By Pastor Glenn Pease
Nothing can be so funny as that which can be so tragic. There is nothing funny about tragedy, but one of the paradoxes of life is that tragedy produces so much humor. Tragedy and comedy are so close they are Siamese twins. There is nothing funny about a concussion, for example, but if you get one by falling on a banana peeling in a crowd, you will get laughs galore. It is because one of the basic causes for laughter is shock. When I was in college the horrible story of Ed Gein, the madman who butchered several people, hit the news. Within a week there were hundreds of jokes about it. It was the greatest theme for humor. It is strange that such a tragedy can be the basis for so many laughs, but it is not unusual, for tragedies are the source of so much humor. Such themes as immorality, drunkenness, and mental illness are examples of tragedies which produce thousands of jokes.
Then we come to marriage, which is a theme that reaches the interest of just about everyone. Someone has said the money we spent on landing a man on the moon is nothing compared to what women are spending to land a man right here on earth. I was talking to a relative who said she was chasing her parakeet one day and it hit the door and fell stunned at her feet. She was quite thrilled she said, for that was the first time a male had ever fallen for her. It was funny, and everybody laughed, but what made it so was the tragic truth that she was unlovely and unloved.
Few themes can be more comprehensive then love, courtship, and marriage with all of their potential for blessing or tragedy. A bad marriage is no joke, but the jokes on bad marriages could fill volumes. I am sure it is a blessing that we can laugh about the problems of marriage and family life. It acts like a release valve when people can see that their problem is common enough to be joked about. Someone has said that the problems of marriage are so common that the best way to describe the boy-girl relationship from meeting to marriage is in three words: friendship, courtship, and battleship.
The point of all this is that the kingdom of God suffers because of this same problem. God is not a bachelor. He knows about the problems of marriage from the inside, for He has struggled with it ever since He chose Israel to be His bride. Israel was often an unfaithful wife, and God who remained loyal to her cried out in Jer. 3:14, "Return backsliding children, says the Lord, because I am your husband." (Berkeley Version). All through the Old Testament the idolatry of Israel is called a whoring after other gods. She is pictured as an adulteress. The book of Hosea is a story of an unfaithful wife who left Hosea for her lovers, but he pursued her, forgave her, and took her back, and all of this is an illustration of God's faithfulness to His unfaithful wife.
Now we come to the New Testament, and James says God's marriage problem is still the same. The New Israel-the Church, the Bride of Christ can still be as unfaithful as old Israel. The sharp language of verse 4 can only be understood when we see that worldliness on the part of a believer is a forsaking of God for another love, and it is equal to spiritual adultery. This kind of language is also positive proof that these are true Christians that James is writing to, for one cannot be unfaithful wife who is not a wife at all, which would be true of all unbelievers. No non-Christian is in any sense a part of the Bride of Christ. Phillips translation makes the meaning of this verse very clear. "You are unfaithful wives, flirting with the glamour of this world, and never realizing that to be the world's lover means becoming the enemy of God."
God's marriage problem has always been the same problem. It is a lack of loyalty. His people in both testaments have not given Him their undivided loyalty. God's lament is found in Jer. 3:20. "Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel." The Christian likewise breaks the marriage vow when he or she allows the world to win their affection. The enticement of the world is so real and strong that it is rare when a Christian can honestly say from his heart what the poet has written.
Let worldly minds the world pursue.
It has no charms for me.
Once I admired its trifles too,
But grace has set me free.
Do we really count the values and pleasures of the world as trifles, or does our life prove just the reverse, and that it is God, His Word, and His service that are the trifles? God will not tolerate a divided loyalty. You cannot serve God and mammon. Polyandry is definitely forbidden in the spiritual realm. The believer can have only one husband. The church owes absolute loyalty to God alone, and because God is a jealous God flirting with the world puts you at enmity with God.
The great need is to be aware of the danger, and that is why James is writing to these Christians. It is the taking of ones loyalty for granted that leads to the problem. The alienation of affection by a third party destroys many a marriage. People think they can flirt without forsaking their loyalty to their mate, but it is high risk. Those who allow these circumstances to continue become personality attached to another. They may not even be aware of it, but they are undermining their primary loyalty. The same is true in our relationship to God. We can give Him lip service, and any spare time we may get, and think we have made Him Lord, even while we are getting intimately involved with the world.
What would you think of a wife who spent 5 or 6 evenings a week with a fellow worker, and only 1 with her husband? God thinks the same thing about a Christian who lives for the world all week, and then says, "I love you Lord," on Sunday. God not only suspects unfaithfulness, He knows it, and He declares that such a course leads to alienation of affection and enmity. We see then that God has the same kind of marriage problem that is breaking up masses of homes today. The world, like a handsome appealing lover, competes for the church's loyalty. The tragedy is that some are so foolish as to fall for it. What can be more tragic than Paul's lament in II Tim. 4:10. "Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world..." When this happens, it is due to a neglect of spiritual things. Naturally, the other man or other woman seems more attractive and exciting when you neglect your own mate, and do nothing together. When you stopped praying, reading your Bible, seeking the fellowship of the body, and forsaking the thrill of obedience to God's will, you can expect that your spiritual marriage will be dull and drab, and the world will look charming and exciting.
Charles W. Abel, a missionary, said, "Christianity that is really worth anything makes the pagan world progressively less endurable." In other words, if you cannot say as you examine your life, I put less and less value on the things of the world, and more and more on the things of Christ, it means your loyalty is lagging, and you are not growing in grace. Your love for the Lord is not supreme, and the cause is likely to be that you are having a love affair with the world, and you are guilty of spiritual adultery.
This leads to Christians who are indistinguishable from non-Christians in conduct and character. The dedicated Christian can be grateful for all that the world has produced for a modern life of health and comfort. They ought to be grateful for modern studies that help us understand the problems of life, but when they begin to worship the world and its values, they lose their affections for God. The modern religion of secularism is not without its form of worship. They have the so-called 151st Psalm which begins, "Oh, come, let us sing unto Sociology; let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our group consciousness." More famous is the modern version of Psa. 23.
"Science is my shepherd, I shall not want;
it makes me to lie down on foam rubber
mattresses; it leads me on 4-land highways;
it leadeth me into the psychiatrist's office
for my ego's sake. Yea, though I walk
thru the valley of the hydrogen bomb, I will
not fear it, thy jets and atomic bombs comfort
me. Thou preparest a table before me in the
presence of the world's billions of hungry
people; thou anointest my head with home
permanents, my alcoholic cup runneth over
surely pensions and social security shall follow
me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in
the old folks home forever.
We must be grateful for what the providence of God has led men to develop, but when it is allowed to weaken our loyalty to Christ, it becomes a tragedy. The ancient peoples ceased to be thankful to God for the Sun, moon, rain, and all the blessings of nature, and they begin to worship the creation instead of the Creator. This is what can happen to the modern Christian who gets so enamored with the wonderful things God has permitted man to discover that he begins to devote his life to those things instead of to the One whose grace has made them possible. It is to easy to forget that everything man has developed is due to the grace of God in allowing history to continue so that man can experience the progress that he has experienced. This happened to Israel every time God allowed her to prosper. She forgot God and put her faith in their own self-sufficiency.
In verse 3 we see how prayer can even be perverted, and men can seek to use God as their servant rather than submit to serve Him. It is possible to be so deceived that you expect God to aid you in evil. It is like slave traders asking God's blessing upon their business. It is not surprising that a Roman robber could pray to his goddess-"Fair Laverna, give me a prosperous robbery, a rich prey, and a secret escape..." It is surprising, however, when Christians can be so infatuated with themselves that they expect God to feed their lusts. God refuses to be a partner to your self-corruption. If you find you are trying to exploit the powers of prayer for selfish and sensual goals, you have another indication that the world is too much with you. It is as if we became the bride of Christ for the sake of gain, as a girl marries a man for his money.
This does not mean you cannot ask God for material blessings. Dr. Mounce told of his friend who prayed earnestly for God to make him rich so he could give abundantly. The prayer was answered, and he became wealthy. The motive is what makes the difference. His motive was to be able to give more for the kingdom of God. We can ask God for anything if we intend to use it as a means to the greater end of serving Him, but even spiritual requests can be unheard if the motive is strictly self-centered. Verse 5 is one of the most difficult in the book of James. One way of interpreting it is-do you think the Spirit that dwells in us is the author of this lust for the world, and envy of what others have? The answer, of course, is obviously not. This lust and envy is opposed to the Spirit, and if we have it, that is proof we are not walking in the Spirit, but are yielding to secularism.
This interpretation makes good sense, and it could be what James is getting at, but most scholars feel the meaning is more in line with the theme we have been pursuing, which is God's marriage problem. The Berkeley Version has it, "The Spirit, which took up his abode in us, yearns jealously over us." And in a footnote it says, "God wants all of a person and our undivided loyalty." God loves with such zeal that He cannot tolerate any rival. He loves jealously for the entire devotion of His people. He will not share you with the world, but yearns for a pure and loyal bride. God's Spirit jealously longs for us to forsake the world and cling only unto Him. Like any earthly husband, He cannot be satisfied with a wife whose loyalty is divided. The day will come when the church will be presented to Christ as a bride without spot or wrinkle, but until then we can only solve God's marriage problem by being loyal to him alone, and cease to flirt with the world. When our conduct in the world reveals that we love the world more than we love our Lord, we are a part of God's marriage problem.