Warnings against worldliness, 4:1-6
James now makes the case that devotion to the world by some members of the church has prompted covetousness leading to conflicts and quarreling. The solution to such a problem lies in a humble acceptance of divine grace.
v1-2a. In tackling the subject of believers taking control of their selfish desires, James asks what causes the fights and quarrels that are splitting their congregation. He makes the observation that this strife is caused by uncontrolled selfish desires permeating the personality of those causing the trouble. "You long for health, wealth and happiness, but can't get what you want, and so you quarrel and fight." Obviously the troublemakers in the congregation aren't actually killing each other, but their continued resentment is akin to incipient murder.
v2b-3. James notes that the troublemakers are frustrated. In their prayers to God they ask, but do not receive; they are affected by the problem of unanswered prayer. "You ask and do not receive, because you do not ask correctly." Many translations have "because you do not ask God", but the Greek text states "because you do not ask." Verse 3 identifies what they do not ask; they do not ask for the correct things, or as the Greek has it, "you ask badly", "wrongly". James could be referring to their motives, but it is more likely that the problem lies with what they are asking for. They are asking for all the gear that makes for a happy life; health, wealth and happiness.
v4-5a. James puts a two pronged question to the untrustworthy church members who love to flirt with the fading glamor of this world; "Don't you realize that you can't have an intimate personal relationship with the living God and at the same time be a lover of the things of this world, or do you think that what the Bible says about mammon is just empty words?" Just as in human relationships, we can't take two lovers to ourselves.
5b-6. The second part of verse five causes translators no end of trouble so there is some disagreement as to what James is saying. The point he is probably trying to make is nicely expressed by William Barclay: "God yearns jealously for the loving devotion of the spirit he implanted in us." God desires that love should flourish within us, rather than selfishness. James goes on to make the point that God has provided the grace for us to be that loving person; he wants a loving spirit to flourish in us and so he pours out his grace upon us. With a quote from Proverbs James adds that grace is for the humble, not the haughty. Douglas Moo expresses the point nicely: "God's gift of sustaining grace is enjoyed only by those willing to admit their need and accept the gift."
The Western world is suffocating under a mountain of debt as governments are driven to expand services to the wider population without raising taxes - bread and circus for free. The problem is recognized by the electorate, but the solution tends to be that people should pay more taxes, people other than me, and services should be cut, but not services that my family enjoys.
In Australia, the nation went into apoplexy when it was suggests that the old age pension should be tied to the consumer price index rather than average weekly earnings, resulting in a rather modest saving for taxpayers, to say the least. Services that Governments support are often related to the cost of life's essentials so it was interesting to note the reaction to what was a reasonable savings measure.
Simplistic answers to the problem are freely offered in the media, and we should probably refrain from joining in, but it's hard not to take note of James' observations. He tells us that behind discord in a community there lies selfish desires, a self-satisfying focus on the stuff of life, on health, wealth and happiness - materialism. We want, we don't get, and we end up grumpy, frustrated by unrealistic expectations. James is not suggesting that humans are driven only by basic instinct; we are God-breathed, a spiritual being. Yet, as a community drifts in its commitment to God, selfish desires come to the forefront and social discord and decay inevitably follows. So, maybe we are witnessing the inevitable decay of Western society.
James offers a solution to the problem, one beyond the wit of a secular society, but certainly well within the grasp of God's people:
On the spiritual level, selfish desires recede in the face of God's sustaining grace. If we are willing to recognize our need and accept the gift of his grace, then the renewing work of the Spirit of Christ will slowly shape us into the person God would have us be.
Second, on a more practical level, we need to get our prayer life right. It is not helpful if we have picked up the abundant life virus, the idea that God gives us health, wealth and happiness when we ask in faith. These prayers focus selfish desires and lead to frustration. We need to remind ourselves of what is promised in the scriptures: forgiveness, the renewing presence of the Spirit, life eternal, ......... Our prayers are answered in the affirmative when we ask God for his promised blessings.
So, we haven't solved the problem of a secular society facing decline, fretting under the weight of selfish desire, but we have reminded ourselves that God gives grace to those who admit their need and are open to his kindness.
1. James links quarrels and fighting with coveting. Discuss the link.
2. Identify the reason for unanswered prayer.
3. How does divine grace solve the problem of selfish desire.
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