Work on Your Humility

Lesson Focus:  You will be challenged to value humility and reject pride so that broken relationships can be repaired and other relationships can be improved.

What Pride Does to Us: James 4:1-5.

[1]  What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? [2]  You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. [3]  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. [4]  You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. [5]  Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, "He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"?  [ESV]

[1-3]  James uses strong words to describe the relationships of his Christian readers: quarrels, fights, war, murder, fight, quarrel. We know, of course, that James does not mean actual killings. He is using the language of war metaphorically, as do other New Testament writers. But at the same time we must not allow metaphor to take away from the force of his words and the horror they are intended to strike. James chooses the vocabulary of war to express controversies and quarrels, animosities and bad feeling among Christians because he wants to express the seriousness of this type of behavior. He is seeing the relationships in the church through the eye of God. Thus he speaks of a fact [1a], a condition [1b] and a practice [2a]. War represents a continuing state of hostility, and fights describe a specific outburst of active antagonism, enduring feuds with recurring quarrels flaring up. Behind this antagonism lies, as its cause, a condition, existing in each individual. All our desires and passions are like an armed camp within us, ready at a moment’s notice to declare war against anyone who stands in the way of some personal gratification on which we have set our hearts. Our condition [1b] is one of self-willed determination, summed up as passions. This word, like the words desire and covet in verse 2a, is in itself morally neutral. It means ‘pleasures’. All would be well except that in us pleasures, desires and strong longings are allied to, and at the service of, a sinful nature. Consequently the sinful self, setting its heart on this satisfaction or that, will not allow anything to stand in its way. Prayer would be a solution [2b], but in practice [3a] prayer goes unanswered because of the hindrance interposed by our passions [3b]. We find that the unfettered flow of prayer upwards, and of response downwards, is no longer operating. We are somehow out of sorts with God because the passions are at work again. We want it all for self. God does not permit us undisciplined asking. Prayer is defiled by the insistently self-centered heart, so that we must either cleanse our hearts or stop our prayers.

[4-5]  The abrupt and harsh you adulterous people marks the beginning of one of the most strongly worded calls to repent that we find anywhere in the New Testament. James warns his readers about flirtation with the world and its consequences for their relationship to God. His use of adulterous draws upon the Old Testament where the prophets compared the relationship between God and His people to a marriage relationship. James, following this tradition, uses adulterous to label his readers as unfaithful people of God. By seeking friendship with the world, they are, in effect, committing spiritual adultery. We have no evidence that James’ readers were overtly disclaiming God and consciously deciding to follow the world instead. But their tendency to imitate the world by discriminating against people [2:1-13], by speaking negatively of others [3:1-12], by exhibiting bitter envy and selfish ambition [3:13-18], and by pursuing their own destructive pleasures [4:1-3] amounted to just that. James, as it were, wants to raise the stakes so that his readers see their compromising conduct for what it really is. God tolerates no rival. When believers behave in a worldly manner, they demonstrate that, at that point, their allegiance is to the world rather than to God. Verse 5 explains why flirtation with the world is so serious a matter by bringing to mind the jealousy of the Lord, which demands total, unreserved, unwavering allegiance from the people with whom He has joined Himself. Verse 4 focuses on the spiritual adultery that James’ readers are committing by following the world in distinction from their only true “spouse”, the Lord. Verse 5 adds a reminder of God’s desire that His people be wholly and unreservedly His which provides a beautifully appropriate substantiation of the warning against any flirtation with the altitudes and the values of the world in verse 4.

What Humility Does for Us: James 4:6-12.

[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?  [ESV]

[6]  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. 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. 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’ [6b,7a]. 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. 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.

[7-10]  James begins his description of the humble walk with God by commanding active allegiance. 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. 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]. God enriches with the grace of His presence those who obey His command to seek His presence. In this case, the promise of God drawing near to us is based upon our obedience to the command for us to draw near to Him. Indeed, this command to draw near is the first obedience required of those who have subordinated themselves to God and propose to resist the devil. James is not snatching haphazard commands out of the air. He is setting out for us an ordered program of obedience. The main 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 also 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 last 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].

[11-12]  The command do not speak evil is, more specifically, ‘do not defame’. 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 humble before God [6-10], we have no attitude left from which to defame 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]. The relationship of brothers puts us all on the same level, so that it is improper for one to claim to exercise any superiority over the other. It is on the ground of undeserved mercy that both critic and criticized stand together as brothers of the same Father. 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. What happens when we desert the path of love for that of criticism and denigration? Outwardly we speak against a brother and neighbor, but 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. 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. 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. God’s 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. Thus, 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 we are to regard ourselves. But who are you to judge your neighbor? How would we answer that question? If I am a person seeking to walk in the lowliest humility with God, then I would answer that I must not judge my neighbor. But if I am a person seeking to exalt myself over a brother or neighbor, then I would answer that I am setting myself up as judge over my neighbor.

What God’s Will Does in Us: James 4:13-17.

[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]

[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. What is this presumptuousness of which James speaks? It is the presumption that we can continue alive at will and that we are masters of our own life. 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. 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. Then there is our frailty: you are a mist. Finally there is our dependence: you ought to say. This is 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. The sin of presumption is a most direct challenge to the life of lowliness before God, for it involves taking into our own hands the reins of planning and command. It involves seeing life itself as a continuing right rather than as a daily mercy. 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. In verse 17, James moves 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.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the fact, condition and practice that James describes in 4:1-5? How does it affect you to know that God considers your pursuit of selfish goals to be adultery?

2.         List the ten commands in 4:7-10. What is the relationship between receiving God’s grace and obeying these commands? (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?)

3.         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?

4.         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?


The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

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

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