A few weeks ago we went to Carman to watch volleyball. The Rosenort boys and girls varsity teams were playing against the Carman teams. The reason we went to this particular game is that our son and daughter-in-law are coaching the Carman girls team. When the boys played it was easy to cheer for Rosenort. In the girls game, however, we joked that we had come to sit on the fence. My intention was to sit quietly and try to look at the game from both sides. What we found, however, was that it was hard to sit on the fence. Without choosing to do so, we found ourselves cheering for one team more than the other. Even though we tried to sit quietly and watch the game impartially, we couldn’t do it. The stifled cheers in our hearts escaped to our lips a few times. What made it even more difficult is that it was a really good game and both teams played very well.
Have you ever tried to sit on a fence. I mean literally. Picket fences and barb wire fences are particularly hard to sit on. I can never seem to do it for very long, it is just too uncomfortable and I find my self getting off on one side of the fence or the other.
How often do you try to sit on the fence in your spiritual life? You want to serve God, but you really want to be in control of your time. You know it would be best to obey God, but you also want to enjoy some of the pleasures of life you know are not right. If it is hard to sit on a fence literally, it is impossible to do spiritually. At least that is what James says in James 4:1-10, which we will examine this morning.
As we have studied James, we have heard some challenging words. James has been very direct with his readers. As we have listened, our attitudes, actions and lifestyle have been deeply challenged. The passage we come to today is even more intense. In fact, James is fairly shouting. One writer says, “The language is loud and confronting; it is bombastic and full of warning; it is intense and unrelenting.” As we hear the intensity of his concerns, I hope that we will listen carefully to what he has to say.
I was working at camp as a counsellor. One day as I walked around the corner of the cabin, the quick dispersal of boys and the guilty looks on their faces suggested that something was going on. I asked them if there was a problem, but they all denied it. The evidence of guilty looks, a few bloody knuckles and dirty pants suggested otherwise. The evidence was that there had been a fight, but it was not being acknowledged. It is hard to deal with a problem if it is not recognized as a problem.
Spiritually we are loathe to admit that we have a problem. We live and act as if there is nothing wrong, yet the dirt on our pants, our bloody knuckles and our guilty looks suggest otherwise. In verses 1-3, James presents the evidence that something is wrong. In order to come to the realization that we have a problem, I would like to ask four questions, which relate to the issues James raises in verses 1-3.
The opening question asks “what causes wars and what causes fights among you?” Although the NIV uses the words fights and quarrels, the actual words, as most other translations have it, are wars and fights. The language is strong and this is where we notice that James is shouting. He overstates the case, but in some ways he doesn’t.
War is the long term participation in conflict. We talk about WWII, the cold war, and now the “war against terrorism.” We understand that these things go on for years. Sometimes with active conflict and sometimes with the awareness of opposition, but no actual battle going on. The same thing can happen between brothers and sisters in the church. There are times when brothers and sisters have long standing disputes and attitudes of hatred and opposition towards one another.
Fights are the battles that can erupt in the midst of a war. Like the bombing raid in Afghanistan, which we are told is just one strategy in the war on terrorism. Fights are the actual conflicts that erupt. The same thing happens in the church where suddenly there is open conflict and people are arguing with each other and hurting each other.
The question of wars and fights is a question that indicates that something is wrong and so we also must ask, are there wars in our life? I hear about these battles. I hear about people who refuse to be in the same group as another person. I hear about churches and pastors who battle with each other. I hear about words that are spoken to tear another person down. Are there long standing disputes that we have not resolved? Are there fights that we are engaged in right now? If these things are happening, it is the indication of a deeper problem. What are the battles you are engaged in now? Why?
James identifies the immediate cause as desire which is unsatisfied. That in itself is another problem and raises a question which also reveals that there is a problem. Do you want things that you aren’t getting?
James makes clear that he is talking about selfish pleasures, desires for things that we want for ourselves without regard to how it will impact others or how we get them. It is a manifestation of the self-centeredness we talked about last week. James puts it this way, “You want something but don’t get it.”
The problem easily arises in any one of us. People we know live at a standard of living which is above ours. We want to fit in and we want all the nice things that they have and so we live beyond our means so that we can have what other people have. Our society is full of the desire for things. The success of the gambling industry is simply a manifestation of this desire for more things. I know that I am not immune to it. How many times I have daydreamed about how I would spend my money if I ever got a large sum of money.
But the problem is not only in the area of desiring things or money. It is also in other areas. It can happen in the area of desire for relationships. It could be in the area of desire for friends, for a spouse, for a relationship with a certain person. It could be in the area of a desire for a particular job, for success, for recognition, for a position on a team or anything else we might want. Many of these things are good things, but if we want them and don’t get them and our wanting becomes an obsession, we are in the sinking boat that James is describing.
When we desire in this way and are not getting and begin to hurt, blame or become angry, we reveal that there is some kind of a problem in our heart. So we need to ask ourselves. Is there something that I want so much that it is becoming a problem for me? If there is, it reveals that there is a problem.
James goes deeper and accuses, “you do not have because you do not ask God.” When he asks this question, he comes close to the root of the problem, but not asking God is still only a manifestation of the problem.
Someone told me a story this week about a time when he experienced God’s help in an unusual way. When he told his experience to another believer, the other person laughed at his suggestion that this was God at work. Such a mindset, which we readily hold, suggests that we do not really believe that God is helping us.
When we have problems, we are quick to try to solve them. If we find that we cannot solve them, we reluctantly wonder if God can help us, but we still are not sure we should ask him. So again I want to raise this to a question. How quickly do you go to God for help?
As I have been reading the Bible recently, while struggling with my own failure to go to God, I have discovered that God wants very much for us to go to Him. Jacob is commended for finally seeking God after a life of trying to manipulate things his own way. David’s Psalms encourage the idea of seeking the Lord. Jesus invites all who are weary to come to Him. The writer of Hebrews talks about going boldly to the throne of grace. From the beginning of the Bible to end we find the powerful truth that more than anything else, God wants us to come to Him with our concerns. He wants us to ask Him for help.
Do you ask Him? The fact that we so often don’t indicates a problem. Why don’t we ask Him?
There is a theology that has developed in North America today that teaches that whatever you want, you should demand that God give it to you and you can expect to have it, if you have enough faith. The theology suggests that we should all be healthy and there is no reason why we should not all be wealthy.
James takes a direct shot at such thinking when he accuses, “when you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Even when we do ask God, we often ask for selfish reasons. One writer says, “God is good and generous but God is not gullible, nor will he accommodate our insatiable desire for more possessions and things. The prayers God answers positively are those which make us wiser and perfect, lacking in nothing and not adding to the wealth which allows the believer to live an overindulgent life.”
It is no wonder then that God does not answer our prayers when they are often so self centred. We are not concerned about the things of God or the plan of God, we are concerned about what will give us the most pleasure and profit.
God is very interested in us and desires that we come to him, but he so interested in us that he will not give us everything we want, if he knows that it will harm us. He is not a “…magic charm which must help if the proper words are uttered.”
If we pray with selfish motives and to satisfy our own desires, it is an indication that something is wrong.
All of these questions, depending on how we answer them, reveal a problem. If we have fights with other Christians, if we are filled with the desire for things we are not getting, if we fail to ask God, if we ask God, but only for our own comfort and pleasure, something is wrong. What is the problem?
The accusation in verse 4 hits with pinpoint accuracy and gets right to the heart of the problem. We are adulteresses. That is the actual word there.
When a woman is unfaithful to her husband or a man to his wife, they commit adultery. What is the pain of adultery? It is the pain of rejection. It is the pain of a woman who thought she had an intimate relationship with their husband and who finds that intimacy violated. It is the pain of a man who thought he was loved and finds out that he is not loved. It is the pain of a woman who thought she had a lifelong promise from her husband to be true to her and had staked her whole life on that promise, but who has found out that the promise did not mean much. Adultery is very painful. It is a severe brokenness.
The background for James’ accusation is from the Old Testament. In Hosea 9:1 God says to Israel, “Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing floor.” In Isaiah 1:21 God says to Israel, “See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers!”
We are adulteresses if we are trying to love God and love the world. Spiritual adultery happens in us as Christians when we leave our first love, as John says in Revelation 2:4. It happens when we try to sit on the fence. We claim to love God but we do not leave our love for the world. James is very clear that we can’t do that. Earlier, I described the discomfort of sitting on the fence. Spiritually it is more than a discomfort, it is an impossibility. James is very clear about this, you can’t have it both ways. He says in verse 4, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
Such a lifestyle is not something that happens by default, it is a choice we make. If we choose to be a friend of the world, we are choosing to be an enemy of God. It is impossible to love God and the world and sitting on the fence is a choice not to love God.
Take careful note as to how worldliness is defined. It is not defined by outward adherence to a list of rules. It is a failure to love God. The questions we asked reveal our condition. If we are self centred and as a result, we don’t ask God for what we need or when we do ask, we ask for selfish motives, we love the world. If instead of asking God, we think that we can get what we want by ourselves and we are prepared to hurt, hate and cheat other people to get it - we do not love God.
Jesus is very clear on this - there are only two ways, the sand or the rock, the broad or the narrow way, the love of God or the love of mammon. If we are trying to cosy up to the world, it does not make us a weak Christian or a compromiser or even a poor Christian, it makes us an enemy of God.
The reason for the intensity of this language is that God is not willing to share us with anyone. Just as the marriage relationship is intended to be exclusive, God desires us in an exclusive relationship.
This is the thrust of James 4:5. God jealously desires us. Humanly speaking jealousy is normally not a good thing, but if it is felt as an expression of zeal to preserve a committed relationship, it can be a good thing. When a couple feels jealous to protect their relationship with each other, that is a good thing. It is that sense that we need to understand here.
The Bible reveals that God wants us exclusively to himself. He will not share a relationship with us with anyone else. Exodus 20:5 says, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” Deuteronomy 4:24 says, “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”
God wants us for himself because He knows that any other kind of a relationship will lead to destruction. Life lived under a relationship with God is the only way that we can find life and peace and hope. God hates it when we give up on those good things in order to pursue that which leads to death. That is why we can’t sit on the fence. It is to our advantage and fits with God’s desire for us to love God wholly, not in any kind of a shared relationship.
What a strong word. How devastated we feel when we realize that none of us is pure in our relationship with God. We all have a mixture of loves. We love God, but we also love the world. We try to sit on the fence all the time. What hope is there for us?
The hope we have is that God is gracious. The “but” in verse 6 reveals that the situation is not hopeless. To those who are willing to humble themselves and admit to God that they are hopelessly lost and in love with the world, God is gracious to forgive.
To those who are too proud to admit their need and who want to continue to live by their own power, satisfying their own desires, James says that God opposes them. But those who humble themselves find grace.
Last year we purchased a new box spring and mattress. When it was delivered, we discovered that it was soiled and there was a corner that was frayed. We did not receive it, but sent it back. It was a tainted product and we refused it. God does not do that. The wonder of God’s love is so great that even though we come to him offering a tainted product, he receives us. That gives a solid basis to build a call to repentance.
And in the verses that follow, James gives us a call to repentance. There are ten words here which are in essence a call to turn around. The ten words are a reminder of the ten commandments - so serious is this call to turn around and leave love of the world and love God wholly.
Repentance means turning away from something. James says, “resist the devil, wash your hands, purify your hearts, grieve, wail, mourn and change.
Repentance also means turning to something. James says, submit to God, come near to God, humble yourselves before the Lord.
I love the invitation to come near to God. If our problem is that we are sitting on the fence, the invitation is to get off the fence in the direction of God. The promise is that as we draw near to God, He will draw near to us. To what extent have we tested that? We do not hear God speak, we do not hear an audible voice and we give up. This week I was reading the story of Elijah. He became discouraged and even though he had just seen God’s power demonstrated in sending fire from heaven, he suddenly felt abandoned and alone. As he sulked in the wilderness, God sent a mighty wind, but God was not there. God sent an earthquake, but God was not there. God sent fire, but God was not there. Then God sent a gentle whisper and in that gentle whisper, God spoke. We want the powerful wind, the fire and the great manifestation of God’s power. When we do not see it, we become discouraged. We need to see God in the whisper, for it is all around us. As we wait upon the Lord, He will draw near to us. May we learn to listen for the whisper of God’s voice in the matters of every day life.
I am also intrigued by the call to “grieve, mourn, wail, change your laughter into mourning and your joy to gloom.” How does that fit with the invitation in the Bible to rejoice? The important thing is to notice that the context is one of repentance. The time of repentance is not a time of joy, it is a time to recognize the seriousness of our sin. It is a time to understand that we are in dire straits. How terrible to understand that we are friends with the world and therefore enemies of God. If we truly understand that, how can we laugh about it? How can we make light of it? That is truly a time for weeping as we understand that we are in trouble. As a matter of fact, I think that weeping when we know that we are in over our heads is what humility means. One writer says, “mourning is appropriate once the enormity of sin really crashes in upon one’s world view.”
“Unless some very intentional actions are taken to get sinful behaviour and the influence of the devil out of the believer’s life, things will mainly stay as they are.”
Will we turn around?
The promise is that if we do, if we understand our friendship with the world and if we admit it and grieve over our lost and broken situation, “He will lift you up.”
God will not leave us in grief. God will not leave us in the mud. God will not cast us down. When we admit our brokenness, He will lift us up. What a glorious hope! Once again, we see His grace and the greatness of his love towards us. We who love the world so much are the objects of his grace, not only to forgive our sin and our wandering, but also to be lifted up to acceptance, lifted up to rejoicing, lifted up to life and lifted up to hope.
This is really a message of good news for all who are Christians. If there is any indication - fighting, not coming to God, selfish desires - that would suggest that something is wrong, we need to realize that at the core, we don’t trust God. We love the world too much and God too little.
What are you going to do about it?