Epistle of James, Chapter 4 – Self-centered or God-centered?

Pasi Hujanen
Taisto Sokka

Selfishness sows the seed of quarrels – James 4:1–6

Researchers have not come to an agreement whether St. James in verse one refers to an actual quarrel or is it mainly a rhetorical question. In either case, James depicts a very dark picture about the current situation of the congregation. Unfortunately, it was as James depicted and it has been like this in the Church even until now.

James sees selfishness as the root of the problems. We only want something that benefits oneself, and we don’t want to think the common interest of the church. It is not enough that you gain something, but it must be more than what others get. One Christian once prayed: ”Give us the ability to rejoice over the blessings of others, and let us understand that the success of another is not our loss." This attitude we would need more in the churches today.

James speaks about the problem of “unanswered prayers” in verse 3. Apparently, this discussion is based on the promise of Jesus:

“For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds”
(Matt 7:7–8).

Does God not answer all prayers? Or why is it that all who ask do not get what they asked for? James answers: If you only want to satisfy your passions, then in his goodness God does not give it. Accordingly, Jesus taught in Luke 11:9–13 that a good father doesn’t give his son a stone instead of bread or a snake instead of a fish. Sometimes we ask for something which will harm us, so it is good that God does not give us that. Therefore, prayer is not a tool for seeking pleasures and desires. True prayer always includes the request: ”Your will be done!”

In conclusion, unanswered prayers do not exist. God hears every prayer and answers then, although the answer is not always what we expect. Sometimes God answers “yes”, at times ”no”, ”not yet”, or “wait”. At least for me, the most difficult answer is: "wait". Even a negative answer would feel more pleasing, because then I can leave that issue behind.

The expression ”adulterous people” in verse 4 originates from the Old Testament. Already the prophets of the Old Testament rebuked Israel for being adulterous against God – they had broken the covenant which God had made between him and his people (Hosea 13; Jer 3:1). Israel had allied with different kingdoms at different times and forsaken the Lord.

Also, Jesus uses a similar expression when talking about “an adulterous generation” (Mark 8:38). This did not imply that there was a lot of divorcing of marriage during the time of Jesus. He meant, that the people had forsaken the covenant of God. Forsaking the covenant of God lead also to forsake the Messiah whom God had sent.

James speaks of the same problem. Also, Christians were and are continuously tempted to join the forces that oppose God, whether it is the world or the devil itself. A Christian can never serve two lords (Matt 6:24). Still, there are many who try to do so.

Which spirit does God yearn over in verse 5? It is either the Holy Spirit or the “spirit of life”, which God gave man in Genesis 2:7. The Jewish scholars of their time explained that after death the spirit of man returns to God who also gave it to man. According to this understanding James speaks of God yearning over the spirit of every human – God would not want to lose even one person to the devil. On the other hand, if James is talking about the Holy Spirit, then the verse speaks especially about the faithfulness of Christians to their Savior.

In verse 6 there is a reference to Proverbs 3:34: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.”

Submit Yourselves to God – James 4:7–10

Someone can think these verses are an impossible list of commandments since there are up to ten exhortations in these four verses.

The basis of the teaching of St. James is that following these exhortations is possible only by the grace and power of God (verse 7).

Submitting yourself to God is the absolute prerequisite of any desires of living a holy life (verse 10, see also Luke 14:11). It is odd that although we accept that top results in sports require a lot of work, practice and commitment, the same time we expect that we would begin to live a holy life without any attempt of doing so. Of course, we must remember, that God has given us “tools” to nurture our faith. Those are the Bible, prayer, Holy communion, and the fellowship of the saints. We can choose to forget them or to use them in abundance. If you will not pray, read the Bible, go to church etc., is it a shock if you will not suddenly begin to live a holy life?

Justification and sanctification (i.e. beginning to live a holy life) must be separated in terms of cause and effect. When we are justified before God, there is no space or merit for our good deeds, but it is based on Jesus Christ alone. But a wholly different matter is the necessity of living a holy life as a justified Christian, which depends on our deeds and whether we are willing to submit to God or not. It could be said that living a holy life is a process for the rest of our lives, and therefore, we have plenty of opportunities of resisting the will of God! But this does not change the fact that we are only saved by grace through faith and not according to our deeds (Eph 2:8).

You Are Not Above the Law! – James 4:11–12

What does St. James mean when he says that “The one who speaks against a brother…judges the law”? The requirement of the law in human relationships is neighbourly love (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:34–40). The one who chooses to disregard this law makes himself to be above the law, a judge who thinks he knows better. But resisting the law is resisting God as well, since disregarding the law is also disregarding the one who gave the law.

Therefore, a Christian should not push down his neighbour, but attempt to bring him up and support him.

Then, is it so that we cannot rebuke each other or say anything negative of them at all? Must we always pretend everything to be alright? This is not James’ intention. We can and we must evaluate our own and our neighbours’ lives in the light of God’s law. Firstly, James is saying that we should never evaluate other people as we selfishly desire. Secondly, he is pointing out by what measure and to what aim we should do this evaluation. God’s law can be used in a negative way by pointing out other peoples’ faults. But it should be used in a positive way by guiding the neighbour to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

God’s law is sometimes misused even in Christian preaching. On the one hand, there is a danger of speaking only about “you sinners”, which does not admit that even the preacher is a sinner before God. On the other hand, there is a danger of leaving the listeners to struggle alone with their sins without speaking about grace in Jesus Christ. A third danger is to categorize sins into “worse” and “lighter” sins, where the sins of the worldly people are judged as worse and the sins of the congregation as lighter.

It should be remembered that the fear of misusing the law should never stop us using it in the right and appropriate way. Preaching the law has an important position in Christian preaching. There cannot be a true and deep understanding of the Gospel without understanding the requirements of the law.

The Bible always speaks that the law applies to all people, and therefore, all people are sinner and adulterers against God (Romans 3:23), because no one other than Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law. Therefore, we should speak about “us sinners” and not about “you sinners” (refer to Isaiah when he was called to be a prophet, Isa 6:1–7).

The law and the Gospel should be separated, but not “too completely”, so that only one is found in the preaching. Since, if we preach only the law, people will never find the gracious God.

On the other hand, we cannot preach only “cheap grace” either, that is the Gospel without saying anything about the law. Jesus gave his disciples a commandment both to loose and to bind sins (Matt 18:15–18). Absolution of sins should be pronounced to penitent sinners. Binding, that is denying absolution, should be pronounced to those who continue in sin without repentance so that they might come to repentance. God does not forgive sins only that we could do more sin (Romans 6:1).

Boasting – James 4:13–17

In this passage James does not forbid making any plans whatsoever, although that has sometimes been suggested. James does approve good planning – it becomes clear in verse 15: “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” Instead, James wishes to remind his recipients that they should not forget about God even when making plans here on Earth. A plan should not be made as if God would not exist. This comes clear also from many old Christian proverbs like “Pray and work!” (Lat. Ora et labora!) and “Pray hard as if your work would do no good and work hard like your prayer would do no good.”

Also, the Old Testament (in Proverbs 27:11), Jesus (Luke 12:16–20; John 15:5), and St. Paul (1 Cor 16:7) speak about God’s final say in the life of man. A person can make plans even years ahead of them (see verse 13) and still they will not even know what tomorrow brings (verse 14). Therefore, our life and our deeds depend on what God allows for us (verse 15).

Pride is not suitable for a Christian (verse 16). "Pride goes before destruction", as it is written in Proverbs 16:18.

Verse 17 makes it clearer than ever that it is impossible to live without sin. Even if you could avoid doing any evil, at least you can never do good on every occasion where God gives you a chance. Sin is not only committing an evil deed, but even failing to do good is sin.

Occasionally, it is claimed that the Christian moral does not fit into the business world. Beware, for this is another attempt to leave God only as the Lord of Sunday and keep all other days from Monday to Saturday in the hands of man. But it should be reminded, what a Finnish top-class businessman said: “You can prosper in business only with honesty!” Often, we think things are in a certain way, even though in the true sense they are quite differently. So yes, God is also the Lord of the business world.