In this article on James 4:1-6, the author focuses on wrong desires and friendship with this world, and the effect this has on our lives with God.

Source: Clarion, 2004. 2 pages.

James 4:1-6 – No Easy Moralism

What causes fights and quarrels among you: Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? ...

James 4:1-6

The letter of James often confuses us. It can seem like an unorganized collection of moralisms. Martin Luther dismissed James as an “epistle of straw” to be thrown into the fire. The epistle has remained in the Bible, but Luther’s blunt assessment of James reflects one that many have in a more nuanced way. This is especially the case when we realize that James is writing to the church. He writes to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1). This refers to the scattered Jewish Christians who were forced to flee Jerusalem because of the persecution following Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1; 11:19). James addresses them as members of the new Israel who have been driven from their city. It is fitting that James addresses them as “firstfruits” (1:18).

But in chapter 4:1, 2, James calls this church of the firstfruits murderers! Surely, James must be referring to unbelievers, or apostates, but not the church. Of course, we all know that we are sinners who are prone to hate God and our neighbour. This is not all bad from our point of view. Sin can allow me to take myself seriously. Rigorous self-examination has the virtue of saying that I and my sin are important. Not only that, but we know (or think we know) that our sin is subtle and complex. Spending time acknowledging and repenting of our sins can be very attractive. We can be impressed by the cleverness and complexity of our sin, and by our piety in uncovering it. We can be proud of our rigorous searching of ourselves.

James does not address us as those in need of this kind of self-examination. He does not address us as subtle and complex sinners. Our sin, he says, is very simple: we want something and do not have it, so we commit murder. Surely, this is far too simple. There must be more psychological depth to things. Not so according to James: our sin comes from the fact that we desire the wrong things. We are slow to ask and when we do ask, we do not receive. Because we do not receive, we are frustrated. And when that happens, someone has to pay. It is inevitable that we become frustrated, for we desire things that can never satisfy. What we desire is shaped by our friendships with the world and not with God.

Throughout his letter, James has been building on creation themes from Genesis 1-3 and he continues this here. We were created to be loved by the Father of Lights (1:17) and to love Him. When our love is misdirected, life degenerates into disordered desires. We are brought back to Genesis 3 and the desire to be as God. Genesis 3:6 tells us that Eve desired the fruit. This desire led to the original sin. At root, all sin comes from this desire to be god.

There are philosophies and religions that claim as their goal the extinguishing of all desire. Biblical faith is not like that.

Our problem is not that we desire things. Our problem is that we desire the wrong things. We try to be content with things that never can satisfy, because we try to be god. We were created to live in a covenant with God; apart from this are murder and death. There is no complexity here, no need for rigorous self-examination (which is often nothing but a wallowing in sin).

James sees things clearly: Christians think that they can be friends with the world and with God. If we are friends with the world, if we adopt its standards, then we are enemies of God and of each other – all because we desire to be as God. The Gospel, however, tells us that we are creatures in need of salvation and not God. We prefer a large collection of subtle and complex sins that we can uncover and confess, rather than admit that we are not the center of all things. We want to desire what we will and we do not want to live under God’s blessing. Yet, we must be humbled in just this way if we are to approach God (4:6). We must not seize at God’s blessing, but receive it as a gift.

The straw-like epistle of James proves more demanding than anticipated. There is no easy moralism here. We cannot get off the hook by being better, more moral people. The Gospel does not call us to be better than the world; we are not called to be like the world only with better behaviour – no cursing, no adultery, etc. The issue is that we are called to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy; we are called to be utterly unlike the world, even in what we desire. We must be doers of the Law as well as hearers. When we are, we know the God who gives the Law. We cannot will ourselves out of our disordered desires. That requires God’s work in Jesus Christ. Those in Him move from disordered desire to self-giving service in the covenant.

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