James 4:1-6 The Gospel according to James

If we return to verses 3:14-16, we see that worldly wisdom leads to selfish ambition and envy. Unchecked, envy causes disorder and other evils. James hopes his people live by God’s wisdom, yet he knows many in his audience live by the world’s wisdom. Therefore, he now describes the rivalry, pride, strife, even murder, that envy and ambition breed.

James 4:1 says worldly wisdom leads to fights and struggles. James says there are fights “among you” because of passions “that are at war within you.” Literally, the last phrase says those passions are at war “in your members.” In this verse, “members” means the members or faculties within one person, not the various members of the church. Selfish passions make believers wage war within themselves, as their desire to serve Christ and neighbor conflicts with the desire to serve self.

James 4:2 says that this internal conflict leads to external conflict. Whenever envy and selfish ambition create battles within us, they disrupt relations outside us. Quarrels and fights break out in the church and the family. James even says his readers “murder.” It is very unlikely that his readers were guilty of literal murder. The word for “fights” can refer to physical violence, but in the New Testament it usually refers to verbal conflicts or internal struggles. We speak the same way.

Of course, we, like James, know that it is necessary to fight some battles. We should fight for the unborn – politically, judicially, and in the hearts of men and women. We should fight for the truth. Sometimes refusal to fight reflects the vice of cowardice, not the virtue of peacemaking. But alas, far too many of our fights begin with selfish desires, not noble causes. As James says, we fight because of our “passions,” that is, the selfish desires that are often so disorderly.

Our pursuit of selfish desires becomes so severe that we find we cannot bring ourselves to pray about them. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (v. 2). This sounds odd, since believers can always pour out their requests before the Lord (1 Sam. 1:15). Yet James understands how difficult it is to present selfish requests to the Lord, regardless of the intensity of the desire. The heart is free when we pray for friends and family, for the kingdom and the church.

Too often, the uncertain Chrisian ceases pray. Let us ask ourselves: Do I harbor a desire that is so far outside God’s revealed will that I am ashamed to mention it to Him? Am I shoving it under the bed, into the basement, hoping God will not see it? So, we fail to pray. Yet, James says, some do pray “that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). God denies the request, because we ask wrongly, wickedly. He will not answer a prayer that aims no higher than the belly. Paul says, of the enemies of Christ, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19 ESV). Why would God answer the prayer of a believer who wants to live like an enemy of Christ?

When James says, “You adulterous people,” he makes a specific accusation. The charge is spiritual adultery, not spiritual fornication, because the people are joined to Christ. They are married to Jesus, but they run after other gods. This endangers their relationship, their marriage, to Him. This is the language of the prophets who charged Israel with adultery. Faithless Israel sought to worship both the Lord and the Canaanite gods of fertility and prosperity, so Christians attempt to pursue both God and the world. James says that this is not vacillation, it is adultery.

James censures adultery, but he even objects to friendship with the world (v. 4:4). We use the word “friend” lightly, when we really mean “cordial acquaintance.” But in antiquity, as today, true friends shared a mindset and an outlook on life. They shared interests, values, and goals. They saw life in much the same way. They shared goods as necessary. They cared for each other and worked together effectively because they agreed how the work should be done.

Christians are friends of God in this high, restricted sense. Earlier, James said believers are “unstained by the world.” That is, we can be friendly toward anyone – showing kindness and concern. We should be good neighbors and good coworkers. But in the deepest sense of “friendship,” we cannot be friends with the world because we reject its values. God’s value system is different. In His eyes, all humans have honor, since He made all in His likeness. Therefore, we are not God’s friends if we define people by their acquisitions, their merit, and their “station.” We must not adopt the values of our culture. We cannot be loyal to the culture and to the kingdom. Their values clash. To try to serve both systems is adultery. Yet the Lord, like a good husband, woos His faithless wife instead of seeking divorce.

James brings his indictment or worldly wisdom and selfish ambition to its climax with a probing question (4:5). Notice that when James writes “Scripture says,” he is not quoting one passage. No Old Testament text says, “The spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.” James is condensing the entire biblical theology of the fallen human condition. He turns our minds toward sinfulness, not one particular sin. The analysis and the indictment read: “The spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.”

James’s point is that Scripture rightly testifies that human history is one long story of intense envy and selfish striving. In other words, human history is largely a record of misdirected energies. God has endowed humans with a drive to achieve, to taste glory. But alas, we put our energy in vain projects, and we fan selfish desires. Instead of aiming for success, we are content to watch someone else fail. Is this what God intended us to make of our drives and talents? Surely, God gave humans a desire to do great things, but we ought not be motivated by envy or satisfied by a taste of our latest desire. God granted us the capacity to yearn, to desire, to dream for higher purposes. He did not give us our energy, our feistiness, to spend it defeating others and plundering their goods. No, God made us for glory, to aspire to the glories of loving God and blessing our fellow humans.

But James does more than diagnose the human problem: he announces the fundamental solution: God gives grace. He resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (4:6). James does not describe how God has sent His grace. He does not say that God the Son humbled Himself and gave His life for us on the cross, then rose from the dead in victory over sin. James assumes that his Christian readers know how Jesus accomplished the salvation from which God’s redeeming grace flows. Now God extends His grace to the humble who believe in Him.

The gospel of James suggests a test of our spiritual condition. What are your longings? Is your spirit filled with selfish or ambitious cravings for things, for experiences, for fame, for power? Or do you pursue simpler but equally misguided goals – mere prosperity and tranquility, spiced up by pleasant leisure activities, punctuated by an occasional exotic high point? There is no harm in dreaming large dreams. Goals prompt us to do our best. But dreams can be egotistical too. If examine ourselves, we may find sinful cravings and envy.

James says, we must choose between two ways of life. There is the way of ambition, grasping, and pride, and the way of repentance and humility, which leads to peace with God, then with mankind. True repentance is more than feeling sorry. The penitent man acknowledges the sin at hand. A reader of James should repent for the sins James singles out: pride in knowledge, hearing the word but doing nothing, the reckless speech that will say anything to get a laugh or gain an advantage, the desire to fit in with society rather than to stay unpolluted by it. If we humble ourselves in genuine repentance, God promises to forgive us and exalt us with Christ.

James 4:1-6 Study Questions:

How does James seem to use the word “passion” in verse 1? What are the results of the kids of “passions” that are at war within each one of us? What does this teach us about our sinful nature?

In verse 2, what does James suggest that we ought to do about our desires? Why is this such a better alternative than fighting and quarreling? What might James be suggesting that we often forget about God?

According to verse 3, there is a wrong way to ask God about our desires. What wrong motivations do we sometimes bring to our prayers, according to James?

What does the phrase “adulterous people” imply about James’s understanding of his readers’ relationship with God (v. 4)? In what ways might “friendship with the world” be likened to spiritual “adultery,” in the way James is describing it?

How is verse 5 a good summary of the human condition? How could this explain much of human history, including the rise and fall of leaders and nations?

How might verse 6 offer the solution to the sinful battle within every human soul? How does this verse direct us to respond? What does it tell us about God, and how is it a hopeful verse to conclude this passage?

James 3:13-18 Two kinds of Wisdom

Life constantly lays choices before us. Many are mundane: If we say yes to salmon at a restaurant, we also say no to chicken, beef, and every other meat. To order one dessert is, in a way, to reject all others. More seriously, to marry one woman is, as the vows declare, to forsake all others – every other woman in the world. To say yes to parenthood is to say no to a simpler life. Taken together, our choices of food and drink, of vocation and avocation, of marriage and parenthood, set our direction for life.

The same principle applies to our moral and spiritual life. We do not choose a spiritual direction the way we choose chicken over beef, but Scripture does say we face two paths for life. Jesus says there is a broad road that leads to destruction and a narrow road that leads to life. We can call Jesus, “Lord” truly or falsely. We can build our life on sand or on the rock, that is, on Christ (Matt 7:13-27). James presents the same idea in different terms. He says there are two ways of life, two kinds of wisdom. One wisdom is from the earth, even the devil; the other is from heaven (James 3:13-18).

In verses 13-18 James sets us the climatic indictment of human sin in James 4. There James says that his people desire, kill, and covet. In James’s list of sins, envy has a central place. Envy is the enemy of Christian living. It is the opposite of grace, for it wants to grasp rather than to give. Envy is the opposite of caring for the needy. Envy sees only its needs and desires. Envy thinks other people should care for themselves. Left to ourselves, we all live for ourselves and envy what others have. Yet God doesn’t leave us to ourselves. Before he develops his indictment of human sin in full, he presents two ways of life. We should choose the way of wisdom, yet we do not have the power in ourselves to do so. So, by grace, God’s wisdom comes down to us (3:15, 17).

James says that anyone who is wise and understanding shows it by his good life, by deeds that reflect wisdom. The way of wisdom is the way of humility. True wisdom is gentle, meek, humble. If we walk in the path of wisdom, we know that our wisdom is “from above” – a gift of God (v. 17). Humble faith, a faith that comes from heaven, is the source of the wise life. We tend to think of humility, gentleness, and meekness as personality traits, but they are more. A gentle person need not be feminine and a humble person need not be shy or retiring. A gentle man can be bold and tough.

James says envy and selfish ambition drive are of the devil (vv. 14-15). Fools despise humility. Envy and selfish ambition drive vices that are opposite of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:19-23). Paul’s “works of the flesh” feature social sins such as hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy. The fruit of the Spirit is equally social. It includes peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness.

The Bible never praises selfish ambition, but to be accurate, we must say the Bible praises what we might call aspirations. For example, we should aspire to a quiet and productive life (1 Thess. 4:11), We should aspire to please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9). Paul aspired to preach the gospel where the name of Christ was unknown (Rom. 15:20). So, it is fine to have goals or aspirations. We may have goals for the development of our gifts, for our family, for the lost, or for growth in wisdom or righteousness. God blesses those who have a passion for social justice. Everyone who is energetic, everyone with a taste for life, has ambitions. The Lord simply wants them to be godly, not worldly.

James has just described earthly wisdom and its miserable fruit. Now he describes wisdom from heaven and its blessed fruit. Like true faith, true wisdom is identified by the quality of life that it produces. It is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (v. 17). This verse shows that James expects wisdom to produce results. The phrase “good fruit” makes us think of external deeds, but most of the verse describes character traits. Purity is an innocence and moral blamelessness that embraces all other traits. The pure are separate from the world.

The next three terms – “peace-loving,” “considerate,” and “submissive” – are linked, in Greek, each word begins with the same vowel and each has a similar ending. But the three also stand together by their contrast with the strife, selfish ambition, and boasting that mark worldly wisdom. Taken together, these three Christian virtues characterize a church marked by peace and cooperation rather than strife and competition. Following this trio, James lists another set of virtues that are a little more loosely related.

“Full of mercy and good fruit” signifies that spiritual virtues produce results. Mercy is the general term for acts of undeserved kindness. Jesus both showed mercy and commanded mercy. Like Jesus, James stressed the need to show mercy. “Good fruit,” in turn, is the consequence of these deeds of mercy.

There is uncertainty about the best translation of the next term. Leading scholars and some translators believe the word translated “impartial” in the NIV and ESV is better translated as “unwavering”. It seems that James means unwavering for a couple of reasons: First, James commends unwavering loyalty to God later in this section of his epistle (4:7-8). Second, unwavering makes a better pair with the next term, “insincere” (literally, “not hypocritical”) James’s virtues form clusters. The opening trio “peace-loving, considerate, and submissive” all point to a unified church, and the final pair both indicate a wholehearted faith, a faith without wavering or hypocrisy.

The effect of these traits of wisdom is peace and righteousness for the family of God. If earthly wisdom brings strife, the wise man brings unity and peace. Righteousness flourishes when God’s people seek peace. God fashioned us to flourish in an atmosphere of peace. Clamor and noise, conflict and competition, bring out the worst in us. Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).

James is clear. We must show wisdom, be gentle, and avoid selfish ambition. We should shun envy because it devours our souls. Still, a question remains. Since we all have a competitive side, since we all tend to fix our eyes on those who have something we want, how can we free ourselves from envy? If believers struggle with envy and godless ambition, it is because we fail to see our status as beloved children of God.

Faith begets a wisdom and a gentleness that let us say: “God has given me the talents I have, whether great or small. He has given me my place in life, whether prominent or obscure. Whatever my lot, I know God will bless me and I can serve Him faithfully.” These thoughts, born of faith, create peace. They liberate the godly aspiration that is free of envy. They give us peace and they sow peace in our community. They show that we are living in the light of the wisdom from above.

James 3:13-18 Study Questions:

How does the passage you are studying today follow logically from the passage you studied in the past lesson (James 3:1-12)? What case does James seem to be building in chapter 3?

According to 3:13, what kind of a life results from a commitment to wisdom? How does “meekness” contrast with the descriptions, actions, and attitudes that follow in 3:14-16?

What are the fruits, or results, of wisdom that in not from above, according to verses 14-16? Why might this be? Why do you think he chooses to mention these specific sins and vices in these verses?

Why might James still refer to earthly wisdom as a kind of “wisdom” (v. 15)? How might worldly approaches to wisdom have a kind of order and logic to them?

In verse 18, James’s concluding comments about God’s wisdom have to do with its final benefits and results; this peace-loving wisdom of God produces “a harvest of righteousness.” How might living according to God’s wisdom have disproportionate effects beyond one’s individual life? What other Scriptures might James have in mind as he writes these words?

James 3:1-12 Who can Tame the Tongue?

The problem James now addresses is, who can control the tongue? Control of the tongue is one of the tests of true religion that James lists at the conclusion of his first chapter. James has already appealed to believers to live their faith by praying for wisdom, listening to the Word, and acting on it. Almost immediately James hints that it may be difficult to prove one’s faith is genuine. It is far too easy to offer kind wishes – “keep warm and well fed” (2:16) – and do nothing to help. The hints of poor performance in James 2 become a plain declaration of human inability in James 3. James 1 says a religious man must “keep a tight rein on his tongue” (1:26). Yet now James says, “No man can tame the tongue” (3:8).

James opens chapter 3 with a warning that alarms teachers everywhere (3:1). Paradoxically, every time a teacher rises to explain this verse, he invites judgment on himself. It is true that only qualified people should teach. It is also true that some people get a thrill from standing before an attentive audience. But these points are not the topic of James 3. James’s theme is that we must tame the tongue but cannot do so. Teachers make an excellent test case of the issue. They are especially vulnerable to failures of speech because their role demands that they speak so much.

James does not accuse teachers of being especially wicked: “We all stumble in many ways.” No one can control his tongue. If anyone could, he would be faultless and perfect, “able to keep his whole body in check.” The tongue daily demonstrates both our sinfulness and our inability to reform ourselves. Failures of the tongue are frequent and public, hence undeniable. Scripture has long used sins of the tongue to describe human fallenness. For most of us, our mouth is our undoing (Prov. 18:6-7).

James uses three analogies to illustrate the influence of the tongue. The tongue, he says, is like a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, and a fire among trees (3:3-5). The tongue rests in the human mouth mush as the bit is in the horse’s mouth. In both cases, a small thing moves and controls a large body. The tongue is like a rudder of a ship. Just as a small part of a ship turns the whole, so the tongue has great influence on the whole person. The tongue is like a spark of fire in the woods. Even as a small spark can start a great fire, so the tongue can set fire to relationships or communities.

The idea that we should work hard to master the tongue because it is the key to all self-mastery, is appealing, in one way, since it directs human effort to one central task. Unfortunately, this view runs against the rest of Scripture. Jesus does not say “control the tongue and you control all.” He says your heart controls your tongue and speech (Matt. 12:33-35). James agrees with Jesus; the heart moves the tongue. Therefore, we cannot simply decide, by a resolution of the will, to control the tongue. For the heart controls our resolutions.

James rightly says, “The tongue…is a fire” (3:6a). Its propensity to gossip and its capacity to suggest sin establish it as a source of great wickedness. It stains the whole body. It sets all of life on fire “and is itself set on fire by hell” (3:6b). James describes the tongue in three ways: Its character. The tongue is a microcosm, a concentration point of this world’s evils. James says the tongue is “a world of evil among the parts of the body” (3:6a). Its influence. It corrupts “the whole body,” that is, the whole person. James says, “It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire” (3:6b). Its allegiance. In one sense, the evils of the tongue flow from the heart. In another sense, James says Satan himself gives the tongue its destructive power. Hell sets the tongue on fire (3:6b). If we wonder why the tongue generates so much trouble, James answers that it is set on fire by hell.

James begins the next text with the word “for.” That shows he is explaining what he just said. By this we know the tongue is enflamed by hell: mankind can tame anything but the tongue. Every kind of animal “can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:7-8). The tongue is restless, unstable, and liable to break out at any time. It is half-tamed at best.

James says two things: The tongue has vast influence, so we ought to control it. Yet no human can tame the tongue. This is a paradox: James says we must do something that we cannot do. There are two ways to approach this problem. First, we can soften James’s message. He means it is almost impossible to tame the tongue, therefore we must redouble our efforts. This view says: Since the tongue is the key to holy living, we must bend every effort to control it, for if we do, we control all. James’s illustrations seem to support this view. Just as a bit turns a large horse, just as a rudder turns a large ship, so the tongue the lives of men. The second view interprets James rather literally. It says: It would be good to tame the tongue, but James says we cannot. Therefore, we must turn elsewhere for help. No one has sufficient self-control to govern his tongue: “We all stumble in many ways” (3:2). “No one” – no mere human – “can tame the tongue” (3:8).

The tongue is hopelessly inconsistent. It blesses God one minute and curses mankind the next even though God fashioned mankind in his likeness (3:9-12). Such behavior is absurd as a spring that pours out both fresh and salty water, as absurd as a single tree bears both olives and figs (3:11-12). Yet the tongue is like a spring that vacillates between salty and clear water, or like a tree that bears peaches one day and papayas the next. James says simply, “My brothers, this should not be” (3:10).

Notice that James chides our inconsistency, even though he knows no one can consistently control the tongue. He rebukes us because the duty of watching our words remains. Since a small statement can cause great harm, we must guard our speech. We must strive to bless God and mankind with our tongues. James doesn’t solve this riddle in this passage. For the moment, he leaves us in tension until sometime later, in 4:6-10. In 4:10, James resolves his riddle when he promises that God will exalt all who humble themselves before Him. That is, if we humbly admit our inability, He will graciously forgive us.

Even before we reach that moment, other Scriptures teach us this about our inability: We cannot control the tongue, but God can. Even with the Spirit’s help, the taming is only partial. Yet it is real and more potent than our efforts at self-mastery. Once we realize that God can control what we cannot, we can properly face the failures of speech that reflect the failures of the heart.

Good works and holiness please God. But God, as a faithful husband, loves His bride, flaws and all. In this supremely important way, our moral achievements count for nothing. They neither earn God’s love nor guarantee it. There is no deed, no accomplishment, that makes God suddenly notice us or favor us. He loves us for His own reasons, not for our own merits. Yet, if we love the Lord, we do aspire to holiness.

We all stumble and utter words we quickly regret (3:1). Yet we strive to please God, whom we love. We do this even if our failures do not jeopardize that love. When we fail, we petition God for grace to renew and purify us, as we appropriate His grace. We live without fear, knowing God will not disown His children for their lapses. Even in failure we remain confident that if we believe in God, He has given us life by the gospel. The gospel word, implanted in us, saves us. Our tongue may be inconsistent, but our status is not. Our “performance” does not affect God’s love for us. By God’s grace, let us use our tongues to bless the Lord and to bless mankind, whom He made in His image.

James 3:1-12 Study Questions:

James begins this passage (vv. 1-2), by issuing a warning to those who teach, before discussing the dangers of the tongue for the remaining ten verses. What is the connection between the “teacher” and the “tongue”?

Given the three specific pictures that James uses to describe the tongue in verses 3-5, what are we supposed to grasp about the tongue?

Verse 6 is packed with particularly insightful teaching about the tongue. What does this verse remind us about the tongue’s role in evil? What do we learn about the tongue’s influence? In what sense can the tongue be linked with “hell” itself?

To what in nature does James compare the tongue in verses 7-8? How is this verse convicting? What does it teach about sinful human nature and our ability to control ourselves by our own strength?

How does James call out hypocritical uses of the tongue in verses 9-12? According to James, does it seem like any human being is completely free from this kind of doublespeak? Does he offer any hints of hope, with regard to the tongue, to his readers?

In what ways does this passage call us to repentance? What truths about God has James already taught, earlier in the letter, that give guidance for how to move forward with this recognition of universal failure in our words and speech?