Pride and coveting destroys. Humility restores.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 August

James 4.1-10.

At the end of chapter 3 of his letter, James was making the point zeal and argumentativeness don’t come from God.

James 3.14-18 KWL
14 If you have bitter zeal and populism in your minds, don’t downplay and lie about the truth:
15 This “wisdom” doesn’t come down from above—but from nature, the mind, or demons.
16 Where there’s zeal and argumentativeness, there’s chaos and petty plans.
17 Wisdom from above, first of all, is religious. Then peaceful.
Reasonable. Convincing. Full of mercy and good fruit. Not judgmental. Not hypocrisy.
18 Righteous fruit is sown by peace, and harvests peace.

Just because Christians split this teaching into separate chapters, doesn’t mean James was done with his idea. That’s the context for the next 10 verses. Righteous fruit is sown by peace… and wars and battles don’t come from the same place. They don’t come from above.

James 4.1-4 KWL
1 Where do the wars and battles all of you have, come from? Not there!
They come out of your hedonism, the “field experience” of your limbs.
2 You all covet, and don’t have. You murder, act in zeal, yet you’re powerless to achieve it.
You fight and wage war, yet don’t have—because you don’t ask.
3 You ask, yet don’t receive because you ask for evil!
—so you might spend it on your hedonism.
4 Adultresses! Haven’t you known friendship with the world is enmity with God?
So whoever wants to be a friend of the world, is rendered God’s foe.

As leader of the Jerusalem Christians, James naturally had to deal with all their fights and spats. No doubt some of ’em escalated into violent physical confrontations, ’cause “eye for eye” and all that. With his experience, James knew precisely what sparked the bulk of these fights: People wanted their own way. They hadn’t submitted to God. (They sure wouldn’t submit to one another.) They had their own ideas how things should be, who should answer to whom, and what God “owes” us.

Even Christians who should know better, try to get away with this. Years ago my pastor bought a luxury car, and spent the bulk of a sermon trying to explain God permitted him this extravagance. It was a pretty pathetic defense. It was little better than what we hear in Prosperity Gospel churches—how God wants his kids to have the best of everything, so what’s wrong with a little mammonism? Years later the pastor gave his car away; that defended his purchase far better than his sermon ever did.

But my point, and James’s, is that our idon贸n/“hedonism” (KJV “lusts”) are our real motives for our behavior. Not wisdom from above. Jm 3.15-17 ’Tain’t from above; more like below.

Fighting to get ahead.

Look at James’s list of bad behaviors. All of ’em have to do with what our society calls success. They’re the typical things people do to get ahead.

You all covet, and don’t have. Christians often teach all coveting is wrong, but that’s inaccurate: The LORD forbids us from coveting what we can’t rightly have. Like your neighbor’s family members, employees, animals, nor possessions. Ex 20.17

Problem is, a capitalist economy is based on covetousness. Businesses produce stuff, need you to want it, and make money selling it. Executives wanna do better than their competition. Employees want more money and responsibility. In all of this is plenty of opportunity for temptation… ’cause sometimes we want what we can’t rightly have. What’d be awful for us. What’d destroy us.

Or they might not be harmful at all. But we’re all too willing to do terrible things to get ’em.

You murder. Nope, James wasn’t exaggerating about the murder. No, he didn’t mean “murder” like Jesus did when he said anger’s just as bad. Mt 5.21-22 He meant actual murder. Doesn’t have to consist of stabbing someone to death in the marketplace; people can just do it in quieter, subtler ways which take advantage of our unjust society. Fail to help. Fail to warn. Let ’em get in a quagmire; tell ourselves it’s their own fault.

Today it’s when businesses in the United States, whether owned by Christian shareholders or proprietors, figure healthcare shouldn’t be their problem. They cut their employees to part-time so they’re not on the hook for their healthcare, and if these employees get sick (as people do), oh well. Or the businesses might pollute, destroying people’s health and wrecking the climate; good thing they don’t believe in climate change. Because such things are done by corporations instead of individuals, Christian shareholders may figure they haven’t personally murdered anybody. I seriously doubt God agrees.

You act in zeal. People justify all sorts of things because we’re emotional. This, despite gentleness being one of the Spirit’s fruit.

You fight and wage war. Businesses adopt war tactics against their competition. Individuals likewise use war tactics against people—even coworkers!—when they see ’em as competition.

Even in churches. One of us might want our ministry to get more attention or resources, and see others as taking the resources we “deserve.” Hence battle and war. Wholly inappropriate when we consider God has unlimited resources. But by this point we’re not looking to God any.

You don’t ask. In most human cultures, asking is weak. Taking is strong.

Asking seeks cooperation and relationship. Taking means you’ve conquered all others, and can stay fiercely independent. Asking often leads to generosity, grace, kindness, and other fruit of the Spirit. Taking is often a nicer way of saying theft, and leads to all sorts of other sins.

Adulteresses. Because when Christians behave this way, our loyalty is obviously divided between God and the world.

In the Textus Receptus it reads moikho铆 kai moikhal铆des/“adulterers and adulteresses,” like we see in the KJV. But the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus only have moikhale铆des/“adulteresses,” so that’s what most other bibles have. I suspect James only referred to the feminine “adulteresses,” not because he only meant the women in his church, but to remind us of the Prophets.

The Prophets regularly compared Israel to God’s unfaithful wife. Or wives, ’cause Ezekiel compared Israel and Judea to two horny sisters who nastily cuckolded the LORD with all Israel’s neighbors. Ek 23 Adultery was the Prophets’ most common metaphor for idolatry. Ho 1.2 Though since Baalism notoriously promoted temple prostitution, it’s hardly a metaphor.

And let’s be blunt: Mammonism is idolatry. Like James’s brother said, we can’t serve both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24 much as Americans might like to imagine we can juggle the two. Pursuing worldly wealth and success instead of God’s kingdom, is cheating on God.

There’s one reason, and only one, that God gives Christians money or power. It’s once we’ve demonstrated our heads aren’t turned by it. That we rightly recognize it’s a tool to be used for God’s glory, and nothing else.

It’s like when I took shop classes in high school. The teacher wouldn’t let us use the power tools till we passed the safety exam, and proved we knew not to treat them like our own personal toys.

Well, not many Christians have passed God’s safety exam when it comes to money and power. As we regularly demonstrate with our lack of generosity, and the efforts we put into growing their own personal kingdoms instead of God’s. We’re to spend the unrighteous wealth of this world so we can help God redeem it, Lk 16.9 but too often we use that as an excuse, not a mission. “I need to be rich so I can do more for God!” we’ll proclaim. Yet once we’re rich, we’ll hoard it and try to grow more wealth, and do little for the needy. We do nothing with the one talent; Mt 25.24-25 why should God give us two, or 10, or whatever?

In fact God never gave such people their wealth. They earned it themselves, or the world gave it to ’em. They befriended the world, and trust it and their wealth way more than they do God. That’s why they don’t give. That’s why they’ve adopted messed-up theology which calls their wealth righteous, and calls the poor unrighteous. Which disguises social Darwinism for Christianity.

Hence they claim they’re following Jesus, but he’s really their foe. Hence all the scratching and biting at fellow Christians. If we’ve rejected the kingdom in favor of hell, we’re not gonna wait till we’re cast into it before we start acting like the angry poo-flinging monkeys which will infest it. We’ll create hell all around us. Instead of creating the kingdom around us, like we’re meant to.

Fight your sin nature!

Christians want what we can’t have, and we need to be guided by the scriptures which warn us away from self-exaltation and pride. Hence James quoted two passages. Problem is, we don’t know where the first passage comes from.

The second comes from Proverbs. It’s an exact-enough quote of the Septuagint; James swapped k媒rios/“Master” with the贸s/“God.” So we know he wasn’t paraphrasing his quotes much.

James 4.5-6 KWL
5 Or do you imagine the scripture is irrelevant?
It says, “The spirit settled in you, leans towards envy.”
6 Hence God greatly gives us grace. This is why the the scripture says,
“God sets himself against the proud, and gives grace to the humble.” Pr 3.34

That first quote, “The Spirit who settles in you…” isn’t from the Septuagint, nor any book we recognize as bible. Not that James said it was bible; graf铆/“scripture” literally means “writing,” and could refer to a holy, Spirit-inspired writing, or any old writing. But since James put it in his letter, it’s certainly bible now.

Christians have struggled to translate and interpret that quote. First of all, does the pn茅fma/“spirit” mean a human spirit, unclean spirit, or the Holy Spirit? It/he kat贸kisen/“colonizes” us, so is that describing how the Holy Spirit comes to indwell us, or how God installs our human spirits when he creates us?

Or is this perhaps an evil spirit taking over? After all, it doesn’t sound like this spirit is up to any good: It pr贸s fth贸non epipothe铆/“towards envy, greatly yearns after”—which I translated “leans towards envy,” and the KJV “lusteth to envy.” What’s that all about?

I also suspect the next clause, “[Hence God] greatly gives us grace,” may also be part of the quote. So the whole of it looks like, “The spirit settled in you, leans towards envy; [hence God] greatly gives us grace.” The spirit isn’t the Holy Spirit, but our spirits, suffering from human depravity, bent towards selfishness instead of God. All the more reason God’s gotta grant us his grace.

The verse isn’t all that hard to translate. So why do Christians come up with widely variant translations? Because they find it really hard to interpret. It butts heads with their theology. They prefer to think humans are inherently good, not selfish.

And yeah, a lot of times they’re just plain insistent this spirit is the Holy Spirit. Acting out of character, but they figure they can explain it away. He’s a jealous God, right? Ex 34.14 He must be jealous for our worship. Envious of our devotion to idols. Greatly longs for us. Stuff like that… which the text doesn’t actually say without a little stretching.

But none of these ideas actually fit the context of James 4.1-10. The passage is about how Christians covet what we ought not have; that we need to repent, resist Satan, turn to God, and mourn our misbehavior. James didn’t veer that far off topic. Apostles were in the habit of quoting things to back up their points. The better interpretation is always the one which best supports James’s point.

But you know humans. Too often we don’t care about anyone’s points but our own.

Well enough of that; off to Proverbs. The bit James quoted came from Solomon’s sayings:

Proverbs 3.33-34 KWL
33 The LORD curses the wicked’s house. He blesses the righteous’s home.
34 If the LORD scoffs, it’s toward scoffers. If he gives grace, it’s to the lowly.

The Septuagint’s translation of verse 34, “The Master sets himself against the proud, and gives grace to the humble,” stretched the meaning a tad, but it’s consistent. Proud people scoff, and God doesn’t care for that attitude. Humble people, he can work with.

Those who choose the world over God, who pick fights over personal preferences instead of pursuing God’s wisdom, make a mockery of Christianity. They scoff at God’s greater priorities of peace, love, and harmony; they replace ’em with their own. Often things which sound devout, like orthodoxy, conformity, and outrage at sin. Mixed in there, of course, is discomfort at radical acts of love, compassion, and grace—and of course any calls for them to give up their materialism and put their treasure in heaven. Mt 6.19-20

By lifestyles which are no different from pagan lifestyles—with only a thin veneer of Christianity over it—they make pagans correctly react, “What good is Christianity?” and win us no new disciples.


We Christians have unfortunately turned James’s call to repentance—

James 4.7-10 KWL
7 So be submitted to God. Stand up to the devil and it’ll flee from you.
8 Stand near God and he’ll stand near you.
Sinners: Wash your hands. Double-minded: Purify your hearts.
9 Go through hardship. Mourn. Weep. Trade your laughter for mourning, your joy for gloom.
10 Be humble before the Master, and he’ll exalt you.

—into a bunch of popular Christian platitudes.

  • “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Jm 4.7 KJV Regularly quoted to support the idea the devil’s not all that. We can fight it. We can even drive it off.
  • “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Jm 4.8 ESV Regularly quoted to encourage Christians who feel like God’s far away. If we pursue him, he’ll show up!
  • “Sinners: Wash your hands…” We skip over this part. It’s depressing.
  • “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” Jm 4.9 ESV Regularly used to defend solemn, joyless worship music: Stop singing happy songs! Sing boring hymns! I know you hate ’em; it’s not about what you want anyway. Suck it up!
  • Or we quote the above, then leap straight to other verses about God turning our mourning to dancing, Ps 30.11 and our sorrow to joy. Jn 16.20
  • “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” Jm 4.10 KJV Years ago there was a popular worship song which borrowed that language.
Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord (women echo; repeat a few times)
And he (echo) will lift (echo) you up, higher and higher
And he (echo) will lift (echo) you up, up into heaven
And he (echo) will lift (echo) you up

—Bob Hudson, “Humble Thyself in the Sight of the Lord”

The last bit—getting lifted up—was way more emphasized than the humbling part. ’Cause we love the idea of getting lifted up. Humbling ourselves, not so much.

Seldom are these platitudes taught in context: Stop coveting. Stop treating the path of righteousness like an amusement-park ride. Take it seriously. Stop dismissing your sins and misbehavior as if they’re meaningless. Just because Jesus paid everybody’s fines 1Ti 2.6 and they cost us nothing, doesn’t mean they cost him nothing. He had to die for ’em. James’s own brother got crucified for them. You get the idea it annoyed James when people took his sacrifice for granted?

So here are James’s steps to repentance. Stop being a jerk. Incorporate God into our lifestyles. Stop ignoring the devil and fight it. Turn to God with prayer and worship and obedience. Change our deeds, minds, and careless attitude. I don’t think we need to follow it in this specific order; it’s a lifestyle, not a formula. But it’s mean to be a truly repentant person’s lifestyle. Let’s be that.

James summed everything up in verse 10: Be humble before God. Don’t bother to exalt yourself; that’s for him to do. Let him do that. ’Cause he will. He’s gracious like that. He can work with humble people. Whereas arrogant, dismissive people just get in his way.

It’s time for us to become God-focused instead of self-focused if we wanna keep the label “Christian” …instead of “hypocrite.”