6. Submitting Yourself to God (James 4:1-12)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (35:54)
Jean-Francois Millet, 'The Angelus' (1857-59)
Humility. 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble' (James 4:6). Jean-Francois Millet, 'The Angelus' (1857-59), oil on canvas, 22 x 36 in., Musée d'Orsay, Paris

We can be so arrogant and independent towards God sometimes! If there's a single obstacle to growing as a disciple of Jesus it is our pride. Not the good kind of self-esteem pride that we need to grow as people. But that variety of "I-can-do-it-myself" pride that we can so easily fall prey to. It all starts in the heart.

Fights and Quarrels (James 4:1-2)

I expect that as lead pastor of Christendom's Mother Church at Jerusalem, James had seen all too much of the bickering and picking and criticizing that he addresses it in this chapter. Some of the words he uses are:

  • Fights, Greek polemos (verse 1) -- literally "war, battle, fight," then figuratively "a state of hostility/antagonism, strife, conflict, quarrel"46
  • Quarrels, Greek machē (verse 1) -- "fighting, quarrels, strife, disputes."47
  • Battle, Greek strateuō (verse 1) -- "serve in the army," then figuratively, "to engage in a conflict, wage battle, fight" (James 4:1; 1 Peter 2:11).48
  • Kill, Greek phoneuō (verse 2) --"murder, kill."49 Jesus compared unrestrained anger with murder (Matthew 5:21-22), since anger is one of the roots of murder.
  • Covet, Greek zeloō (verse 2) -- in a bad sense, "to have intense negative feelings over another's achievements or success, be filled with jealousy, envy"50
  • Quarrel (polemeō) and fight (machomai) (verse 2). See related words above.

I remember two fine tenors in one church I pastored. One was filled with jealousy at the other -- who was the better singer -- and he couldn't find a kind word to say. This sounds like the "bitter envy and selfish ambition" that James talked about in James 3:14. So many church fights that are outwardly about issues, are -- under the surface -- about power ("selfish ambition") and bitter envy. God help us!

That isn't to say that churches don't have to work through difficult problems sometimes. They do, just like families. But we need to do it with love and not with spite.

Some years ago, a regional division of my denomination had to disfellowship four local congregations for unscriptural actions. I came back from the meeting proud of my denomination (for a change). In this case, the whole meeting was conducted with respect and care. You could sense grief in the room at the same time the delegates voted to disfellowship these churches. I was both proud that our churches were willing to make a difficult decision, but also that they made the decision in love and in an absence of name-calling. So often it isn't so!

As long as we are on this earth we will have strife and conflict, since we are different people with different points of view. But we must let our love flow in spite of our differences. And we can examine ourselves, and purify ourselves of base motivations.

Hedonism as a Way of Life (James 4:3)

Twice in the first three verses of chapter four, James uses the Greek word hedonē, from which we get our English word "hedonism."

"What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires (hedonē) that battle within you?" (verse 1)

"When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (hedonē)." (verse 3)

In these verses, hedonē is variously translated "desires," "lusts," "passions," or "pleasures." The word means "pleasure, delight, enjoyment, pleasantness," usually in the bad sense of "(evil) pleasure, (illicit) desire"51

We generally use the word "hedonism" as a kind of synonym for "decadence." But I would guess that at least 50% of the people on the face of the earth live by this unwritten rule:

"I will choose what seems to offer me the greatest happiness."

It sounds pretty innocent. Everyone wants to be happy. But seeking personal happiness as our main goal in life means -- by definition -- (1) that we are not living to love others and seek their good when it conflicts with our own, and that (2) we have not surrendered our lives to fulfill God's will for us. Pursuit of personal happiness is selfishness, pure and simple. But it is so common a personal philosophy that we take it for granted. A great many Christians are more committed to their own personal happiness than they are doing God's will. And that may sometimes include you -- and me.

We don't have what we want, James says in verse 2, because we do not ask God. Why is that? Sometimes it is because we are afraid to bring God into our lives too much, since we might not like what he would say. We prefer to go it on our own rather than be obligated to God.

There's an old story about a lady who told her friend about a terrible problem she had, and that now all she could do was pray. "My, my," answered her friend. "Has it come to that?"

"You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives,52 that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:2b-3)

One of the reasons God doesn't give us what we ask for is because of our heart selfishness, literally, "you ask badly or wrongly." Our motivations are wrong. We ask not for a good purpose, but for an evil one, a self-centered one, to spend it (dapanaō) on our hedonism. The Greek verb dapanaō means "to use up or pay out material or physical resources, spend, spend freely"53 It's like asking our Dad for money and then using it to go out and carouse. How long do you think he'll be giving you money if he knows that's what you're doing with it?

Our selfishness, our pleasure-serving, can and does block answers to our prayers.

Q21. (James 4:1-3) Is God against pleasure? What wrong in living to increase one's pleasure?

Flirting with Spiritual Adultery (James 4:4)

"You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship54 with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." (James 4:4)

Now James gets downright personal. Literally, he addresses the pleasure-loving reader as "You adulteress!" You might think that he would use the masculine form of the word, "adulterer," since most of the readers would probably be men. He uses the feminine form deliberately, however, because he is referring to believers as married to God. This is a theme you can trace all the way from the Old Testament (where God's people were thought of as God's wife, and he their Husband), to the New Testament (where the Church is considered "the bride of Christ").

"For your Maker is your husband--
the Lord Almighty is his name--
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
he is called the God of all the earth." (Isaiah 54:5)

"I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord." (Hosea 2:19-20)

"I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him." (2 Corinthians 11:2)

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.... This is a profound mystery -- but I am talking about Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:25, 32)

"Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready." (Revelation 19:7)

When we are married to one husband, but flirt with another lover, we are adulterous. And that is what we are doing when we cozy up to the world system that doesn't love or follow Jesus Christ. "World," here, is used in the sense of "the system of human existence ... which his hostile to God, that is, lost in sin, wholly at odds with anything divine, ruined and depraved."55 Our love affair with pleasure, our friendliness towards that which grieves God, "is hatred toward God," James says. "Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God."

Q22. (James 4:4) Why does James refer to church members as "adulteresses"? What does the adultery consist of? Who is the aggrieved husband? What is wrong with friendship with the world?

Envying Intensely (James 4:5)

"Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?" (James 4:5)

Verse 5 is difficult to understand with precision. We can't identify the exact passage James is referring to. Certainly envy, jealousy, and ambition afflict man (James 3:14-16) and corrupt his spirit. On the other hand, the concept of God's jealousy towards his people is a clear theme in the Old and New Testaments.56

The two key Greek words in question in verse 5. The verb is epipotheō, "to have a strong desire for something," with implication of need, "long for, desire something."57 The noun is phthonos, "envy, jealousy."58

There are two alternatives:

  1. God's jealousy. Some English translations attribute this intense jealousy as God, the jilted husband, towards his bride, his adulterous people, along the lines of the theme of the Old Testament book of Hosea, such as the ESV and NRSV: "He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us."
  2. Human envy. Other English translations attribute the envy and jealousy to the corrupt human spirit. The New English Bible translates, "The spirit which God implanted in man turns to envious desires." J.B. Phillips translates, "Do you imagine that this spirit of passionate jealousy is the Spirit he has caused to live in us?"59 The NIV translates more ambiguously: "Or do you think Scripture says without reason the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?"

The alternatives are discussed thoroughly by James Adamson, who translates the verse: "Or do you suppose it is an idle saying in the scriptures that the spirit that has taken its dwelling in us is prone to envious lust?"60

However you take this verse, the idea is a conflict between how in his independence man is acting and feeling, and the desires and purposes of his Creator for him.

Grace to the Humble (James 4:6)

"But he gives us more grace. That is why the Scripture says,
'God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.'" (James 4:6, quoting Proverbs 3:34)

"Grace" is a word you'd expect to find the Apostle Paul using. But here it is in James. God's grace helps us in our struggles with sin, in our struggles with the pleasure principle. God's Spirit woos us to him and, as we recognize our sins and humble ourselves in repentance, we receive grace.

It seems that too many conversions these days take place without a deep repentance. There is often a sense of need, an emptiness, answered by a trust in the Lord that fills us with joy and hope. And that is good. But at some point -- or points -- God needs to humble us so we are willing to turn away from our ingrained sins. Often that requires the pain of self-discovery and finally a heartfelt repentance. It's best when we can fully repent at the beginning of our Christian walk, but often there are some deep humblings as we mature, as God lovingly strips back layer after layer of selfishness and trains us to be his holy ones, his disciples.

I've struggled with pride in my life. So when I encounter this passage: "God opposes the proud," I find myself distinctly desiring not to set myself up as God's opponent. How about you? Where does your stubbornness (an alternate word for "pride") place you in relation to God?

Submitting Yourself to God (James 4:7-10)

The next few verses give clear instructions in repentance and -- who knows -- may arise straight out of a first century Jerusalem Church revival meeting.

"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." (James 4:7-10)

James takes the words of his quotation from Proverbs 3:34 (resist/oppose, proud/humble) and uses them in an exhortation:

1. "Submit yourselves, then, to God" (James 4:7a).

Here's the general principle. To "submit oneself"61 (hypotassō) means to come into voluntary obedience to a person, to bend your will to that person's. If you've been proud you need to voluntarily (not only under duress) bend your will to God's will.

2. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7b).

The word "resist" is Greek anthistēmi. It means "be in opposition to, set oneself against, oppose."62 Our problem too often is that we are double-minded, clinging both to our selfish desires and a desire to please God. We must clearly take a stand against the devil and at the same time let go of the desire that gives him power over us.

What is the relation between the devil and temptation? Does the devil make you do it? Satan certainly tempted Jesus at the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). Satan dangled before Jesus perverted means to accomplish legitimate ends. Certainly eating when he was hungry, gaining recognition as a spiritual leader, and reigning over the earth were part of Jesus' plan. But Jesus' way was a different way, a less direct method of achieving the same goals. Satan takes legitimate desires and twists them. The desire for sex, for example, can be twisted into pornography or sex outside of marriage. Good desire, wrong fulfillment. The desire to feed one's family can be fulfilled by stealing or by hard work. But work is not the easy way.

The devil plays on our own desires (James 1:14-15) and tries to convince us that shortcuts will get us there better than the right way.

Resisting the devil means to stop flirting with his temptations. To say "no" to him and "yes" to God.

"He will flee63 from you." Strange, isn't it, what great power a little word from a humble believer can do to the devil. As Martin Luther put it in his great hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" -- "... a little word can fell him."

3. "Come near to God, and he will come near to you" (James 4:8a)

What is the problem with double-mindedness? So long as we entertain thoughts of sin, and serve them tea in our living room, we relegate God to the porch. When we flirt with sin in our minds, we necessarily break off fellowship with the Father. So resisting the devil (the negative) is followed by drawing near to God (the positive), resolving our double-minded condition.

There's a promise in this verse, too. If we will draw near to God, that is, turn our wills to doing his will, then he will draw near to us, empowering us to follow him, and often, giving us a sense of his presence. We don't always experience the joy of his presence -- even when he is very present. Sometimes our emotions or other conditions block that spiritual awareness. St. John of the Cross wrote about The Dark Night of the Soul (1578-91), that difficult time that believers sometimes go through where there is no emotional sense of God, only a faithful submission without the sensory feedback.64

4. "Wash your hands and purify your hearts" (James 4:8b)

James commands us sinners to "wash your hands." What does this mean? He tells us to "purify our hearts," but isn't God the only One who can cleanse us? James is well aware of the necessity for God's grace! What he's talking about in this exhortation is our job.

"Wash your hands, you sinners" recalls the Prophet Isaiah's message from God to his people:

"Your hands are full of blood;
wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
learn to do right...." (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Washing one's hands is another way of saying, "repent," stop doing wrong. We see a similar figure in the Book of Revelation. John sees a multitude in heaven wearing white robes and praising God. One of the Elders tells who this group is: "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:14). No, they didn't save themselves. But they "washed" their robes, they turned from their sin, and were cleansed by Christ's sacrifice on their behalf.

"Purify your hearts, you double-minded," is the second part of this directive. We must stop doing wrong (wash our hands), and then turn our wills decisively to God's will (purify our hearts).

On Mount Carmel, Elijah challenged the people: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). The double-mindedness must go. We must decide which way to go and turn to it wholeheartedly, as the Psalmist cried, "Unite my heart" (KJV, Psalm 86:11), "Give me an undivided heart" (NIV). No longer is our will divided, but now our will is "integrated" with our faith and love for God, and we gain "integrity" again.

5. "Grieve, mourn, and wail" (James 4:9)

True sorrow for sin is not being sorry that you were caught, but sorry that your heart was so hard that you could commit this affront to God. So long as sin is just in the moral category of "bad deeds," it can be looked at as an unfortunate phase of our lives. But when sin is looked at as a proud and independent spirit that stands up to God and deliberately goes the opposite way to His, then we see its personal and ugly side. It is not only morally wrong, it is personal rebellion against the One who loves us. It violates a personal trust, a personal allegiance, a spiritual marriage vow. It is about a relationship. Adultery is bad because it is a taboo sexual relationship. But it is devastating because of what it does to the relationship between husband and wife. We are "married" to God, and our flirtations with the world are in defiance of our Husband.

The appropriate response is grief. It is more than acknowledging our sin; it is owning up to our guilt. I know that talking about guilt is not politically correct. But a sense of guilt is the necessary precursor to genuine heart repentance. Old fashioned revival meetings in the 1800s in America often included a "mourner's bench" where those convicted of their sins would sit as they worked through this grief and came to a place of repentance. It is still good medicine for the sin-sick soul in our own day.

6. "Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up" (James 4:10)

James now sums it up. "Humble yourselves!" The word "humble" is Greek tapeinoō, which literally means "lower, make low" and figuratively, "to cause to be or become humble in attitude, humble, make humble" in a favorable sense.65 James has been talking in this chapter about roots of pride and an independent spirit within us: selfishness, hedonism, flirting with sin, spiritual pride that thinks we know better than God what's good for us. The antidote is to recognize our rebellions as foolishness, acknowledge them ("confession"), turn from them ("repentance"), and come before God again as his humble servants, rather than his independent-minded subjects. "Humble yourselves!" is a command. It requires submission to God -- and an ongoing humility in contrast to a life lived in rebellion against God.

The second half of this command is a promise: "He will lift66 you up." God doesn't want a bunch of groveling, servile disciples, but those who can stand before him with joy. He wants and promises to lift us up out of our guilt and misery to a place of wholeness and right standing ("righteousness"). Healthy Christianity isn't guilt-ridden, but joy-filled!

Q23. (James 4:6-10) Verses 7-10 contain 10 different commands. Why are these actions so vital? In what way do they go against our nature? Which of these commands is most difficult for you?

Critics and Pickers (James 4:11-12)

The next several verses give examples of presumption, behavior habits that are anything but humble.

"11 Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you who are you to judge your neighbor?" (James 4:11-12)

"Brothers, do not slander one another (NIV)," says James. "Do not speak evil against one another" (ESV, NRSV, cf. KJV). Why does he bring up slander? Because people in his church were slandering each other. Of course, they wouldn't want to call it slander. Perhaps "creative criticism." The Greek word is katalaleō, "speak ill of, speak degradingly of, speak evil of, defame, slander."67 William Tyndale's early translation of the New Testament uses the word "backbite."

If you've been around church much then you've heard one person speaking against another. Probably you've done it, too. Some people, of course, are fair game. You can say horrible things about a president and his wife and call it political speech. People constantly take shots at a pastor they don't like as well as the last one. They criticize the spouse and children, too, when they don't exhibit the requisite perfection. You expect that of unbelievers, but when Christians -- family members -- do this, it hurts terribly.

What's wrong with speaking against someone? It is wrong because it conflicts strongly with the law of love. The Apostle Paul reminds us,

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Certainly "love" requires us to speak truth, even when it is difficult to do so. But we are required to speak the truth lovingly (Ephesians 4:15). Would we speak against the person in their presence? Is our speech loving? Is it fair? Is it kind? Does it come from offended pride?

Judgmental Talk (James 4:11b-12)

"Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it." (James 4:11-12)

How is speaking against a brother like speaking against the law? When a Christian speaks against someone, he is setting himself up as a judge -- but a judge who is prejudiced, lacking all the facts, and failing to hear the accused speak in his own defense. The evil speaker sets himself against two of God's laws:

James: Practical Discipleship, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

"Do not go about spreading slander among your people" (Leviticus 19:16)
The Royal Law: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (James 2:8)

The evil speaker takes upon himself the role of deciding which laws to apply to himself, and which to the accused. "There is only one Lawgiver and Judge," James says. "But who are you to judge your neighbor" (James 4:12).68

Q24. (James 4:11-12) In what way does criticizing a neighbor cause you to be a judge of the law? Why do you think it is so tempting to criticize others?


Father, forgive the selfishness that is at the root of so many of my sins, and please help me to replace selfishness with humility and voluntary submission to you. Thank you for your grace and patience. Help me not to presume upon them. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:3, NIV)

"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." (James 4:4, NIV)

"But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
'God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.'
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."
(James 4:6-7, NIV)

"Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." (James 4:10, NIV)

"Brothers, do not slander one another." (James 4:11a, NIV)


References and Abbreviations

[46] Polemos, BDAG 844, 2.

[47] Machē, BDAG 622.

[48] Strateuō, BDAG 947, 2.

[49] Phoneuō, BDAG 1063

[50] Zēloō, BDAG 427.

[51] Hedonē, BDAG 434, 1.

[52] The adverb kakōs, "pertaining to being bad in a moral sense, wrongly, wickedly" (BDAG 502, 2).

[53] Dapanaō, BDAG 212, 1.

[54] Philia, "friendship, love" (BDAG 1057).

[55] Kosmos, BDAG 562, 7b.

[56] For example, in Genesis 6:3-7; Exodus 20:5; Zechariah 1:14; Matthew 6:24; Romans 8:7; 1 John 2:15-17.

[57] Epipotheō, BDAG 377.

[58] Phthonos, BDAG 1054.

[59] J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English (Macmillan, 1958).

[60] Adamson, James, pp. 170-173.

[61] The Aorist passive imperative of hypotassō, "subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey" (BDAG 1042, 1bβ).

[62] Anthistēmi, BDAG 80, 1a.

[63] Future middle indicative of pheugō, "to seek safety in flight, flee" (BDAG 1052, 1).

[64] See Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), chapter 2.

[65] Tapeinoō, BDAG 990, Aorist passive imperative.

[66] Future active indicative of upsoō, literally, "to lift up, raise high," then, "to cause enhancement in honor, fame, position, power or fortune, exalt" (BDAG 1046, 2).

[67] Katalaleō, BDAG 519.

[68] For more on slander, see my article "Coming to Grips with Gossip," (www.joyfulheart.com/maturity/gossip.htm).

Copyright © 2023, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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