Equal in His Eyes (James 4:1-17)
Equal in His Eyes
A tribe of Native Americans had a unique practice for training young braves. On the night of a boy’s thirteenth birthday, he was blindfolded and taken miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the midst of thick woods. He had to stay there all night by himself.
Every time a twig snapped, he probably visualized a wild animal ready to pounce. Every time an animal howled, he imagined a wolf leaping out of the darkness. Every time the wind blew, he wondered what more sinister sound it masked.
After what seemed like an eternity, the first rays of sunlight lightened the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path. Then, to his utter astonishment, he saw the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow. It was the boy’s father, who had been there all night long.
Likewise, God is always present with us in our trials. His presence is unseen, but it is more real than life itself.
One of the biggest challenges Christians face is looking at what someone else has and then being jealous of that. And the object of jealousy does not necessarily have to be money or material possessions like a car or a house. It could be the relationship one has with a spouse, or children, or jealous of someone else’s relationship with God. Jealousy is nothing new; it is nearly as old as the human race.
The Philistines envied Isaac in Genesis 26:14. Joseph’s brothers were jealous that God revealed visions to Joseph and they sold him, in Genesis 37:11.
Even among Christians, jealousy is nothing new. It appears that the whole context of the letter of James is jealousy between wealthy Christians and poor Christians. And it is easy for each one to judge the spirituality or the Christianity of the other. When we lived in Romania, I was riding in a car with one of the Romanian Christians and we drove past a new neighborhood that had been built and the houses there were large by Romanian standards - maybe 1500 square feet. And the Romanian commented on the pretentiousness of someone who would live in such a large house. I tried to gently point out to him that one’s house often reflects the needs that someone has with their family and it does not necessarily indicate one’s love of money. In fact, I told him that 1500 square feet (140 square meters) is a rather small house in the United States.
A poor Christian could easily judge a wealthy Christian as being materialistic. Rachel and I learned that the son of a friend of ours owns a Lamborghini. If you hear that, do you automatically think that such a man is probably worldly? Does it matter how faithful he is in the church and church work? Does it matter how much he gives? Or do we automatically judge him as worldly because he drives a car that is twice as expensive as our house?
A wealthy Christian - especially in the day and time that James lived - could easily judge a poor Christian as being in a bad relationship with God. Doesn’t the Bible teach that God blesses faithfulness? If that is true, and one is poor, then he is not as faithful to God as he should be. Maybe he wastes his money. Maybe he is lazy. Maybe he is not using his abilities God gave him as he should. The fact is, it is easy to judge based on external appearances.
When Jesus’ brother, James, writes the churches of Christ which grew up out of the synagogues scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, he dealt with this jealousy - even animosity - between wealthy Christians - the “haves” - and the poor Christians - the “have-nots.” As early as 1:9-10, James talks about the brother in “humble circumstances” and the “rich man.” James will use the word “rich” five times in his five chapters. He uses the word “poor” four times, all in chapter 2 (2:2-3, 5-6), but there appears to be that issue that is behind practically all James has to say.
This evening, I want us to feed on the fourth chapter of James and we ought to learn some lessons here that will challenge us and strengthen our spirits.
YOU DO NOT HAVE BECAUSE YOU DO NOT ASK - 4:1-5:
These Christians were engaging in quarrels and conflicts (ver. 1). Now, when the apostle Paul talked to the Christians in Corinth who were engaging in the same type of behavior, he referred to them as fleshly-minded and immature. James here goes back behind the quarrels and conflicts and asks, “What is the source?” Then he answers the question: Is it not your pleasures? Notice that Paul uses the word in verses 1 & 3 (the Greek word is hedone - from which we get the word hedonism - self-indulging pleasures). We all have pleasures; we all have desires. There are some of you who enjoy being out at the water, at the beach, or on the water in a boat, a canoe, or a kayak. Rachel and I prefer to be in the woods, in the mountains. We all have desires; we all have pleasures.
The problem though is that sometimes we allow those pleasures to create conflict between us and our fellow Christian family members. For these Christians, these pleasures were causing war among the Christians. We do not know how strongly James means to use this word “war.” But that’s a strong word; he will go on to use the concept of murder in verse 2. I suspect James is using these strong words as metaphors, but even so, it indicates they are arguing with each other very strongly - far too strongly.
James also uses two other strong words in verse 2: lust and envy. They lusted and did not have, so they committed murder. They envied and could not obtain so they fought and quarreled.
I believe in this first paragraph that the major idea James wants to get across is in verse 2: “You do not have because you do not ask.” Do you need something? Do you want something? Are you asking God for it? We know that Jesus has promised us on numerous occasions that He will give us what we ask; just to give two examples: Mark 11:24; 1 John 5:14. Instead of being jealous, or envious, why don’t we just ask God?
But the heart of the Christians’ problem in James’ day is that (ver. 3) they do ask but don’t receive because they ask with impure motives. They want to spend God’s gifts on themselves. What do you do with what God has given you? How much do you spend on yourself? Paul wrote Christians in Ephesus and said that God gives us jobs so that we can provide for our needs and give to those who have needs: Eph: 4:28.
These Christians are in a serious spiritual condition. They are quarreling, arguing, fighting, lusting, envying, and with wrong motives. Will we be judged by our motives? It appears that we can lose our soul because our motives are not right. God expects obedience, but He also expects godly motivation.
Then James gets blunt with the Christians: He calls them adulteresses. This is a reflection of the OT teaching that Israel was God’s wife and when she gave her heart to idols, she was committing spiritual adultery. Hosea the prophet uses that imagery a lot. If you want to live like the world, he says, then you are in a hostile relationship with God (ver. 4) - you might, in fact, be committing spiritual adultery against your husband, Jesus Christ. Jesus called His generation an “adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39).
A friend of the world is an enemy of God. A Christian lives differently from the world. And this “difference” is not referring to driving a Lamborghini as opposed to the Malibu. The difference is whether you are allowing your pleasures to affect your relationship with God and your relationship with your fellow Christian. Do you think you are somehow spiritually superior because you are different from someone else? Be careful by what judgment you judge - and James will get to that point in just a moment.
Finally, in verse 5, James makes a statement that can be interpreted in two ways. First, he asks the question if the Scripture speaks with no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He made to dwell in us.” First, there is not a Scripture which says this. Scholars suggest, then, that James is simply summarizing some biblical teaching. Who is the one who “jealously desires”? Is the “Spirit” man’s spirit (with a lowercase “s”) or is it the Holy Spirit, in which way the NASV translates it?
Without going into arguments for each, I suggest to you that James is referring to God as being jealous - which is taught frequently in the OT (God said in the Ten Commandments that He was a jealous God: Exo. 20:5) - and the “spirit” here is man’s spirit, not the Holy Spirit. In other words, James is using one of the words they are committing (jealousy), but James uses the word in a positive sense: God jealousy desires man’s spirit because God put that spirit into man. In other words, instead of giving our spirits to covetousness and accumulating and being jealous and envious, God wants us to give our spirits to Him. We envy others; God envies us and He wants us to give our spirits to Him. That’s where our satisfaction and our confidence for the future should come.
BE HUMBLE - 4:6-10:
In the context of our relationship with each other, James emphasizes in this paragraph that we need to be humble. Humility is mentioned twice in this paragraph, in verses 6 and 10. First, James writes that God gives a “greater grace.” Greater than what? Greater than what we can give ourselves. If we are patient and pray to God for what we need, based on His love and wisdom, then the gifts God gives us will be greater. But to experience those greater gifts, we need humility. We need humility to be patient with God; we need humility to wait for God to give us what God knows is best for us, at the right time, to the right degree.
So to prove his point, in verse 6, James quotes from Proverbs 3:34. God is opposed to the proud and gives His grace to the humble. I don’t know if there is a worse sin condemned in Scripture than the sin of pride. If you add the English word “pride” to the word “proud,” you get 100 times the two words are used in Scripture. “Humble” is 89 times; “humility” is 10 times - again 99 times in English.
So James draws a conclusion in verse 7: Submit therefore to God, in humility and wait for Him to do for you what you need, what you desire. “Resist the devil” - (in this context, when it comes to envy and jealousy), but at all times and in every way, say “no” to that little devil on your shoulder and the devil will give up on you - at least temporarily and he will flee. Just like he did with Jesus in the temptations in Matthew 4.
Instead, when you are hurting, when you are frustrated, when you feel like the world - maybe it’s your boss who - is mistreating you, maybe you are not getting what you feel like you deserve, then draw near to God. He will draw near to you. In the OT, the verb which means “to draw near” is often used in contexts of worship and can refer to offering sacrifices to God. When you are hurting or frustrated, when you feel the sentiments of envy or jealously coming over you - go to worship. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Pray.
But, make sure your life is right in God’s eyes as well. Cleanse your hands - another reference to the OT; the command for priests to wash in the laver before they entered the tabernacle. In other words, make sure your life is right in the eyes of God. Also, make sure your heart is right: purify your hearts, you double-minded. The double-minded man is the one who is trying to be friends with the world and friends with God at the same time.
Continuing with the idea of making sure our motives are right, for those who are guilty of envy and jealousy, James tells them in verse 9 to be miserable, mourn, and weep. Let their laughter be turned into mourning and their joy into gloom. They need to be sorry for their impure heart and motives and they need to repent of that sin. Again, James emphasizes in verse 10: Be humble before the Lord, in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt us in His own way, at the right time.
WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE YOUR NEIGHBOR? - 4:11-12:
The third point James makes in this context goes back to the use of the tongue which he cautioned about in the previous chapter. Be careful how you judge your brother. If your brother is wealthier than you, be careful how you judge him, his motives, his choices, and his heart. If your brother is poorer than you, be careful how you judge him, his motives, his choices, and his heart.
Verse 11 - Don’t speak against your brother. If you criticize your brother based on some standard that you yourself have created in your mind, or your heart, then you are speaking against the Law of God and you become a judge of the law. In essence, you are saying that God should have used your standard of righteousness when He wrote the law instead of His own standard. That’s how we become a judge of the law. But, if we judge the law, James writes, we are no longer under the law, but we have set ourselves above the law as the judge of the law. To put that a different way, we put ourselves in God’s place.
But, no one is in God’s place. There is only one Lawgiver and there is only one Judge (ver. 12). In fact, He is the one who is able to save and to destroy. He is not the one we want to mess with! So, James makes this third point: “Who are you who judge your neighbor?”
LIFE IS A VAPOR - 4:13-16:
The fourth point James makes here relates to the brevity of life. The OT emphasizes several times that life is short. Verse 13 presents the typical attitude of practically every human being, in every society, throughout all times. We expect to do tomorrow pretty much the same thing we did today. The verse specifically pictures a business man who would go to a certain city, stay there a year, engage in his business and make a profit.
But, that is not what life is all about. Life is not about making a profit. When Jews asked Jesus to settle a dispute about their estate in Luke 12, Jesus said life does not consist of possessions (Luke 12:15). You and I, as Christians, know that life does not consist of possessions. But sometimes we act like it.
James cautions us in verse 14 to remember that we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. We better be prepared to stand before God tomorrow because it might just happen. Life is a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Life is short; life is fragile; and our physical life is very unimportant compared to our spiritual lives. So why get caught up in envy and jealousy about material things when they are not ultimately significant? Solomon had warned God’s people in Proverbs 27:1 that they should not boast about tomorrow for they do not know what a day can produce.
James tells us in verse 15 that we should base our lives on “If the Lord wills.” That was Jesus’ attitude in the Garden of Gethsemane and it ought to be our attitude. “If the Lord wills.” When John talked about prayer in 1 John 5:14, he also cautioned us to pray “if the Lord wills.” That, of course, requires humility, doesn’t it? Can we trust God’s will?
For the Christians James was writing, he says that “as it is, they were boasting in their arrogance” - their problem as we have suggested was pride. And that type of boasting is evil.
So, don’t boast because we do not know what life holds in the future. We just know that we need to trust and obey God that He will provide for us.
James’ conclusion is in verse 17: “Therefore,” if we know the right thing to do and then fail to do it, we have sinned. That’s a fairly fundamental definition of sin. We need to do the right thing.
Take home message: You do not have, because you do not ask. Humble yourself in the presence of God. Do not judge your neighbor. Life is a vapor. Do the right thing.