School started last week, which means the strange phenomena of returning to the community of school-life has begun. Returning from a summer off is always strange – there is a kind of sizing up and critiquing that everyone does with one another. Everyone is trying to see how we assimilate back into the social order of school – school is kind of segregated into cliques, and typically there is at the top the “popular” kids, and at the bottom the “not-popular” kids. I fit in a little closer to the bottom of that scale growing up. But what creates these cliques?
It seems that they center on what one has, and what one doesn’t have. If you are more popular, that typically means you have more social skills, you’re outgoing, good at sports maybe, you’re well dressed, or maybe you have more money. And if you are not-popular, that typically means you don’t have those things. “Cool” and “not-cool” seem to be defined by simply having what others don’t. And we all know this isn’t really right – we all have this vague notion that in an ideal world, the jock and the nerd should be friends; the jock teaches the nerd how to ask a girl on date, and the nerd helps him with his math homework. But that almost never really happens, right? That’s because there is a deeper problem – a problem that James points to.
James begins by describing a divisive, rather nasty sounding group of people. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). When James uses the word “passions” it is a word that is always used in reference to sinful pleasures – things that we are tempted to find our deepest joy in, that were never intended for that purpose. And that, the pursuit of sinful indulgence, is what James is saying is causing all of the strife in their community.
“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:2). James says that we desire something, but we don’t get it, so we murder. Now, James may be referencing Jesus’ teaching that if we hate our brother, then we have murdered him in our heart (Matt. 5:21-26) – but he may not. We “covet”, which means that we are jealous, envious, longing for something that is not ours, but we “cannot obtain” it – so we fight. What is this? This is when we longingly look at someone who has something that we don’t have, and we say, “If I just had that thing, that one thing, then I’d be happy. Then I’d be complete.” And when we don’t get it, we get frustrated, angry, jealous, depressed, bitter, and disappointed. It could be something as simple as someone getting the newest iPhone, and suddenly your old one looks like a big dumb brick. Or it could be something deeper: I don’t know about you, but whenever I look at someone else, it always seems like their life is always more put together, fulfilling and exciting than mine, and I feel jealous.
We may be tempted to think that if we just got that “one thing”, whether it’s the perfect next-five-year-plan, the attention of that guy, or being accepted by a group, that once we have it, the gnawing cravings we feel for more will go away. But, oh friends, that is simply not true. You know who this made me think of? Veruca Salt – do you know who she is? Veruca (if you’re picking names for your daughter, I’d avoid this one) is in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and because her dad is incredibly rich, she gets whatever she asks for. Remember her song in the golden goose room?
“I want the world
I want the whole world
I want to lock it
All up in my pocket
It’s my bar of chocolate
Give it to me now!”
At the end of her song she triumphantly stands on top of the egg-o-meter and is flushed down the garbage shoot because she is deemed a “bad-egg” – and immediately you think “thank goodness”. Veruca Salt had all the money and things that anyone could ask for, but it didn’t make her craving desire to have more go away – it made it worse! She still craved more and more. Veruca, in a way, is a representation of what the world’s idea of success: she’s wealthy, prominent, and has a bright future. She has a leg up certainly on poor Charlie, who is poor and desolate.
But she’s terrible.
Veruca shows us what James is trying to tell us in the first few verses here: if your life goal is bent towards accumulating, having what others don’t, and exalting yourself, you will become a divisive person, and no one will want to be around you – why? Because your world revolves around you and what you have; sure, we may not be as nasty as Veruca, but that also may be because we just haven’t had the resources she has. Living after this pattern, regardless, you will always be feeling smug over those who don’t have what you do, and secretly despise those who have what you don’t. Simply put: the world’s system of greed is directly opposed to a healthy, authentic community. James’ reasoning for why this is happening, however, is surprising.
“You adulterous people!” (4:4). Wait – what? Adulterous? I thought we were talking about greediness and living in community with one another? Adultery is the sin of breaking your vows in marriage, and cheating on your spouse with another, so why is James bringing that up here? Well, and I’ve said this many times before, but one of God’s favorite metaphors to describe your relationship with Him is a marriage. Ezekiel 16 is written to the nation of Israel when they are turning from God towards their sin. The chapter describes God finding us as an ugly mess, washing us, making us beautiful, bestowing gifts on us, and then marrying us. But then, we turn our back on God, turn to these other lovers and take God’s gifts He gave us, and offer it to them. All throughout the Old Testament, God describes sin not just as breaking a command, but breaking His heart. Psychologists will actually tell you that the worst kind of emotional pain possible is going through a divorce where the other person has left you for someone else. God says that is what our sin is like to Him.
Earlier, when James said that we don’t have because when we ask God, we ask so that we can spend it on our passions, he was saying that when we do that, we are like the woman in Ezekiel 16, asking God for more jewels so she can lay them at the feet of her other lovers. When you see a young attractive woman married to a really old rich guy – what’s the first thing that runs through your head? Gold-digger, right? She just married him for the money (not that all marriages between old and young women are like that). Doesn’t that seem wrong? Isn’t so obvious that that is manipulative and offensive? Does the woman even really love the man? No – she loves his bank account. She loves the beaches, clothes, mansions and parties she gets to go to, and the old rich guy is just the means to get it.
Here’s what James is saying friends: we shouldn’t marry God for His money. James explains that there is only two options for us, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (4:4). You can either love the world, or love God – that’s it. Why? Because God is jealous, “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (4:5). I always stumbled over passages that talked about God being a jealous God, because “jealousy” I always thought was a bad thing. But God’s jealousy here isn’t like our sinful jealousy – God’s jealousy is the same kind of jealousy that any spouse should have. If Hillary tries to explain to me that she wants to have a second husband on the side, I will not be okay with it, why? Because I am jealous for her heart; I want to be the only one she desires. Likewise, if I take Hillary out on a date, but I am just looking at my phone the entire time, she is going to be hurt – why? Because she is jealous for my heart; she doesn’t want to have to feel like she is competing with my phone for attention.
Friends – do you know that God jealousy desires your heart? Do you know that God passionately wants you? He does, and He wants all of you. So when we come to God and say, “God, if you could just give me the position on the team, the waist size, the perfect college – then I’d be happy, then I’d be content,” we are telling God that something other than Him has our heart. And we are asking Him to be our butler, rather than our treasure, our one true love.
We are seeing that many of our divisions are the flower that comes from root out of greediness, that really is growing in the garden of our adulterous, cheating hearts. This is bad news. What must we do? What do we need? James tells us, what we need is to be humbled. “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). After James takes a scrub brush to our souls, isn’t it so great to hear him say ‘But he gives more grace” – we are magnificently flawed people, but God gives abundant grace to weak people like you and me. But, James says, there is a condition that God is looking for when pouring out His grace: humility. God opposes proud people, but gives grace to the humble. God hates pride. For us to be forgiven of our divisive, greedy, adulterous hearts, we must first repent of our pride. What is pride?
C.S. Lewis says, “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride…Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (Mere Christianity, 122). Pride tells us that we are strong, capable, impressive, respectable, and self-sufficient – when the Bible tells us that we are fundamentally reliant upon God and in need of His mercy. This is why Lewis says that Pride is the “complete anti-God state of mind”, it rejects God as King over us, and exalts ourselves to the position. And, as long as we remain in that strong, self-sufficient delusion, we will never be able to see our need for grace, and therefore, never receive it.
Dear friends, do you know that you are weak? Do you know that life is too overwhelming? Do you know that your sin and failure is too great too great to bear? Until we see God for who He is (all-powerful, holy, creator), and ourselves for who we are (weak, sinful, dependent), we will never be able to commune with God. But when we do, there is glorious news.
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).
When we get to the point where we see God as holy and ourselves as sinful, and our souls are bare before the Lord – He meets us with grace. God’s forgiveness comes in our moments of raw honesty and brokenness – not when we are crushing it and impressive (we don’t feel like we need grace then). If we humble ourselves through confessing our sins and need for mercy, He will meet us there, and exalt us.
At the end of Willy Wonka, Willy has slowly widdled down the entire group of rotten kids till only Charlie remains. All of the other kids throughout the tour force their way forward, brag about their lives, talents, and money, and demand what they want – but not Charlie. And in the end, it is Charlie, the poor street-kid, who is given the entire inheritance of Wonka’s chocolate factory. That’s the gospel. It is the meek who inherit the earth. The world tells you that if want to get ahead in life you have to do whatever is necessary to insist on your own way and consider yourself more important than others, and if you do so you’ll be exalted. The gospel, however, tells us that if instead of trying to make our lives impressive, we humble ourselves before the Lord, it is then we will be exalted. It is completely the opposite of the world.
How do we know this to be true? Because when God, the highest and most exalted person there is, came to earth, He did so humbly, and took on the form of a servant for the good of others, and died a humiliating death. Jesus lived His life exalting others, to the point it killed Him, and because He died, He resurrected in glory. And in so doing, Jesus flipped the world’s kingdom on its head, giving us a new pattern for being exalted, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
Now, we began with looking at a community that was ripping itself apart by trying to exalt themselves over one another – imagine what a community would look like if they believed that the key to glory was found in being a servant? Imagine what our church would look like if we were more impressed with God’s goodness, than we were with ourselves? I invite you to come, know the freedom that comes from knowing you are forgiven of your sins, know the freedom of self-forgetful love and service of others, know the freedom of the path to true exaltation.