James 4 (AD 48)
Some Christians claim that their decision-making, attitudes and opinions are always correct and always good because they have the Holy Spirit living in them. God – via James – disagrees.
Other Christians become despondent when they feel a weight of ungodly desires and attitudes. They imagine that if they were better, they’d be rid of those feelings by now. God – via James – disagrees.
The truth is that we all have “desires that battle within” us (v.1). A Christian is a new creation, with the Holy Spirit in us to make as think, speak, want and act more like God. But we also still have sinful instincts against which the apostles repeatedly wrote of our having to fight, as James so graphically pointed out in 1:14:
“each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed”.
We are all in submission to something.
Either we submit to godless desires, or godly ones. Being a Christian doesn’t spontaneously make us better people; it makes us saved people with God in us, to make us more like him as we fight our sinful desires.
Verses 7-9 give several steps towards more godly living:
- “submit to God”. Some of that can be achieved by removing our ‘Yeah but’ response to parts of the Bible designed to shape our attitudes and behaviours. How many times have we thought ‘Yeah but’ when God tells us to serve and pray for our enemies, avoid gossip, hate all lies or practice radical generosity?
- “Resist the devil”. Martin Luther used to talk at Satan, although Satan couldn’t hear him. There are worse ideas, and thinking of your godless traits as being specifically Satanic helps to breed a dislike for them that blunts the arrows of temptation. It can be helpful too, when contemplating our sin, to remember that Satan loves those sins.
- “Come near to God and he will come near to you”. Talk to him, read what he said and think about it; then talk to him, read what he said and think about it some more. And tell your friends.
- “Wash your hands…and purify your hearts”. Don’t allow sinful patterns of thinking or behaviour to fester or grow in your mind, but be active in your life of confession and requests for forgiveness, and for a greater awareness of your sin so that you can deal with it
- “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom”. Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 5:4 when he mentioned the blessings that come from an attitude that grieves over our own sinfulness. The glory of the cross is not that we no longer regard ourselves as sinners. Quite the opposite. We have an ever-keener sense of our own sinfulness that comes in proportion to our gratitude at having been rescued from it by Jesus.
- “Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up”. Having that attitude of grief means that we’re not trying to force a better feeling about ourselves (which is never very effective). Instead, God pours his love into us which will make us far more loved and secure than any person or anything we say to ourselves. It’s when we plumb the depths of awareness of our sinfulness that we enter into the most profound, visceral gratitude for all that God has done for us and all that he is.
A Christian isn’t one who doesn’t battle with sin. A Christian is one who declares war on their own sin every day, while living in gratitude that God has defeated it, once and for all.