with Tony W. Cartledge
“And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” — James 3:18
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Envy. Jealousy. We don’t like to admit it, but all of us have been acquainted with what Shakespeare called the “green-eyed monster.” Whether we have envied someone else’s cool reputation, their car, their appearance, or their spouse, we know what it is like to long for more than we have.
A touch of envy might spur us to work harder toward desired goals, but in larger doses, jealousy is poison – so dangerous that church tradition considers it one of the “seven deadly sins.”
Having pointed to the dangers inherent in undisciplined or intentionally hurtful speech (3:1-12), James challenges readers to adopt a godly wisdom. James was Jewish by birth, as were most of his readers. Unlike Paul, who was a trained rabbi but abandoned Jewish scruples except when it would cause offense to others, James belonged to a faction of the early church that retained more of its Jewish identity.
James’s readers, then, would be familiar with the most important of proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10, Ps. 111:10, see also Prov. 1:7 and 4:7). Wisdom that has its roots in a proper reverence for God results in a life of humility. Thus, James urges readers to “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (3:13).
The opposite of gentle wisdom is found in bitter envy, selfish ambition, and boastful pride (3:14). These attitudes are not from God, but from a selfish spirit that is more demonic than godly (3:15). Bitterness and pride are potent weapons for getting one’s way, but that power comes at the price of disorder and discord (3:16).
In contrast, the “wisdom from above” engenders the kind of speech and life that bears witness to Christ’s love (3:17). Marked by an inner integrity, such speech is “peaceable” – it draws believers together rather than instigating division. Divine wisdom also produces a spirit that is “gentle,” from a word that can also be translated “gracious.” It suggests a willingness to accept another’s affront without retaliation, to respond with forbearance and patience rather than with anger.
Reverence for God produces a heart that is “willing to yield,” from a term that can mean “open to reason” or “willing to listen.” There is no outward show of partiality, no inner problem of hypocrisy. The wisdom that comes from God leads the believer to a gracious life marked by consistent love.
Persons who embody such gentle wisdom promote peace in their family, in their church, in their world. There is a reward for this. Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). James adds “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (3:18).
James had apparently learned of serious dissension among his readers, and now turns to address it. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (4:1). Outer conflicts between people often result from the inner conflicts of individuals who are torn between the way of Christ and the way of the world.
James uses vivid military terms (literally, “wars” and “fightings”). The plural forms suggest that he was not addressing an isolated instance, but a persistent problem. Most of us know what it is like to face a chronic war within, prompted by our inner “cravings” (the Greek term is the root of our word “hedonism”). Selfish desires keep us at war with ourselves, and that inevitably leads to conflict with others.
How severe was the conflict? James talks as if his readers were murdering each other in the aisles (4:2a)! That could make church growth difficult. James’s language was intentionally shocking, but should probably be taken as hyperbole. He wanted his readers to understand the gravity and the consequences of their behavior. He was not the first: In Matt. 5:21-22, Jesus also suggested that hostile words were akin to murder.
Violence doesn’t necessarily require blood in the aisles. It is not difficult to murder someone’s reputation, to kill a friendship, or to shatter someone’s spirit. People who are ruled by selfish motives often leave broken hearts and wounded feelings in their wake.
What is it that the members want so badly that they are willing to “murder” their fellow Christians in order to get it? In ancient churches as well as modern ones, the most likely answer would be the same: power. Every church conflict has its roots in a struggle for control, whether doctrinal or decorative. Jesus had made it clear that while power struggles were in fact the way of the world, his followers were called instead to humble service (Luke 22:24-27).
James concludes the thought with a curious sentence: “You have not because you ask not.” People have often taken that verse out of context to support a gospel of prosperity, but James meant nothing of the sort. “You ask and do not receive,” he wrote, “because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). His readers were seeking what they wanted, not what they needed.
Effective prayer must be offered for the right reason and derive from a right relationship with God. James implies that many of his readers are far from God and do not have their prayers answered because they are living in spiritual adultery. Like Israel before them, they had become such friends of the world that they had become enemies of God (4:4).
As with the reference to murder, James probably speaks of “adultery” in a figurative sense, but that makes it no less serious. Earlier, he had used murder and adultery to illustrate the seriousness of partiality (2:11). Now, he charges that selfish living is just as harmful to one’s relationship with God as adultery is devastating to a marriage. There is a limit to how friendly a married man can be with another woman and still be true to his wife. And, there is a limit to how friendly we can be with the ways of the world and still be faithful to God.
This is not to suggest that we should isolate ourselves in a cloister. We cannot be the salt of the earth and the light of the world if we separate ourselves entirely. We can be in the world without being of the world (cf. Rom. 12:2, 1 John 2:15).
James charges his readers with spiritual adultery against God whenever they choose to devote greater love to the world than to God, a practice that creates both distance from God and division within the church.
Deep longings(vv. 5-10)
James’s words are harsh, but not hopeless. He thinks of his readers as being far from God, but he wants them to know that God desires to be near, and feels sorrow when we follow the way of the world. James emphasizes this point with what appears to be a familiar quotation: “Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?” (4:5).
Having demonstrated how far his readers have come from God, James offers advice for those who desire a closer relationship. His counsel takes the form of 10 imperative verbs. First, Christians are to submit themselves to God, and to resist the devil (4:7). Consciously, they are to draw near to God (4:8a) by recognizing the depth of their sin. “Cleanse your hands” and “purify your hearts” (4:8b) suggest repentance from both sins of action and sins of motive. Since Jews often prayed with upraised hands, the symbolism of “clean hands” was especially graphic.
“Lament and mourn and weep, let your laughter be turned into mourning” (4:9) exhorts the believers to a deep and heart-felt repentance. James is not talking about a half-hearted “I’m sorry.” Remember that he has accused his readers of murderous attitudes and spiritual adultery. When a spouse confesses to an adulterous relationship, a simple “I’m sorry” is not enough. Serious lamenting and mourning and weeping are appropriate to demonstrate one’s deep awareness of guilt, sorrow for sin, and commitment to future faithfulness. Nothing less will do.
The final imperative, “Humble yourselves before the Lord” (4:10), echoes the first command, “submit yourselves to the Lord.” James has been hitting on the issue of human pride throughout the letter. When people rebel against God, they choose to trust their own judgment instead of God’s commands. True repentance is impossible without the humility that makes one obedient to God’s teaching.
James’s instructions call for serious change. The good news is that three of his commands are combined with promises. These assure us that those who resist temptation can overcome it, those who draw near to God will find God drawing near to them, and those who humble themselves before God will be elevated by God (4:7, 8, 10).
Isn’t that what we want? To defeat temptation? To feel close to God, and to be drawn into closer fellowship with the Lord who is both perfect power and perfect love?
Which will we choose? Far, or near? BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for September 20, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: 3:13-4:10
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
The students we serve face a lot of conflict. Many of these conflicts are minor, but some of them are serious and have life-altering repercussions. Students can either take a stance of fear or one where they feel confident in the decisions that they have to make. Many times when students make decisions out of fear, the best decision is not made. But we also need to be careful about having our students make decisions out of confidence. The confidence they make their decisions with is not out of their own power and ability, but knowing that they rest with God with humility. What are ways that you can empower your students to make wise decisions based on a humble walk with God?
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
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Read Scripture online: 3:13-4:10