In his writings to help Christians grow in maturity, James has already covered topics like our speech, our prejudices, putting faith into action, and the attitude with which we face challenges and trials. The key to growing in all of these ways comes in chapter 4 — humbling ourselves. If we can learn to prefer others and God over self in all things, then we have the foundation we need to be more mature Christians.
I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.
Verses 1–11: Rejecting Prideful Behavior
What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.
James asserts that the enmity Christians have with others is rooted in selfish pride. Do you have problems controlling your tongue as in chapter 3? Pride is to blame. Do your prejudices affect how you treat others as in chapter 2? Pride is to blame. Are you in continual conflict with those around you? Pride is to blame.
Let’s break this down:
- What was the last argument you engaged in online?
- What current events have caused you to lash out at others?
- What physical differences lead you distrust or mistreat others?
- What secular differences between you and other Christians damage the time you spend together?
In all of these cases, pride is at the root of the problem. When we define ourselves by the pride we have in our country, in our symbols, in our institutions, in our race, in our rights, in our politics, in our anything more than our relationship with each other and with God — that’s when we have enmity among one another.
In this section, James says his readers are guilty of behaving from fundamentally wrong motives. They are acting toward each other in bad faith. He says they seek both to fulfill their evil desires and to have friendship with the world, thereby rejecting their spiritual yearning for God. Instead, it’s in our humility that we can draw near to God.
- When I seek the approval of my professional peers more than my spiritual relationship with you, then I am seeking friendship with the world.
- When I let my political allegiances affect how I view scripture and other Christians, then I am seeking friendship with the world.
- When I am willing to justify and forgive something in a person I agree with on secular matters but hold you who has a different view to a harsher standard, I am friends with he world.
No matter how I justify myself or rationalize that I’m fighting for some greater good, such behavior rejects God.
Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.
James also makes the case that we have to reject pride and embrace humility to resist the Devil. Pride and godliness cannot exist hand-in-hand, nor can godly humility and sin. If we can just set aside our pride — all of our pride, self-righteousness, and self-justification — then and only then can we mature. Then we can draw close to God. Then we can let go of our constant criticisms of others and judgmental attitudes. Our foundation is humility.
Verses 13–17: His Will First
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.
Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.
This passage is not a requirement to precede every plan with the words, “If the Lord wills.” Remember the context. James is talking about being humble before God, and being humble means avoiding presumptuous behavior. In his illustration, James portrays a traveling merchant planning out their travel for future markets. There is nothing wrong with planning, but James warns against presuming our futures.
We all know that our lives can make unexpected turns at any moment, but few of us live like we’re aware of it. James wants us to remember God’s hand in our lives. Instead of presuming to plan our lives around our own ambitions, we should humbly seek after a life that will glorify God.
Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion
- “So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.” It seems almost a random statement in context, but James is making a point here. We let our pride sometimes obscure what is good. (“Who is my neighbor?”) He makes it clear, as a summation to his words about humble living, that we must be humble enough to pursue goodness.
- “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” This statement has to be kept in the larger context of apostolic writing and Jesus’s teachings. James is clearly talking about unnecessary and mean spirited criticisms here, not exercising righteous judgment to overcome sin (John 7:24).
- It’s hard to read things like this and think that God is OK with the secular battles we Christians become embroiled in at times, especially when we get caught up in dishonesty and character assassination as a result. It’s only our own pride that justifies such behavior.
James 5 will speak about maturity in the context of where we place our trust.