A Prayer of Surrender

| James 4:6-17

Week of October 28, 2018

The Point:  Approach prayer with humble submission to the will of God.

True Humility:  James 4:6-17.

[6] But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” [7] Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. [8] Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. [9] Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. [10] Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. [11] Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. [12] There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? [13] Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”– [14] yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. [15] Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” [16] As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. [17] So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.   [ESV]

“The way of greater grace [4:6-10].  What comfort there is in verse 6! It tells us that God is tirelessly on our side. He never falters in respect of our needs, He always has more grace at hand for us. He is never less than sufficient, He always has more and yet more to give. No matter what we do to Him, He is never beaten. We may play false to the grace of election, contradict the grace of reconciliation, overlook the grace of indwelling – but he gives more grace. His resources are never at an end, His patience is never exhausted, His initiative never stops, His generosity knows no limit: he gives more grace. But grace, in God, has a correlative in man. James, having pointed to God’s sufficiency, points on to our responsibility. In verses 7-10 there are no less than ten commands to obey. James does not see the indwelling Spirit as a means of instant and effortless sanctification – rather, the Holy One may dwell within even while we pursue the pathway of sinful self-seeking. In the same way he does not see the inexhaustible supply of grace as sweeping us along to an effortless holiness. He knows of no such easy victory. The benefits of grace and more grace are ours along the road of obedience and more obedience. The God who says ‘Here is my grace to receive’ says in the same breath, ‘Here are my commands to obey.’ James forges the link between the experience of grace and the life of obedience by means of two ‘therefores’ [6,7]. First, because more grace is available by God’s gift, therefore Scripture makes clear by whom this grace may be enjoyed: God gives His grace to the humble [6]. But this still leaves unanswered the vital question how we may take our place within this favored category. Therefore [7] we are given a series of commands to obey which spell out the terms of a humble walk with God, commands whose effect is summarized in verse 10 as humbling ourselves before God, with the promised result that He will lift us up. In other words, the Bible, as so often, not only tells us what is true but also how to respond to what is true. The truth is a superabundant supply of grace [6]; the response is an obedient walk with God, itemized in verses 7-9. James begins his description of the humble walk with God by commanding active allegiance [7]. Christians must have no doubt in their minds whose side they are on; and by their lives they must leave no doubt in the minds of others that they are God’s enlisted subordinates and the devil’s unyielding opponents. The English translation submit does not do full justice to the Greek it translates, chiefly because some ways in which we use the idea of submission point to the end of struggling and the onset of passivity. In this way, we ‘submit’ to superior forces: further resistance is useless. But the word James uses is much more an ‘enlistment’ word, the taking up of allegiance to a great Superior in order to engage in the fight under His banner. The verb speaks of a subordinate’s readiness to await commands and to do the will of the superior. If the translation submit is too passive, the translation resist is, if anything, too active! It is not a word for one who is carrying the attack over into the enemy camp, but for one who is manning the defenses, knowing that enemy pressure is ceaseless and that he is constantly under fire. We do well to notice that it is those who have subordinated themselves to God who are commanded to stand firm against the devil. James knows of no act of consecration to God which takes us out of the conflict. On the contrary, it is the very act of decisive enlistment as His underlings which brings us into the firing-line and calls the devil’s attention to us as objects of attack. James continues his description of the humble walk with God by commanding a deliberately cultivated fellowship [8a]. The command is Draw near to God, and we find ourselves encouraged to obey it by the promise which goes along with it, and he will draw near to you. We shall, of course, find a tendency in ourselves to want to reverse this order. How easy it would be to keep a daily time with God if only we had, to begin with, a more vivid sense of His presence – in other words, we want the promise to come before the command! But we learnt at the outset [6-7] that more grace is given to those who set their feet on the path of obedience. God enriches with the grace of His presence those who obey His command to seek His presence. Indeed, if we are true to James, we will see this command to draw near as the first obedience required of those who have subordinated themselves to God and propose to resist the devil. For James is not snatching haphazard commands out of the air. He is setting out for us an ordered program of obedience. The first element in the conflict is this central battle to live near God, the battle for regularity and discipline in Bible reading, prayer, private and public worship, feasting at the Lord’s Table, devoting ourselves to Christian fellowship, cultivating every appointed avenue whereby we can draw near to Him. Fellowship with God – and its consequent blessing of His fellowship with us – does not ‘just happen’; we cannot drift into it any more than we drift into holiness. It is our first obedience. Thirdly, we are commanded to put in hand a thoroughgoing purification of our lives [8b], to clean up the outer life of the hands and the inner life of our hearts. It touches our specific acts of wrong-doing, for the designation sinners points to individual sins; it touches to the inner disloyalty of the double-minded. Here James uses the same word as at 1:8: the sin of being two-faced with God, of wavering inconsistency. In this thoroughgoing purification, notice who is to be the agent: Cleanse your hands, you sinners. This is not the work of the Holy Spirit; it is the work of the energized believer. Just as James said to us in 1:21 that we are to go to it like a gardener, and hoe out the weeds from our lives, so here we are commanded to clean up our conduct and our hearts. But again, we must keep this command at its proper place in the sequence. Logic might suggest that we must clean up our lives and then draw near to God. James’ logic is otherwise, for it is when we know the reality of His presence and come under its holy influence that we are at least in a position to face the demands of holiness, and find ourselves motivated by the desire to be like our God. In this way, fourthly and finally, we are prepared for the command to lament our sin and to repent of it [9]. Such an awareness of our wretchedness is, of course, beyond us. But then, equally so is every command in the sequence! It is in fact grace alone which makes it possible for us to obey any of God’s commands. Our position is one of perpetual supplication for grace to obey in order that we may experience the more grace which God gives to the obedient. Nevertheless, the purpose of God is to lead us down into the lowest place of self-awareness and lamentation [9]. This is the goal of the program: the decisive taking of sides [7] leads into the practice of the presence of God [8a]. This in turn prompts the longing [8b] to be like Him in holiness. As always, the more we pursue His likeness, the more deeply and sorrowfully our sinfulness and shortcomings are exposed [9]. But the Lord sets the downward path before us because there is no other way up [10].

Against defamation [4:11-12].  The command Do not speak evil against is, more specifically, ‘do not defame’ or ‘do not denigrate’. A defamatory word may be perfectly true: we do not have to tell lies in order to defame. But the fact that it is true gives us no right to say it. True or false, it makes us superior to the other person so that we ‘talk down’ to them, ourselves adopting a superior position. Defamation is forbidden not as a breach of truth, nor even as a breach of love, but as a breach of humility. If we are really low before God [6-10], we have no ‘altitude’ left from which to ‘talk down’ to anyone! James elaborates his prohibition of defamatory talk along four lines. First, he tells us how we should regard each other. We are brothers [11] and neighbors [12]. Brotherliness is emphasized by repetition, neighborliness is emphasized by being put last, the word that hangs in the air at the end of James’ final question. Brethren belong together within the love which marks family membership. Behind it lies the saving grace of God reaching out to us in Christ, the Father’s self-imposed determination [1:18] to have us as His children. The relationship of brethren puts us all on the same level, so that it is improper for one to claim or exercise any superiority over the other. We are, none of us, the first-born [Rom. 8:29]; we are simply the co-equal family members. It is probably right to bring in here also the description of God the Lawgiver as the one who is able to save and to destroy. These words have a plain meaning that God as Judge has power to settle the final and eternal issues of life or death. Yet this seems an unnecessarily heavy way in which to dispose of the sin of one Christian in criticizing another. The meaning is more likely a reminder that the God who could justly have condemned and destroyed chose rather to save. It is on this ground of undeserved mercy that both critic and criticized stand together as brethren of the same Father. Neither has the superiority which makes talking down possible; each is bound to the other in family love. Neighbors belong together in the love which manifests itself in mutual care and concern, the love that sees need and reaches out to meet it. Defamation begins and lives on in the mind. It is something we say to ourselves long before we pass it on. But if our minds were drilled in biblical attitudes, then love for our brothers would begin to root out censoriousness. Consideration for our neighbors would begin to replace the hurtful and arrogant word by helpful and caring pastoral concern. Secondly, James tells us how we should regard the law. God has given us His royal law [2:8] that we should love our neighbors. What happens, then, when we desert the path of love for that of criticism and denigration? Outwardly we speak against a brother and neighbor, actually we speak evil against the law [11]. First, we break the law as a precept which we were meant to obey. It commands love; we respond with defamatory talk. Secondly, we set ourselves up as knowing better than the law, we judge the law. In effect we say that the law is mistaken in commanding love. It ought rather to have commanded criticism – and if we were lawgivers it would do so. The law no longer expresses the highest values as far as we are concerned. And, thirdly, we take up a new position, not a doer of the law but a judge. We seek to usurp the authority of God Himself. This leads us straight to James’ third main point: how we are to regard God. He says, There is only one lawgiver and judge [12]. When we disobey the law, what are we doing in respect of the lawgiver? We are disputing His authority and that, of course, would be error and offense enough. But there is more. As we saw in the parallel discussion of 2:10-11, God’s law is not an arbitrary collection of precepts which happens to contain this selection of all possible commands. His law is the expression of who and what He is; He gave us His commands in order that, by obeying them, we might fashion our lives in His image. Elements which exist as principles of the divine nature have been expressed as precepts for believers, so that the life of God may be seen in our mortal bodies. Very well then: to disobey His law is to contradict Him. To value our opinions above the law is to value ourselves above Him. To take up the position of judge is to elbow Him off His throne. Where now is the humility and lowliness before God which is the essence and key to the heavenly wisdom? It is to this point that James brings his whole discussion: how are we to regard ourselves. But who are you … [12]? In the light of his teaching in this context how would we answer the question? ‘I am a person seeking to walk in the lowliest humility with God, for I know that this is the way of blessing. I have learnt that the way down is the way up. I seek for myself the lowest place.’ But if we exalt ourselves over a brother, is not the reality of our life with God called in question?

Against presumptuousness [4:13-17].  James turns to a second area of high risk. He has shown us that by a wrong understanding of other people, and of their significance as brothers and neighbors, we can jeopardize our humility before God, which is the key to the whole situation. But there is also the sin of presumptuousness, which comes from a wrong understanding of ourselves in relation to our own lives and ambitions. We are not now, however, defaming a brother; we are talking with a like arrogance to ourselves. We assure ourselves that time is on our side and at our disposal. We make our plans as if personal ability and the profit motive were the only issues to take into account. We overlook frailty, and ignore the fact that even the small print of life is in the hands of a sovereign God (If the Lord wills). Self-confidence makes us boast, and all such boasting is evil and a sin against knowledge (whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin). What is this presumptuousness of which James speaks? It first touches life: today or tomorrow … a year [13]. It is the presumption that we can continue alive at will. Secondly, it touches choice: today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade. It is the presumption that we are masters of our own life, so that we need to do no more than decide and, lo and behold, it will happen like that. Thirdly, it touches ability: and trade and make a profit. Of course we shall succeed if we want! We can do it! Once more it is all so ordinary, indeed so natural. That is exactly the point. When James exposes the blemish of presumptuousness, he exposes something which is the unrecognized claim of our hearts. We speak to ourselves as if life were our right, as if our choice were the only deciding factor, as if we had in ourselves all that was needed to make a success of things, as if getting on, making money, doing well were life’s sole objective. Now how do we guard against presumptuousness? The three verbs in verses 14-15 will put us on our guard against presumptuousness. First, there is our ignorance, you do not know. James indulges here in a little irony. He is talking about a person who was busy laying out his program for next year [13] and he quietly notes that you do not know what tomorrow will bring [14]. This fact alone is enough to keep us low before the frailty – you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes [14]. We are insubstantial (mist), transient (a little time) and gone without trace (vanishes). Finally there is our dependence, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills …”. We come here to the heart of the matter. James is not trying to banish planning from our lives, but only that sort of self-sufficient, self-important planning that keeps God for Sunday but looks on Monday to Saturday as mine. Once more it is this key factor of the lowly walk with God that is threatened. Our initial determination is to commit ourselves decisively to God’s side [7], to live in close fellowship with Him [8a] to purge our lives and our hearts [8b], to come to the place of wholesale repentance [9] and so to humble ourselves before God. All this can be lost, however, if, once outside the doors of our private room, we take the reins of life into our own hands, we forget our ignorance, frailty and dependence and plan our day, our week and next year as if we were lords of earth and time, and there was no God in heaven. To be sure the words If the Lord wills can be a protective superstition; but they can also be the sweetest and most comfortable reassurance to a humble and trustful spirit. Finally, we must ask, with James, how serious the sin of presumptuousness is, even though in essence we have already faced the issue. He uses verses 16-17 to drive his point home. The verb ‘to boast’ is often used in the New Testament in a good sense for exultant, abounding joy in something, as when, for example, we are encouraged to boast in our hope of the glory of God [Rom. 5:2]. But what an unholy, unacceptable thing this exulting becomes when it arises from your arrogance! Here is a word used elsewhere only in 1 John 2:16, and translated the pride of life. In other words, when even in little, secret, almost unrecognized ways we forget how frail we are, and stop short of conscious dependence on our God, it is an element of the proud, boastful, vaunting human spirit, flaunting its supposed independence and self-sufficiency. As such it is evil [16] – and James offers no qualification of the word: he merely says evil, the word which other scriptures use of the devil, the ‘evil one’. Verse 17 finds James at his abrupt best! He moves without preparatory warning from the particular of verse 16 to the general of verse 17, from the evil of the sin of arrogance to a searching statement of the principle of the sin of omission. In fact, the whole idea of sinning by default has never been given more pointed expression. It is a principle which exposes the insufficiency of even our best accomplishments, and makes us realize that we are never more than unprofitable servants. To James the sin of presumptuousness is so important, so basic, that it is as if the category of sins of omission had been deliberately devised in connection with it: that is the force of the so (therefore) of verse 17. We might consider it a small thing, a passing feature of life, if we forget how dependent we are and act in mere self-will. He sees it as the hard core of vaunting pride which is the mark and curse of fallen man. Here, above all places, we cannot afford to fall into the sin of omission: So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin [17].”  [Motyer, pp. 150-163].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. List the ten commands in 4:7-10. What is the relationship between receiving God’s grace and obeying these commands? Note the role the two ‘therefores’ play in the link between grace and obedience. (Here focus on the flow of James’ thought. Obedience must always flow out of God’s grace; never as a means to receive God’s grace. If we can earn God’s mercy and grace through our obedience then it is no longer grace and mercy but works. The beauty of James’ logic here is that obedience is never a result of our effort alone. Instead we seek to be obedient to our Father by seeking and depending upon His grace to give us strength to obey and forgiveness when we fail. Do you feel the truth of this doctrine removing the load of guilt and failure off your shoulders?)
  2. Why is humility essential in our relationship with God? Pride is a natural characteristic of our sinful nature. What instruction does James give in 4:6-12 that will enable us to put to death our sinful pride and grow in Christ-like humility?
  3. In 4:13-17, James deals with the sin of presumption. Define this sin. How does the truth given in the three verbs in verses 14-15 guard you from falling into this sin?

References:

James, Daniel Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity Press.