming too much on God’s forgiving and merciful nature. James’s words in this passage directly counter any such attitude. He want us to see sin for what it is – a serious breach in our relationship with a loving heavenly father, a breach that, if not healed, can lead to both temporal and spiritual disaster. James’s insistence that we turn our ‘joy into gloom’ might sound strange in light of Paul’s injunction to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ (Phil 4:4). But the joy Paul speaks about is the joy that comes when we realize that our sins are forgiven in Christ; the joy James warns about is the fleeting and superficial joy that comes when we indulge in sin. True Christian joy can never be ours if we ignore or tolerate sin; it comes only when we have squarely faced the reality of our sin, brought it before the Lord in repentance and humility, and experienced the cleansing work of the Spirit’ (Moo, 195-6).
Now the devastation ought not to lead to despair (or else we couldn’t draw near to God). We have to draw near which means we can’t just whip ourselves all day. That’s one error the devil would like to keep us in. The other error, my error, is not being devastated at all but being ho-hum about my sin.
So God is calling you to humble yourself before him. What does that look like? What does that mean? It means submitting to him and obeying him, resisting the devil, drawing near to God and having him draw near to you, cleansing your hand, purifying your hearts and desires, and being devastated by the reality of our sin, betrayal, adultery, and enmity toward God.
CONCLUSION: the promise and the call
What happens if we do this? What will God do as a result in v. 10? He will exalt us (for his glory and our good). Not our selfish ambitions, but exalt us for his glory and our true good and happiness in him. This is the key to progressing in wisdom and maturity as you walk on the right path. This is the way you get on the right path. You realize your sin for the horror it is and you humble yourself before God knowing that in Christ he will forgive, cleanse, empower, and exalt you. This indeed is true wisdom and the true path to growing in it as a church family and as individuals.