James 4:11-17 Pride and Humility

In the previous study we saw that the epistle of James comes to a climax with a precious promise: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (v. 4:10). We have so much reason to be humble that it really should be an easy command to heed. Vanity and pride lead to foolish deeds. We all have many reasons to be humble and could probably profit by listing them. Yet, if we read James 4 carelessly, it seems that James drops the topic of humility. In the next paragraphs, he condemns the sins of slander, false judgment, overconfident business plans, indifference to God’s will, and oppression of the poor.

At first glance, James seems to take up a string of social sins, in no particular order. Yet, if we read closely – and we should always read God’s Word closely – connections to humility emerge. We see that James follows his summons to humility with a warning against several sins of arrogance, against attitudes that contradict gospel humility.

The first sins, slander and judgment of others, are clearly acts of pride. For when we judge and condemn others, we appoint ourselves to a position over them. But what gives us the right to promote ourselves to that rank? Indeed, to take the post of judge is to usurp a role that belongs to God Himself. So, James asks, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”

Second, anyone who says, “We will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” surely suffers from pride (v. 13). Anyone who says his travels and business ventures will certainly prove successful also presumes he can master his destiny. That, surely, is a proud thought. For God is Lord of history and we are not. James questions the self-appointed mastery of history: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14).

Third, it ought to humble us when we know the good and fail to do it (v. 17). Fourth, looking to the next paragraph, James 5:1-6 warns the rich against oppressing the poor. Oppression is certainly a sin of pride, since rich oppressors place themselves above the law that requires us to treat one another with justice. Oppressors, guided by envy and ambition, try to keep everything for themselves, even if they must defraud and oppress the poor to do so.

“Brothers, do not slander one another,” James begins, adding, “Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it (v. 4:11). We see again that James has an ear for sins of speech. And slander is a sin that fits the discussion of ambition. For slander is a way to promote oneself, a way to defeat a rival. So then, James forbids slander. The Greek word literally means “speak against” another. It might either mean to speak against someone truly or speak evil falsely. To gossip is to take a true story where it should not go. To slander is to create and spread false stories. Both gossip and slander are sins and cause real harm.

James quickly shifts from slander to the sin of judgment. Again, judgment can mean false condemnation of the innocent or improper condemnation of those who are truly guilty. We know what is wrong with false condemnation, but what is wrong with judgment of the actual sins of others? James says, “When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (vv. 11-12). James says the one who judges his brothers judges the law.

Why does James oppose judgment? Judgments are necessary at times. For example, Scripture requires leaders to discern or “judge” when putative disciple commits a sin and refuses to repent. Leaders must likewise judge when a teacher is guilty of such an error or propounds such a falsehood that he must be confronted and possibly pronounced a false prophet and put out of the assembly. Jesus knew judgment is sometimes necessary. Thus, He told His disciples, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).

But, James says, there is usually no need to judge the words or deeds of another; we should attend to ourselves. That is Jesus’ point at the end of the Sermon of the Mount (Matt. 7: 1, 3, 5). In context, Jesus is not simply uttering a general principle. He knows that those who hear His teaching will be tempted to judge others, to point out how they have failed. He says: “Don’t do it. Don’t criticize others; attend to yourself.” Clearly then, much judgment involves a decision to take a position superior to another, to dominate them. Envy and ambition, the sins that most contradict humility, cause slander and judgment.

As he so often does, James gets at the sin of presumption through our speech (v. 13). This way of thinking forgets three things. It forgets our ignorance. We think we can plan a year in advance and come and go as we please, but we do not even know what tomorrow will bring. It forgets our frailty (v. 14). We think we can master our destiny, but our lives are as insubstantial and fleeting as the morning mist, that appears and disappears in hours. And presumptuous planning also forgets our dependence on God. Our frailty and ignorance lead to the conclusion that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (v. 15).

So then, it is still good to make plans. Planning is entirely proper as long as we confess that God is sovereign and that we are frail, ignorant, and dependent upon Him. The phrase “Lord willing” is no magical incantation. It does not ensure our humility. But the suffix “If the Lord wills” is helpful. It reminds us that our plans, even our lives, are as frail as mist. Thus, we plan, hoping that God will use the process so that our aspirations match His purposes.

There are humble ways to plan. First, planners dedicate their plans to God. Second, planners confess they need God’s favor. Humble planners know we can do everything right and still fail. Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain (Ps. 127:1). We cannot even live unless God sustains us. Third, planners confess that whatever they achieve is through the gifts and favor of God. Some men inherit a thriving business from their fathers. But we are all heirs of God’s generosity. We may think, “But I have worked hard to hone my skills.” Perhaps so. But even then, we can ask if God did not guide our desires and nudge us toward godly aspirations. So let us ever be humble, rejoice in God’s goodness, and use our gifts for Him.

The last sentence of James 4 seems like an isolated statement (v.17). However, it links the section of proud plans to the section on abuse of the poor. We should always do what we know (vv. 1:21-25). James is also telling us not to forget God. As you plan, remember to say “Lord willing.” As you consider those who work for you, remember to treat them well by paying them fairly and promptly. For God sees you and protects them even if no one else does.

Yet there is one more thing. We can never fully do the good we ought to do. If we have nothing beyond these commands, James will drive us to despair. Therefore, we must remember the promise James so recently made, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:10). Indeed, humility is the way of the Lord Jesus. We remember that He humbled Himself by taking human flesh and enduring all the troubles that attend human life. Above all, He humbled Himself by dying on the cross. Yet that supreme act of self-denial led to His supreme glory, when God raised Him from the dead and crowned Him with honor. Thus, when James says “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” he bids us to follow the path of Christ. James bids us to join him on the path of gospel humility.

James 4:11-17 Study questions:

How do verses 11-12 fit into the broader context of James’s teaching about humility and pride? In what ways might humility and submission to God cut into our tendencies to be judgmental? How might genuine repentance and sorrow for our sin lead us to be merciful, patient, and gracious toward our neighbor?

What is the attitude that James seems to be confronting in verse 13? Is he teaching that planning for the future is evil? If not, what exactly is boastful and arrogant about the plans of the people he confronts (v. 16)?

How does James seek to remind his readers of the brevity and fragility of human life (v. 14)? Why is this a helpful reminder, and how ought this realization to affect our attitudes and prayers? How is this relating to the humility and submission that James has just discussed?