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James 4:1-10
Bob DeGray
March 4, 2001

Key Sentence

The world’s grip on your soul can only be conquered by surrender!


I. The world constantly grasps for a grip on your soul (James 4:1-5)
II. Surrender is the only way out (James 4:6-10)


        White knight. Black knight. Tender offer. Hostile takeover. The language of corporate finance is as specialized and colorful as anything in medicine or engineering. Let’s say you’re a company that is doing pretty well in your marketplace. You have little debt and significant value, but it’s not reflected in your stock price. You are a prime candidate for a hostile takeover. A competitor or group of investors makes a tender offer - not a tender offer, but a tender offer - for your stock, in order to buy up your company and merge them. Your corporation will lose its identity, its cohesion, its business plan, and its employee benefits and you will go through restructuring and lay-offs. But it doesn’t matter how damaging this is, because the hostile group has offered your stockholders two or three times the present value of their stock to sell out. When the stockholders vote to sell, the hostile group becomes the new stockholders, and since they own the company they can do anything they want.

        There are several ways to avoid hostile takeovers. They have colorful names like the pac man, the poison pill, the golden parachute. But most have to be in place before the hostilities begin, or they won’t work. If you are already the subject of a takeover attempt one of the few things that you can do is look for what is called a ‘white knight.’ Like a hero out of a fairy tale, a white knight is another group of investors who come in and offer your stockholders an even better price for their stock, but with the understanding that they will be benevolent, will keep your business plan and corporate structure and employees in place and in general will rescue you from the fate you faced. You surrender to the white knight and allow him to take over.

        In our study of James today we will see the same dynamic taking place in the human soul. The world is always trying to achieve a hostile take-over of the soul of a Christian. Satan himself wants our evil desires and our sinful tendencies to have full reign over our lives and to result in all kinds of sin, conflict, disorder and hostility to God. This is clearly not in our best interests, but like a hostile raider, the world, the flesh and the devil don’t care if they destroy the target in the process of taking it over.

        The only thing that can rescue us is surrender to the white knight, to Jesus. He too will take over our souls, but in our own best interests, that we might have a closeness to God, purity and an exaltation which a hostile takeover would make impossible. But we have to surrender, to give up pride and humbly submit to his control. The world’s grip on your soul can only be conquered by surrender.

I. The world constantly grasps for a grip on your soul (James 4:1-5)

        James 4 shows first how the world tries to grab hold of our souls. Let’s read verses 1 to 5 and examine the mechanics of this hostile take-over. James 4, 1 to 5: What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. 4You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?

        In verse 1 James describes in very compact terms the inner source of outer strife. In fact James is so intense that the phrase doesn’t even have a verb. It literally says ‘from where fights and where quarrels among you?’ ‘Fights and quarrels’ is literally ‘wars and battles.’ As in English, both were used to describe physical conflicts between tribes or nations. In a metaphorical sense, though, the words can describe any conflict. For example ‘We are entereing a culture war’; ‘Churchill always loved a parliamentary battle’;. The Christians to whom James wrote were engaged in such battles with each other. This resulted, no doubt, in the sins of the tongue - harsh words, slander, criticism - James has already mentioned. It’s sad that bitter disputes characterize Christians. The 17th century Jewish writer Spinoza observed: ‘I have been amazed that persons who profess the Christian faith – and thus love, joy, peace, and charity to all – should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the most obvious sign of their religion.’

        What is the source of these wars and battles among believers? James cites the passions or desires which wage war within us. The war within leads to the war with others. ‘Passions’ translates the word ‘hedone’, from which we get our word ‘hedonism’ – the belief that pleasure is the chief good in life. In Luke 8:14 Jesus describes those who fell among the thorns as ‘choked by life’s ... pleasures.’ Titus 3:3 says people are ‘enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.’ It is the desire for pleasure that wages war in the soul. R Kent Hughes says “these conflicting desires make the inner life a battleground. The old nature with its focus on personal pleasure battles against the new nature, and usually pleasure seeking dominates. But the pleasure seeking person cannot focus on others, so there is continual conflict.” Christians who have succumbed to this pleasure centered life are walking civil wars, whose desires bring fighting and war to the church, to their families and even to the world.

        If James’ readers struggled with this inward desire for pleasure and self satisfaction, how much more we who live living in a culture where self satisfaction is deemed to be the highest good. The pursuit of pleasure consumes our land and dominates our economy and many of our churches. Christianity is often presented as the source of an affluent and successful life. Hughes says: “Christianity becomes the spiritual equivalent of designer clothes and Chivas Regal – something to bring life pleasure.”

        In verse 2, James goes on to describe the process by which desire leads to sin. The New American Standard captures his meaning: “you lust and do not have so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel.” First comes desire, then frustration of that desire, and then the sin that expresses the frustration. The problem is that desires can never be satisfied: their apparent satisfaction only creates even stronger desires that must be satisfied the next time. Samuel Johnson said: “of all that have tried the selfish experiment, let one come forth and say he has succeeded. He that has made gold his idol, has it satisfied him? He that has toiled in the field of ambition, has he been repaid? He that has ransacked every theater of sensual enjoyment, is he content? Can any answer in the affirmative? Not one!”

        An intriguing experiment shows that a male butterfly will ignore a living female butterfly of his own species in favor of the painted cardboard one, if the painted one is big. If the image is bigger than he is, bigger than any female butterfly ever could be, a male butterfly goes for the cardboard. Nearby, the real, living female butterfly waits in vain. In the same way our unbridled desire and our fantasies seek after more pleasure than reality apart from God has to offer. Unable to get what we want, we vent our frustration in anger, in battle, in war, and even in murder. James literally accuses his readers of murder. Is this possible? Many commentators point to the presence among early Christians of converts who had been Zealots, committed to gain their freedom by violence. Perhaps it was one of these who committed murder in the church. If you think this is far fetched, remember the example of King David, who in his desire for Bathsheba resorted to murder to get what he wanted.

        Even if no murder had taken place in the churches James addressed, his use of this term would not be extreme. James undoubtedly remembers that Jesus defined heart hatred as equivalent to murder. Matthew 5:21 “You have heard it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” Our inward war almost always leads to this kind of murder - to anger and bitterness.

        James goes on to say that not even prayer can solve this problem. It should be able to: “you don’t have because you don’t ask.” The implication is you need to ask God to supply your needs - and he would supply if they were real. But since these are only selfish desires, even if you do ask, God won’t answer. Verse 3: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Here your inner desires have caused you to play false with God: asking from him what you know he ought not give. This is the “Lord, let me win the lottery” kind of prayer. “I promise if you do I’ll tithe” And use the other ninety percent to even further immerse myself in the pleasures of this world - which as we have just seen would inevitably lead me again to anger, frustration and sin. God doesn’t answer prayers like this because he is concerned with what is really good for us, not with what we childishly think would be fun.

        The world is continually trying to get a hold of our souls. Our own inner desires are part of the conspiracy, working together with worldly pleasures and temptations to draw us away from God. Verse 4: “You adulterous people, don't you know friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Strong words: James calls us adulteresses. I don’t think he is referring to a sin practiced by female believers. Instead, he is using the language of the Old Testament, in which the people of Israel constantly turned away from God to follow idols and the pleasures of the nations. God called this adultery: spiritual unfaithfulness. This is the adultery we fall into if we pursue human pleasures: we become friends with the world. We become enemies of God.

        This is a painful thought –that a Christian for whom Christ died should lower himself to live again as an enemy of God. But our own experience confirms that some who have apparently made a real commitment to Jesus Christ, live as if that commitment never happened, as if they were still God’s enemies. There are Christians who take all their pleasure and all their entertainment from things that mock God, from things that ignore God, from pleasures that God has specifically forbidden. In doing so they become by their own choice enemies of God and hostile to him.

        The question these truths raise is simple but profound: what has a grip on your soul? Have your inner desires so taken control that worldly pleasures are in charge? Are you better friends with the world today than you were a year ago? Or are you closer to God? Are you his adversary in achieving his goals for you, your family and the world? Or are you his ally? Being on the world’s side didn’t involve a huge and sudden decision on your part. Rather it was the gradual surrender to more and more of your own desires, that moved you out of God’s camp and into the enemy camp.

        Verse 5, which I take to be the concluding thought in this section, is one of the more difficult verses in James. It either says we must be sensitive to these issues because of the strength of our own desires, or it says that God is profoundly affected by these issues because of the strength of his desire for us. Listen as I read it again: “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?” Though James refers to the teaching of Scripture he is not directly quoting a verse, but instead affirming general Old Testament teaching. So we cannot turn to a specific verse to answer the questions this verse raises.

        The central question is whether the desires seen in this verse are desires we have or desires God has. The grammar could support either. In favor of the understanding that we have these strong desires is the immediate context in which our desires are being analyzed, and the fact that the word desire or envy in this verse is a word usually used negatively. It cannot be easily applied to God’s desire or envy. Further, the first part of the next verse says that God gives more or greater grace: that would mean he gives grace greater than the desires described here as strong or intense.

        But it is also possible to understand this verse as referring to God’s desires. Though the word is not used of God in the New Testament, the thought it conveys fits God. He is a jealous God, angered and distressed when his people turn away from him. Many Scripture passages testify to this jealousy. We might feel it unworthy of him, but it is in fact an emotion reflecting his love for us, and his justice, his desire that we do what is right. The New American Standard sees verse 5 referring to God’s desire this way: “he jealously desires the Spirit which he has made to dwell in us.” Those who are redeemed are the dwelling place of His Spirit, the object of his direct affection, and therefore the objects of his jealousy when they turn to other things.

        So both understandings of this verse make sense, and though James can only have meant one of these two things, it is very difficult to decide which one. It is my opinion, but only my opinion, that the first understanding fits the context and the flow of his argument better than the second. But I’m not able to be dogmatic about it.

II. Surrender is the only way out (James 4:6-10)

        What we need to do is focus on what is clear: the inward battle faced by every Christian. We quarrel, fight, become friends with the world system, and pursue its pleasures because of the evil desires within us. How do we get out of this mess? James tells us in verses 6 through 9: 6But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." 7Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

        It’s not surprising to find that the answer to this dilemma is grace. It is a little surprising to find James giving us this answer. We expect it from Paul, and in fact in Romans chapters 7 and 8 Paul gives this answer. It’s somewhat comforting, to find that James gives the same answer. The strength of our inner desires can only be conquered only by the strength of God’s greater grace. As high as our desire mounts, God’s grace mounts higher. John Blanchard once wrote that “for daily need there is daily grace; for sudden need, sudden grace; for overwhelming need, overwhelming grace.” An artist once submitted a painting of Niagara Falls for an exhibition, but neglected to give it a title. The gallery, faced with the need to supply one, put up the words: “more to follow.” The falls, ever flowing, pouring over in a flood are a fit emblem of God’s grace. There is always more to follow!

        But James does specify a requirement for the experience of this grace: humility. This is the force of his quotation from Proverbs 3:34 and this thought dominates the verses that follow. God’s gift of sustaining grace can be received only by those willing to admit their need and accept it. Those too proud to submit never experience grace. We can be immersed in a sea of grace, but seas occupy the lowlands, not the proud heights. If we are to swim in that sea we must humble ourselves.

        The problem, of course, is that authentic humility has never been in style and certainly it isn’t today. Our rebellious world has embraced “the illusion that the human species is the sole crown of the cosmos, arbiter of good, touchstone of truth, fashioner and designer of destiny” to quote Carl Henry. Humanism proclaims that “man is the measure of all things.” And the world has bought this hook, line and sinker.

        R. Kent Hughes says that “this command grates like fingernails across the chalk board of contemporary culture.” Today people attend classes to learn assertiveness, and pay a lot of money to be trained in the techniques of dominance. ‘Assert yourselves’ sounds better to contemporary ears than ‘Submit yourselves’: “Assert yourself before the Lord and he will exalt you.” That would be a popular gospel today. But it’s not the gospel of Christ. His good news is of grace for those who will submit.

        Submission is letting God be God, letting him take charge of our lives, explicitly handing over to God the right to tell us what to do. This is one of the areas in which I struggle. I’m perfectly willing to let God tell me what to do as along as it is what I would have done anyway. But if He seems to be telling me to do something I don’t like, then I become the master of excuses and evasions. I fail to submit.

        What does submissiveness look like? James tells us first that it means resisting the devil. Satan is the evil ruler of the world system which wants to get hold of our souls: partnered with the evil desires of our fallen nature, he has great success. But if we oppose and resist the desires that drive us to sin, then Satan’s goal is thwarted. Paul has given us a wonderful picture of opposing Satan in Ephesians: putting on the full armor of God. But the thought James gives is much simpler: he links resisting the devil with drawing near to God. Because of Satan’s overwhelming sinfulness he cannot stand to be anywhere near God’s presence. Therefore if we will draw near to God we will simultaneously resist the devil and draw away from him. If we turn to see the face of God and focus our attention on him alone, a quick glance over our shoulder will show us that view of Satan we most want to see, his back side as he flees - not from us, but from the presence of the one he most fears.

        Praise God that the responsibility of drawing near is not left to us alone. James says ‘draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’ This was the prodigal son’s experience when he drew near his home: “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and wept.” The father drew near the son even as the son drew near the father. Inch toward God, and he will step toward you. Step toward God and he will sprint toward you. Sprint toward God, and he will fly to you! Isn’t this the best evidence of all of grace? We fallen creatures, who still desire sinful things even after we are redeemed, are given the privilege of drawing near to God, being in his presence, enjoying the light of his face, the fellowship of his Spirit, the love of his Son? It is only by grace, not by any works we have done, that we are given this privilege. And is there any other way to come except humility? Pride bars the door to his presence. Pride refuses to bow to him. But if in humility we recognize our entire need of his grace, we can come. James details this submission in the rest of verse 8 and in 9: Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” James has never been more blunt than he is here, addressing his readers as sinners and double minded rather than as beloved. If we are to humble ourselves it must be by turning from our sin, by turning from the evil desires that wage war in our souls. In doing so we repent both of the external behaviors: cleanse your hands; and of the heart attitudes: purify your hearts. Cleansing and purifying were first used to describe the ceremonies that set the priests apart in the Old Testament, but through the years they came to mean ethical purity, purity both in deeds and in attitudes. The Psalmist said clearly that both clean hands and a pure heart were needed by those who would stand before the Lord, those who would draw near to him.

        In my experience, the problem of submission is not in recognizing or even confessing my sin, but is in resolving to change. I have this attitude that I’m not going to succeed anyway, so it’s no good promising change that can’t happen. I seek forgiveness but I avoid true change because I’m not willing to throw myself on the mercy of God for real purifying. I’m confessing my sin now, but hanging onto it for next time.

        What should our attitude be as we turn from these sins that have polluted our hands and hearts? Our attitude should be one of mourning. Jesus taught James that those who are blessed are the ones who mourn, and both Jesus and James use the term to mean mourning over sin. We learn this language from prophets like Joel and Jeremiah and others who teach “turn back to God with all your hearts, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning.” This doesn’t mean joy and laughter have no part in the Christian life. Joy is an integral part of worship, and is both commanded and expected of God’s people. Joy leads to laughter, to the kind of laughter that bubbles over from a heart that is right with God and with others. But we also mourn our sin, mourn when we fail God, mourn the price Jesus paid for our sins, as we look upon the one who was pierced for our transgressions. We mourn and do not laugh.

        There is in fact a laughter to be avoided. It is the laughter that mocks at sin, the laughter of every situation comedy on every network, the laughter that makes a joke of evil, that raises an eyebrow at righteousness, that mocks those who desire purity, and smirks at God’s standards. It is the laughter that conspires with sin. Turn on any of these programs this week, and you’ll see laughter that is hostility toward God. And if you are laughing with it, then perhaps you need to be mourning your sin.

        How does James summarize? Verse 10 “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” Humble yourselves. God gives grace to the humble. It is in a surrender that we conquer. Sometimes down is the only way up. Last week in verses that began the train of thought now being completed, we read the first part of the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. I intentionally didn’t read the whole thing, because the process James was describing wasn’t complete until this moment. I’d like to read you the parable now as we close, because it captures the attitudes we’re talking about, attitudes we need today as we go before the Lord.

        Let me ask you to stand to hear this Scripture. In many churches this is the tradition: believers stand to hear God’s Word. Stand now and listen to Luke 18, 9 to 14: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' 13"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' 14"I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

        How do you avoid a hostile takeover of your soul? Only by surrender to Jesus. The only way to loosen the world’s grasp on your soul is surrender.