Two weeks ago, I said, “Inconsistency is Unsustainable”. What I meant at that time was and is what James talks about in this chapter. Each person, James argues, has “desires that battle within you”. Is that true for you? If it’s not, you don’t need to keep listening. You don’t have this problem. But maybe you desire to care for yourself and also for a member of your family. You are tempted to take shortcuts to get what you want, but you also want to be a person of integrity. You want to save face in front of others, but you also want to speak your mind. You have limited energy and limited money—there are more needs than you have the capacity to meet. What do you do?
Situations in our lives come and go. But where do you look for guidance, for wisdom, and for power? Maybe you look to God. Maybe you look to yourself. Maybe you look to some other person or guru to guide different aspects of your life. You follow an influencer on Instagram and a billionaire or investor on Twitter. You look to certain newspaper columns for wisdom and advice. James says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?” (4:4). James comes across pretty aggressive here, doesn’t he? We might read James’ words and mistakenly think that we cannot have any connection with the world around us—or, even worse, that we should not love and care for people who aren’t Christians. But that is obviously not what James means: just last week, Pastor Harrison reminded us about God’s great love and compassion for all people. Instead, when James says those aggressive words, “You adulterous people!” he is drawing an allusion—a connection—back to the Old Testament, especially to the book of Hosea. James’ first listeners knew that in these stories, God loves and cherishes and redeems his people. He welcomes his people into what he calls a “covenant” relationship. This is a relationship of trust and care, where God provides what his people need and they commit to love and thank him. But again and again, they cheat on him! They run after good-looking idols. They grab the first sign of hope that they see instead of trusting in God or waiting for him to give them what is good. They don’t even ask God. They become friends with the people around them; then they chase after other gods and they ignore, avoid, and run away from God and his love.
Imagine for a moment that you are married and you find out that your spouse has been cheating on you—not just with one person, but with many. What a terrible thing that would be! How difficult it would be to still be committed to your partner at that point. But if you were committed to them, you might say, “I don’t want you going out with any of your friends! Either pick me, or pick your friends.”
You would not mean that your partner could never have another friend; instead, you would be firmly and clearly expressing that, for your marriage covenant to work, you must be first and most important in your partner’s heart, with their time, with their whole life!
This is why James ends this section: “Submit yourself to God…Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will life you up” (4:10). Last summer, I performed a number of weddings—and at every one, the couple said, “we don’t want to use that word, ‘submit’, in our vows.” They thought submit was a dirty word, where the man would force the woman to do whatever he wanted and the woman had no rights or freedom. If you are married, I hope that is not a description of your marriage! God does not want anyone to be forced into service for someone else and God will not force anyone to serve him! But these couples had it wrong: “Submit” is not a bad word. Submit means “to yield to the will of another person.” Whether submitting is good depends on whether the person is good who you will yield to! James says, if you submit to God, he will lift you up! That with God, you will have a higher and better life than you could have without him! This means that submitting to God promises to be a good thing—but the choice is still yours! God will not force or coerce you. You can have your life and live it in your own power. You can depend first and only on yourself! Many of us do.
God’s Sovereign Love and Humanity’s Free Will
The Bible as a whole book and whole story has two major actors—God and humanity. The story introduces God as is in control. God is “SOVEREIGN”. God creates the world and keeps it moving. He is bigger and better than his creation and he is able to do anything with his creation and with humanity—but because he is good and because he loves his creation, he wants humanity to love him back.
The second major actor in the story of the Bible is humanity. As humans, we have free will. We can choose and we are responsible for our actions and choices. However, our choices are limited—they are limited first by the sin and brokenness in our own hearts, but our choices are also affected by others’ actions and choices and by sin in our world. I have joked with you before that no matter how good of resolutions we choose each year, somehow, we cannot always accomplish the good we want to do. Our free will is real! But we have limits.
Throughout this series, we’ve talked about practical temptations in our everyday lives.
So given all I’ve said, here are two that we encounter:
- Because we have free will, we live as if we are in complete control of our lives. We refuse to submit to anyone! Author Craig Groeschel talks about this temptation in his book: “The Christian Atheist: When You Believe in God, but Live like He Doesn’t Exist!” In other words, even though we see our limits all the time, we keep trying to extend ourselves and our abilities. We might say we believe in God, but we put our trust in ourselves. We live, plan, and budget based on our own abilities and trusting only in ourselves.
- We see God or other “big” controlling forces in our world. We are tempted to give up, to stop trying. We easily give up because we fear that we are powerless and that nothing will change for the better in our lives. So we become hopeless and despondent. We may even become depressed. “Everything is meaningless!” we might say, “the things I used to love—I find no joy in them anymore.”
Boasting and Judging
Let’s talk a little bit more about these temptations. James gives one (actually two) specific examples of the first temptation, living as if we are in complete control of our lives. He talks about boasting about tomorrow and about judging others. Think for a moment about how common both of these practices are! Every big company has plans and projections for the rest of the year. For next year. Many even have plans for the next five or ten years! You might say, “Of course, it’s not morally wrong to plan for the future!” And you would be right. But planning for the future based only on our own abilities strength is the way of the world. James says that Christians should live differently because we do not live in our own strength and we do not pursue our own goals! We depend on the power of God and we are pursuing the purposes of God. So Christians should not make plan the way that the world makes plans.
Likewise, Christians should not judge the way that the world judges. Can you think of examples in your own life where our world pressures people to conform? This is what I mean by judgment: “you cannot be a part of us unless you act like us.” This attitude is what judgement is and it is very common in our world. Your personal preferences or needs are not respected at work. You or your children are expected to participate or contribute to a group in ways that are uncomfortable for you. Whatever the context, the message is clear: “you cannot be a part of us unless you act like us.”
James reminds Christians that we should live differently from the world: “Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” (4:11-12). In other words, when we say, “you cannot be a part of us unless you act like us,” we are putting ourselves above the law! We are proudly saying that we are perfect, or at the very least, that we’re better than others and that others should be like us. This is what judgement sounds like in worldly terms: be like us: we have it all figured out! And it doesn’t sound like good news!
Good News for All Who Fully Depend on God for the Climb
The good news of the Bible is that all of us are invited to be more and more like Jesus. What do I mean by this? Jesus depended fully on God. And, like Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, you are invited to depend fully on God too! And here is the incredible thing about Jesus: when you become more and more like Jesus, you become more yourself. Each of us is so different—we have different interests, abilities, passions, and perspectives. We have different views on just about every issue, but when we become more like Jesus, we do not immediately all become like clones. This is how you tell the difference between a human organization and the church of God—is everyone exactly the same, even while doing good work? This is an organization made by man. Are diverse people pursuing God together? This is possible only by God’s power. You see, apart from God’s power, people with differences will devolve into judgement and self-righteousness. They will always split into groups, then into more and more groups. We see the fracturing of pride and of “battling desires” everywhere in our world—even in our church and in our own hearts.
The invitation to become more like Jesus is the invitation to a journey. It’s the invitation to aclimb: to look at Jesus and wonder at his character, to follow Jesus and even to know and experience the love and joy and peace and hope of Jesus—that invitation is for every person! It is for the people who struggle with that first temptation—to do everything for yourself and by yourself—and it is for people who struggle with the second temptation—to simple give up and stop caring.
If you are ready to give up and stop caring, consider that God cares about you more than you care about yourself. That God has a better plan for you than you have for yourself—and that God is more powerful than you are—he is more able to make his plans happen then you are to make your plans happen—your dreams or even your nightmares! A few years ago, I heard stories from people around the world who began having dreams. Maybe you have had this dream too! You have a dream—maybe even a nightmare—about your present or your future. And in that difficult situation, a man in white comes and invites you to come closer to him; to follow him and to be with him.
This man in white is Jesus! He is the one who James is so passionate about! Brothers and sisters—friends of God—I want you to see that James is so passionate about righteousness because he is so passionate about what is ahead on the journey! I don’t mean about coming back next week to hear about the next chapter. I mean that James knows what can happen if you set aside your pride and submit yourself fully to God: to yield to his will for your life. God’s plans for you are so good that he does not wait for you to come to him. He has already come to you. He has already made good plans for you!
So the question as we close, is what will you do? If God is sovereign and God is good—and if God will not force himself on you because he loves you; AND if you have free will but also you are limited in your abilities and power—then what will you do? My intent again this morning is not that you would go home be impressed (or bored) but that you would consider joining the climb! Whether you think you are in control or whether you are almost without hope, will you dare to submit yourself more fully to God?
We have called this series “the climb” because we are all invited to take a step forward in an active faith life. Some of us are taking the first steps. But those who have been journeying for a while—God is inviting you to take another step as well.
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