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Every day, people like us are tempted to turn away from God. The temptations come from three sources. James identifies the three tempters as “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” (James 3.15). Just so we know what we are dealing with, let’s examine each one separately.
(1) “Earthly” refers to the system that rules the world. Over the past few days, we have heard the phrase “systemic injustice,” describing a system that works against people of color.
I don’t want to minimize in any way the fact that systems of injustice toward people of color are a major issue. However, the Bible teaches that the world’s system is always unjust. It opposes God and humankind in general. That is why if we become a friend of the world, we become an enemy of God (James 4.4).
The world’s system tempts us to adopt its values and beliefs. James shows us how to not be trapped by the mind-set of the world in the passage we will consider today.
(2) James identifies another reality of life that works to lead us away from God and his directions. The “unspiritual” aspect of our own nature cooperates with the influence of the world’s system to lead us away from God.
James writes, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (James 4.1).
I have frequently identified “cravings” as self-pleasure, self-seeking, self-rule, self, self, and more of self. The wisdom of self is wisdom from below. It is our own best thinking, and it is out to kill us.
(3) The devil and his “devilish” wisdom from below is behind the world’s system and our unspiritual cravings.
Paul described how the three – the world, the self-life apart from God, and the devil – work to destroy our lives. He wrote, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2.1-2).
James presents God’s plan to free us from the influences of a life ruined by the three influences we have been considering.
The solution to the serious problem of evil in our lives begins with God’s grace. James writes, “But he gives all the more grace” (James 4.6).
Paul makes the same point. He writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2.8).
I once heard someone say, “I want everything that Jesus died for me to have.” I agree with this person. Both James and Paul tell us that it is God’s abundant grace that makes new life possible.
James places the solution to our sin problem within a frame of humility. One side of the frame states, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4.6).
The other side of the frame encourages us to, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4.10).
Why is humility such an important ingredient to God’s solution? Humility is an atmosphere where God’s grace can be effective.
A very touching passage in Isaiah speaks to the need for humility.
“For thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
‘I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.'” (Isaiah 57.15)
The Almighty God, who lives in an exalted and holy position, is willing to dwell with humble people, so he can make us fully alive.
The other frame of the humility message is a command to humble ourselves before God. This kind of humility implies a willingness to be teachable. If we are not willing to listen to God, our situation is pretty hopeless.
As we have stated in previous articles, there isn’t a sacred store where we can pick up a pound or two of humility. Here is how God has helped me find a measure of humility.
Personal reflection in an attitude of prayer seems to help. As I look at myself under the direction of the Holy Spirit, I realize how proud and arrogant I am. Being aware of my pride has helped me move in the direction of humility.
Submit and Resist
Humble people will respond to James’ exhortation: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4.7).
For those of us who have allowed “self will to run riot” for the majority of our lives, submission to God is not an easy task. Some of my friends began the process of submission with very basic, but successful, actions. The first thing they do is roll out of bed and hit their knees. After a prayer of dedication, they make their bed. They observe daily meditation, often in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Bible.
Submission to a small group of spiritual friends, a mentor or a sponsor often aids in submitting to God.
If your spiritual life is dry right now, it may be good for you to see if you are following the basics I have outlined above. Are you still having morning meditations, Bible reading and prayer? The corona virus has made meeting more difficult, but can you resume meeting with spiritual friends in some creative way?
I believe that resisting the devil is much easier when we are already humble and submitting to God. Both pride and neglect of following the Spirit’s leadership will open the door for the devil.
In the ancient world, wrestlers coated their bodies in oil. That practice made it difficult for their opponent to grab hold of them. The oil of humility and submission to God will make it much more difficult for the devil to grab you and throw you to the ground.
Draw Near with a Pure Heart
The next step James gives us to help us experience victory is, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4.8).
We draw near to God by humbly submitting to his leadership. Daily practices of praying the first thing in the morning, doing our meditations and Bible reading, and listening to spiritual friends will help us draw near to him.
Clean hands go with pure hearts. Moral purity is an aspect of having a pure heart. However, the main meaning of a “pure heart” is to have a single-minded devotion. A single-minded devotion to God’s plans and purposes is much different than being double-minded.
“Double-minded” is a key word in the Book of James. Our term, “half-stepping,” may capture the meaning of double-minded. I interpret “half-stepping” to be only going half-way with God. If I don’t completely trust God with my life, I will only serve him half of the time or with half of my energy.
Those Who Mourn Will Laugh
Believe it or not, but mourning is a part of God’s solution to overcome the world’s system, our self-will run riot and the devil. James writes, “Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection” (James 4.19).
I have several friends who understand the importance of mourning quite well. When they hit “rock bottom,” they literally lost everything – no money, no identification, no place to sleep, no friends, and no more good ideas.
The mourning and weeping led to a solution. They began to work a program that involved humility, submission to God, resisting the cravings of self and Satan, daily living in alignment with God, and holding up the clean hands of integrity.
Jesus promised to give his followers an abundant life that is overflowing with his love, joy, peace and so much more (see John 10.10 and Galatians 5.22-23). My friends who have hit “rock bottom” and who are working the program outlined by James, are living the life that Jesus described.
James ends his teaching about the solution to sin, self, and Satan with strong encouragement to be humble. He says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4.10).
The placing of humility at the beginning and the end of James’ message emphasizes the essential nature of humility to the success of doing the other parts of his teaching.
If we are not humble enough to think we need James’ message, then we will read this blog post and do nothing about it. If we believe we need what he has taught, we will dig into his message and be greatly benefited by it.
Dear God, thank you for giving us such clear instruction about why and how we should do what James teaches. Please help us to work through this Bible passage for our good and for your glory.