Faith Work Out: "Life Sifted" – James 4:1-10

I began telling my students this week something that brought up a strong feeling from my past – so I have to cleanse my soul of a bit of bad feeling… You see, I don’t really like camels all that much. It isn’t that I haven’t tried, I have spent significant amounts of time in the heat, traipsing through the southern deserts of Israel, and the eastern deserts of Egypt in the Sinai peninsula. I just don’t like them that much. I can’t say that I enjoy their smell very much, and their temperament is worse than their smell!

We had a camel when the children were younger – his name was Fred. He lived beside the Wilderness Tabernacle, and his job was giving rides to the tourists. It wasn’t much of a life, but Fred didn’t seem to mind. Fred was simple – and he lived life with simple objectives. You know, camels will eat virtually anything – right down to the leather straps of your sandals if you leave them outside the tent – ask me, I know! They aren’t fussy about food. With three stomachs, they can digest anything by sheer endurance of acids – if they don’t get it on the first one, they will on the next two! Fred had a particularly bad habit when it came to his drinking… Fred loved beer. He would sing, he would bellow, and I believe he would tap dance for a beer. There was something about the taste of beer that evidently reminded him of digestive juices. That alone should put you off of the taste! As much as I tried to tell him about his weight gain and heightened cholesterol, he liked dark beer – the kind that really packs on the pounds. So it was that Fred lived life going around a circle with tourist on his back, and waiting for the sun to go down and Abdullah to bring the feed bag, and on some nights of the week, a few beers. That was his life. Sunrise, sunset…sunrise, sunset.

Fred was separated from a herd because he didn’t play well, or should I say “work well” with others. Camel caravans have a specific pecking order, and camels know where they “line up” in that order. They know which camel they are stronger than, and which camel has greater power than they do. If a camel driver mistakenly puts them in the wrong order on the line – it will not take five minutes on the trail before the caravan is disrupted and the problem is addressed. Camels want their place in line – and they won’t tolerate not getting what they want.

While I understand that may be the life of a working camel in Judea, what truly saddens me is when I see Fred’s life played out in some of the PEOPLE. They live life, one day at a time, between work, a little relaxation, and an occasional refreshment. They don’t seem to have much more going on, and when I ask them about goals, they seem to think that a new car or a new TV is the high water mark for the coming year. I get sad around people that remind me of Fred.

You know the type. They don’t dream about much more than the next thing they want to buy, eat, consume or enjoy. They are in a world filled with needs, but they seem to feel they didn’t get a fair share, so they are exempt from caring about other people’s issues too much. Their relationships are poisoned with problems, strife and anger. Life around them is both simple and tumultuous – dull and disturbing. They don’t seem to have enough and they sometimes get mad about those who seem to have more. They have in their wake damaged people and relationships – but they don’t really focus on that much, since they can’t figure out why life has treated them the way it has. That condition would be fine, but far too many of them call themselves, Sunday after Sunday – Christians. They are an awkward combination of eternal hope and temporal dissatisfaction. They know they will be in Heaven, but live like God isn’t very kind of good or very good at management when it comes to life on earth. Their goals seem mostly about THIS WORLD, their theology about THE NEXT. They are often filled with worry, yet sing “Trust and Obey”. They are unhappy now, but speak lofty words about “the sweet by and by”. They look forward to an eternity with the very ones they can’t seem to get along with in this life! Sadly, stirred up and troubled believers have always been a part of the church. James dealt with them all the way back in the first century.

Key Principle: There is a conflict resolution toolbox provided to believers, but resolution requires knowing how to use the tools inside.

He asked some of them to reflect on why they were constantly so stirred up, and that opens our passage for this lesson in James 4:1-10.

James 4:1 What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. 4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”? 6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.” 7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

There is a reason believers fight with one another.

“Why are believers fighting?” That seems like a fair opening question. James is quick to supply the God-given answer. The primary source of interpersonal conflicts between believers is selfish and sensual desires that have been strengthened in the sin strongholds within the hearts of believers.

James 4:1 What is the source of quarrels (from pelomai: to bustle– battle, fight, war.) and conflicts (from machai: strife, contention; quarrel) among you? Is not the source your pleasures (hedones: pleasures of a sensual nature) that wage war (strateúomai – properly, to contend, fighting like a soldier in war; from stratos: a army encampment) in your members (melos: a bodily organ, limb, member within)?

If you peel the answer James offered by the prompting of the Spirit, it comes down to this: Struggles happen between us because of the struggle that goes on INSIDE of each of us. There is not supposed to be any “i” in the spelling of “we”, yet in the concept of relationships it is unavoidable – there ARE at least two individuals there. Each is fighting a war within – between our old man (who was positionally removed – crucified at our salvation), and the tentacles of his remaining control that still haunt us (practically). It should become clear to us that peace will come between us only when we submit to the Spirit’s work of dominating the old man’s voice inside us.

When struggles, contentions and strife are evident among believers, we can put a stop to them. God has provided in the Scripture a tool box of specially made gear to fix what’s broke. I want to painfully clear on each point – because time spent here will save time in the battle zone:

• First, when troubles arise, we must identify those involved in the struggle. We dare not include more than need be involved – for the troubles spread as more are brought into the issue. Remember the rule: If they are not part of the problem when you find it, and they cannot bring about a solution – they should not be included in the issue. If you are talking to people about things they have no business knowing – you are the source of more strife – even if you don’t see it. Even if they promise not to tell anyone, and not to let it bother them. You are feeding the ego as one “in the know” and they are feeding theirs as well. Egos don’t need feeding, they need quelling. The Spirit is at work to quell the very thing you are busy building in both you and the hearer. Remember: gossip fans the flame of discord, just at the time when we most need it to calm. Identify the parties and keep the circle closed – as much as possible.

• Second, when the parties are identified, each must be carefully encouraged to look within BEFORE trying to solve problems WITHOUT. James 4:1 is clear that is, at the very least, part of the source of the trouble. One party or both of the contentious ones are reacting rather than responding. Let’s be clear: reactions are about PROTECTION of self, responses are about HONEST ASSISTANCE to another. When I react – it is because you hit a nerve that I feel I must instinctively cover that nerve to protect myself from further disruption. When I respond, I think about how what I am going to say will HELP you, without being caustic to you. Even parents struggle to do this well. If our adult children say something unwise, we must consider carefully our response to them, and not react because we took personally their foolishness. Response is about the other person and real help. Each party must be honest and quietly evaluate inside their role in the strife. Remember that we will need to apply intense prayer to introspection – because we are not simply wrestling against FLESHH, but against those that want to see the flesh win in the spiritual world.

• Third, in our self evaluation, we must be willing to identify the encampments we have constructed within, and what improper pleasures they are nurturing. Look for the things that have dominated your mind… the things that keep popping up. If you keep replaying something in your heart, it is probably the key to the stronghold you are protecting. Inside the strong place you are protecting a lie.

Let me give you an example: John and Sue were really at odds. For months, they were both working on the outreach project, but there was always tension. Each had friends that subconsciously “sided” with them – and each had “opposition” – though it was never spoken out loud. The other night the whole thing blew up at a committee meeting. They exchanged words and their faces clearly showed they were really disgusted with one another. The committee chair wanted to keep peace and move ahead, but this wasn’t going away without some kind of intervention and resolution.

If it follows the pattern of most conflicts, when you address John or Sue – both believe the other person is at fault. A certain number of Christians on the committee are willing to deny that they think the dissention is even a problem – because they are peace keepers and don’t want a problem to exist. Denial is never a good strategy in conflict – it often emboldens the strife stirrers. If real intervention is to be successful, the leader must prayerfully and carefully get each of them to do a careful self examination. They must understand why they are reacting the way they are. Very likely EACH are partly responsible, and neither are fully mature. Mature people resolve conflict, immature live in conflict. They haven’t the will, or they haven’t the tools to defeat it.

Light must be shined exposing the lies within – like one that is harboring fugitive thoughts that must be found and confined. What do I GET from this struggle? What energy am I adding to my life through the ANGER underlying it, and why do I want that in my life? At the heart level, we must recognize that there is an inner yearning of an unbridled lust or feeling that keeps leading to painful disharmony and disputes. Each of the parties must honestly evaluate: “Am I harboring ungodly and selfish desires that are driving the conflict with another?”

Notice that in handling our conflict resolution with James 4:1 in mind – most was handled by each party dealing with themselves. If this can be done effectively, each will take responsibility for their part, and most of the strife will ease without interaction between them. This isn’t all there is to resolving the conflicts –but it is the largest part. When I understand and confess my role in strife – I react less to another and things settle down in my heart. When my heart is calm within – tensions drop on the outside.

There is a reason some of us are at the source of the conflicts.

The strongholds were formed by a believer allowing his or her focus to remain intensely and increasingly on jealous yearnings while they observed what other brothers and sisters had been given by the Master.

2 You lust (epí, “focused on” intensifying thymós, “passionate desire”) – properly, to show focused passion as it aptly builds on (Gk epi, “upon”) what a person truly yearns for) and do not have (echete: to possess); so you commit murder (phoneuo: kill). You are envious (dzaylo:become jealous or hunger over) and cannot obtain (or acquire); so you fight (machesthe as in v. 1) and quarrel (polemeite as in verse 1).

Before even investigating how the sin camps take up position in our minds, it is necessary to connect the notion of envy and murder. Jesus said the command “Thou shalt not kill” was intended to be something much greater than what it presents on the face of the command. He said:

Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you are thrown into prison. 26 “Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.

The issue was that Jesus saw contemporary Jews as limiting the Scriptures to their WORDS and not their broader PRINCIPLES. He argued:

1) It is about a PRINCIPLE. The law forbade murder, making it punishable (21) but the restriction was actually intended to make men aware of their responsibility to maintain and grow relationships (22).

2) It is about a PRIORITY. The relationships were so important to God, that He would prefer right relationships over Temple presentations (23-24).

3) It is about PEACE. Reconciliation should be very important to a believer, making every effort to contain the problem and resolve it before it grows to a larger court of judgment (25-26).

James defined the violation of the MURDER statute in the same way as his Master did – to divide, denigrate or demean another was a form of killing. Proper relationships are a key to reflecting godliness, and are part of the standards of obedience. We are SUPPOSED to care about the feelings of others, and about the welfare of others.

James 4:2 makes the case that once it is clear I am in the struggle with fellow believer, I need to be willing to examine my heart for an encampment or stronghold of desire that I have allowed to build there. I must identify any area that may have become a camp of selfish longing. What is the heart of this conflict for me? Is it an unbridled mind? I should be able, with the help of the Spirit’s conviction, to recognize that ambition for what it is – an enticement that has become so dear that I am willing to sacrifice a good relationship with others for it.

Most often, the desires of our hearts are NATURAL and INBORN. It is a work of the enemy to torque those desires and warp them into something fallen and base. For instance, a desire for companionship is natural, but a desire to hold someone back from growth that would move them from a close place to us is warped. In another case, a hunger for physical intimacy is natural and God-given, with the purpose of sharing life with another. When the enemy grabs that hunger and warps it, the expressions of intimacy become SELFISH and SELF GRATIFYING – no longer about relationship but rather about entertainment. The issue is not the original root need, but the replacement of the original God-given purpose of that need with a self-focus that changes the essential nature of the responses to the need.

When I take the throne of my life, my needs become the most essential thing. All else becomes less significant. I no longer truly see the needs of others- except through my own cravings. In time, I will no longer even truly distinguish between needs and desires – all hungers must be equally met for my impatient sense of happiness. In this state I will allow any feeling of lack to dominate my mind, and grow into an insatiable hunger – becoming greater than its natural place of importance in life. My will to resist any tug toward pleasure is substantially weakened. With each passing day, the need dominates more of my thinking – for sin is a seed that is watered by the flesh and fed by the fallen world.

As I think more about the need – It grows in strength. As I nurture it, the lack grows and becomes a powerful stronghold of the mind. I begin to judge others through the window of a darkened mind, and any who challenge my imbalance are judged harshly and found wanting. From this self-dominated mind I argue and complain, because others seem to be in the way of my satisfaction. If they experience some good, I experience misery and jealousy. If they experience some misfortune, I find myself less and less caring – for the troubles are their problem. This is the life of self, and it never gets enough to be truly happy. It cannot be reformed…like a cancer it must be scraped away and thoroughly removed by a skillful surgeon. Fortunately for me, such a Healer stands ready in the person of my Savior.

There is a reason some of us don’t seem to be heard by God.

We want things for the wrong reason. Though the inflicted believer hungers for what they do not have, they don’t ask God, Even if they did, they would not get their desire, for the whole focus is on something they will consume on selfish desires.

2b “…You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.

They left purity for personal indulgence. They have left their cause to join the enemy, reveling in self-filled moments on earth in exchange for eternal honor to their Father in Heaven.

4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

We act like our problem is a mystery. The burning desire should not have taken them by surprise – because God warned us concerning this in the past.

5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?

This verse is tough to discern from a scholarly standpoint, and there is much disagreement about its intention.

• First, we are not certain what scripture James references – though there are many opinions in various sources. Among them, some have suggested places like Genesis 6:5 : “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

• Second, we must look without further word from James as to his point, for he moves on to another quote that is known immediately after, but does not follow the same line of thinking.

Though we may not know what the specific reference, however, the truth that in our fallen state man is prone to envy, is clear in the Word. Consider the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 4:4, “I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” Proverbs 14:30, “envy is the rottenness of the bones” and Proverbs 27:4, “who is able to stand before envy?” offer a tone from wisdom literature. There is, Biblically speaking, a strong pull in the fallen heart to yearn with envy. Such yearning exists as to draw from deep within a hatred of the prosperity of others, and a burning jealousy of their fortunes that we may even feel entitled to ridicule, or even worse – to take it from them if such an advantage should arise.

6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.”

The proud resists God; in his understanding he resists the truths of God; in his will he resists the truths of God; in his will he resists the laws of God; in his passions he resists the providence of God; and therefore no wonder that God sets himself against the proud. Let proud spirits hear this and tremble-God resists them. Who can describe the wretched state of those who make God their enemy? He will certainly fill with same (sooner or later) the faces of such as have filled their hearts with pride. We should therefore resist pride in our hearts, if we would not have God to resist us. 2. The honour and help God gives to the humble. Grace, as opposed to disgrace, is honour; this God gives to the humble; and, where God gives grace to be humble, there he will give all other graces, and, as in the beginning of this sixth verse, he will give more grace. Wherever God gives true grace, he will give more; for to him that hath, and useth what he hath aright, more shall be given. He will especially give more grace to the humble, because they see their need of it, will pray for it and be thankful for it; and such shall have it. For this reason,

There is a path back to peace.

How can I gain God’s grace in the face of my inclination to rebel? How can I experience the GRACE of God and the PEACE of God in the world of struggles and contentions?

1. Take second place.

Place myself – my desires, my yearnings, my hungers – beneath in importance the pleasing of my Heavenly Father. The term “submit” is hupotasso – to place beneath. Some translators say “in God’s arrangement” which is the SAME as saying: “I am second, He is first”.

James 4:7 “Submit therefore to God…

2. Take your stand.

The idea of resist is found in the Greek word “anthístēmi” (from antí: opposed or against” and hístēmi, “to stand”) – properly, take a complete stand against. Do not be surprised if each time you back away from truth and God’s way in your life, the enemy gains strength over you.

James 4:7b “…Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

3. Take hold of Him.

The term “draw near” is from the word “eggízō” (from eggýs: “near”) – it is properly, has drawn close (come near). In the fourteen times it is used in the NT it expresses “extreme closeness, immediate imminence.

James 4:8 “…Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”

4. Get cleaned up.

The term for “cleanse” is the one from which we get catharsis – the term “katharízō” – to make pure and clean by removing all filth. The last part of the verse communicates the same idea with “purify your hearts” – from ‘agnos; to make clean or sanctify (ceremonially or morally). There are two senses to this truth – an active one, where you are ridding yourself of impurity, and a passive one – where “He is faithful and just to cleanse us”. Not ot overthink the intent – it appears James is focusing on actively pursuing the former expecting God to do a work in the latter.

James 4:8b “…Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

Don’t be so quick to point out that God alone can cleanse you – because it is often a subtle way of removing responsibility from changing our behavior. Grace is not a safe harbor for continual rebellion – it is the expression of God’s goodness in the life surrendered…the lavish gift after God is welcomed within. We have no right to ask God to pour out His grace where we intend to use it as a license to mutiny.

5. See clearly your heart.

James uses terms like “Be miserable” is talaipōréō –afflict yourself and show a wretched condition – like callouses or scars from sustained beating or wear (used only here in the NT) and “mourn” is penthéō (“the deep grief expressed over a death ” and “weep” is klaíō – cry aloud inconsolably. The second half of the verse expresses the same idea: Face how serious your deep allegiance is to the wrong world and wrong king!

James 4:9 “…Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.”

You cannot help but hear the echo of Jesus’ voice in Matthew 5 as He first called out the desired heart of a disciple: Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

6. Don’t end looking in – move to looking UP!

The answer is NOT fully solved WITHIN – that is preparatory to bowing down and looking up to God. Real surrender is not just about getting off the throne of my life, it is about asking Him to be ON the throne of my life.

James 4:10 “…Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.”

There is a conflict resolution toolbox provided to believers, but resolution requires knowing how to use the tools inside. Even on days when things aren’t going well, you need to remember something else… It is true that we live today in conflicts – both within and between us. It is true that on many days recently it has appeared that evil in coming over the walls and we are under siege. In the short term, we may have set backs that are real and deep – but the longer view tells a different story:

Imagine a city under siege. The enemy that surrounds the city will not let anyone or anything leave. Supplies are running low, and the citizens are fearful. But in the dark of the night, a spy sneaks through the enemy lines. He has rushed to the city to tell the people that in another place the main enemy force has been defeated; the leaders have already surrendered. The people do not need to be afraid. It is only a matter of time until the besieging troops receive the news and lay down their weapons. Similarly, we may seem now to be surrounded by the forces of evil, disease, injustice, oppression, death. But the enemy has actually been defeated at Calvary. Things are not the way they seem to be. It is only a matter of time until it becomes clear to all that the battle is really over. – Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency, pp. 149-150.