James 5:12-20 The Quest for Healing

Students of James puzzle over the place of verse 5:12 in the structure of the epistle. Its connection to the rest of chapter 5 is a challenge. Theologians who question the structural cohesiveness of James cite 5:12 as a prime example of its tendency to drop disjointed aphorisms into the text. As he often does, James meditated on a teaching of Jesus and made it his own (see. Matt. 5:34-37).

Although the wording differs at several points, James and Jesus see oaths the same way. Oaths are a convention designed to limit lying and deceit. We rarely use oaths or vows today. We reserve them for formal situations, such as testifying at court or taking office. Today, we use other conventions to restrain false speech when truth-telling is essential. We promise in personal settings and sign contracts in economic settings. Whether we consider oaths or similar conventions – such as vows or promises – truthful speech is the issue.

In the day of Jesus and James, a perversion of oaths had arisen. Instead of calling on God to assure honesty, people took oaths to avoid God’s punishment for dishonest speech. Rabbis artificially distinguished vows that invoke God’s name, and are binding, from those that do not, and are not binding. Whatever we swear by, Jesus said, it refers to God, for He created heaven and earth. If we swear by heaven or by earth (Matt. 5:34), we invoke God, for He created them both. All oaths call God to witness, for He created and sustains all things.

James flatly prohibits the use of oaths because even the honest use of oaths testifies that something is amiss in the community. If believers reliably told one another the truth, what need would there be of oaths to guarantee truth-telling? The greater the weight of a man’s oaths in the short run, the greater the doubt about his veracity in the long run. Instead, we should tell the truth so consistently that oaths become superfluous, a waste of words. The family of God should be so truthful that we never need oaths or vows to verify our words.

The topic of healing seems to arise abruptly in James, but it fits perfectly with the themes of chapters 4 and 5. You will recall that James promises grace to those who embrace gospel humility (James 4:10-5:6). Next, James proposes three antidotes to arrogance. Each reverse one of the sins of pride. We must not slander and judge our brothers (4:11-12); We do not plan presumptuously (4:13-17); The rich must not exploit the poor (5:1-6); If the rich exploit us, we wait until the Lord, the Judge, comes (5:7-12); We do not make proud plans, but take our joys and sorrows to God (5:13-18); If our brothers sin, we don’t slander; we correct and restore him (5:19-20).

So then, prayers for healing are part of the life of gospel humility. Yet James wants to do more than oppose arrogance one more time. He tells the church to pray in every setting of life, to take every concern to our Sovereign Lord. As James says: “Is any one of in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (5:13).

James 5 also describes various groups of people and when they pray. Individuals pray for joys and sorrows (5:13-14), elders pray over sickness (5:14-15), friends pray over sins they’ve committed (5:16), and prophets pray in time of need (5:17-18). Whatever our condition, whatever the circumstance, we should take it to the Lord in prayer.

Sick men and women call the elders as a group. They do not call those with a gift for healing; rather they call all to pray for healing. James says prayers of a righteous man are effective. Since the first qualification for an elder is holiness – not social standing or theological acumen – the prayers of elders are effective. The elders pray for healing, not for miracles. It doesn’t matter if a healing is quiet or splashy. True healings garner all the attention they need.

Elders anoint the sick with oil. The disciples used oil in their healing ministry at least once (Mark 6:13), but neither James nor Mark explains the purpose of the anointing. More likely, the anointing stimulated the faith of the sick person. Oil is a sign of God’s power to heal. Thus, the anointing has a spiritual meaning.

So, how sick does one have to be? James seems to have a major malady in view. The terms for the illness suggest something serious. The sick person is, literally, “weak” in James 5:14. In 5:15 James uses the stronger term kamno. It means “wear out” and suggests the weariness or exhaustion that often accompanies illness. It reminds us that sickness exhausts the spirit as well as the body. Pastorally speaking, this suggests that elders could lay hands on and pray for Christians who are afflicted spiritually. Depression, stress, and anxiety can wear us out more than some illnesses.

James 5:15-16 has both physical and spiritual healing in mind. We should seek more than a physical cure for more than physical problems. Physical healing is James’s main concern, but we must look past the body. The Lord wants His children to seek Him both when we prosper and when we falter. If sick, we should pray for healing. If seriously ill, we should seek the elders to pray on our behalf. But we are reticent to obey, for several reasons.

First, prayer for healing seems unscientific and naïve. If we get infections, we take antibiotics. If we have cancer, we seek chemotherapy. We think, “microbes and damaged genes cause illness, not sin.” Second, pride stops us. We feel embarrassed when we have to ask for help. But we ought to face our needs. If we can ask God for aid, we can surely ask men and women. Third, we fear disappointment. What if we ask – ask fervently – and nothing happens? We can’t bear the thought. We confess, in some abstract way, that God is powerful and effective. We expect Him to change hearts, but we cannot imagine that He intervenes to heal bodies today. So, our prayers wither away.

It is fitting that James starts to conclude his book with this invitation to prayer over every joy and sorrow. Expectant prayers manifest the faith that is so central to James. When we make our needs known and confess our sins. We endure our trials and live in gospel humility.

The last verses of James seem to initiate a new topic. But on closer inspection, they develop previous themes. First, if the family of God prays together when physical illness wounds a member, they should certainly work together if spiritual troubles threaten (5:19-20). Technically, James makes a promise: if someone restores someone who wanders from the truth, he “will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:19). More broadly, James tells us what to do if someone strays from the truth. That “someone” may of may not be a member of the visible Christian community. The phrasing – “My brothers, if one of you should wander” – inclines us to think of fellow believers, but James also had unbelievers in sight. Some had a vain faith; some had no faith at all (5:1-6). James says that when we see anyone stray, we should try to restore him.

The restorer’s goal is not selfish. He seeks to “cover a multitude of sins” not by overlooking sins committed against him. Proverbs does bless those who overlook personal offenses (Prov. 10:12; 19:11), but personal offenses are not in this context. The “covering” must then be God’s covering of sin. Therefore, Christians should gather their courage and speak – plainly and truthfully – to sinners, calling them to turn from sin and to the mercy of Christ.

The final thoughts of James unite several themes of his epistle. To pursue a sinner in order to win him to Christ is a proper response to a trial. It is a form of kindness to a brother, a proper use of speech, and it leads people to humble themselves before the Lord. James summons us to do the Word and reap the blessings. One more time, James reminds us that sin leads to death, and that the gospel, the word of truth, saves the soul.

James 5:12-20 Study Questions:

How might 5:12 – James’s command about oaths – be linked to his instructions about patience in the midst of trials and waiting for the Lord’s return? How might this command connect to James’s call to humility? What wrong attitudes or practices with regard to oath-taking might James be confronting?

What does James seem to be suggesting, in 5:13, about the proper times and occasions for prayer in the Christian life? How do prayers – in every season – demonstrate our humility and submission to God?

What kind of situation seems to be in James’s mind as he gives his instructions about special, elder-led prayer and anointing (5:14-15)? What is the context for this kind of prayer, and what are James’s specific instructions? What does 5:16 seem to suggest about the potential role of sin in issues of physical suffering that require prayer?

How does James demonstrate the power of effective prayer in 5:17-18? What point is he making to his readers? How do the final verses of James – 5:19-20 – connect to the previous discussion of effective prayer in the context of believers? In what way do those verses call the church to pray – and act – for the good of healthy hearts, lives, and souls?

James 5:7-11 Patient Endurance

Patience and forbearance hardly lead our lists of most desirable virtues. Yet Scripture says patience and forbearance are essential to the good life, the blessed life.

We need patience with petty irritations. We need patience when we face significant evils. It’s challenging to be patient with petty irritations, but it can be agony to bear with wickedness and genuine enemies. Yet patience with enemies is James’s first concern. He begins, “Be patient, therefore, brothers” (v. 5:7). James says “therefore” because the need for patience follows what he just said in 5:1-6. In the previous passage, James accosts the rich who hoard wealth (5:2-3), defraud laborers of their wages (5:4), live in self-indulgent luxury (5:5), and rob the poor of life itself (5:6). Our passage says we should be patient and stay strong because the coming of the Lord is near (5:7-8).

If we are to follow James closely, we must define and distinguish his terms. First, “be patient” is used by James three times in verses 7-8. Patience is a passive virtue; it waits. We are patient, for example, when we wait for a wound to heal. Sometimes we can do nothing but wait. Patience, in this sense of the word, is the equivalent of forbearance or longsuffering. Second, James tells his brothers to “stand firm” (5:8) or more literally “strengthen your hearts.” This term is a bit more active. It is the sense of steely resolve. Third, James blesses those who persevere in 5:11. “Persevere” the verb; the noun “perseverance” describes the more active side of patience. Perseverance is resolve or determination to continue on the right course, despite difficulty.

James urges patience until the Lord comes, then commends the farmer who waits for rain and waits for the land to yield its valuable crops (v. 5:7). Disciples, similarly, must be patient and firm, because the Lord’s coming is near; the Judge is at the door (vv. 8-9).

James has condemned rich oppressors (5:1-6), but now he wants to tell his brothers how to endure their oppression and receive God’s blessing. As he says, “We consider blessed those who have persevered” (5:11). Here he mentions the first step toward perseverance: “Be patient” (5:7). To be patient is to forbear, to suffer through the oppression. Patience is a passive virtue.

The patient waits for “the Lord’s coming.” The Lord’s coming is His arrival. In the New Testament, “the Lord’s coming” or “the coming of the Lord” almost becomes a technical term for the return of Jesus Christ to end history and to judge mankind. James says that the Lord is coming, that His coming is “near,” and that “the Judge is standing at the door” (5:8-9). We will understand this best if we recognize that James is steeped in the teaching of Jesus, which he restates for his churches.

When James says Jesus is “at the door,” it puzzles us, since we assume “at the door” means “ready to enter.” We wonder how He can be ready to enter for two thousand years without actually entering. Peter answers this question in his second letter.

First, God’s scale of time is not the same as ours. For Him, “a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Second, if the Lord delays, from our perspective, He delays to grant sinners more time to repent (2 Peter 3:9). Third, the Lord will come suddenly, without final signs of waning. He comes like a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43-44; 2 Peter 3:10). There is no trigger, no line of preliminary events that must occur before Christ returns. So, when we hear that the Lord’s coming is near, it means that as far as we know, it could happen any day. Therefore, all people should prepare themselves for Jesus’ return.

By now, James has repeatedly commanded his churches to show patience and resolve. He has given a reason to follow his command; the Lord, the Judge, is near. Now again, he bids us suffer evil and oppression with patience, but now, instead of adding reasons for patience, he adds examples of patience (5:10-11).

“As an example of patience in the face of suffering,” the prophets “spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10). When they had to rebuke Israel for sin, the prophets’ God-given message was often repugnant to their audience. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Amos all saw the people ignore their prophecies while Israel’s leaders were often hostile. Yet they bore that hostility with patience. More than that, they endured, that is they continued to prophesy. They continued to denounce covenant infidelity and evil deeds, even if they never saw the judgment they predicted. Still, we count them blessed because they heard and proclaimed God’s very words. They show us how to endure.

The reason for optimism in adversity is this: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (5:11). Compassion and mercy are more than synonyms for love. The terms convey the visceral feelings, the deep-seated emotional feeling of love. God’s love is more than a dispassionate, detached interest in our well-being. Scripture chooses the language of emotional feelings to describe that love.

This passage offers us many reasons to persevere in the faith. It comforts us in several ways. First, it shows us the Lord. He is near. He is the Judge and comes to set all things right. Second, it reminds us of Job and the prophets, who persevered to the end in great adversity. Yet above all, James takes us to the fatherly heart of God. He abounds in love and He is sovereign still. Knowing this, whatever our troubles, we can endure. We can persevere to the end and know the full blessing of God.

James 5:7-11 Study Questions:

James uses several different, yet related, words as he calls upon his Christian audience to patiently wait for the coming judgment of God. He tells them to be “patient” (5:7-8), to “establish” their hearts, or stand firm (5:8), and to remain “steadfast,” or persevere (5:11). How are these words helpful, when used together, in forming a picture of the kind of Christians that James wants us to be? What subtly different meanings might these words carry?

What does James suggest about the coming of the Lord (5:8-9)? How are we to interpret his statements about the Lord’s coming, and how is James speaking in similar ways as other parts of the New Testament? What commands does James give (and what examples does he use) to guide our behavior in light of the imminence of the Lord’s return?

James 5:1-6 Woe to the Rich

When James denounces hoarding, oppression, indulgence, and financial violence, he is not simply denouncing several random acts of wickedness. Abuse of wealth is the final mark of a life of worldly “wisdom” James described in 3:13-4:3. Abuse of wealth is another form of envy, coveting, strife, and grasping. More precisely, oppression is the last element in a series of offenses against gospel humility.

We have studied that James examines three sins of pride, three acts that fail to show humility before God. First, we can malign and judge our brothers (4:11-12). Second, we can make presumptuous plans about our future (4:13-17). Third, we can use financial power to oppress the poor and indulge ourselves (5:1-6).

James 5:1-6 assesses the last and most serious of these offenses. Oppression is public and detrimental to others. Further, the kind of oppression James describes involves systematic perversion of justice. It shreds the fabric of society. When James laments wage fraud (5:4) and the condemnation of the innocent (5:6), we enter the sphere of legal abuse. James’s rich people are perverting both the economic and the legal system of the land.

Echoing the voice of many prophets, James tells the rich to “weep and wail” (NIV) or “weep and howl” (ESV). The judgment of God is coming and will bring them misery. On the one hand, James does not condemn everyone who is rich. Riches are not evil in themselves. On the other hand, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). The desire for wealth is often insatiable.

Material wealth only temporarily quenches the soul’s thirst for meaning and acceptance. Acquiring wealth to cure the problem of meaninglessness is like drinking coffee to solve the problem of exhaustion. It can mask the problem, but it cannot cure it. Riches cannot fulfill the quest for meaning, but those who live for wealth decide the problem is not wealth per se, but their insufficient wealth. Thus, devotee of wealth work harder and harder at the wrong thing. The desire for wealth becomes insatiable. If anyone thinks riches or social rank will satisfy his soul, he deludes himself.

Because material wealth is transitory, fleeting, and easily spoiled, hoarding is senseless. Nonetheless, materialists hoard. We should expect this, if money is their god. Yet, since money is a weak god – no god – we expect plans to store wealth for another day to fail. “Your wealth has rotted” is James’s theme. First, moths have eaten the fine clothes of the rich while they lie in storage (v. 5:2). Second, gold and silver “corrode” (v. 5:3). Literally, James says, the “rust.” This echoes words of Jesus (Matt. 6:19) and Isaiah (50:9; 51:8), who use rust and moths as metaphors for the weakness and transience of human treasure and strength.

James holds a specific complaint against the rich: they have defrauded their field laborers of their wages. As he says, “The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” This could mean several things: (1) they pay, but after undue delay; (2) they pay less than they agreed, less than a living wage; (3) they refuse to pay at all. Biblical law emphasizes the need to pay fair wages to day laborers and to do so at the end of the day, because a laborer and his family would otherwise go hungry.

The rich think nothing can stop them. The poor seem powerless. They can only cry out to God: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (5:4). But “the Lord hears the needy” (Ps. 69:33). He stands “at the right hand of the needy” (Ps. 109:31). This is a social principle and a gospel principle too. James blesses the poor and preaches the good news to them.

Meanwhile the rich “have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence” (v. 5:5). They have “fattened [themselves] in the day of slaughter.” The Bible never censures the rich per se. But it often says that those who live for pleasure in this world will suffer sorrow in the next. God’s judgment brings reversals. James says the self-indulgent rich have fed themselves in “the day of slaughter.” The phrase “day of slaughter” may mean they sat by idly on a day when the poor were slaughtered. More likely, the point is caustic: they are fattening themselves up for the day of their slaughter.

The rich hoard, cheat, and indulge themselves. Worse yet, James says, “You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you” (v. 5:6). If murder is the most egregious sin among men, murder of unresisting innocents is most egregious among murders. As before, the murder is probably figurative. Yet by withholding their wages, the rich condemn the poor to poverty, even starvation.

The word “condemn” suggests the law court. It is likely that the rich used the legal system to deprive the poor of their wages and lands. We must remember that in most societies in antiquity, as in many societies today, there was little concept of rule by impartial law. Those who had power and wealth on their side won in court, not those who had justice. The courts were governed by patronage, clan, and tribe, not objective justice.

James never condemns riches per se, but riches can lead to sin: (1) if they are accumulated through injustice (5:4), (2) if they are used for indulgence (5:5), and (3) if they breed insolence and lawlessness (5:6). The primary cure for these ills is to use wealth as the Lord prescribes. We must not hoard, for hoarding is wasting. We keep some for proper enjoyment, save sensibly for the future, and give much to the Lord and His work.

Another cure for these ills is to lift our eyes from material things. James says we are living in the last days (5:3). We are near the day of slaughter (5:5). The Lord is coming (5:7); indeed, His coming is near (5:8). By faith, believers are prepared and remain prepared for that day. When our hearts are right, we long for it. So then, let us not live like the godless rich, who grasp, hoard, and indulge themselves. Let us live out the conviction that the riches of this age are fleeting, and that our life with God is forever rewarding.

James 5:1-6 Study Questions:

Based on the opening verses of this passage (vv. 1-3), why might you argue that James is speaking mainly to wealthy people who are not genuine Christians? How does he address them (v. 1), and how is this different from the titles he has used before in the letter? What does James seem to anticipate about their future judgment?

What has happened to the riches and possessions of those who have hoarded them, according to what James says in verses 2-3? What warnings are implicit in the descriptions in these verses? How might James be subtly teaching about right investments and an eternal perspective on our possessions?

According to verse 5, what kind of treatment of people has played a major part in the growing wealth of the rich people James denounces? How does James introduce the presence of God into this verse?

While James 5:5 does not condemn wealth and possessions per se, what kind of attitudes and motivations does he denounce in the lives and hearts of wealthy people? What seems to be driving the men and women whom James confronts?

For at least some of the wealthy people that James has in view, their sinful behavior has not stopped at self-indulgence, or even at the oppression of the poor. What additional sins does James decry in verse 6? How does he characterize the “righteous” person who falls prey to the violence of the sinful rich person?

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?

James 4:5-10 Grace for the Humble

Repentance is the central theme in our passage, but to follow James’s message, we must locate it within his pattern of thought in 3:13-4:4. The topic of repentance develops James’s teaching on the two ways of life. Wisdom from heaven leads to a beautiful life, marked by peace and righteousness. Wisdom from the earth is marked by envy and selfish ambition and leads to a life marked by coveting, fights, quarrels, and infidelity toward God.

James teaches that envy is a common human trait. This indictment applies first to unbelievers, but James believes his entire audience needs to hear it. Anyone can fall prey to envy, even though it contradicts God’s original design. When God fashioned the human race, He gave us strong spirits, and active intellect, and a passion for significance. We hunger to do great things and will fight through obstacles to achieve great goals. But in our state of rebellion our passions and drives become unruly. Envy and selfish pursuits misdirect our energies. God made our spirits strong, but sin makes them wayward. We pursue selfish ambitions and covet our neighbors’ goods.

When God sees how we misuse the energy He grants us, He knows His grace is our one hope. His grace has a direction: “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” In one sense, even humility is God’s gift. No one rejects his pride unless the Lord enables him. The Lord opens eyes so men and women can see the futility of living for themselves. Grace teaches us to trust in God, to rest in Christ, rather than the self. So, James commands us to humble ourselves before God.

James 4:6-10 begins and ends with a call to humility. To be precise, it starts with a warning that leads to a promise (v. 6). It ends with a command that leads to a promise (v. 10). Thus, the need for humility and the call to humility from bookends for our text. God gives grace to the humble, and we must humble ourselves before the Lord. The rest of the passage describes the life of humility.

James 4:7 with its call to submit to God, explains 4:6. Since God opposes the proud, we should submit to Him as an act of humility. The submissive can expect to receive grace. The rest of the passage describes key elements of Christian humility and of submission to God. Notice, as James writes, that humility has nothing to do with a shy or retiring personality. Powerful and exuberant people can be humble.

“Submit” sounds very passive in English, but the Greek concept is more active. To submit, in Scripture, is not to sit back and wait for God to issue orders. Submission certainly includes obedience to commands, but we also submit when we arrange our lives under God’s general direction. Obedience is certainly one element of submission. To submit is to recognize the lordship and authority of another.

Submission requires subordinates to bend their will to the will of their superior, even if that superior issues a directive that seems unpleasant or unwise and insists upon it. This does not mean we must do whatever a superior says. If an authority commands something that is contrary to the will of God, we must disobey man in order to obey God (see Acts 5:29). We obey God whenever we do His will. We submit when we obey a command that seems hard and strange. Such submission signifies that we have humbled ourselves before the Lord.

The next words, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (v. 7), begin to explain how we submit to God. James links submission to God with resistance of the devil. That is, to submit to God’s authority is to resist the devil’s authority. To submit to God is to order our lives under His authority. To resist the devil means we oppose, we fight back, we take a stand against the devil’s authority. To oppose Satan in this setting means to resist temptations especially to fight each other or covet (4:1-2). Curiously, Paul says one way to resist Satan is to flee from him, that is, to flee from his coaxing to sin.

So, we resist the devil by fleeing from temptations to sin. And when we flee from sin, the devil flees from us. Perhaps we should think of Jesus’ temptation here. After Jesus faced down three temptations, Satan left Him for a while, even though he would try again at a more opportune time (Luke 4:13).

When we hear “Come near to God” (v. 4:8), we might think of public worship or private prayers. “Come near” is sometimes the language of worship, but James has not been discussing worship. Therefore, “come near” could mean returning to God in covenant renewal after straying. We may “come near” to God after sinning (perhaps after succumbing to temptation). But “come near” and “draw near” means more than “repent.” We come near to God to worship Him, to serve Him, to meet Him, to seek help, and to gain assurance, as well as to repent. It is better to conclude that James is offering a far-reaching promise, a promise that other gods do not make. When we draw near to God, He also draws near to us (see Deut. 4:7).

If a sinner comes near to the holy God, he will naturally want to repent of his sins. James says, “Wash your hands” (v. 8). The hands represent actions or deeds. Next, he says, “Purify your hearts” (v. 8). The heart represents motives or intentions. James censures the “double-minded.” The double-minded lack integrity. They pursue two things at once – service of God and service of self. James has already warned about double-mindedness, saying that the double-minded man asks and gets nothing (1:8). He is unstable. But godly wisdom is pure; it has clarity of purpose. True believers are bent on one thing, to seek and find the Lord.

The desire for a pure heart leads logically to sorrow for sin. When sin is manifest, the righteous grieve. The Old Testament prophets said those who faced God’s judgment would grieve, mourn, and wail. More importantly, the prophets also invited the people to grieve, mourn, and wail before the judgment, as they returned to God (Joel 2:1, 12-14). Like Jesus, James says we can laugh now, at sin, and mourn later, over judgment. Or we can mourn now, over sin, and laugh later, at God’s grace (Luke 6:25). All too often, the world laughs about the wrong things. There is fleeting joy for those who indulge in sin and fleeting sorrow for those who break with it, but it is far better to mourn now for a season and rejoice forever.

The prophets often declare that the Lord humbles the proud. Yet James does not say “The Lord will humble you”; he says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord” (v. 4:10). Therefore, we do not wait for God or for circumstances to humble us. It is our duty to humble ourselves. James does not specify how we do this, but he does drop a hint in the phrase “before the Lord.” If we remember that all we do is “before the Lord,” if His holiness is our standard, it is easier to humble ourselves. But if we compare ourselves to others, it is far easier to avoid humility.

If we humble ourselves, if we admit that we sin, and that we are sinful, and that we cannot reform ourselves, then, James promises, the Lord will lift us up. This is the gospel according to James. James does not mention the atonement of Christ, the cross of Christ, or the resurrection of Christ. He states the gospel his own way, a way deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus. James says there is a choice between two ways of life: a way of selfish ambition and a way of purity and peace. We can be a friend of God or a friend of the world. We can be proud or humble and repentant. When we grieve over our sins and turn to Him in faith, He will extend His redeeming grace. When we come to God in repentance and humility, He will forgive us and lift us up.

James 4:5-10 Study Questions:

What are some of the characteristics and actions associated with true humility, according to James 4:7-10? What does James seem to be teaching in these verses about the proper response to God?

What does it mean to “submit yourself” to God (v. 7)? How is resisting the devil related to submission to God?

What do verses 8-10 of this passage teach us about the way we approach God? What do we learn about the reality of human sinfulness?

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?