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The Pitfall Of Christians’ Lives: The Desire For Self-Gratification

June 24, 2012, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (James 4:1-10) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: James, 雅各书

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Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on James 4:1-10

In today’s passage, James continues to paint a picture of a Christian community deeply divided, and marked by different combinations of unwholesome practices. In the preceding verses he briefly talked about jealousy, selfish ambition, disorder and every evil practice of its members (3:14,16). These unacceptable members’ behavior inevitably leads to conflicts and disputes among them. So, in today’s passage, he wants to trace unrest, bad feeling, hostile relationships and the rest to their root, and to tell them how to solve these problems. So, he asks them: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And he answers his own question with another question that assumes the answer: “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” In other words, James wants to point out that the origins of their divisions at work in the community are found in human desires. But human desires by its very nature are neutral, and as long as men shall live, he or she would possess desires. Thus, James needs to expound the kinds of desires which cause the disputes and conflicts in the community. As we follow his exposition in today’s passage, it is one’s own selfish desires and bitter envy that produce disorder and conflict among the community members. And not only so, this root cause of the problem would also reveal one’s flawed relationship with God, as evidence of his or her conflict with God. Thus, James’ teaching in today’s passage would come down hard on us Christians who live in a profoundly self-centered and pleasure-seeking society. Christianity is often presented as the unfailing source of the affluent, successful life. For many, Christianity has become the equivalent of a prosperous life. The significance of this, in terms of today’s text, is that self-gratification Christians who put his or her interest or pleasure above all would bring disorder and conflicts to the Church, and also to his or her own relationship with God. Thus, the title of my sermon today is: The Pitfall of Christians’ lives: the desire for self-gratification.

(1) Christians should reject strife arising from selfish desire and bitter envy.
Instead of peace and fruit of righteousness, the Christian community that James addressed to was manifesting just the opposite: they were full of mutual oppositions and attacks. For James, the fighting or angry disputes among Christians are an outrageous evil. Many times even we, Christians often try to justify our role in fights or quarrels in terms of the injured rights we are supposedly defending or in the name of fairness. But James does not entertain any such talk. He drives right to the fact the fights are essentially about personal desires: the personal desire one is trying to protect, to influent or to gain! Thus, by pointing out the root cause, James wants them to stop tearing the community apart and repent. So, we come to the first point of today’s sermon that: Christians should reject strife arising from selfish desire and bitter envy.

By identifying personal desires as the root cause of all conflicts among members, James however does not specify examples of those desires. He does not give us a list of forbidden desires. But from his previous teaching, it could be the desires for position of authority, for status and admiration within the community. In James’ day, desire simply implied an intense pleasure or enjoyment which had the connotations of lusts. In today’s text, James identifies the nature of his audience’s lustful desires in two ways. First, wanting what they do not have; and second, coveting or envying what they cannot obtain. These two ways of desire would lead to certain type of behavior. So, he writes:

You desire (something) and do not have (it) so you murder.
You covet (something) and cannot obtain (it) so you fight and quarrel. (ESV)

Let us now examine James’ first statement when desire is frustrated, one commits murder. The term “murder” has posed certain difficulty for biblical commentators. Does James use this word figuratively or literally? Some simply take “murder” straightforwardly and to regard it as the extreme act of killing to which frustrated desire may lead if not checked (Douglas Moo). Others would think that James is echoing Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:21-22) that to hate or to insult another person is to commit murder in one’s heart. Nevertheless, James has the intention to use this harsh word “murder” to shock his audience. He wants to tell them it is their self-seeking desires for power, recognition and control that lead to their violent act of behavior in the community.

As to James’ second statement: You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. What is coveting? It is to turn one’s desire for a certain object into something of ultimate concern. A coveting person will always ask, “What does he have that I don’t? I must have it also!” He may even resolve to steal what is not his own. Some commentators would translate covet as bitter envy. When a covet person cannot obtain what he wants whether it is position or possession, he would envy bitterly at seeing others who possess it. He would resent anyone who is more successful than him. James wants to point out that it is indeed their unrestrained desire, their greed to desire more and their bad feelings of others who are better off in lives that caused the fight and quarrel in the community. Because they are coveting and are not able to get what they covet, so they fight. To fight and quarrel means one is at war with others. And this is exactly what James means in his opening question to them, which can now be rephrased as “What causes war among you?” Inevitably, war brings destruction and casualties. So, by its parallel structure to his first statement, James is implying that quarrels and fights, the war occurring now in the community, are like murder. So, for James, their self-seeking ambitious that caused the strife in the community is not a minor problem; it ranks right up there with murder as a manifestation of evil.

Yes, brothers and sisters, James clearly points out that murder, coveting or envy, fighting and war are derivatives of one’s self-centered desires. They would certainly lead to injurious actions within the community. At the same time, we must also be aware that even good desires can become evil if motivated by the wrong reason. Thus, Christians should always reject strife or any hostile behavior in the community arising from one’s selfish desire or bitter envy. But James does not stop here. He further expands the effects of selfish desire and envy on one’s prayer life, and in particular drawing one’s attention away from God. So, we now come to the second point of James’ teaching that is: Christians should stay focus on God, befriending Him and not the world.

(2) Christians should stay focus on God, befriending Him and not the world.
Some members in James’ audience might argue that they have been praying and asking God to fulfill their request, yet they still have not received what they asked for. Didn’t Jesus teach His followers that those who asked from God would receive? James answers them again it involves their selfish desire with wrong motives: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. So, these people are apparently asking for material things so that they can spend their money and flaunt their possessions. Such prayer assumes a certain arrogance that the one praying knows what is best for him, and “the gift giving God is here manipulated as a kind of vending machine precisely for purpose of self-gratification” (L.T. Johnson). Furthermore, the inner-community strife flowing from their lustful and envious desires has indeed blocked their prayer. They should not expect God to answer their prayer when their motives are wicked. So, James makes it clear that Christians ought not to be asking for selfish gain, and that God does not honor such request.

Yes, very often we are told that God wants to give people anything if they dare to claim, and such prayer is also a way to cultivate our faith in God. But for James this is not true faith in asking. Asking for personal gratification is not asking in faith. Truth faith is knowing our true needs in asking God. Prayer that is consistent with true faith will not make selfish requests. We ask in accordance to the will of God, and not to spend His generosity on ourselves. Our wrong approach to prayer will only demonstrate our poor understanding of God, of confining His love and blessing only to answering all of our prayer requests. Furthermore, when we ask God only to satisfy our desires, we should be aware that such asking is indeed following the pagan practice to pursue the values of today’s society. Such prayer’s attitude only reveals our wrong relationship with God, for we are indeed befriending the world and not Him. James therefore comes down hard on them: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God”.

By addressing them as adulterous people, James is invoking the language of OT prophetic books in which Israel and Judah were likened to adulteresses in their relationships with God. It is because they were flaunting themselves in relationships with idols while claiming to worship God. And in NT teaching, the Church is being seen as the “bride” of Christ, so its members’ attraction to the world is indeed treated as unfaithful bride to her groom. In other words, James is telling them that instead of being faithfully wedded, they are turning their back on God by their evil ways, and are having an affair with the world. When they desire and chose to pursue the pleasures of the world, they are in fact drawn to friendship with the forces of the world-system. James’ warning closely parallels a phrase employed by John in his letter: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). To be friends with the world would mean to identify with its standards and priorities, and thus are indifferent to God. For James, the world signifies the patterns of human life in opposition to, or disregard of, God and His kingdom. So, the intention to be a friend of the world makes a person an enemy of God, because it puts the world in the place of God. And that person would submit to the world’s ethics and values instead of God’s. He would then desire the things of the world instead of God.

James thus paints a horrifying picture that Christians who are already redeemed by Christ could in effect live as enemies of God. Why is such a seriousness that befriending the world could turn a Christian into an enemy of God? James’ answer is in verse 5 which is one of the most problematic verses in the letter. NIV translates the verse as: Do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit He caused to live in us envies intensely?” But NRSV has its translation: 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?” The two translations indeed provide two totally different meanings.

NIV: It treats the (human) spirit as subject -- As human beings it is the universal tendency we all have toward envy and jealousy of one another. This interpretation fits well with James’ warning in the opening verses that all fights and quarrels are derivatives of human’s desire to covet and to envy. Thus, we need more grace from God to overcome human weaknesses.

NRSV: It treats God as subject –God is jealously yearning for His people’s affection, this interpretation has specific OT text in mind where God is described as a jealous God. He would consume His people with fire and bring disaster on them when they rebel against Him. This translation fits well with James’ addressing his audience as adulterous people, and to be a friend of the world is to become an enemy of God. Thus, we need more grace to safeguard us.

Both interpretations are acceptable for they each connect well with James’ following verse: But He gives us more grace. Yes, as human beings we have the tendency to covet or to envy, as such we often seek our pleasures in friendship with the world. But even when we sin and rebel against God, James gives us the assurance that God would give us more grace. As to God’s jealousy for His people, in His abundant grace God is not all out to punish His people when they are unfaithful to Him, they still have the chance to turn back to Him. Thus God gives more grace to protect us from being overwhelmed by His jealousy (George Stulac). Yes, God is jealous but God’s grace is deeper than His jealousy (Peter Davids).

Yes, brothers and sisters, God is lovingly jealous for our affection. This realization ought to stop us any of our affairs with the world. So, are we today better friends with the world or with God? Are we God’s enemies or His friends? We may think God’s demands are harsh, but He always provides the means for us to follow Him. James tells us that there will always be enough grace regardless of our situation or need. He will certainly give grace to us to overcome our human weaknesses. So, let us come to Him as the writer of Hebrews confidently tells us: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). And this is exactly what James wants to instruct his audience to do as he continues his teaching to them. We thus come to the third point of today’s text: Christians should humbly submit to God in response to His loving grace.

(3) Christians should humbly submit to God in response to His loving grace.
After pointing out the root problem that caused the fights and quarrels within the community, and issuing a stern warning to its members not to choose the world-system over God Himself, James now comes to his prescription for them: they must repent! So, he gives a series of imperatives as requisites for them to repent. But James knows that a proud life is hard to repent. Therefore he quotes the Scripture warning them that: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”. God opposes the proud because they seem to have little interest in anyone but themselves. With their self-promoting success and self-serving interest, they are not only arrogant to others, but even show scornful attitude toward God. They have shown themselves as the friends of the world and at enmity to God. So, they will never see the need to come to God, and least to repent for their behavior. In contrast, the humble are those who remain faithful in their dependence on God rather than on self or any other false gods. Thus, God’s grace goes to the humble. So, for James, the prerequisite for anyone to repent is to humbly submit to God in response to His loving grace.
Submission to God means ordering our lives under His authority and His will. But how does one go about it to repent and to humbly submit to God? This is where the list of James’ imperatives comes in, and they are arranged in three couplets:

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Come near to God and He will come near to you.

Wash your hands, you sinners,
And purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Grieve, mourn and wail.
Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.

The first component of humbly submit to God is to resist the devil. The devil is the active opponent of God and His people with its lying and deceptive capacities. So, James is urging his audience to take up a defensive response to the temptations of the devil. In other words, James wants them to consciously stand against the devil (as in combat) and not to give in to its temptations. It however does not mean believers are to engage in dramatic spiritual warfare on every front. Submission to God is itself an act of resistance to the devil with the result that the devil will lose foothold on them. In the context of his previous passage, James is calling them to resist rivalry and selfish ambition which results from the desire for status and control. He calls such desire as earthly, unspiritual and demonic (3:14-15).

Along with staying on guard against the devil at all times, James calls for believers’ movement toward God and promises that God will reciprocate. In fact, coming near to God is itself a source of strength believers could get to resist the devil. It is also by drawing near to God that they could receive His loving grace. The best illustration of coming to God and He will come near to you is the story told by Jesus, “The Prodigal Son”: On his way home, while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20). So, someone says it well: “Inch toward God, and He will step toward you. Step toward God, and He will sprint toward you. Sprint toward God, and He will fly to you!”(Kent Hughes).

As some members of the community are being corrupted by bitter envy and selfish ambition leading to fights and quarrels, so James no longer calls his audience by the usual endearing “brothers and sisters”. Instead he calls them “sinners” and “doubled minded”. Thus, his second couplet of imperatives for them is to “wash your hands and purify your hearts”. Yes, coming near to God and for God to come near to them involves renunciation of all selfish desires and evil practices. One cannot live in two ways of life, to befriend the world and to befriend God. This sort of “doubled minded” is not possible. Thus, James wants his audience to perform a cleanup both externally (washing your hands) and internally (purifying your hearts). These external washing and inward purifying have its OT background, but essentially they mean the same thing. James is calling his audience to remove everything from their thoughts and actions that show them they are not single-mindedly pursuing God and His will in their lives. But we should not think that the act of self-cleansing must precede our drawing near to God. No one is capable of purifying oneself through his or her own clean up without the grace of God. What James is telling us is that we should not be “double-minded”, but instead we must willingly make a wholehearted commitment to God by our actions. As he has mentioned before, God gives more grace to the humble. As long as we stay dependence on God, we will have His grace to approach Him in confidence and that He would draw near to us to forgive, to restore and to give us strength to live in purity and in righteousness.

Lastly, James’ third challenging couplet to them is to “grieve, mourn and wail, to change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom”. James uses the verbs to grieve, to mourn and to wail to make vivid impressions of a person who shows deep and acute sorrow over his or her sin. So, James is telling his audience that their bitter envy and selfish desires that caused the strife in the community is an unmistakable serious sin. Instead of taking pride in themselves which led to fights and quarrels, they should mourn that their arrogance has turned themselves into enemies of God. James does not claim that there are never times for joy, but he maintains that this is the time for repentance. If they truly realize the grievous nature of their sins, what had caused them to laugh should actually have caused them to mourn. What had caused them to rejoice should have brought them remorse. It is because their laughter and joy that come from friendship with the world must now be turned to sadness and dejection of knowing they have become enemies of God (Timothy Cargal).

Yes, brothers and sisters, God’s grace will always flow downward to the humble, to those who willingly submit to Him, to those whose movement is toward God and away from the devil, to those who purify their inner and outer lives, and to those who mourn over their sins. And these attitudes and actions also express one’s desire to be a friend of God, and not a friend of the world.

Our selfish desires and our pride can only lead us to the wrong things and produce conflict between people. And they will certainly draw our attention away from God, instead of coming near to Him. Thus, James’ concluding exaltation is to “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up”. So, it is not for us to compete for position, for power or for recognition, all for the sake of our selfish ambition. Instead it is for God to exalt us as He wills. So, what God wants us to do is to humble ourselves in submission to Him, and He will certainly give grace to us and exalt us!

James 4:1–10 (Listen)

4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 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. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 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. 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”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 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.

(ESV)