We have all seen, read, or heard something like the following. It describes the attitude of possession for a 2-year-old.
If I want it, it's mine
If I like it, it's mine
If it looks like it's yours in any kind of way, it's mine
If I need it, it's mine
If you buy it, it's mine
If I don't have anything to do, it's mine
If you have it, it's mine
If I see it, it's mine
It would be even funnier if it wasn't so dang true. Honestly, it doesn't apply to just two-year-olds. Each of us can name at least someone who is an adult who acts like this on occasion. Well it is exactly this attitude James attacks as we look at this part of his letter.
The theme of humility comes back with a vengeance in these verses. James ties those who are prideful with Satan and declares that murders that take place in the name of Jesus are not righteous but demonic. As the selfishness of our lives dictates our prayer we find we're less and less satisfied and more and more frustrated. What we desire, even for supposedly good reasons, never comes about. We're left wanting.
There has been a discussion among some commentators about the first three verses and the meaning of the phrase "You kill and covet." Dr. Martin and a few others hold out the possibility that this book was written in particular for Jewish believers in Jerusalem and what James is addressing are those followers of Christ who were being caught up in the rebellious actions against Rome. Thus the "killing" is literally murder. Many others see it in terms of overstatement.
But, if both, one or the other is right, the fact is what gets in the way of our answered prayer is our own pride. In 1:5 we are told to ask God for wisdom and not doubt. Here we find out that our asking is scared not only by doubt but also by a selfish spirit tied to a failure to ask God and for an attitude that has ignored God's reality and truth. It is no coincidence the word translated "desire" is the root from which the English derives the word "hedonism".
It doesn't matter if we're talking about arguments and infighting among members of a congregation or actual hatred and killing. For James the answer is the same, don't let the situation rule us; let God rule us. Then we will discover how God's future comes about even with such situations at hand.
Verses 4-6 tells us something we don't like to hear. There is a clear and eternal difference between being friends of the world and friends of God. There is no happy medium. God and His creation won't reach consensus on the issue. We can't all just get along. Each and every one of us gets to decide if we will be a friend of the world or not. Chose this path and we've demonstrated a hatred for God and marked ourselves as God's enemy. How do you know what camp into which you fall? The easiest way is to look back up at the first three verses and honestly answer whether envy, fighting and selfish desire is alive and thriving in our day-to-day lives.
Romans 5:8 is a personal favorite of mine. It says, "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Folks, here is the gospel, as an enemy of God Jesus was born and died for us. He didn't wait till we got better because we couldn't. While we were still grabbing for our things, demanding our way, hating those who had what we wanted and trying to get ahead in the world, God loved us, Jesus died for us and offers us eternal life.
The personal issue you and I get to deal with is whether or not we will welcome such news on God's terms or try to insist on our way. Because God's offer of grace is available only for those who are humble. The proud, those who continue on the road of worldly friendship and wisdom will find themselves separated from God when eternity rolls around.
What does humility look like? How does it behave? In verses 7-10 James lists several commands that describe what a humble life looks like. They begin with the command to submit. It is a term describing military units that are arrayed under command and not often used of a person's relationship to God. James returns to this idea in verse 10 where we are commanded to humble ourselves before the Lord thereby forming bookends of the rest of these verses.
James list is first because it is primary for living a humble life and thereby receiving God's grace. Let me get a bit technical here; in the Greek this is an aorist imperative. It is a command like all imperatives but the tense makes it all the more urgent to comply. James isn't just telling us to bow before God but to do it now.
It is also immediately set against the satanic influence in the world. When we submit to God we align ourselves against the Devil who is the source of the worldly wisdom and self-centered ambition listed in 3:15-16; the murder listed in 4:2 and friendship with the world 4:4.
There is power that is released in submitting to God and among that power is the ability to resist the devil. Between this command to submit and to humble ourselves in verse 10 are four couplets that are linked together for our benefit. They have the force of cementing in place the submission we need.
Resist the devil—draw near to God. Here's the first and simplest way to resist Satan, believe God. Don't be "double minded" as those who ask God for wisdom but don't believe in 1:7. Satan leaves when resisted. It works for Jesus when He was tempted Luke 4:13 tells us Satan, "left him until an opportune time". The positive half of this couplet is one of repentance not conversion. James' audience is Christ-followers. What he has in view here is drawing near to God having professed ridding ourselves of those practices James has outlined in the first four verses and elsewhere in this letter.
The second couplet would be a very familiar concept to any who heard this letter being read. Not only did Jews practice ceremonial washings daily but those who had heard of Christ's passion would recall Pilates' washing his hands of the death of Jesus. Linked to this is the purification of our hearts, that is a setting aside of our being for God's use. Once more, James uses 'double-minded' and links us with those who in 1:5-8 do not receive from God because of their lack of trust. It also describes those who try to live the wisdom of the world and the Lord.
The next couplet isn't sweet at all. We are told to be miserable. The second two words can be linked together as outward signs of the misery we feel for our sin. Empty actions are no substitute. James is very clear that anyone who takes lightly sin is in very real danger eternally. A casual sense of sin is not appropriate for Christ's people. Lastly we are told that our laughter and joy is to be turned into mourning and tears. This is because laughter can be nothing but a cover up for not knowing the score.
Every parent can relate to having to tell his or her child to apologize to someone for something. It could be a sister or brother or a friend but we've all been there. "Say you're sorry." "Sorry" is moaned back and we know they didn't mean it. We don't get away with that when it comes to God.
God doesn’t say, "Say you're sorry" and accept any half-hearted whine as a response. We are commanded to reorient our entire existence. We turn away from self-absorbed desires toward caring for others. We ordered to give up our self-interest in favor of the interest of others and of God. Then and only then, do we discover God drawing near to us and transforming our lives. Let me give you the bad news, this is a process that we will repeat. We don't repent once and never need to do it again. It is an ongoing event for the follower of Jesus because Satan is always on the prowl and we make too good a target for him. Let me suggest that we take time this week to determine what steps it takes for us to submit to God so that we may discover His blessings. Amen