What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
Or do you suppose that it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?” But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord that he may exalt you. Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges a brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
What is wrong with the world?
What is wrong with the world? If you asked that question to a random cross-section of people living in this country, you would probably get quite a few different answers. You’d hear about the failures of government, perhaps the lack of education, the consolidation of power in the wealthy few, the intolerances or narrow-mindedness of various groups, the ease of acquiring a fire-arm, drugs, the lack of religion, and so on. Human beings are story tellers. We look at events and expect a cause and effect - a plot, characters, a beginning, and an ending. And so when we see things like war, hate crimes, murders, divorce, we first of all know that it is not meant to be this way, and we search for the person or object of interest in the crime. And what we have here in James 4 this morning is a profound understanding of what’s wrong with the world, what causes the myriads of fights, conflicts, disagreements, and frustrations, among us and around us. In short, these problems come not from outside of us, but from within us. James wants to shock us with our sinfulness this morning… but He also wants to surprise us with the way our God responds.
The sermon this morning will have three main parts:
- Life without grace
- God gives grace
- Life transformed by grace
Life Without Grace
In this first section (verses 1-4), there are three things I want to highlight that James teaches us about sin. First, sin is a pursuit of happiness without regard to God. A failure to be happy in God. Look at verses 1-3 again. James points out that our “passions” are at war within us. That word “passions” can also be translated “pleasures.” In other words, our cravings, desires, hunger for something that we believe will satisfy us. And these passions are not dormant. They don’t play nice. They war within us - they fight, struggle, thrash, lay siege, within our souls, looking for dominance, trying to control our actions. In Romans 6, Paul says, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” Sin is seeking to sit on the throne of our lives, to determine our actions and reactions, to make us obey our natural desires, our cravings for pleasure, comfort, peace, and control. Ultimately, this is a turning from the source of true happiness to search after our own pursuits. In Jeremiah 2, the prophet records God’s words: “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” In other words, we leave the source of true happiness (evil #1), and we try to create our own avenues toward happiness, which inevitably end in futility. All of us are born with a desire to be happy, but unable to fulfill it with the things we can see and feel. James illustrates this futility when he says, “You desire and do not have… you covet and cannot obtain.” The desires, passions, and pleasures that rage naturally within us cannot be quenched within creation itself. And that frustration boils over, bringing us to the second point James makes about sin.
Because we are relational beings, sin creates collateral damage. You do not sin in isolation. These wayward desires may originate inside of us, but they come out, and when they do, the results for those around us are often tragic. James says specifically that they cause quarrels, fights, and even murder. And lest we try to slip away innocent as I imagine the vast majority of us haven’t literally committed the act of murder, let’s remember the words of Jesus… “You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)”. As usual, Jesus reminds us that the state of our hearts is the issue, not necessarily just the acts of our hands. Think for a moment about the last disagreement, fight, conflict you had with someone else. Perhaps it was your parent, spouse, child, roommate, sibling, co-worker. It’s so tempting in these situations to look for the reasons or excuses outside of us that point to the cause for the conflict. We are so often ruthless in judgment with others, and merciful with ourselves. We miss our own desires that contribute to the mess. But James won’t let us do that - he forces us to first examine ourselves - to see the log in our eye, before we try to take the speck out of our neighbor's.
For example, in various points in our marriage, money has been a tension point for Brook and I, especially early on. We came from two completely different angles - me from the nerdy, analytical, how can I squeeze the most possible value out of a purchase decision, and Brook from the trendy, fashionable, what is the most beautiful thing we could buy? Now this typically meant that when it came to things like strollers, car seats, rockers and the like, we were normally like $500 apart. And typically in these conflicts, my tendency would be to put the brunt of the cause on Brook. And shockingly, that made things worse! Eventually, a good friend of mine helped me see that I had wayward desires in me contributing to the conflict, desires for approval in the eyes of others - satisfaction in making the right choice. Seeing my own error in the conflict made all the difference.
The third thing that James teaches us about sin in this first section is that it distorts our right relationship with God. Rather than looking to God as our provider, we fail to ask for his help. And when our selfish desires are running the show like this, even when we do ask, we treat God like some sort of genie, hoping he’ll bend to our wishes, focusing on what we think will fulfill us. Is it any wonder that God doesn’t answer prayers like that? Tim Keller says in his book on Prayer that if “we knew what God knows, we would ask for what he gives.” But when we’re in a selfish cycle like this, we’re not praying in a pattern like the Lord’s Prayer, asking that his kingdom would come and his will would be done. Rather, we’re desiring to build our little comfort kingdoms and get Him to do our will. And God is gracious not to grant a misguided prayer like that. James also shows here that rather than treat God as we would a faithful, loving, covenant-keeping spouse, we turn on Him and run to other things (leading James to call us ‘adulterous people’). And rather than walk with God as a friend, we align ourselves with the selfish desire-seeking world and make Him our enemy.
Now at this point, I had an an image forming in my mind. An image of a bunch of whiny toddlers who have no idea what’s good for them, no desire to help anyone but themselves, and when they don’t get what they want, they throw the fit of the century, unaware of the destruction they leave in their wake. But lest we think this is cute… remember, James is talking about grown adults acting like little babies (albeit with an anger streak). We patiently re-direct, discipline, teach, and train our toddlers when we see this type of behavior in them. But in a grown man? Taking what isn’t his, refusing to ask for help, running over whoever stands in his way to satisfy his cravings? This isn’t cute. It’s downright sick. It’s wretched. And the problem is, so many of us have learned on the outside how to ‘play nice’ with our sin. We tuck it away where we think others can’t see it. We’ve learned the social consequences of throwing the temper tantrum in public, and our egos won’t take it. But inside, those same selfish desires grow. In Romans 7, Paul says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” What hope is there for sinners like this, getting into petty disputes and fights with each other because our desires run about unchecked? Are we to expect swift retribution from our God, who we’ve so often slighted? The way God responds to this sad image is simply amazing.
God Gives Grace
Moving to our second point starting in verse 5… “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
The response of our God into our chaos is a gift of more grace. Literally that phrase says “but he gives a greater grace.” The Greek word there is “megas.” This is huge, massive, transcendent. In a way, the whole book of James turns on those five words. You have this compiling and multiplying of sin in chapter 3 into chapter 4 (the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness, a restless evil, bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, disorder and vile practice, fights, quarrels, murder, idolatry and enemies of God…), and you can almost see the scene start to darken. Will God stand for this? And what do we learn about God? Like James said in chapter 2, his mercy triumphs over judgment. As the great King, Creator, and Owner of all things, God would be completely just to punish sinners like this. But God makes a way. Jesus becomes the Way. The contrast here is really important. You have this mountain of sin overcome by an ocean of mercy. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the Bible in Titus 3…
“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures [our passions at war within us], passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another [causing fights and quarrels, anger and murder in our hearts]. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy [he gave more grace], by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
In the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came to die to save sinners, we have the greatest example of God’s grace being given. It is the pinnacle of his redeeming love for us. And like a diamond placed on that dark velvet background by a jeweler, his grace shines ever brighter against the gloomy background of our sinfulness and unworthiness. Like Romans 5:8 says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Many of you may know the story of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece Les Mis. In the novel, the main character is a man named Jean Valjean, a convicted felon just released from 19 years in prison for theft. On a starless night in a sleepy French town, Jean searches for shelter, but is turned away by every innkeeper on the basis of his status as an outcast. No one will take him in because of his sin. But a kind bishop gives him shelter for the night. Valjean, still afraid and at this point unchanged by his years of penitence, steals the bishop’s silverware and escapes into the night, only to be captured once again by police and returned to the bishop’s residence for confirmation of the theft. In a stunning show of grace, the bishop tells the officers that the silverware was a gift, and that Valjean had actually forgotten two of the candlesticks. He shows grace to a convicted sinner, giving Valjean a second chance at life. And this grace was humbling and transforming to Valjean, who broken by his sin at this show of unmerited mercy, goes on to become a hero who saves the lives of multiple men throughout the remainder of the story. Valjean’s life of sin was interrupted by an undeserved, inexplicable act of grace. In the same way, our King offers us shelter and safety, and bestows upon us gifts of regeneration and renewal by His Spirit which we could never deserve.
There is another point that I want to draw your attention to in this verse. God gives more grace. The word gives is in the active present tense - it is continuous. For those that receive his gift in humility, the flow of mercy does not end. We stand in the gospel, stable and steadfast. And the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross was given once, for all time, for all our sins - and for those who turn from their sin in humility and faith to look upon Him afresh, there is forgiveness continually. And in one way, growth in the Christian life is an ever-increasing awareness of the holiness of God, coupled with an ever-growing knowledge of our sinfulness. With these two lines diverging, we have a greater and greater appreciation for what Jesus did at the cross. It’s not that God’s holiness is actually increasing, for He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And it’s not that we’re sinning more, but as we grow in holiness, we become more aware of the remaining sin that dwells within us, and we are repulsed and sickened over it. This is how the apostle Paul, arguably one of the most mature Christians in history could say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost [or, the biggest] (1 Timothy 1:15).” On the flip side, our growth is stunted when we make peace with sin, when we see it as small and insignificant, when we are unaware of the evil within us, and forget the utter holiness and perfection of God. So let us press on this morning to receive the grace of God by embracing, in humility, the reality of our brokenness, while rejoicing in the complete and total victory of grace that our God has given at the cross.
Lives Transformed by Grace
This brings us to our third and final point this morning: lives changed by grace. James continues in verse 7, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” First of all, notice the transition word, “therefore.” That word is a hint that our actions, our obedience, is in response to what God has initiated. We are accepted, and therefore we obey. Not we obey, and therefore we are accepted. So that is important to notice. But here in these final verses, James turns to some practical advice, flowing from the humility that envelops us as we feel afresh the grace God has given. He addresses two main topics: how grace affects how we relate to God, and how it affects how we relate to one another.
First off, how does grace change the way we relate to God? Well, rather than running towards other sources of happiness, treating him as a genie, or walking as his enemy, we run towards him, we fall on our knees, and we cling to Him for life. As James puts it, we “submit to God,” we “draw near to him,” and we “humble ourselves before the Lord.” There is a definite child-likeness to these actions, in the best sense of the word. Like Jesus said, “whoever humbles himself like [a] child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). Imagine a child running to their father, unaware of anyone else in the room, without anxiety, fully knowing that their daddy loves them and would do anything to protect them, to keep them safe. Or like the Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son walking the lonely road home after realizing the futility of what friendship with the world has to offer, humbly coming back to ask only for a servant’s job in his father’s house, drawing near in pure desperation, trusting his father’s generosity. The prodigal son received way more than he expected as he drew near, surprised to find his father running at full speed to hug him, throw him a massive party, and celebrate.
I remember that before I became a Christian, I used to think that God asking us to humble ourselves and submit to him was really scary. It was scary to me because there were certain things about my worldly lifestyle that I didn’t want to give up. There were dreams I had for my future, primarily selfish dreams about the type of job or house or family I’d have, that I didn’t trust God with. I didn’t trust his goodness, I didn’t know his heart. I also completely over-estimated my ability to plan my life and to realize what was good for me. Pride and fear inhibited me from drawing near. But once God broke through my stony heart with the amazingly gracious vision of Jesus displayed in the gospels, uncovering all of my flaws and inadequacies in contrast with his complete and total goodness and perfection, I was changed. I saw that my sin was a really big deal - and it made me want to cry. I ran to him, hands open, because I believed that He was wiser than me, and that Jesus was better than the fruitless pursuits I had been chasing.
The final point this morning is that grace changes the way that we relate to other people. Essentially, in verses 11-12 we are looking at a complete reversal of the first four verses, the way of life without grace that causes fights and quarrels. When we humble ourselves before the Lord, we naturally will treat other people differently. Rather than looking down on them, judging them, bad-mouthing and gossiping about them, we extend the same grace that we’ve been given. So the next time you catch yourself gossiping about someone else, judging their hobbies, finances, parenting decisions, diet, or whatever, just stop and think for a moment. My gossip about my brother says more about me than it does about them. It reveals that my heart is in the wrong place in relation to God, who is the only lawgiver and judge. In that moment, let’s repent, resist the devil’s lies, and humble ourselves before the Lord, remembering that he promises to exalt us. Who am I to judge my neighbor?
And this brings us to the Table, where we recall that our great lawgiver and judge didn’t leave us to ourselves, but entered directly into the fights and quarrels of this world, availing himself to be gossiped about, mocked, and judged unfairly. Ultimately, for God to truly draw near to us, Jesus would have to be destroyed for our sin, offering his body and his blood to save us. Let’s humble ourselves before our Lord that continues to give more grace today.