James 4 Bible study

Living Word Magazine

Chapter 4



Backsliding and Restoration


4:1 Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you?


How come, asks James, that there are quarrels and fights (literally brawls) among God's own people? What has caused this to happen? It is the constant warring of the desires of our sinful nature which seeks to dominate our lives.


4:2 You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask;


We envy others and covet what they have. Yet our desires are not satisfied. We hate others who have what we want and so become as murderers, for the AMPNT says "hate is murder as far as your hearts are concerned". Although we burn with envy and anger it does us no good for we cannot obtain what we want - and even if we did it would not bring us happiness. Greed and pleasure seeking has often led to war, but we still cannot obtain what our soul needs in this way, for this is only received from God.


4:3 You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions.


When we ask God for what we want we do not receive an answer because we ask for the wrong things. We want what will satisfy our lust for pleasure. In what we call "The Lord's Prayer", Jesus taught us to pray "you're will be done" not "my desire be satisfied". Such selfish praying goes unanswered. Barclay says "We can never pray aright until we remove self from the centre of life and put God into the centre of life." If there is jealousy and fights among us then we are not right with God. We are backslidden. We are seeking to please ourselves, not to do his will. This can only change if we are willing to humble ourselves and yield to God.


4:4-7 Adulterers, do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever decides to be the world's friend makes himself God's enemy. Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, "The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning"? But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble." So submit to God. But resist the devil and he will flee from you.


James compares those who forsake God for the love of this world with wives who leaves their husbands to go after other men. This same imagery was used in the OT. God spoke of Himself as a husband and Israel like a wife. When Israel went after idols to serve them, God called it adultery. God is a jealous God (Exo. 20:5). Because of his love for us He wants that all our love should be for him alone. God will not have rivals. If we leave God behind us and seek for what this world offers then we become adulterers and will be treated as His Enemies. After all, it was the world who crucified his Son. It is God who made the spirit of man within him (Gen. 2:7) and He jealously longs for all the undivided devotion of that a man's spirit. That is the first commandment (Exo. 20:3). God gives us grace to overcome the drawing power of the world and give ourselves completely to him. Before we were saved we were enslaved and controlled by our lusts and so it would not have been possible for us to yield to God at all, but for His grace (Tit. 3:3-6). How is grace received? We must ask for it. It cannot be received by those who think that they have no need of it. Since the proud refuse God's grace, God refuses to give them grace. William Barclay says "Pride..will admit dependence on nothing and on no one. It does not realise that it has any sin from which it needs to be saved." If we know that we need God, his grace and forgiveness then when we ask him for it we can be assured of his answer for although God opposes the proud, he gives grace to the humble. So we must with undivided hearts yield our selves to God, submitting to him in all things. As we do,  and refuse the devil and his temptations to turn aside, he will run away. We must draw near to God in our relationship with Him and in turn God will draw near to us.


4:8-10 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and weep. Turn your laughter into mourning and your joy into despair. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.


James expands this teaching by showing us that every hindrance to our relationship with God need to be removed. Cleanse your hands you sinners - this speaks of our actions and of moral purity. By cleansing our hands, James means that we are to stop doing that which we know hinders our relationship with God, even if it is not of itself sinful. We must not allow anything to come between us and Him. The cleansing of hands will produce a change in our lives - it will affect what we do. The outward change is evidence of the inwardly changed life. It is the inevitable result of our receiving God's grace. Purify your hearts you double minded - Just as God's grace influences our outward actions it also influences our inward attitudes and desires. James makes it clear that God will have nothing less than a heart of undivided devotion to him. God will enable us to have this as we draw near to him. We are to tear away idols from our hearts, let go of what we consider important so that we might receive what God wants to give. We must be willing to afflict ourselves. This means to give our time to prayer and seeking God in stead of our pleasures -even our food. When we realise what our backsliding has cost us and what we have lost by failing to receive then we must be sorrowful for it, and desire these spiritual things instead of our pleasures. Laughter turned to sorrow and joy to gloom - the joy we have in the things of this life should never to take the place of our joy and fellowship with God. Many Christians are self satisfied spiritually. They think that they have it all. They think that the level of spirituality that they possess is all that can be had. They should allow even this joy to be turned to gloom so that they might obtain what they lack. We must deny ourselves of our pleasures and joys, if only for a season, that we might draw near to God. As we humble ourselves and confess our need, God will supply our need and lift us up with the joy of victorious Christian life (Luke 14:11).  This advice is mirrored in the OT (e.g. Joel 1:13-14 and Joel 2:12-17).


Judging Others


4:11-12 Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge -- the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?


The word used here for judge means to criticise, or speak evil of someone when they are absent. It is talking about people behind their backs. It is the sin of those who whisper when someone leaves the room, giving them no opportunity to defend themselves. Whilst it might be thought a small matter, it is in fact a very great sin. It is unsparingly condemned in Scripture (Psa. 50:20 and Psa. 101:5). It is one of the sins that Paul feared he would find at Corinth (2 Cor. 12:20). Why is it so condemned?


1) It breaks the royal law that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. One obviously cannot love a person and speak evil of them. There are those who set themselves above the law because they think that they have a right to say what they like and that the law has no right to stop them. By breaking the law they have judged that it is not adequate, it is not binding for them.


2) Only God may judge man. For us to do so is to infringe on the right of God. When we set ourselves up to judge we are setting ourselves up as God and should not think that we shall escape the judgement of God (Rom. 2:1-3).


Boasting of Tomorrow


4:13-17 Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit." You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes. You ought to say instead, "If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that." But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.


We should realise that our lives are as frail as they are brief. Our times are in God's Hands. Some men plan for the future as if it is within their power to do all that they plan. But this is sheer arrogance, for none of us knows either if we shall see tomorrow, or if there will be a tomorrow, or if there is whether we will have the health & money etc. to carry out our plans. It is right and necessary for us to plan ahead, especially concerning God's work, but our plans should always be made with this in mind - they may only be brought to pass if God wills. We are to confess that we are not in control of our lives - God is. Since James has made known to us much about God's will for us. His responsibility then ends. God having revealed his mind and will to us, it is our responsibility to carry it out by God's grace. Whoever knows what they must do and fails to do it sins.

Further Reading Resources for you - James

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