PROSPECTS OF FAITH James 4–5
“Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming” (James 5:7).Patience and prayer are resources that make present sufferings bearable.
Motives and attitudes affect prayer (4:1–6). Humility (vv. 7–10), nonjudgmentalism (vv. 11–12), and trust (vv. 13–17) in the face of injustice (5:1–6) are fitting for believers, as are patience (vv. 7–11) and simple honesty (v. 12). Till Jesus comes we have prayer (vv. 13–18), and each other (vv. 19–20).
Understanding the Text
“What causes fights and quarrels?” James 4:1–4 It’s easy to blame circumstances and other people for conflicts. Sometimes others really are to blame: some folks are simply hostile, always looking for a chance to harm or to fight. But the first place to look when we feel hostility is within ourselves. James’ point is that we become hostile and quarrel with others when they seem a threat to something we want. You’re more likely to fight with a rival for that promotion you want than with another coworker. Jealousy of another person will color the way you act toward them, and how you interpret their actions. There’s not much you or I can do if another person is determined to be hostile. But there’s a lot we can do when we locate the reason for strife within ourselves. First, we can examine our motives, to see if they are in harmony with godliness. Second, we can determine not to use sinful means to reach even a good goal. Third, we can pray for the person(s) with whom we have problems, asking God to help them—and to help us care about them. Finally, we can commit ourselves to the Lord, asking Him to give not what we want, but what we need. “Friendship with the world is hatred toward God” James 4:4. Here as in John, the “world” (kosmos) is sinful human culture, with its complex web of motives, desires, and perceptions that are focused selfishly on life in the present universe. James says that we can’t develop an affinity for the world’s outlook on life and expect to stay friends with God, whose outlook is entirely different. The warning reflects something James just said about prayer. Often our prayers go unanswered “because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (v. 3). It’s not that God begrudges us a good time, or relaxation. But a self-centered attitude, in which a desire for personal gratification shoves concern for God and others aside, will not stimulate prayers that God is willing to answer. This world isn’t a toy shop. And God isn’t an indulgent daddy who buys us anything we want. Especially when the toys that worldly people clamor for are hateful to God! “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” James 4:5–6. “Envy” is a bitter feeling aroused by another’s possession of something we want, whether wealth, popularity, or success. James warns us that “the [human] spirit he caused to live in us tends toward envy.” All those desires that battle in us and cause “fights and quarrels” are rooted in fallen human nature itself. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself oriented to the world that is God’s enemy! But verse 4 emphasizes “chooses.” Desire in itself is not sin. Sin is a choice motivated by the desire. How wonderful that God “gives us more grace,” and so enables us to overcome our natural tendencies. And how important to humble ourselves before Him, and ask for that grace. “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” James 4:11–12 James has called on us to live humble lives. Now he goes on to illustrate it. A person who is quick to judge another’s actions is not humble. He or she has clambered up on the Judge’s bench, grabbed God’s gavel, and pushed Him aside. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge. Remember that when you feel tempted to judge others. You and I aren’t on the bench. We’re standing before the bar, beside the very person whose case we’ve arrogantly determined to try! “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” James 4:13–17. The old school teacher always closed her letters to ex-students with “d.v.” Finally one asked her what the initials meant. The answer was, “dio volente”-if God wills. That’s what James was saying here. Be sure to add d.v. to every plan you make, every intention you express. Arrogance looks ahead and assumes that the future is secure; that the business will prosper, that the body will remain healthy, that loved ones will always be there. The humble person lives with an awareness of man’s frailty, and d.v. is the postscript wisely added to every plan. “Your gold and silver are corroded” James 5:1–6. This powerful condemnation of rich exploiters of the poor seems almost out of place. Yet those who trust in riches, and who trample on the rights of others to pile up wealth, are the antithesis of the humble persons God calls on believers to become. These rich men epitomize the world system which James says is hostile to God. They value material things, which have no lasting worth. And they disdain human beings, whom God says have ultimate value. Their life on earth, which is one of “luxury and self-indulgence,” serves only to prepare them for the “day of slaughter” (divine judgment). Don’t envy the rich and famous. They’ve got it much harder than you and I! “The farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop” James 5:7. Humility does not pay immediate dividends. James was realistic about it. We might as well be realistic too. If you want to get ahead in this world, maybe the “fight and quarrel” approach will work better. But Christians are like farmers. We plant in this life. And we expect to harvest in the next. And like farmers, the only thing we can do till harvesttime comes is to wait. Hopefully, with patience. “The Lord’s coming is near” James 5:8–11. To help us develop patience James said two things. First, “the Lord’s coming is near.” The wait won’t be as long as it sometimes seems. And second, look back in Scripture for examples of those who bore suffering patiently, and in the end were more than repaid by God. You and I will be richly repaid too. “Call the elders of the church to pray over him” James 5:13–18. The Old Testament tells of one king of Judah who became ill and died, in part because he relied “only” on physicians. The particular word used of “oil” here indicates that James did recommend a medicinal use of olive oil in treating the sick. But he expected Christians to rely on God for healing, and to confidently anticipate prayer to be answered. Part of the healing process is confession of sins: the loss of fellowship with God eats at us and makes us more vulnerable to illness. Part of the healing process is prayer by church elders. In combining medical and spiritual treatment we express that dependence on God which is in accord with humility. “Turns a sinner from the error of his ways” James 5:19–20. James closed with this final illustration of humility. The one who has sins needs to be humble, in order to confess his fault when confronted. And the one who confronts needs to be humble as well, lest an attitude of pride drive his brother farther away from the Lord. What wonderful resources God has given us in each other as we wait, together, for the coming of our Lord.
Good Old American “How To”(James 4:1–10)
After years of ministering in churches and seminaries, I’ve noticed a peculiar thing. The first question we Americans ask is, “How?” Whether I’m teaching on Christian education or church leadership, whenever I introduce a concept, someone is bound to ask, “But how can we do that?” Not, “Is this right?” Not, “Is this biblical?” But, “How can we ever do THAT?” It may be this is a human rather than just an American trait. I suspect that James was aware of the “how?” questions in his audience too. Certainly few passages of Scripture have as many active verbs strung together in such a few brief verses as 7–10, the “how to” section that caps James’ discussion of conflict, unanswered prayers, and the need of grace to overcome our innate tendency to envy. The first two verbs suggest general principles. We are to submit to God. And we are to resist the devil. Just HOW we do this is explained by the other verbs in these verses. (1) We “come near” to God. Consciously fix your thoughts on the Lord, and approach Him in prayer. James promises us that when we do, God will bend down close to listen to us. This is always the first step in submission. (2) We “wash . . . hands” and “purify . . . hearts.” Approaching God as sinners, we confess our faults. And though we have been “double-minded” (cf. 1:8), we make a firm commitment to respond, whatever God may ask us to do. (3) We change our “laughter to mourning.” We reject the world system, with its false values. We realize that most of the things the world laughs about actually call for mourning, and most of the things the world finds joy in cast a pall of gloom over God’s universe. Changing our laughter to mourning is exchanging lost man’s perspective on life for God’s, and evaluating all things by His standards. (4) “And He will lift you up.” When we humble ourselves in these ways before God, we sense His loving hands grip us, and lift us up. In humbling ourselves before God, more than our outlook on life is changed. We ourselves are changed! We are raised to newness of life.
Kneel, to be at, as well as on, God’s side.
“A meek man is not a human mouse with a sense of his own inferiority. Rather he may be in his mortal life as bold as a lion and as strong as Samson; but he has stopped being fooled about himself. He has accepted God’s estimate of his own life. He knows he is as weak and helpless as God declared him to be, but paradoxically, he knows at the same time that he is in the sight of God of more importance than angels. In himself, nothing; in God, everything. That is his motto.”—A.W. Tozer