James 4:1-12 is a rich passage. It begins by tracing the origin of all conflict (literally ‘wars’ and ‘duels’) to our own covetousness. But then James draws us into the idolatrous nature of such covetousness. And he does so by looking at our prayer life. We want. We don’t get what we want. Frustration which arises causes conflict. But why do we not get what we want? James points to two reasons. We don’t ask. And we ask wrongly.
We Don’t Ask
I can only imagine two reasons why we might not pray. One is that we know we just can’t pray for something with a clear conscience. We intuitively know that the thing we’re wanting is NOT according to God’s will, and so we can’t bring ourselves to ask for it. In that case, we ought to recognize that the thing we are wanting is the problem. We have set our hearts on something we shouldn’t. What needs to go is not our prayer life, but our worldly desire.
The other reason we might not pray is because we just don’t think of it. We have no problem coming up with ambitions or desires, but they do not arise from a kingdom-centered life. Again, the desires we have, if they do not arise from kingdom concerns, are worldly. God has either ceased to be, or never was, our source of hope and comfort and joy. We have replaced Him and his blessings with paltry knock-offs.
We Ask Wrongly
Or perhaps we do ask. But we are not asking for the sake of growth in grace. We are not asking that we might bring greater glory and honor to our God. Rather, we are asking that God service our own covetous desires and pleasures. God has ceased to be our Lord and has become, in our delusion, our slave.
Friendship with the World
Whether we don’t ask or ask wrongly, those desires that are leading us astray are no mere peccadilloes. They are idols.
I know it is odd, in our modern culture, to think of a man adopting a discarded infant girl, raising her up as his own and then marrying her. But that’s the picture Ezekiel 16 paints. If we can get over the notion that something lecherous is going on there, and instead grasp what God was trying to depict, I think we might have a greater appreciation of the seriousness of our idolatry.
In that chapter, God takes the ancient equivalent of a dumpster baby, and raises her as his own. He gives her everything he has and makes her beautiful. As if that were not enough, he commits himself in marriage to her. He pours all he has into her. But she takes his kindness and his gifts and she spurns them. She takes the good name he gave her and sullies it, becoming a whore. But she’s worse than a whore. She takes the gold he puts in her ears and around her wrists and uses them to pay for gigolos, when her own husband offers her far more than her lovers can give her. It is despicable. But that is just the picture that God paints of idolatry. God has entered into a covenant with his church. We have become his bride. For us to squander his gifts and for us to seek our pleasures elsewhere is adultery.
That is what friendship with the world is. We tend to downplay our dalliance with the world. We tend to think of worldliness as something that can be flirted with without us becoming adulteresses. But Christ was clear that adultery is a matter of the heart. You can cheat with your eyes. And James makes the same point. To flirt with the world is to be unfaithful to your Husband.
Verse 5 is very difficult to translate, but I believe the best rendering of it sees God as jealously desirous of our devotion and fidelity. And that fits with the adulterous idolatry James points to. God is a jealous husband. I’m sure you’ve heard the hyperbolic saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” When it comes to our heavenly Husband being scorned, hells fury is not hyperbolic, but defined.
And yet, James does not leave us there, with a description of God’s jealousy. As great as God’s jealous anger is, his grace is greater still. And so James calls us to humility, to submission and to resistance. If we resist the devil, he will flee. And if we will humble ourselves, submitting to the lordship of Christ, rejecting our own autonomous desires, God will exalt us.
This is the God we serve. He loved us when the world discarded us. And he loved us even when we were unfaithful. He calls us to return, to give up our other lovers, to abandon worldly pursuits and to seek the kingdom and its righteousness. He calls us to enjoy his love enough to give up cheap imitations. After all we’ve done after all He’s done, for Him to still love us … He is, indeed, worthy of all our praise. He is worthy of our deepest devotion.