Sometimes you have to probe below the surface of a situation to find out what is really going on. The Christian psychologist Tim Lane talks about a time when his teenage daughter was rude and angry; but discussion with her revealed that this was only the ‘presenting issue’ – what was driving it was a huge fall- out with her school friends. Her poor behaviour at home was just her displaying the fact that all was not well within. It’s really tempting as Christians to assume that all we need to do is to tweak our poor behavior a bit, without ever looking a bit harder at what is going on in our hearts. We love to think that while we may not be perfect, we are basically OK, and that a bit of fine-tuning at the behavioral level will propel us on course to Christlikeness.
James 4:1-10 tells us a very different story. Let’s have a look at this together! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=james+4%3A1-10&version=NIV
James writes to the scattered believers, because he has heard that their behavior has been far short of what is expected of Christians who follow Jesus. “What causes fights and quarrels amongst you?” he asks them rhetorically.
The answer he provides them with is startling. James, writing under God’s inspiration, almost surgically dissects his readers, explaining to them that they do not suffer from mere minor surface-level behavioral problem; but have a deep-rooted heart problem that must be fixed. He doesn’t write something flattering and sugary like, “you’re all so lovely, I just wish you’d dial it down a bit with the arguments!” Instead his diagnosis reads like this: (v1-5)
- You’re quarrelsome behavior is evidence of sinful desires which still reign in your hearts.
- You mistreat, and assassinate people’s characters, this is graceless behavior.
- Sometimes even when you say or even pray the right things, your motivation is rotten.
- Your hearts are in tune with this world, which is at war with God and His ways.
That is a devastating diagnosis. It must have been very hard for the first readers to receive. Sometimes the truth hurts, but we along with them, need to receive the truth. When our lives show bad fruit, we need to understand why that is the case, so that we can respond appropriately. I know someone very well who refuses to accept that she is going deaf, and won’t wear a hearing aid. It drives her family nuts, because she lives in denial of the diagnosis that is plain to everyone. Until she accepts the problem, she cannot be helped, no matter how many technical advances they make in hearing aids! James wants us all to know that our hearts, without God, are deceitful, sinful and will produce all manner of bad fruit in our lives unless we come to God for the treatment we need. Are there conflicts, dissention, bad-mouthing, factions, tensions, or gossiping going on? Do words which do not fit with the character of Jesus ever come from your mouth? James wants you to know that that is because your heart needs help.
These next few verse are written to show you where that hope can be found. (v6)
Some commentators describe these next five words as the ‘hinge on which this text turns’, Talk about understatement!! These next five words are like dynamite, which detonate underneath the edifice of sin, corruption and death, causing it to crumble. The five beautiful words are these: “But he gives more grace”.
Have you ever understood why that short statement changes everything? The reason is that if God said, “because of this, I have rejected you” – we would be lost without hope. However, James insists that though we sin, though we walk in error and all our desires are not re-ordered; God’s plan is still to bless us, love us, and work is us to make us change! Some people say “God loves me just as I am”. Perhaps we should add, “God loves us so much he will not leave us as we are!” “Amazing Grace” is perhaps the world’s most famous hymn, which I have sung in private and performed on stage countless times. The writer John Newton was a slave trader, who put his faith in Christ. He wasn’t changed in an instant, but after walking with Christ, he gradually began to see that his trade was iniquitous; as the Spirit softened his heart he began to see things from God’s perspective; and he repented of this wicked profession. John Newton, like James’ hearers was born-again, but wasn’t living it out; and urgent change was required. Thank God, he gave more grace.
If there are inconsistencies between the faith you profess, and the way you speak- then you too (and I) need more grace from God. There are no shortcuts.
Where can we find this grace that James says we so desperately need? Here are his answers:
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Submission to God is an absolute prerequisite for change, according to James. We like to think in the West today, that we are basically good, and that if we err it is because we are victims of other people’s behaviour towards us. James takes us deeper into our own hearts though, as tells us we must own our own faults. The word “submit” is not a touchy-feely, word that we instinctively want to embrace. In our culture we are trained to stand-up, assert ourselves, to overcome and reach our potential. Submission is a dirty word in our culture. Yet – we know that it is only when we truly submit to God that we really start to live. It is when we carry the cross that we actually come alive! It is when we lose our lives for Christ’s sake that we find it.
There are some readers of this blog who are limping along through life because you have one foot in the world and one foot in God’s Kingdom. Spiritually split down the middle, you will be unsettled, unhappy and unfulfilled as long as you are ‘double-minded’. You have seen enough of God to be unfulfilled by the pleasures of the world; yet you are not close enough to God know His joy. Bishop J C Ryle, once said, “It is a miserable thing to be a backslider. Of all the unhappy things that befall anyone, I suppose it is the worst!” Stuck in no-man’s land between God and the world is the worst place to sink.
And what is the thing that keeps you back from moving fully into God’s arms? It is a lack of trust that God is good and that He has nothing but eternal good in store for you. You cling to the world as ‘plan B’ in case God doesn’t come though. You hold back from God, in fear that He might rule your life badly; or deny you some good thing. In fact the enemy wants to paralyse you with fear that submission to God is not the most beautiful, wonderful position to be in. Don’t be deceived, trust the Lord and come to Him in voluntary, willing, joyful submission. So stop doubting and believe!
When you do that, it is when God gets to work in you, and real change begins. Confession of sin is actually a precious thing- and it is so necessary. Confession is basically about learning to stop arguing with God about what sin is, and accepting His verdict. It’s about not trying to evade or avoid responsibility for our sins, and agreeing with God that, “yes, I did it, and I am so sorry.”. Confession is an exercise in raw honesty before God.
This can really, really hurt and actually make us very sad – for a time. I distinctly remember after a quarrel, when I had said some unkind things, being deeply unsettled when I tried to pray. The more I sought God the worse it got. I had to go through the painful process of learning to see my sin as God sees it. And it is horrible. As fallen people, we fall for the lie that sin is attractive. When the Holy Spirit helps us to see it from God’s perspective, it grieves us deeply because it is so toxic, gnarly and ugly. Thank God for Christ and His Cross, where he died in our place to take punishment we deserve.
A friend of mine had to have a triple heart-bypass operation. He was an evangelist who was busy preaching God’s word, here in the UK. He was getting sicker and sicker and able to do less and less, and finally went to the doctors. They did some tests and booked him in for major heart surgery. After the operation I asked how he was. “It’s very painful, he said – but I feel so much more alive!.” They had chopped out some veins in his legs and put them around his heart to aid blood flow there. The leg wounds hurt – but he could breathe easily, he could move and he could walk and work again. The wounds would soon heal – and he looked twenty years younger!
Facing up to the depth of our sin, with God is like that. It hurts, but it enables us to repent and receive from God a new kind of life. When James says: “9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” – he shows us the way to life.
Why would anyone want to “weep and grieve”? Jesus said, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. That starts with being deeply, and profoundly sorry for our sin, the kinds of things that cause quarrels and dissentions, the lusts and powerplays that so fascinate our sinful nature.
But James wants you to know, that Godly sorrow leads to eternal joy; just as much as the path to ascension and resurrection for Jesus went via Calvary because: “God will life you up!” Gethsemane, the ‘garden of tears’ was a place through which Jesus passed, and now he is exalted at the right hand of God! Likewise, if you draw close to God, and submit yourself to Him – it may be a hard thing to see your sin as He sees it. But he will lift you up!
“Draw close to God, and He will draw close to you.” says James. Drawing close to our Holy God, might initially be uncomfortable, but this is the way of life everlasting; and where the rare jewel of Christian contentment can be grasped.
Angela Courte MacKenzie is a broadcaster, pianist, vocalist, and worship leader. Her music has traveled all over the world through her Facebook live events and The Power of Praise program as a witness to the glory of God. Angela holds a B.A. degree in music/vocal performance from the University of Central Florida, and a M.A. in apologetics from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Her desire is to awaken hearts to Christ through music, Bible Teachings, blogs, one 2 one chats, the gifts of laughter and simply life in “real time.”
To find out more about Angela visit www.angela.org. To hear her music and other offerings visit her YouTube channel www.youtube.com/angelacourtemackenzieofficial.