Sometimes you get what you pay for. That is true of a fifteen-year-old, 250,000-mile Volvo V70 that I purchased a few years ago for less than 10% of its original sticker price. Pretty amazing deal!
But sometimes you get what you pay for, within a year, the transmission began to stick, the catalytic converter became clogged, and oil began to leaks like a loose drain. The headlights pointed in the wrong direction, the sunroof leaked, the back seat got stuck in the down position, and the hydraulics for the rear hatch stripped so that it collapsed every time you opened it, which was really aggravating.
While mechanical problems with old cars are frustrating, it becomes more emotional and overwhelming when what is broken down is not mechanical, but rather, is relational.
Sometimes families break down. Relationships among believers in a local church break down. Sometimes there are so many problematic issues in a marriage that we don’t even know where to begin.
Cumulatively, like my clunker Volvo, the problems can look hopeless.
The question is: “Can what looks ruined be restored?” Can the ship be saved from sinking? Can the tide be turned?
The answer we find in James 4:1–12 is “Yes,” God can save the ship. He can turn the tide. He can restore what looks ruined.
But how does this restoration take place? Where do we start?
First, we must…
Understand the Source of Interpersonal Conflict
4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.
Typically, in the midst of conflict, we point the finger of blame at someone else. Politicians do it. Parents do it. Coaches do it. Spouses do it.
What is the problem? “He is!” or “She is!” My natural reaction is to say that anyone except me is to blame for the breakdown.
Yet according to James, the person I should most suspect as most contributing to the problem is not the other person. It is me. And not just me, but what dwells within me.
In verse 1, James says, “Your passions (Gk. hedone — from which we get hedonism, self-gratification)… Your passions are at war within you.” Not just within them, but within me. In fact, in the first two verses, he uses the pronoun “you” eight times! He doesn’t say, “they” are the problem, he says, “you,” which means me — I am the problem. Maybe I am not the only problem, but I am at least a significant part of the problem.
The result of our intense desire for self-gratification is the source of why we quarrel, fight, even murder people in our hearts with hatred and envy, all of which results in interpersonal conflict. It may be important to note that these hedonistic passions are not necessarily sexual in nature. The word simply conveys how deeply self-gratification runs in the sin nature. Hedone is a passion for my will to be done. For my desires to be met. For my ambition to be fulfilled. For my carnal appetite to be satisfied.
So yes, hedone may be sexual in nature. But it also can be the kind of passion that arouses intense anger and leads to vases being smashed against the living room wall or a fist indent in the bathroom door. It can also manifest in more subtle and mundane ways.
For example, these hedone passions can war within me when I want to watch the game instead of cleaning out the garage — a task that I’ve promised I’d complete for the past 8 weeks. So, I fight for my “downtime.”
Hedone passions are aroused when I want to buy a new computer monitor, but my spouse needs the money to buy our kids clothes. And a fight over money ensues.
Hedone passions are enflamed when I want respect or appreciation or recognition, and yet I go unnoticed, or worse, someone else gets the respect, appreciation, and recognition. And envy and hatred begin to grow.
Hedone passions also erupt in relationships among believers in the church. In fact, this is the context in which James is writing — to professing Christians, not a penitentiary full of pagans. We’ve all heard the story about the church that split over which color carpet to put in the sanctuary.
How could a Christian community break down so badly? How can such irreconcilable rifts take place in a Christian marriage? The answer may be in one word: disconnect.
Recognize the Symptoms of Spiritual Disconnect
2b You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! 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. 5 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”?
When I no longer have a vital, faith connection with God I will experience a spiritual disconnect. It is as if, through spiritual neglect, I’ve let the battery die on my cell phone. I’m no longer in vital communication with God.
One of the first signs of this disconnect is prayerlessness.
In the second part of verse 2, when James says, “You do not ask,” he is talking about prayer. The most basic definition of prayer is “talking to God.” When we come to see God as Father, that definition is expanded to “talking to God as Abba, Father, enjoying his presence, and asking him to provide what we need as an expression of our dependence and as an expression of confidence in his desire to provide and his ability to provide” as we approach our Father, who as Paul says in Ephesians 3:20, “is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.”
Now, asking him to provide what we need is different than demanding from him what we want. This is what was happening among the believers to whom James is writing.
Because when they did ask, James says they asked “wrongly.” Their “prayers” were like beseeching a Genie who could grant wishes; not asking a Father. Their prayers were filled with expectations and demands.
In other words, these Christians were dominated by hedone desires. Not godly desires that fit into the will of God, but personal wants that reflected the values of the world, which is why James rebukes them for being “friends with the world.”
He is not saying we should not have friends who are not Christians. Not at all! He is talking about what we desire or want — worldly desires rooted in the flesh versus godly desires influenced by the Spirit.
A helpful question to ask myself is this: “What do I think God wants in this situation?”
We know this, God desires that we know him and approach him like children know and approach a loving Father who has the good of his children at heart. This is why James describes God as jealous — not sinful jealousy like envy, but a longing in the heart of God for the love he has for his own to be reciprocated.
When the desire for material possessions, the praise of men, and personal comfort are my chief concerns — when these desires of the world dominate my heart rather than magnifying the glory and grace of the King, I have become a spiritual adulterer and have become an enemy of God.
Ouch! Why such extreme language?
I think James is so extreme because of the severity of the danger this poses to the professing believer. To love and have a tight grip on the things of the world reveals the spiritual disconnect in my life — that I am not living in union and communion with Jesus.
I am seeking my righteousness, my joy, my salvation, and my very identity in the arms of the world instead of the arms of Jesus.
You see, I can’t be united to both the world and Jesus at the same time, especially at the places where the value system of the world and God’s kingdom are at odds.
I find that one way to diagnose the disconnect is to evaluate how my heart responds to the lottery sign on 400.
Would it make my heart sing more to hear that I am forgiven of my sins, loved by God with a future of eternal glory in the presence of Jesus, or that I have just won $400 million dollars? If I had to choose, which would I choose? Which do I really believe would be for my greater good and blessing and bring me true, deep and satisfying joy?
When I am honest enough to side with the $400 million, I am in the position where I can move from ruined to restored, which takes place as I…
Pursue the Process of Spiritual Renewal
6 But he gives more grace. Therefore, it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
The Eisenhower Tunnel, which is sixty miles west of Denver, takes Interstate 70 through the Rocky Mountains under the Continental Divide. Completed in 1979, this astounding engineering project was one of the last pieces to fully connect the US Interstate highway system.
What is amazing about this tunnel is that it can be a blizzard on the side you enter, but clear once you emerge, which is geographically on the other side of the continent.
The pursuit of spiritual renewal is kind of like going through the Eisenhower tunnel. While there is a light at the end, you can’t see it when you enter.
And entering can feel a bit Closterphobic. What if the lights go out? What if there is a wreck and a fire breaks out? What if there is an earthquake and the mountain collapses?
This is why entering the process of renewal begins in verse 7 with “Submit yourself to God.” In submission, I am putting my mission, my life agenda, under God’s — which is what the word means. Sub (under) mission (God’s agenda).
In submitting myself to God, I lay my will, my plans, my desires — my agenda — I lay it all down before my Father and reframe my prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Now, when I begin to submit to the sovereign reign of the Father in my life, the enemy will not like it, which is why we are told to “resist the devil.”
As we submit to God, the devil will seek to distract us with allurements of the world, which is why in verse 8 we are called to “draw near to God,” knowing that, as Paul says in Romans 2:4, “It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.” It is knowing that God, as a loving father, will draw near to us with forgiving, restoring love as we draw near to him. It is this grace that compels us to come home.
You remember the story Jesus told about the young brother, the prodigal son, who squandered his father’s wealth? How did the father respond when the son finally came home, dressed in rags and stinking with pig filth? The father ran out to embrace his filthy son, put new clothes on him, gave him a family ring, and threw a party because he was home!
What amazing love!
And yet the disposition of the sinner’s heart as we return is not one where we take our sinful rebellion and spiritual adultery lightly. Jesus didn’t just die for just small sins. His blood wasn’t shed merely for white lies, but for the most heinous of crimes against God, which is why James uses such strong imagery for what we sinners need.
We need clean hands and a pure heart, language that comes directly from Psalm 24:3–4a, “3Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”
Let’s be clear. We are not being told to do penance. Penance is a way to secure forgiveness by some deed of obedience or act of sacrifice on my part. But Scripture knows nothing of penance. It only knows of repentance, which is more of a disposition of the heart than a deed. Repentance is a willingness to be honest about all that James has been saying about our hedone desires and spiritual adultery.
As a word of warning, I should let you know that repentance feels like death. If it doesn’t, it probably isn’t genuine repentance, which is the simple, yet painful, honest confession of our sins. Not pointing at anyone else. It is taking the blame and owning the breakdown.
While repentance feels like death, it leads to life.
This is the idea behind the terms James uses in verse 9, be wretched, mourn, and weep with gloom? But again, it is not penance James is commanding. It is genuine repentance — an honest look in the mirror at the grotesqueness of my sin — the sin for which Jesus was beaten and nailed.
When we are able to see the wretch, we are able to cry out for mercy. This is the place of humility. The place to which God’s mercy flows. This is the condition where James quotes Proverbs 3:34, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
When I expose myself for who I am in my flesh, quite unexpectedly to what I may have been conditioned to think about God, when I humble myself through repentance, God draws near and rather than crushing me, he lifts me up — he restores me — because as verse 6 says, “He gives more grace!”
This is the grace that outshines the $400 million lottery.
Yet when I find myself tasting the sweetness of God’s mercy, I still need to be on guard and…
Refuse the Ongoing Temptation of Religious Hypocrisy
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
In the theater of ancient Greece, actors were called hypocrites. On stage, this actor, or hypocrite, would play the role of someone else. Therefore, they had two, separate lives. Their real life and their stage life. They may be tender and compassionate on stage, while arrogant and harsh in real life.
Today the word hypocrite is hypocrite, a negative term for someone who lives a double life, like a Greek actor — the façade life we want people to see and the real life that is lived off-stage, often in private or behind closed doors.
Although James does not use the word hypocrisy in verses 11–12, he is describing a believer who is playing the role of a judge.
The problem is that only God is qualified to play that role.
Therefore, my rightful place in relation to God’s law as a sinner is not to sit over the law as a judge, but to sit under the law as the accused — I’m not the judge; I’m the defendant.
Can you see why slander, gossip, and spreading a bad report is such a despicable sin? When I play judge, I deny my own sinfulness and need for a Savior. I am living above the law. But under the law, I am guilty. I am condemned. In the words of Isaiah, “I am ruined!”
My only hope is for someone to be judged in my place and to serve my sentence.
Which is exactly what Jesus has done for me.
Verse 12 tells us that God as a judge holds the power to condemn or to save. To ruin or to restore.
There is a Japanese word, kintsukuroi, that means “golden repair.” When a precious piece of pottery is ruined, actual gold is used to fill in the broken places. Not only is the ruined pottery restored by the gold, but the broken places are illuminated by the gold — magnifying the beauty of the restoration, making the piece even more valuable than before.
This is what God does for us in the gospel. God takes our ruined places of rebellion and brokenness and restores them, not with gold, but with blood — the very blood of Jesus that was shed from a cross.
Jesus was ruined so that we could be restored. So that I could be… and so that YOU could be.
The way to this restoration is through the tunnel of renewal, where we see images along the way, not only of our grotesque sin but of a grotesque, beaten, naked, misshapen, bloodied Jesus, becoming the adulterer and the enemy of God — bearing the curse we deserved.
When the eyes of our hearts behold such love from such a Savior, we can no longer play the hypocrite. We come clean. We get honest. And we boast not in ourselves but in Jesus. We no longer are enamored with the ways of the world, but with the glory and grace of God. And so we come to worship, to celebrate, to praise and adore our Savior and Lord, Jesus.
This is how God restores ruined marriages and heals rifts within a family and in a church. It is by this glorious grace — by golden repair — that God saves the sinking ship, turns the tide, and restores ruined sinners to himself.