James Abbreviated: Chapter 4
We’re approaching the end of James Abbreviated!
If we were to summarize each earlier post in this series, we would have these three bullet points:
- Christians grow to maturity by trusting God in difficulties; God’s Word renews the way you think. (Chapter 1)
- Christian’s must look after their own poor; generosity within the family of God is evidence of genuine faith. (Chapter 2)
- Holiness is manifest in your speech. (Chapter 3)
Now let’s glue these together and see if we can get something that flows better. Here is my best attempt:
As a Christian, we must grow to maturity by trusting God in difficulties, and His Word will help us by renewing the way we think about our circumstances; in other words, we are immersed in the messiness, yet unstained by it. With this in mind, getting messy requires that we look after the poor in our own church, because God loves them, and generosity is evidence of genuine faith in us. To be unstained by the world requires keeping a firm watch on the things we say, since holiness is manifest in our speech.
A shorter version of this might be:
True faith makes the church grow in holiness and generosity together.
Chapter 4 starts to feel a bit like disjointed proverbs (more so than before!). But a close look reveals a steady pattern. Let’s read through the text all at once before we dive into the details. Remember that what I believe are key verses will be in italics. Any suggestive motifs I’ve put in green; these are useful in identifying the dominant idea of the chapter which is what we’re going to need when we do Biblical Theology (or any sweeping study). I’ve included the entire chapter this time.
James 4:1-17 “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. Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously? But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ 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. Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes 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 one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? 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” (HCSB).
First I read the chapter without stopping. Then I looked for naturally occurring segments that seem to carry a unified thought. For example, the first three verses are all about an inner war going on in every Christian. The next two verses are about two kingdoms opposing one another (and so on). After I’ve done this through the chapter, I created a bit of an outline to help me make sense of James’s driving themes. Here they are below…
- There are cravings at war within you (1-3)
- There are two kingdoms at war around you (4-5)
- The Christian must submit to the lordship of God (6-10)
- Turning against those in your local church is tantamount to treason (11-12)
- God knows better than we what is good (13-17)
The basic trajectory of the fourth chapter matches these five points.
Remember, we are not looking to uncover the nuances in every verse, but to retrieve the basic point of the chapter, the tapestry. Later, we can go back and look at every verse in light of the overarching point. But what we have so far is a straightforward message woven through the fourth chapter of James. At this juncture, we should add a prominent motif: “adulteress!” (v4). If you consider that an adulteress describes one who is unfaithful to their covenant partner, this becomes a screaming analogy of the Christian who rejects the lordship of God by entertaining their fleshly indulgences. In other words, James is warning the Christian that the “war” between the regenerated spirit and the sinful desires within is ongoing, and they must tirelessly engage in that battle without relenting if, indeed, they are under the lordship of God. Further, we are not of the dark kingdom because “the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously” (v5), and gives us a “greater grace” to persevere. You may remember that this is the very same premise that James started off with in his first chapter:
Ordinarily, one might be at easy with the period at the end of verse 10, and move on to the next paragraph to form a new thought, but as shown by his lead-in, “Therefore” (v7), James does seem to continue with his train of thought.
How does one endure as a citizen of God’s kingdom exactly?
Verses 11-12 are a more in-depth look at the masters of each Kingdom—God and Satan—and yet God clearly has no equal in this battle, for he tells us that if a Christian submits to God, and resists the devil they will experience victory (v7).
But how does one submit to God?
This is where it gets a bit controversial. The following paragraph on criticizing each other suggests that submitting to the lordship of God is inextricably tied to how we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the local church; a dynamic emphasized in Chapter 2. But what does “criticizing” mean? Surely there is a type of constructive criticism that is honorable and useful in the body of Christ. The type of criticism that James speaks of is more damaging to others in the church—i.e., it is able to “destroy” (v12). We see this in the ambiguously labeled “fights” going on in the church (vv1-2). That’s why James says that criticizing each other is essentially to “judge the law” (11), since the law James is most likely referring to is the law of love that came earlier in the epistle (2:8-11). So then, James is not forbidding constructive criticism, necessary discernment of sin, or church discipline; but rather, flagrant condemnation from of selfish ambition or jealousy (3:16). Or to overlap a similar theme from chapter 3…
Holiness is manifest in our speech towards one another.
Keep in mind that James was writing to a group of exiles struggling with their identity as Christians in a culture that was very different from their way of life and belief; their background is similar to any post-Christian environment today: it is hostile and foreign to the worldview of Christ-following men and women.
James is exhorting these believers to fight.
The bottom line: God knows better than we about every minutia of our lives, and we would be silly to disregard Him on anything, even what we are planning on doing tomorrow (vv.13-15), and especially how we view those in the body of Christ (v11-12). But submission to the lordship of God is not tiresome or disagreeable for those regenerated and filled with the Spirit (v5), but joyful and full of life (v8,10). Such is the life of the Kingdom family. For it is not human thriving to simply keep oneself unstained (1:27b), but one must also be a part of the expanding kingdom family of God (2:15-17), for “it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it” (4:17).
Posted on August 29, 2013, in community, doctrine, personal, reading, Scripture, spiritual formation, theology and tagged #JamesAbbreviated, biblical theology, Church, community, Epistle of James, Generosity, Holman Christian Standard Bible, scripture. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.