James 4:1–10comment (0)
September 26, 2013
By James Riley Strange
Related Scripture: James 4:1–10
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
The Pressure of Conflict
In 1:14–15 James introduced the idea that following our desire leads to death. In chapter 3 he spoke generally about the power of speech in Christian congregations; in 4 he addresses behaviors he has heard about in communities. Many translations say “conflicts and disputes” in verse 1 and “disputes and conflicts” in verse 2, but the language is of death: warfare (“wars and skirmishes” is a better translation) and murder (compare with the images of death in chapter 3). The language “your cravings that are at war within you” should be translated “among you [plural].” James is not talking about a struggle within a person but about conflicts among church members (see 3:6) that come from cravings.
Here James spells out the connection between desire and death. The language points to the context of the congregation. We can only guess what their issues were, but we know what ours are: we want a certain worship or preaching style, or a certain color of carpet, or more than one (or only one) service, or a building project. Sometimes the ministers themselves are in conflict. We can’t get what we want, so we “commit murder” and engage in “skirmishes and wars.” We are willing to fight with our fellow believers even if the conflict kills the congregation. Death can happen quickly or slowly as resentments fester.
“You ask” implies that people are praying for what they want. Well naturally that is what we do when we pray (see 1:5, 17; 5:15–16). Or is it? James indicates that people should instead pray for God’s will to be done (see 4:15). A particular worship style or carpet color might be fine, but the problem arises when people pray not for the good of the congregation — or because it’s what God wants for the congregation — but for their own selfish gains.
James takes on the voice of a biblical prophet, calling church members who follow their own cravings “adulteresses.” Translations often say “adulterers,” but James uses a feminine Greek word to recall the prophets’ accusations against Israel, God’s bride (see Jer. 3; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1–3). James sees things in black and white: either we are friends with the “world” and enemies of God or the other way around, but not both.
The “scripture” in verse 5 is unknown and the verse is devilishly difficult to translate. The quote in verse 6 is from Proverbs 3:34.
“Hands” is a metaphor for deeds, and the heart is the seat of the will and intellect, so James wants his readers to purify what they do and desire and how they reason. Therefore the solution to the problems of verses 1–4 is to submit ourselves to God wholly. In that way we will resist the devil, who has little power other than to tempt.
James returns to the idea in 1:9 of the reversal of fortunes at the end of this world (compare 5:1–6) and hence the need for repentance (recall the preaching of John the Baptist). “Laughter” and “joy” probably refer to the pleasure we take in the things that we crave.
We are probably tempted to blunt James’ sharp words and soften his rough condemnation of anything that dilutes Christians’ loyalty to God.
It is better to take his words as they are and to ask, “When do I damage my family of faith by my selfish actions, God?” “What of my deeds, desires and ways of thinking do I need to purify?” “How can I, today, wholly subsume my will to yours?” And we can ask, “God, in Your mercy help me to see what I need to do and help me to do it.” In that way, reading God’s Word leads us to prayer and (it is to be hoped) to listening to God.