"Diverting Devilish Desires"

James 3:13-4:10 Nov.15, 2009


This past week there was a skirmish at sea between North and South Korea. Apparently the North has not liked the boundary that had been established some decades ago. The communist North has become known for its inflammatory rhetoric; this time, defiance was more than words. According to reports, a North Korean navy vessel sailed into South Korean waters, challenging the boundary. A South Korean navy vessel fired a warning shot over the head of the other ship. When it did not go back, a naval battle ensued. The South Korean ship fired over 4000 rounds at the North Korean ship, damaging it so badly it had to call another vessel to come and tow it back to port.

Isn't that just like our human nature? We want what we can't have; when we make a foolish foray into the area of the forbidden, we often wind up a casualty of our own stupidity. Persons like nations have conflicting desires, competing for the same things. James writes at the beginning of chapter 4, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight..." (Jas 4:1-2) From the elementary school playground to the Korean coast, that sums up our human tiffs well. There's bitter envy and selfish ambition a-plenty (3:14). From individuals to communities to nations, we want something but don't get it; we kill and covet, but can't have what we want. Right from birth each person is a living soul, a nephesh, a striving bundle of wants, hungers, and aspirations. When two conflicting sets of wants butt up against each other, you have a conflict.

The Lord's brother presents a better alternative - letting our hearts be led by God's wisdom rather than selfish desires. But that's going to take some serious change.


It's an inside issue, these outside conflicts. Where do fights and quarrels come from, James asks? 4:1, "your desires that battle within you" - our cravings that campaign to be satisfied. 3:14 says we may "harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart". So it's really a heart issue, revolving around what we WANT, our unsanctified motives - 4:3, "you ask with wrong motives", we want to "spend what you get on your pleasures".

At the root of it - underlying these overt and subliminal desires, our wants and wishes, is a deep idolatry. The language of vv4-5 is that of relationship gone awry. There's a harlotrous affection, a deep-seated distrust that God can or will meet our needs and bring us genuine fulfilment. So if we can't trust God to look after us, we'd better stick up for Number 1, and be ready to scrap and fight to look after our own interests.

Note the strong language of 4:4: "You adulterous people..." literally, "You adulteresses!" Why did James choose the female term rather than 'adulterers'? Perhaps he has in mind the image of Christians in the church as the 'bride of Christ'. Paul wrote in Ephesians 5(25-28), "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." That's the language of bridegroom looking after his bride, nourishing and cherishing her - and Paul's talking about Christ and his church.

James is echoing God's charge against the Israelites in the Old Testament - though He'd been a faithful husband to the nation, they'd deserted Him, running off after the Baals and other man-made gods. For example, Ezekiel 16(15), "But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his." But the clearest illustration of God's warning an adulterous people is Hosea: this prophet's own marriage became a parable of Israel's unfaithfulness despite God's goodness. "Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD...Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, 'I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.'...Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes." "What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears." (Hosea 1:2, 2:5, 3:1, 6:4) Do you hear the Lord's exasperation with His bride? Though He'd provided them with abundant harvests, they spurned Him and turned away to the lustful fertility religion of the Canaanites.

One last quote from the prophet Hosea is relevant here: "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." Religion isn't about formality - sacrifices, offerings, going through the liturgical motions: it's about mercy, showing real love to God and others; it's about acknowledging God - a relationship.

James drives this home in 4:4 by a repeated expression, doubling it up for emphasis. Listen carefully and see if it applies in any way to you - are you an 'adulteress' spiritually? "You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." So that's what it's all about. You can't have it both ways: you can't be a friend of the world AND a friend of God. Friendship with the world automatically puts us at loggerheads with God - that makes us His enemies.

This is a hard saying for Christians in the developed world: we like so much our creature comforts, our vacations, our toys and gadgets. We eat and breathe advertising for stuff we don't have and don't need but that sure looks appealing. We're experts at discussing RRSPs and the stock markets and the latest fashions - but can we find our way comfortably around the Bible, or is it a foreign book? Which are we more likely to find running through our head - a spiritual song / hymn or the theme from our favourite sitcom? Have we memorized our credit card number and forgotten our creed?

Verse 5 is difficult to translate; one version suits the context of vv4&8, namely a jealous husband yearning for reconciliation. It also suits James' style, supplying "God" for the unspecified subject. NRSV puts it, "God yearns jealously for the spirit He has made to dwell in us."

James is saying our core problem that bubbles up in all kinds of conflicts between humans is our detachment from God. Lately I've been enjoying reading Donald Miller's Searching for God Knows What. He imagines an alien coming to earth and analyzing what's going on, then reporting back to the mother ship as it were about our frantic preoccupation with worldly things: "Humans, as a species, are constantly, and in every way, comparing themselves to one another, which, given the brief nature of their existence seems an oddity and, for that matter, a waste. Nevertheless, this is the driving influence behind every human's social development, their emotional health and sense of joy, and, sadly, their greatest tragedies. It is as though something that helped them function and live well has gone missing, and they are pining for that missing thing in all sorts of odd methods, none of which are working...You guys [the alien might say], you are obsessed You have to wear a certain kind of clothes, drive a certain car, speak a certain way live in a certain neighbourhood whatever, all of it so you can be higher on an invisible hierarchy. It's an obsession! You are trying to feel right by comparing yourself to others. It is ridiculous..."

Miller reflects, "I kept thinking about all this, you know, what the alien was saying..., and it caused me to wonder if this thing that makes us compare ourselves is what happened at the Fall. It occurred to me that what the alien was saying made sense because now that God was gone, now that He wasn't around to help us feel that we were loved and important and good, we were looking for it in each other, in a jury of peers."

Friendship with the world is a symptom of looking for significance and security in the wrong places. That's found only in God; but we've made Him our enemy by turning to these counterfeit lovers.


Let's look more closely at these fallen motives. 14-16 have the terms repeated, "bitter envy and selfish ambition". Envy is wanting what someone else has. The word behind "selfish ambition" is described as "a desire to put one's self forward, a partisan and fractious spirit which does not disdain low arts". When Aristotle used the word, it was "a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means." Self-promotion that stops at nothing to get yourself ahead of the pack.

Our culture grooms young people now to have buckets of self-esteem and ambition; presumably someone that's very self-oriented makes a better consumer. We tell someone who's modest, "You've got to sell yourself" in a job interview; but the problem is, it doesn't stop there - we become walking billboards for our own ego. Way beyond what healthy self-love wrapped in God's grace looks like.

What's the immediate source of this envy and selfish ambition, where's it 'harboured'? V14, "in your hearts". What's its ultimate source? V15, not from heaven (that's James' reverent way of saying 'not from God'); but such 'wisdom' is "earthly, unspiritual, of the devil." From this world; soulish, from our sensing side not our faith faculty; 'of the devil', literally, demonic. What's always Satan's number one concern? "What's in it for me?" Ezekiel 28:17 may be an allegory of how Lucifer's beauty led his heart to become proud, until he was cast down from heaven. Philippians 2:6 describes Jesus this way - He "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped"; perhaps a hint that's what Satan tries to do, seize equality with God? Selfish ambition that's prepared to stop at nothing to get ahead is devilish.

What's the outcome of selfishness and envy? V16, "there you find disorder and every evil practice" - every kind of wicked, worthless practice. From schoolbus to classroom to soccer stadium to rioting in the streets, all social breakdown needs is envy and selfish ambition. Where selfishness reigns, there's no relationship, no mutual submission or order. The enemy loves that kind of environment.

A little boy and his younger sister were riding a hobby horse together. The boy said, "If one of us would just get off this hobby horse, there would be more room for me." (!) That may be cute when it's two little kids, but it can be catastrophic when it's thousands and millions of people. Here's a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: "The things that will destroy America are peace at any price, prosperity at any cost, safety first instead of duty first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life."

We have seen in the recent economic collapse the truth of that quote - unregulated, selfish, unscrupulous greed can cause severe setbacks for many nations. For instance, CEOs with 'golden parachutes' while hundreds or thousands of employees suffer. "Doesn't matter what happens to the little guy, as long as I'm looked after up here at the top of the ladder!"


In place of selifsh ambition and envy which are doomed and demonic, James offers a better option in 3:17-18: "But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." When he says, "the wisdom that comes from heaven," that's a polite Jewish way of saying "God's wisdom". What characterizes it?

It's pure; 4:8 talks about the need to purify our hearts. When refining metal you must remove the dross or slag, when making maple syrup you must filter out the scum in order for it to be pure, clear, high quality syrup. In the Greek, this word is from the same root as "holy"; purity (if not cleanliness) is akin to godliness.

God's wisdom is peace-loving; peacemakers plant seeds of peace. Colossians 1:20 describes Jesus as making peace "through his blood, shed on the cross." There can be a cost to peace (as our war cemeteries remind us). To make peace may require us to be absorptive, paying the price for another's mistake, NOT itching for a fight when we're wronged in the slightest.

There are a cluster of words here related to humility: be considerate, or gentle (NRSV). Be submissive (there's a toughy in today's demand-your-rights culture): willing to yield, approachable. This wisdom is impartial, not a respecter of persons in the bad sense, not bribe-able or manipulated by fear or man. It's sincere, literally - un-hypocritical: the genuine article, you are through-and-through what you seem to be.

This wisdom is full of mercy and good fruit: we show wisdom by our good life (3:13), and mercy that triumphs over judgment (2:13). Our behaviour and manner are indelibly marked by Christ's goodness and mercy that have become ours through His cross. There's a positive net output from God's love and care in our lives that's conveyed tangibly to others - documented in deeds as it were (kind of like hospital accreditation: if it's not documented, it didn't happen!).

Sounds wonderful - but how do we actually obtain this heavenly wisdom? Look closely at 4:6-10. God gives grace to the HUMBLE, while opposing the proud, the stuck-up, the hyper-exposed. The next phrases form a prescription for humbling ourselves. V10 "humble yourselves before the Lord" includes vv8b-9, "Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom." (When was the last time you heard THAT advice from a talk-show host?!) Confront and deal truthfully with your hang-ups - but don't get stuck there! The counselling method of John Regier, for example, starts out being painfully honest about all kinds of shortfalls, bitterness, and moral failure - but moves on to receive Jesus' forgiveness, grace, and restoration. The truly humble person isn't preoccupied with thinking about their shortcomings; actually such a person doesn't give a whole lot of thought to themselves, instead they're focussed on God and others. While there's conscientious self-awareness, self doesn't get in the way; when you meet them, it seems they're THERE for you. They have no interest in trying to grab the best seat at the banquet - they're quite willing and patient for God to work out the seating arrangements (Lk 14:11).

The beautiful wisdom of the humble person is characterized by an active conscious submission. Humble people are great at serving - they want most of all to please God by loving you well. Vv7-8, "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you." Like a compass needle swinging to align itself with the earth's magnetic field, the humbly wise person has applied the WD-40 of grace so they're free from the world's grip and are continuously seeking God's will, coming near God in spirit. Content in Him, happy just to be at the Lord's disposal.


Langdon Gilkey in Shantung Compound describes one man who not only showed love for others sacrificially, but had learned the art of drawing near to God apart from the world. Gilkey writes: "The ragged European internees stood in rows in the Shantung Compound courtyard to hear the Japanese chief of police read his verdict. They'd heard rumors of atrocities in other prisoner-of-war camps in China.

The 'criminal,' standing beside the officer, was a small, bespectacled Catholic named Father Darby. He'd been caught slipping eggs under his cassock as he prayed by the compound wall. He was, it turned out, a key link between sympathetic Chinese villagers outside and the starving inmates.

The chief declared that he was determined to stamp out the black market and would have to make an example of Father Darby. Would this gentle priest, the listeners wondered, be tortured or only shot? Then came, "I sentence you to one and a half months of solitary confinement!"

The internees erupted in a cheer. Father Darby, they knew, had served as a Trappist monk, thriving in the solitude of the same monastery for 25 years. An experience most would consider hellish isolation Father Darby had come to regard as a spiritual opportunity, affording heavenly peace. And so, as Japanese soldiers shook their heads, the priest marched off to his tiny dark cell...humming a hymn."

Wasn't that a victory for heavenly wisdom? Humble yourselves before God; come close to Him, and He will come close to you. Let's pray.