Dr. John B. MacDonald
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The man looked longingly at his wife across the crowded room. She was flirting with an attractive young man.

Her desires were destroying their marriage. Sometimes it was if he didn’t exist to her.

He yearned jealously for his wife as he watched her leave the room on the arm of the attractive young man.

How do you think the unsanctified desires of that wife impacted her husband? Now consider how our unsanctified desires are viewed by our God?

James’ indictment (4:1-4)

In this section, James indicts the Christians to whom he was writing as “adulterous people” – people who lived in wanton disregard of their covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. They fought and quarreled, connived and slandered, their way to fulfilling their pleasures. He paints a picture of dysfunctional behavior and fragmented relationships.

This is how James puts it (James 4:1-4 ESV):

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 

It’s not that these Christians were literally committing murder, or were being sexually immoral – but recall what Jesus says: 

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28)  

If anger, insults, or lust reside in our hearts and thought-lives, Jesus says we’re essentially committing murder or adultery. 

James is saying that fighting, quarreling, lusting, and fulfilling misdirected passions all reveal a heart unfaithful to God. This is friendship with the “world” – that entity in alienation from and opposition to God. Such friendship with the world is “enmity” or hatred toward God.  

God’s initiative (4:5-6)

James now moves from his diagnosis of dysfunction toward God’s initiative for wholeness (4:5-6):

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 

Here are two basic observations of these verses. 

First, is an insight into God’s heart toward us: “He yearns jealously.” This phrase combines God’s deep longing for his people with the pain of being denied their affection and loyalty. 

Second, is an insight into God’s generosity toward us: “He gives more grace.” The Lord generously provides all the blessings, power, and equipment needed for living a life of true wholeness.  

Moving toward wholeness (4:7-12)

James has named our misdirected passions and motives as adultery – covenant unfaithfulness toward God. What is the antidote? 

James begins by prescribing five imperatives, or commands (4:7-8): 

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 

My sense is that these imperatives are listed in a logical and necessary progression.

First, submit to God. This is the place to start. What does this mean for a person who already claims to be a Christian? Somehow, this follower of Jesus is not submitting to God. Does this refer to that Christian's whole sphere of life or some aspect of it? I prefer to view this as a reference to an aspect of that follower's life that is expressing itself in the dysfunctional actions and desires just described by James. And yet, this also means that those dysfunctional actions and desires are casting a pall over the whole life of that Christian.

No doubt greater insight is needed here, but we can expect that such submission to God requires identification of the area in which there is a failure to submit; specific repentance and confession of that failure; and a renewed grace-filled determination to submit that rogue aspect of life to God.

Second, resist the devil. Consider the stance that Jesus took when the devil tempted him the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus refused to comply with the devil’s enticements and promises. Each time, Jesus responded by quoting Scripture. In that act of reciting he was demonstrating that his identity was grounded in God’s ‘story’ and promises. We all live in a ‘story’ – a narrative that defines and explains our life. We need to live in God’s narrative allowing his ‘story’ to define and direct our passions, motives, and purposes. 

Third, draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. If you lack the ability or the desire to draw near to him simply utter your need to the Lord. Let your heart express something like this: “Lord I want to draw near to you. Put in my heart the desire for you, and show me how to move toward you.” Such an expression of your heart and lips is a beginning to drawing near to God.  

Fourth and fifth, wash your hands and purify your hearts. This is the language of ritual washing. In the Old Testament, a person would wash his or her hands – not so much to clean off dirt or blood, but as a deliberate action that demonstrated the heart’s cry for cleansing. This action initiated a conscious process toward (renewed) purity. In that regard, I recommend the practice of introspection, or inner examination (e.g., Psalm 139:23-24), and confession (e.g., 1 John 1:9) mentioned in the previous blog

James then prescribes a sober reflection leading to a deep sense of remorse for our unfaithfulness to our God; a reflection that leads to the choice of humbling ourselves before the Lord. The result: being exalted by the Lord – being in the place of wholeness. 

Contact me by clicking here and let me know what you have to add, and how you implement and experience James’ prescription that moves our desires toward wholeness. 

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