May 23rd, 2016

When I envy what God has not provided, that’s spiritual adultery.

James 4:1-12



The end of this week found me wrestling with some minor frustrations. Since I was planning to attend the Corinth men’s retreat in Asheville Friday night and Saturday, I worked on the sermon manuscript all day Thursday and got it done. (That was a good thing, not a frustration.) Friday, my usual day off, I planned to mow the lawn before heading up the mountain, but it rained all morning. I hate not being able to accomplish my tasks on schedule. I was a bit tired coming back Saturday afternoon, but still thought mowing the lawn would be good exercise and besides, it was my best window until next Friday – which would be too long to wait. No sooner had I arrived back in Hickory, however, but the bottom fell out of the sky. My grass was too wet to mow.

I went about preparing for Sunday School and the Pastor’s Class Saturday evening, then looked at my sermon again. I didn’t like it. But that’s often true on Saturday night, and I often feel better about it early Sunday morning after a good night’s sleep.

When I woke up Sunday, I still didn’t like the sermon. I hit the power button on my computer to work on it, and nothing happened. My brand new computer wouldn’t turn on. I needed it for both the Pastor’s Class Power Point and my sermon revision. I decided to use the Scripture text as notes and preach mostly verse-by-verse.

As I dressed for church, I realized I had put on my least favorite white shirt – the one where the collar stays don’t do their work and my collar makes me look like the flying nun. It was too late to grab another. I finished dressing, went in the bathroom to comb and spray my hair, but the hair spray bottle was empty. So I looked under the sink and saw an extra bottle. As I gave my hair a good covering something smelled a little odd. I had picked up the hair spray bottle we filled weeks ago with vinegar for cleaning.

My Sunday didn’t start well. How about yours? Am I the only one that tends to get irritated at those sequences of small things? What if they’re not small things? What if it’s another airliner apparently taken down by terrorists? What if it’s your family torn apart? What if it’s a presidential year where you’re disheartened about the choice you’ll have to make at the ballot box? (On a related but lighter note, the following obituary appeared this past week on a funeral home web site in Richmond, Virginia: “Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the age of 68.”)

As we come to chapter 4, James wants us thinking about what annoys or frustrates us. He wants us especially pondering the times when our frustrations erupt into outright conflict – with a spouse, with a child, with a friend, with a coworker, with a fellow church member, or even with a stranger. He opens the chapter asking, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (1)

We usually try to solve our “fights and quarrels” in one of the following ways –

  1. Confrontation. Fight it out – usually with words, sometimes with other means. Confrontation is about winning.
  2. A wiser response to fights and quarrels is trying to meet in the middle. Each side gives a little, nobody gets all they want. Compromise.
  3. Accumulation. Give each side everything they want. He wants a new boat; she wants a new coat. We’ll buy one of each.
  4. Separation. This is the most American response. Sell the house, quit the job, leave the church, divorce the spouse, create distance from the former friend.
  5. Capitulation. Let the other person have his/her way. We have to choose our battles, and this is not worth the fight… or we’re not likely to win or gain.

James doesn’t advocate any of these responses to conflict. None of them. Zero. Nada. What James advocates is examination. Look below the surface of the conflict. Peel off the layers. “Lord, what does this conflict teach me about me?”

What’s up, James?

I approached this week’s text somewhat bewildered at the beginning of the week. James seems harsh and negative. He is appealing for unity and peace in the Christian community, but does he really think the way to get there is by accusing people of lust and murder (2), and by labeling his readers adulterers (4) and sinners (8)?

James’ words in 4:1-12 seem inconsistent not only with what he said at the end of last week’s text about being a peacemaker, but with his own approach to conflict. James became the leader of the early post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem. In that role he convened the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. The question before the council was whether Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews. James moderated, listening carefully to both sides and crafting a win-win solution that delayed for a millennium the first major schism in Christianity. James could bring people together.

Here, James seems to use the kind of language that alienates and divides people. Is this going to help heal the conflicts they are having in their churches? And another question: if he’s writing to many scattered churches (1:1), isn’t he generalizing an assumption that they’re all fighting? Surely it’s only a small minority involved in conflict.

With the help of my commentaries, I realized that I had misunderstood James.  He’s not talking about actual conflict in the churches. He’s illustrating a point that begins in the previous chapter (3:13), where he asked, “Who is wise and understanding?” His answer was the person who does good deeds (a key theme for James) that display humility. That is the opposite of a life lived with “bitter envy and selfish ambition” (3:14), which have their origin in hell (3:15). In chapter 4, James is continuing that topic of envy by asking his readers to consider the illustration of conflict (4:1-5). Then he will offer his conclusion – a call to humble ourselves before God and accept his grace (4:6-12).[1]

Let’s look at our text verse by verse.

The problem – envy

4:1. James says what causes the conflict is envy, which he describes as “the desires that war in your members.” The Greek word for “desires” is the root of our word hedonism, which is “the pursuit of pleasure or happiness” (Merriam-Webster).

4:2. James examines envy on two planes – horizontal and vertical. “You desire but do not have, so you kill.” That seems harsh, but he probably doesn’t mean you pull out a knife and stab someone. Luke Timothy Johnson comments on this verse, “The logic of competition moves in the direction of elimination.” Once I’ve decided I need to “keep up with the Joneses,” if I can’t catch up I next wonder how I can bring them down.

He continues with the effects of envy on our relationship with God. When we have “desires,” we don’t ask God. Why not? Well, sometimes it’s because of self-sufficiency: “I can do this myself.” Sometimes it’s lack of faith, what some people call a practical atheism: “I don’t trust God to handle this.” Sometimes I don’t ask God for a perfectly good reason: I know this desire of mine is just about my happiness. I feel justified in wanting it, but somehow it seems wrong to put it into a prayer.

4:3. James continues, “When you (do) ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Unchecked, envy corrupts not only my relationships with other people but with God. Prayer is about relationship with God, it’s about dependence on God, it’s about awareness of who God is. Envy turns prayer into asking, “If I could convince God to use his great powers for my happiness, how great would my life be! Think of it! The Creator of the universe paying attention to my needs and wants, removing obstacles, creating opportunities, blocking bad decisions, helping me make choices that will further my career and help me sleep better and get me a better spouse and enjoy more time on the lake and….”

4:4. “Do you know what this amounts to?” James continues. This is spiritual adultery! Nobody likes to be called an adulterer or adulteress, even if it’s true. People who commit adultery feel perfectly justified because their “needs” are not being met by the person they’re married to. Monogamy’s not working for them. They’re not happy. James says envy is the same problem applied to the spiritual life. I want what I want, and God won’t give it to me, so I turn to worldly means of competition and grabbing and hurting other people and engaging in quarrels and fights. I have another lover because God isn’t enough. That’s why “Do not covet” is #10 in God’s Big Ten, the bookend with #1, “You shall have no other gods before me.” When I envy what God has not provided, that’s spiritual adultery. James reminds us that what God wants is close connection with us, our utter dependence on him. He calls it “friendship with God.” And he says we have a choice – friendship with God or friendship with the world. If we choose the latter, it means we are God’s enemies.

4:5. This verse is notoriously difficult to translate from the Greek. The first problem is that James uses a formula that normally introduces a direct quote from the Old Testament, but nothing like the end of the verse appears in the Old Testament. The latter part of the verse raises some issues as well – for example, when James speaks of the “spirit” is that the Holy Spirit or our spirit? The best solution I found comes from Luke Timothy Johnson, who suggests the verse should be two rhetorical questions: “Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks in vain? Does the spirit which he made to dwell in us crave enviously?” In other words, when God’s word deals with envy, doesn’t he mean what he says? Do you really think envy is consistent with the spirit he places in the life of a believer?

The answer – humility

4:6. The antidote for the sin of envy that leads to the problem of conflict is humility. From here on in this passage, James is bringing his whole argument (that began in 3:13) to a conclusion. The problem is envy, which originates in hell, creates conflict among people, and even results in enmity with God.

So what’s God’s answer? Grace! I’ve puzzled most of my life, but especially this week, about the beginning of verse 6: “But he gives more grace.” The King James Version reads, “He giveth more grace.” I love the song I learned years ago based on this verse: “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater. He sendeth more strength when the labors increase. To added affliction he addeth his mercy, to multiplied trials his multiplied peace.” The song, written by a woman so afflicted by arthritis she had to retire from teaching, is beautiful in its expression of trusting God because he’s always pouring out “more grace.” But the song limits itself to one short phrase from James, taken out of context.

In context, the phrase raises a question: God gives more grace than what? Or is it that God gives grace more than anyone else gives grace? I think it’s that God gives grace greater than our sin. This is James’ version of the gospel. It’s the only time he uses the word “grace” in a letter focused much more on “works.”

So James completes the thought he had started in verse 5: “Or do you suppose the Scripture speaks in vain?” He never told us in verse 5 what Scripture he was referring to! Now, after a parenthesis, he continues, “Therefore it (he means “Scripture” but he doesn’t repeat the word) says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

He hopes that quote from Proverbs 3:34 prompts a response like this: “I need more grace! What is this humility on my part that will open the floodgates to more of God’s grace on my life?”

4:7-10. The rest of the passage expands on this humility. The Message does a great job with the next verses.

So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.

4:11-12. I won’t spend much time on these verses, except to note that James is continuing the theme of humility, applying it back on horizontal relationships. If your first thought is, “If I humble myself, people will walk all over me,” you didn’t get James’ message. If you’re thinking, “I have to be tough, to be in charge, to stand for truth and righteousness!” James is going to remind you that you are not in charge of anything, much less of truth and righteousness. God is the Judge, and you need to get out of his seat. He saves, and he destroys. You deal with you.  That is a call to humility.

Call to conversion

The commentator I have found most helpful in this week’s study (Luke Timothy Johnson) titles this section of James, “A Call to Conversion.” This is James’ version of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3: “You must be born again.”

“Wait,” you say, “I thought James was writing to the Christian community.” He is. Whoever said there aren’t people in church who need conversion? Please don’t try to force this passage into whatever is your preconceived notion of what salvation means, but do hear his call for a life-transforming experience of grace through humility.

Here is what James is asking: Is your life of faith based on envy or humility? Envy is never satisfied. Are you “never satisfied”? Is there always someone to blame, even if it’s God? Do you find yourself constantly in battle with somebody – your spouse, your kids, your parents, your boss, your employees, the church leaders, the government, God? Has your theology been so corrupted to the point that you think God’s not doing his job if he’s not as much about you as you are about you – helping you succeed, prosper, be happy, healthy, protected from all harm and negative consequences? If you live with constant envy, blaming God or someone else that you’re not happy, James is issuing a call to conversion.

What does that look like? It looks like “a quiet yes to God.” It doesn’t require fanfare or wailing or attention from anyone else but God. It requires repentance from a phony happiness that is really hedonism, a mask of happiness that you only wear when you’re in control and life is as you want it.

The root of the word humility means being close to the earth. Humility may show up in words or actions, but it lives deep inside, in your heart. Paul says, “Have this mind in you that was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Think so low that you say to God, I’m low and you’re all. I’m yours, and you’re enough. I don’t need anything or anyone but your friendship. When you weep for all the idols in your life – the things, the pleasures, even the people – that have kept you from him, you open your heart to grace and find true joy. Amen.



[1] Several times in this letter, James constructs a “perfect argument” according to Hellenistic rhetoric. This helps us to see what is James’ key point and how his argument fits together. In this case, we can see that James is not necessarily responding to actual reports of church conflicts. He is rather using the puzzle of conflict to illustrate his basic argument about humility as a corrective for envy. Here is a summary of James’ argument on the topos of envy, compared with an earlier passage on the danger of many words.


Perfect Argument James 3:1-12 James 3:13-4:12
1. Theme (proposito) Not many of you should become teachers (1). Wisdom appears in actions flowing from humility (3:13).
2. Reason (ratio) Teaching requires maturity in use of words (2). Words of arrogance and deceit flow from a heart filled with envy and ambition (3:14).
3. Proof (rationis confirmation) The tongue’s influence is disproportionate to its size (3-5a). Heavenly wisdom, as opposed to earthly and devilish, results in God’s approval (3:15-18).
4. Embellishment (exornatio) The tongue has great power for evil (5b-10). Envy creates conflict in the community and severs friendship with God (4:1-5).
5. Conclusion (complexion) Determine never to be double-tongued (11-12). Humility before God transforms life and relationships (4:6-12).


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