an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 4: Maturity in Humility

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 4:1–3

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 4:7–10

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.

James 4:13–17

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.

hands visible above a wooden table as two people are engaged in a discussion

Teaching in Love

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.

James 3:1–10

We teach because we love other people, but it’s also important that we approach our teaching in a loving way. James 3 offers a warning about our teaching — that it matters howwe speak to and about other people. This is an increasingly challenging topic in our modern culture. Our ability to instruct and discuss things in a civil and kind way is steadily deteriorating. As ambassadors of God’s word, we cannot blind ourselves to the way this kind of discourse influences us, and we have to be self-reflective about the way we talk about our faith and beliefs with others.

Am I Teaching or Arguing?

The first thing we need to think about is whether we are discussing God’s word or arguing about it. The easiest way to do this is to look at our own motivations: Am I trying to win, or am I trying to help someone on their journey? If it’s the latter, then we will watch what we say and how we say it. That’s being loving toward that person. On the other hand, if I just want to win, then I’ll treat the other person however it takes for them to back down and let me feel validated. If I’m in a discussion for myself — even if it’s about spiritual topics — then I’m not teaching in love.

This was one of the challenges the Pharisees had in the First Century. Matthew 16:1, Matthew 22:15, Matthew 22:23, Mark 8:11, Mark 10:2 — these are just a sampling of passages where religious leaders come to Jesus to antagonize, argue, or try to paint Jesus into a corner. Those who should have been the most intimate with God’s word used it as a weapon instead of a tool, sought technicalities instead of truth. This is what it looks like to argue instead of teach. If love is our motivator, then we’ll take the sword out of our words and humbly lean on the sword of truth.

Seasoning Our Words

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

Colossians 4:5–6

Theres’s a whole article at The Atlantic about how Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhoodfame) was incredibly intentional about how he used language with children. We should be so thoughtful about the words we use to teach or correct others. Galatians 6:1 and 2 Timothy 2:25 both emphasize the importance of gentleness in correcting one another. It’s when we believe that someone else is wrong that we let our guard down and become verbally harsh. We don’t have to be defensive to defend the truth.

That’s not to say there is never a place for a sharp rebuke, but the overwhelming message of Jesus and His apostles is that when we teach, we should do so with an attitude of gentleness, humility, and love.

But What About That One Time?

There are indeed times where we find Christ and His apostles using stronger words to correct or rebuke. Galatians 2:11 – 14 contains a record of Paul publicly rebuking Peter for hypocrisy and prejudice. 2 Timothy 2:16 – 18 has Paul comparing a couple of false teachers to a disease that needs to be removed. In Matthew 12:33 – 37, Jesus calls the Pharisees in his audience a group of vipers. And there are certainly a few more examples where Jesus or an apostle does use harsh words in their instruction.

The thing to keep in mind with these is that they are an exception rather than the rule. That Jesus used harsh words a handful of times over the course of His three-year ministry is not justification for nightly online tirades or frequent mean-spirited arguments. That we see Paul publicly rebuking Peter once for public sin does not mean we need to turn every disagreement into a spectacle. Proverbs 16:32 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.”

Conclusion

Our love for the world and our fellow Christians will drive us to teach; it will cause us to instruct, correct, explain, and even rebuke when needed. Whatever the need, we should fulfill it with love. We have to fight the urge to let misunderstanding or misapplication of God’s word drive us to angry or mean-spirited conduct. We need to avoid tools like sarcasm and insults. We have to be better than that, and we can be if we first fill ourselves with the same love Christ had when He went to the cross. If that’s our starting point, then we can approach our opportunities to teach with love and gentleness.

Photo by Nik MacMillanon Unsplash

Hand Over Hand

nes

I introduced my daughter to the joys of the original Super Mario Bros. a couple of weeks ago. Of course, to do it right, this isn’t run in emulation, downloaded to the Wii U virtual console, or any other non-authentic experience. She’s seeing the game in full 8-bit glory running off of the NES I got from my parents some 25 or so years ago. She’s had the privilege of blowing off the cartridge, and she even got to use an original NES controller.

At first, I just handed her the controller and let her have at it. Unsurprisingly, she figured out how to move and jump all by herself. Where she had more problems was in coordinating those two elements. She probably spent a solid five minutes repeatedly running headlong into the first goomba until she successfully jumped over it. Then she successfully jumped over a few other obstacles, but the second pit proved to be too great a challenge.

Eventually, my daughter asked for help, and we began playing the game hand over hand. At first, I held the controller with her thumbs on top of mine.  After a few minutes, we switched positions, and something really interesting happened. At first, her thumbs were very tense, and she would press buttons without guidance. After a few repetitions, however, she relaxed, fully trusting that I could help her through the obstacles that lay ahead if she would just give up control and let me.

Trust in His Hands

This is the type of complete trust we should have in our own Heavenly Father. Psalm 56:3 simply says:

When I am afraid, I will trust in you.

I Peter 5:6 – 7 speaks of trust this way:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

Finally, here’s how Jesus addresses this kind of trust in Matthew 6:25 – 34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

God is there holding His hands over ours, but we so want to take control from him. My little girl learned, through trial and error, that I would guide her through the parts of Super Mario Bros. that were giving her troubles, but she had to relax and let me have that control. Sometimes all we have to do to give God control is relax.

Releasing Anxiety

So many things tempt us to tense up and grow anxious. People on the news tell us of terrible events from around the world, and they do so in a way that encourages stress and discouragement. Editorialists and pundits tell us what we should be stressing out over and what we should be feeling angry or fearful about. There are the daily stresses that seem to pile up so much. These influences and others tempt us to misalign our priorities and try to seize control from God.

Jesus and His apostles tell us to do the opposite. This is a way we should be separate from the world. Instead of letting these things tense us up, we should be simply giving control over to God and letting Him guide us. Let’s humble ourselves under His hands and trust Him to guide us before all of the obstacles this world places before us.

Pride and Discouragement

I’m a good public speaker. I say that without reserve. I have few strengths, but I know that’s one of them. I’ve given talks on technology, on autism, on arts integration, and I’ve delivered more than a few sermons in my time. My style is fast-paced, witty, sometimes appropriately sarcastic, and I enjoy ending on an inspiring note. In a sermon, I’ll seldom keep you sitting for longer than twenty minutes (thank you, Mark Twain), and I slave over having some of the best sermon slides you’ll see in a church of Christ. I take pride in my speaking ability. As I said, it’s one of my few real strengths.

I sometimes find it disheartening, then, how seldom I get to speak. Right now, we do not have an employed pulpit preacher at our congregation, and a group of men are distributing the preaching among a few guys in the congregation. I look at some upcoming topics, and I immediately think of the research I’ve done on that subject or how my line of work positions me perfectly to address that issue, and then someone else gets picked to talk. Sometimes months go by between my being able to exercise my one strong talent.

And it rankles when I feel passed over. I have to check my attitude when I see individuals who are not very good public speakers get placed in the pulpit again and again while I merely sit and take notes for the congregational blog, at times desperately trying to reword parts of their lessons to better communicate the points they are making. Then the speaking list for the next couple of months appears, and I see myself not on it again. I feel I’ve been punched in the stomach.

What sours my attitude all the more is that, in my own head, I think I know who is discouraging my inclusion as a speaker, and I think I know why – which leads to battling feelings of bitterness and resentment. I have to stop and check my attitude during Bible class, during meetings, even during social events. I’ve also had to quell a certain amount of internal participation discouragement in general, a feeling that makes me want to withdraw from participating altogether, so maybe I’ll stop accidentally reinforcing those negative stereotypes I think others have of me. I think, “If they’re just going to assume this of me anyway, why bother?”

But the truth is, I have to remind myself it comes down to pride. Yes, I’m a pretty good speaker – certainly better than average. But that should not afford me special treatment. I John 2:16 reminds us that pride is of the world; it has nothing to do with spiritual service. Mark 7:22 says that pride defiles a man, and Proverbs 29:23 says pride will ultimately bring you low. That’s what pride is doing to me when I let these things discourage me, when I let pride tell me that I don’t want to lead worship, or lead Bible class, or participate in other ways because that pride has been hurt.

What ways do you find pride getting in the way of your own godly service? In what ways do you catch yourself putting self before Christ? There are many ways our pride can misguide us, but we just have to be reflective, knowing that God lifts up the humbled heart, that he exalts the prostrate spirit. I think I know where I have to overcome pride in my own life. Where do you face similar challenges?

Abstaining from Ridicule

Yesterday, one of my younger cousins posted this to Facebook:

Let’s try to be humble, rational people; truth needs no help from mockery and laughter in its defense (even if we are surrounded by those who agree with us that an opposing viewpoint is false)…Mockery says, ‘I am better’…and what better way is there to cloud judgment than to be prideful?

I remember that a congregation I once attended offered a World Religions class during Bible Study time. The teacher, I think, did a fine job trying to teach us about other belief systems as respectfully as he could while comparing and contrasting those systems to the Bible. Many of the class members, however, were far from respectful. Every class, people would make jokes about aspects of another faith they thought was silly, and all I could think was, “I hope we have no visitors who believe that.”

We do the same when it comes to Intelligent Design versus the Big Bang and evolution and a million other differences between you, me, and others. The fact is, we ridicule other peoples’ seemingly outlandish beliefs so we feel better about our own leaps of faith. We are building ourselves up by tearing others down. We might call it “all in good fun,” or “just a joke.” In my line of work, we call it bullying, and I don’t appreciate it in my classroom. I appreciate it even less when other Christians are engaged in it, or, even worse, I find myself roped into it.

Think of the Samaritan by the well in John 4. When she started asking about details of worship, Jesus doesn’t ridicule her for following different traditions than His culture. Instead, He points her mind away from physical matters and toward spiritual matters. In Acts 17, when Paul visits Athens, he doesn’t make fun of them for all of the gods they worship. Instead, he finds common ground in their religious practices to begin teaching them about the Christ. Even when Jesus is harsh with the Pharisees in Matthew 23, he doesn’t stoop to mocking them while pointing out their hypocrisies.

It’s easy to mock. It’s easy to make someone else’s beliefs sound ridiculous. For example, I once saw Christianity explained thusly:

The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil source from your soul that is present because a talking snake convinced a rib-woman to eat from a magical tree.

How do you feel about that description? Does it amuse you? Does it make you angry? Do you want to sit down with the author and explain your views in a less ridiculous way? Does it make you care about their perspective or resistant to it? Now how do you think ridiculing the beliefs and convictions of others does any good for the cause of Christ? It doesn’t. It just makes us look bad.

Let’s remember that we are to watch our tongues (James 3) and that we should be striving to – that is putting a great deal of effort into – living peaceably with those around us (Romans 12:18). Let us put away ridicule and mockery and seek more open and honest dialogue with those around us.