Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text for this morning comes from the Epistle Reading: James 4:1-10.
1. What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not a discussion about finances with your spouse? Is it not broaching the topic of religion around your non-Christian friends? But maybe most of all right now, is it not a discussion about COVID-19 and the inevitable political conversation that follows which causes quarrels and fights among us? I suspect there are very few of us who have not gotten into heated discussions with someone over one of these topics, maybe even recently. The fact of the matter is, we know what causes quarrels and conflicts among us: Just avoid those three “hot topics” of religion, politics, and money and you’ll be fine. It’s those things that cause quarrels and fights among us . . . Or is it? As we heard in our reading, James seems to have a different idea of what is really going on underneath these symptoms of quarreling and fighting. It seems that our self-diagnosis of these symptoms is all wrong. And this brings up an interesting observation about the human capacity for self-diagnosis. The reality is, we’re really bad at it. For example, we’re horrible at self-diagnosis for medical problems thanks in no small part to “Doctor Google.” But we’re even worse when it comes to self-diagnosis of spiritual problems. And that’s precisely the problem here. When we experience inner discontentment and especially when that inner discontentment gives rise to quarrels and fights, there is a deep-rooted problem at the core. Let’s allow James to unpack this for us more clearly.
2. James gives the diagnosis for our condition in verses 1-3: 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 (James 4:1-3). Underneath these symptoms of external conflicts is a deep-rooted problem within each one of us. This deep-rooted problem is, to use James’ words, that your passions are at war within you. That word “passions” literally means “pleasures.” Your deep-rooted problem is the conflicting pleasures raging inside of you. How relevant and accurate is this to our twenty-first century American culture? We’re all about pleasures: “Do what makes you feel good.” “Find your inner happiness and peace.” “Live your best life.” The real problem is, we don’t actually know what we want. And if we do figure out and get what we want, we’re bound to quickly discover that it’s not as fulfilling as we thought it would be. And so, another new, exciting desire arises to pursue. We’re constantly filled with passions and desires for pleasure that we can’t fulfill and that makes us so discontent that it leads to outbursts—fights, quarrels, or maybe a lot worse if we don’t check ourselves, as James warns in verse 2. And then James begins to press at the heart of the issue at the end of verse 2: You do not have, because you do not ask. We’re just like the disciples in last week’s Gospel Reading who forget to pray. And even when we do remember to pray and ask for something, God doesn’t give it to us because we’re asking with self-seeking motives. Our problem is, inside we are at war with ourselves, and our priorities are in all the wrong places.
3. So, what’s the prognosis? Well, it’s really not good. If something isn’t done to address our situation soon, we’re going to be in massive trouble. James continues in verses 4 & 5: 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”? (James 4:4-5). The prognosis isn’t good because our problem goes well beyond these basic symptoms. In fact, it goes well beyond affecting just ourselves. Our inner turmoil of passions and our messed up priorities have seriously damaged our relationship with the Lord. We have essentially cheated on him and are continuing to do so. James uses the analogy of friendship. We cannot be both a friend of the world and a friend of God. Those two friendships simply cannot coexist. It’s one or the other. So, whose friend are you? If you continue to choose friendship with the world over friendship with God, your prognosis isn’t good. God yearns jealously over those whom he has created. He yearns jealously over you because you were not made to be in these two conflicting relationships. So, the real source of our problems is we continue to choose friendship with the world over friendship with God. And it’s killing us.
4. But there is a treatment. James points to that treatment in verses 6-9: 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 (James 4:6-9). So, what is the treatment for this condition in which we find ourselves? The answer is simple—God’s grace. The real question, though, is, how do we get that grace? God’s grace, by its very nature, is a free gift that comes to us on account of Jesus alone. Nothing we do earns the grace of God. Nothing we do will earn us the treatment for our sinful condition. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to do anything. Let’s say, for example, a doctor prescribes cardiac medication to me. If I take that medication, I’m not treating myself. The doctor is still treating me through the medication. Yet I have to do something. I have to remember to take the pill as I’ve been instructed. I might even have to change my lifestyle in terms of diet, exercise, and other habits as a part of the treatment. But I’m still not treating myself. The doctor is treating me. I’m just doing the things which allow myself to be treated. So it is with God and his grace. God gives us his grace when we come to trust in the saving work of Jesus. This is how we become a friend of God. James highlights this point at the end of chapter 2 when he notes that Abraham responded in faith to the Lord and, to quote James, the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God (James 2:23). Abraham had to respond in faith—he had to allow himself to be treated for his sinful condition. But it is God who made him righteous—it is God who treated him. And so, in our text James prescribes that we accept God’s treatment of grace by humbling ourselves, submitting to God as we resist the devil, and drawing near to the Lord. When we draw near to the Lord, he draws near to us and treats us with his grace. This is a serious matter. James reminds us that we need to inspect our hands and clean up our actions. He reminds us that we need to pay attention to our hearts and evaluate our inner attitudes. We need to take this seriously.
5. But we also need to remember that we are not alone. James says in verse 10: Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:10). Jesus is the one who both treats and cures you of this disease we call sin. And so, as you walk through this life, you are not alone. Jesus is with you. He has made you his friend by grace because of his great love for you. You don’t have to clean up your life before you can come to him. But he does promise that when you do come to him, he won’t let you continue to live in the mess and the conflict that being friends with the world creates. He places you into his family, the church, where we walk together through this life by the power of the Holy Spirit, turning our backs on this world and embracing more fully the friendship we have with God. May the Lord grant us both the courage and the strength to do this together.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.