"If I live mindlessly in the world, I will be conformed by the world."
1) Examine your own heart (v.1-3).
2) Reckon with the sin of giving yourself over to the world (v.4-5).
3) Live in the freedom of God's grace as you cultivate humility (v.6-10).
Worldly Drift and the Pull of God's Grace
The Seventh Sermon in a Series through the Book of James
Matthew 18:20 contains an incredible promise. Jesus tells us in in that verse that his authority will be with even just two or three who are gathered in his name, saying
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The church gathers, even when it is small, knowing that they gather in the authority of Jesus on this earth. This is a promise and a verse that many people have memorized.
As I read it, though, I wonder if someone who only has a passing familiarity with the Christian church would be surprised at what it says. From personal experience, someone might expect Jesus to say, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there will be quarreling, fighting, disputes, and conflict.” In fact, I think we can all testify to the fact that we know of churches that have been involved in deep conflict. Perhaps you yourself were even connected to that conflict in some way. In my early 20s I was a member of a church that blew up because of conflict. Prayer meetings were vailed accusation sessions. Sermons were fodder for arguments. There were even letter writing campaigns in order to shore up the side of the conflict. Trust me, if you had come to one of those gatherings, you would have said, “Where two or three or gathered in Jesus’ name, there will be quarreling and fighting.”
Apparently the situation was similar for those to whom James writes. And based on what we have read so far in this letter, does that really surprise you? As we have seen so far in this letter, certain inconsistencies are confronted:
Complaining about trials even though God is good and in control.
Hearing the word but not doing it.
Claiming to love your neighbors but then showing blatant partiality.
Claiming to believe but then living as if Jesus isn’t Lord.
Claiming to be ready to teach but not guarding your dangerous tongue.
Claiming to be wise but really living by the worldly wisdom in order to get what you want.
As we reflect on all of these issues, does it surprise you that there is conflict, division, and fighting? Absolutely not. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that studying the book of James is just a historical exercise for us. It is God’s word given to us for a reason. For as we consider these same issues we have to concede the following:
We complain and doubt, and forget God’s goodness and sovereignty in trials.
We ourselves are prone to hear the word and even memorize it, but not practice it.
We denounce partiality, but we then avoid people that are difficult.
We bless God with our tongues but then dishonor him when we gossip, slander, and lie.
We want to be known as wise but are so prone to bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.
Is it a surprise that we, too, have conflicts. The church is not a place of perfect people. It is a place of redeemed people who are being changed. The one thing that is certain, then, is that we will sin against each other and we will have conflicts with each other. The only question that remains, then, is “what are we going to do in response?” Will we look like the world or will we listen to the word of God and respond as doers?
What the World Expects and What God Will Do
The world expects to look at the church and simply see a mirror image of itself. It expects you to be conformed to the thinking and patterns of the worldly system. David Wells sums up what worldliness is quite well: It is “that system of values, in any given age, which has at its center our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and his truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange.” You will be shaped by the world in what you think, love, and do unless you willingly submit yourselves to God. And if we do not take up the tools of God’s grace, we will only drift toward more and more worldliness.
So what should we do? That’s what God wants us to ask and he wants us to find the answer in James 4:1-10.
How should redeemed sinners, Christians, respond when we start to experience the fruit of sin, namely division and conflicts? Let’s follow what this passage tells us.
1. Examine your own heart (1-3)
Worldliness is not merely “out there.” It has crept into us. We know this because conflict arises from our own worldly desires and then, when these desires are not met, we respond in ways that we learn from the world.
When you are in a conflict, you are quick to point the finger at others as the problem. But James turns this action on its head when he asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” And then quickly answers, “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you.” The ultimate cause of fights and quarrels among church members, he argues, is our own desires.
Now to be clear, James doesn’t bring up the topic of the fight. He is more focused on the fact that there are disorderly relationships in the church. Obviously he isn’t shy with disagreements and conflicts—just read the first 3 chapters of this letter! He is focusing on a certain kind of fighting that is taking place in the church—it is relational strife and disorderly relationships that he has in view.
And in these kinds of disputes, we see that we are to do two things: examine our hearts and examine our prayers.
First, we need to examine our hearts by asking ourselves, “What do I really want?”We see in verse 1 and the first part of verse 2 that our “passions” and “desires” are at the root of our relational strife. These terms carry with them the idea of pleasure and strong longings. The mere existence of desire is inevitable, but these desires are not normal. They are compared to coveting in verse 2 and they lead to murder when they are denied, so we cannot say that this is a small desire but a ruling desire. And when desires can become ruling, they become sinful. A desire can be sinful in one of two ways. They can be sinful simply by what they seek. A desire for adultery is always a sinful desire. But a desire can also become sinful when it is too strong, when it is an inordinate desire. An inordinate desire is a desire for which you are willing to sin in order to get it or you are willing to sin against God because you did not get it. A desire to be respected, for example, is not automatically a sinful desire. But when you have a desire to be respected that is so strong that you lie in order to look better in someone’s eyes, then that desire has become too large and strong. It has entered into the territory of idolatry.
But fights break out not merely because inordinate desires exist, but because they are denied. That is what is said in verse 2, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. Inordinate desires are the pathway to conflict because you will fight whoever gets in your way of what you want most. You will even fight God when you think he is in your way.
So the first thing we need to do when we find ourselves in conflict is ask ourselves, “What am I wanting right now?” And, “Am I willing to sin if someone takes this from me or keeps this from me?”
Second, we need to examine our hearts by asking ourselves, “Am I praying right now? And what am I praying?” We read in the second half of verse 2, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” If you are not making your desires known to God, you need to ask yourself, “Why?” A lack of prayer could be an indicator of two separate issues. It could indicate that you know God is not interested in what you want and that you are seeking sin. If you are looking for opportunities for sexual immorality, you aren’t going to pray for God to give those to you. You are going to be silent because you know that you desire evil. On the other hand, your lack of prayer could be a display of your pride. God doesn’t even enter into the equation of your thinking when it comes to your desires because you are efficient to bring about what you need.
But if we are praying, we need to consider why God is not answering our prayers. We read in verse 3, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” What does that mean? Simply this: Our prayers, just like our lives, are meant to focus on God and his Kingdom. When we use them for a different purpose, it should not surprise us when they go unanswered. I think John Piper has the best illustration about this aspect of prayer, so let me just share it. He says “the number one reason why prayer malfunctions in the hands of a believer is that they try to turn a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom.” When we use prayer as a mere means of satisfying personal desires unattached from the mission of God, then it will not seem to work. God is not a genie. You are not the Lord, he is. Piper goes on to say that Jesus has given us a mission—bear fruit and make disciples—and has given us prayer as a supernatural means of communicating with him in order to make sure it happens. But what happens to our prayer when we use it as a means of advancing my personal brand and kingdom? Nothing.
The Drift of our Sinful Hearts.
Because of indwelling sin, if we leave our hearts uncheck then we will drift into sin. Our sinful hearts draw us to see ourselves and our plans as the main show. It is pride on full display. It is a preoccupation with your own heart and an exaltation of yourself over others and over God. When everyone gives into this, you better believe there will be disorder and every vile practice. And if it goes unchecked, it will lead to murder.
But this isn’t the worst of it. James turns next to describe why our sinful hearts should get our attention more than anything else.
2. Honestly reckon with the sin of giving yourself over to the world (4-5)
Our sin is horrid not because of what it does to others, but first and foremost because it is against God. James makes this known in verse 4 with a remark so harsh it must grab our attention. Up until this point, James has referred to his readers as “brothers,” but now he calls them “you adulterous people.” This is a rebuke that was leveled against the nation Israel when they departed from faithful worship and full devotion to God (cf. Isaiah 54:5-6; Jeremiah 3:20). In making a covenant with Israel, God was depicted as her husband and Israel as his bride. To break the covenant was to commit spiritual adultery.
What James is saying, then, is that when we are led by sinful and inordinate desires, we are committing spiritual adultery because we are living by values and desires shaped by the world and not his word. As we read on in verse 4, we see that this adultery is committed when we seek friendship with the world. To be friends with the world is at the same time to make God your enemy. That might seem a little strong until we consider the significance of the title “friend.” Nowadays, we call people we like our “friends,” but in the ancient world this term bore greater significance. Friendship entailed sharing everything with that person. Before going to the cross, Jesus called his disciples his friends. Why? Because he was making everything known to them (John 15:15).
To be friends with the world, then, is to make allegiance with a system that is in rebellion against God and set on dethroning God. When you have sinful or inordinate desires controlling the way you behave within the church, you are setting the values of the world, the system in rebellion against God, on the throne of your heart.
You cannot do that and rightfully claim to be on God’s side. You cannot serve two masters. How do you make friends with the world?
By practicing partiality.
Paying lip service to God with no real plans to obey him.
Using our tongues to tear down others through gossip and slander; and to build ourselves up through flattering lies.
Holding on to bitter jealousy and selfish ambition
Pursuing first and foremost our own pleasures even as it wrecks others
When we practice these things, we are crying out, “World, you have my allegiance! I know you can give me what I want so I will practice your ways.” Giving in to these practices is to stand in the ranks of the demonic and the enemies of God and to say to them, “Friends!”
Make no mistake, God will no tolerate this. James makes this clear in verse 5 when he writes, “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealousy over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?” This is not an actual quote of a scripture passage, but alluding to a theme in scripture: God makes total claim and demands total allegiance from those who are his. This fact is seen throughout the OT and James is pointing that out.
God is jealous for us because he has not simply cleansed us of sin; he has made us his very own and has stamped his name on us. He doesn’t just like us and favor us. He brings us into union with himself by faith in Christ. Just as a husband is rightly jealous for the affection of his wife, so God is rightly jealous for your affection and faithfulness. He is glorified by you in that his fullness and goodness is displayed by your satisfaction in him. Bit if you say, “I am the Lord’s,” but then seek to find satisfaction outside of him, you are dishonoring his name and not showing the fullness of it. In effect you are saying to the world the greatest lie: “There is something better than God,” which is the exact lie that Satan spread in the Garden and works to spread abroad today.
In short, God has a rightful claim on us that we cannot ignore or take lightly.
God’s Jealousy and How We Live
What does this mean for how we live? We could say many things but let’s focus on just one: do not shrug off sin. Do not shrug off conflicts that show indwelling sin. Do not tolerate sin anymore than a man or woman would tolerate his or her spouses adultery. If you talked to a man who said he was having an affair but also claimed that his wife would not mind, you would say to him “you are a prideful fool.” So it is with our sin. When we say, “God will not mind,” you are playing the prideful fool and ignoring what God has said to you about himself and what he has said about you.
Don’t ever say of any sin in your life, “It is just a little a little sin.” Don’t ever say, “It is just a little lust, deceit, theft, slander.” To do so is to say to God, “it is just a little idolatry.” It is like saying to your wife, “It was just a little infidelity.”
The proud person says, “This—lusting, adultery, pornography, slander, flirtation, backbiting, gossip, bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, fixation on status, coveting for possessions, lack of self-control, manipulative relationship—will destroy other people, but it won’t destroy me.” You’re a fool if you think that. And brothers and sisters, it chills my blood to know that sometimes that sentiment if not that expression came to my mind. It should chill you as well when it comes to yours.
The proud shrug off sin and the inevitable conflicts that it brings.
That’s what worldliness does to us and encourages in us. But that is not how we are to live as God’s people. How are we to live? That’s what we see next.
3. Live in the freedom of grace as you cultivate humility (6-10)
If this passage stopped right here, then we could all just pack it up and go home because there is no hope for you and me. But thanks be to God that it doesn’t. In light of our sin, what are we sinners to do? Verse 6 gives us the answer: rely on God’s grace. God demands your perfection and your perfect allegiance. He is a jealous God.
And God gives what he demands of you through his grace.
What does his jealousy demand? Perfection. What do we bring? Our sin. What does he then provide? MORE GRACE.
When it comes to God, there is no question. He is gracious, loving, merciful, and giving.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, by and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is 55:1).
“Seek the LORD while ehe may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD” (Isaiah 55:6-8).
There is no question: God is ready to give. But are you ready to receive. There are two ways you can respond to our gracious God. You can respond in pride or in humility.
If in pride you say to God, “I am fine,” then he will say to you, “very well,” and have nothing to do with you until the day of judgment. But if, in humility, you cry out to God, “I have plainly been a fool. I need forgiveness. I need pardon. I need change and I can’t do any of this myself, then he says, “Welcome! I forgive you! I will provide for you! From me will come to you both the power for change and the desire for change. And I will be patient with you, more patient then you can understand. Because my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
Because we are sinners, we are in need of God’ grace. And God gives grace to the humble. If our natural drift is toward pride, then we need to cultivate humility as we depend on the grace of God. What does that look like? That’s what James lays out for us in verses 7-10. Let’s close by looking at what these verses mean and how we can put them into practice. The exhortations listed here are not necessarily separate, but neither are they identical. Really we could say that all of these exhortations are depictions of one idea: how to grow in and walk in humility. As I said last week, humility is seeing yourself rightly: as a creature, sinner, and now, child of God by faith. All of these things listed show us how we can see ourselves rightly and grow in seeing ourselves rightly.
First, Consciously sit under God’s authority: this means placing yourself under the Lordship of Christ. He does not play an advisory role or hold the position of life coach. He is Lord, which means obedience to him is not optional. When you come across commands or teaching that are hard for you, then you need to consciously say, “that is because my heart is broken. Lord, help me trust you.” This is submission in your thinking—having your thoughts and views conformed to that of your God—and submission in your affections—coming to hate what he hates and love what he loves—and submission in your will—setting aside your desires, agenda, and goals in place of his for you.
Is there an area of your life that you need to put into submission to the Lord Jesus? That is your next step of humility.
Second, Refuse demonic enticement: The flip side of submitting yourself to God is resisting the devil. We are surrounded by temptations to sin that can never deliver what they promise. These temptations seem powerful, but they actually have no power outside of you. Your sinful desires are what draw you in. Demonic influences lay out temptations like a trail of crumbs, but they cannot make you follow it. If you keep taking up the crumps of temptation, leading you to destruction, then Satan will keep laying them out. But if you scatter them away, saying “Be gone Satan.” Then he cannot withstand you.
Turn away from the demonic lies in your life. From the beginning, Satan sought to get people to doubt God’s word and that is how he continually tempts. What in your life right now is causing you to doubt God’s word? What in your life right now is calling God a liar? What in your life right now is saying, “Actually, sin is good.” The devil can only entice you and has no power over you, so cut out his voice he will flee.
Third, seek restoration when you sin: When we confess our sins, we do not have to go through a period of distance from God. Confession is drawing near to God because it is believing that he is faithful and just to forgive. And when you draw near, he draws near. Do not believe the lie that you have to earn God’s forgiveness by being distant from God before you confess your sins. Remember: conviction of sin is not God pushing you away. Conviction is his love drawing you away from sin and to himself.
Fourth, Match your hands with your heart in repentance: Our repentance must include two aspects. It must be a turn from external behavior that is sinful—what is meant by “cleanse your hands, you sinners”—and a turn from the desire and affection that led to the behavior—what is meant by “purify your hearts, you double minded.” Repentance, then, is not merely confessing that an action was wrong but also confessing that our hearts are wrong and need to change. Connecting our hands and our hearts in repentance involves asking questions like, “What do I need to get rid of? What defensive do I need to put up in my life so that I do not wander after that sin again?” But it also involves treating our hearts as well, “what lie am I believing that leads me to desire this sin? How does God refute that lie?”
Fifth, Align your feelings with reality: This is what is meant by the call in verse 9 to be wretched, to mourn, to weep, and to turn laughter to mourning and joy to gloom. This is not saying that this is what must always characterize the Christian. But it is appropriate to feel the pain of sin instead of ignoring it. When we are confronted with sin, we should not shrug it off. We should weep. Sin is never acceptable even if it is to be expected.
Sin is not a light thing. Let me cautiously share one thing with you on this point as your pastor. One of the pathway of tolerating sin and making light of it is to laugh at it. Pastorally, I am concerned with what we tolerate in the things we watch for entertainment. I am not going to lay down a law here. I just want to put before you a questions: how is your view of sin and what is acceptable being shaped by the movies and shows you watch, the music you hear, the podcasts that direct your thinking, and the books you read? How are these things changing what you accept and what you tolerate in regard to sin?
Killing Worldliness By Growing in Humility
The world is not impressed by a mirror image of itself, but it is surprised by genuine humility. Brothers and sisters, I do not think we fully comprehend how much we expect worldly reactions and motives from each other. But growing in humility is how we can grow in godliness, and growing in godliness doesn’t mean we pretend to be perfect. It means we are genuinely needy and dependent on the one who is perfect.
What would this look like? Imagine life where we freely confess and quickly forgive one another. I know that’s what we need to be, because until Jesus returns we will continue to wrong each other. Sinners sin against each other, but the humble confess and forgive. Until he makes us like him, the mark of the church is humility, not perfection. And humility flows into honesty and forgiveness.
Salvation is not dependent on my perfection. That means my confession is not a loss, even though the world would call it so. It is now only a gain. Why? Because I do not have to hide, deny, and evade in order for you to give me worth and honor. I am free of guilt, shame, and of the need to be seen by you as righteous because God (who matters most) calls me righteous in Christ. The humble man is the happy man because he is exalted into the position of free fellowship with God.