March 7, 2021
One of the things we do during every worship service is, after the scripture passage is read, our liturgist says, “This is word of the Lord” and we in respond say, “Thanks be to God.”
But do you ever feel like it’s easier to say those words after some passages than others? With some passages, it feels like those words roll right off our tongue. In fact, sometimes our scripture sounds so glorious or encouraging or hopeful, that it feels like in the bulletin, it should read “Thanks be to God!” with an exclamation point, where our passage feels like a rah-rah halftime speech or that feeling of an awe-inspiring view from a mountaintop.
But yet, then are there are scriptures, like ours today, where it feels like our mouths get a little dry, where when it’s time to say, “Thanks be to God” we struggle to get the words out. In fact, instead of an exclamation point, I sometimes wonder if putting a literal question mark in the bulletin would be more appropriate, if it wasn’t too sacrosanct. Something that reads, “Thanks be to God?”
I confess that’s, at times, how I felt when I studied this scripture this week, both in terms of how I felt about it, but also in terms of just simply trying to understand it and trying to make sense of what James is getting at, particularly in those first few verses.
But, as you’d imagine, there’s some good news woven in our passage as well, which we’ll speak to as well. In the end, my hope is that in 20 minutes or so, we’ll all be saying “Thanks be to God,” maybe or maybe not with a full exclamation point, but at least with a genuine sense of hope and confidence.
All this said, we continue on in our study in the book of James, and in some ways, we now come to what is the culmination and high point of James’s letter, a moment he’s been working towards for the last couple chapters, and I’ll explain what I mean by that more later on in the sermon.
Now there’s a lot happening in these verses, and so for simplicity’s sake, it think it’s helpful to think of this passage, or at least the first 10 verses at least, in three progressive movements, where in many ways James is giving us a glimpse of the human condition and of our human nature, where he first describes for us, the Problem, followed by the Hope, then concluding with the Application. Or if we were to describe this in medical terms, we might describe these movements, as the Diagnosis, the Cure, and the Treatment Plan.
So let’s jump in. In verses 1-4, James describes before us the Problem, the Diagnosis of our human nature. Saying in verse 1:
4 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?
At first glance, you might be wondering, why is James talking about conflicts and disputes, like, how did we get here?
Well, it’s likely because the churches that James was writing to were experiencing and struggling with conflicts and disputes, that there were fights and quarrels among them, within their churches, their communities, their relationships, and families.
In some ways, James and other New Testament letters are similar to listening to one side of a telephone call. Have you ever tried to put together what someone is saying on the other line or piece together the conversation through just the one side your hearing? Where you’re thinking, okay, if they said this, then the other person must have said something that … In many ways, these letters work in the same way. We have one side of the conversation, one half of the communication, and since James, on one end of the line is addressing conflict within the church, then we have to imagine, on the other end of the line if you will, these churches were experiencing conflict.
And James, as he does so, wants to get at the heart of the conflict, he wants them to see the source and center of their conflicts and disputes, he’s wants to give us a glimpse of our fallen human nature, saying that these conflicts and disputes come from the cravings that are at war within you.
Maybe a simple way of summarizing this is that James saying that the conflict among you comes from the desires within you. That the conflict among them are often driven by sinful desires and cravings that are at war within them, that their interpersonal conflict is really rooted in an internal conflict.
Now, I know an example of what this looks like would be helpful, so I’d be happy to share an unflattering one about myself.
A couple years ago, when Noah was a few months old, Callie and I were transitioning Noah from his little infant rock and play to his actual crib with an actual bedroom. And Callie and I were fighting over which room in the house we would make our bedroom – would it be an upstairs one next door from Noah or would it be the downstairs one that was objectively the better quality bedroom in every way?
(Now, before I go any further, please let the record show, what I’m describing here is the ultimate first world problem)
Anyway, Callie wanted us to be in the upstairs bedroom closer to Noah and I wanted the downstairs bedroom, which was more spacious, had the better bathroom, with the better water pressure, was in the better location, right next to the kitchen, which made it convenient for my midnight snacking. But when really pressed to consider why I wanted what I wanted so badly, why we were having this fight in the first place, I didn’t have a good answer. I just wanted what I wanted because I wanted it. It was pure selfishness, pure convenience and preference, pure selfish desire.
That seems to be James’s point. There are fights among you because of the selfish desires within you.
Now, to be clear, this principle probably doesn’t speak for all conflict we experience. Maybe sometimes both sides have pure motives, maybe sometimes it’s just one side with selfish desires, but yet so often, we can trace back our conflict to our selfish and sinful desires within us.
In fact, maybe think back to your last fight or conflict. There’s a good chance you can trace it back to selfish or sinful desires rooted within you or the other person.
In addition, James later says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Which seems like a bit of a confusing thing to say, after all, I did ask for the downstairs bedroom, and I did not get it by the way, which by the way, was ultimately the best thing for our family.
Here for whatever reason, our translation obscures the fact that the subject here in the sentence changes to God. Where it would better read:
“You do not have, because you do not ask God.”
And that makes a bit more sense. The idea here is that we struggle or are often to reluctant to pray, asking God that he would fulfill the selfish and sinful desires that wage war within us.
For example, we know, that a prayer that says, “Lord, give me the selfish and sinful desires of my heart,” or “my will be done, Lord,” we know that’s a faulty, dead end prayer. And for me to go to God in prayer, asking, “Lord, with this bedroom situation, please show my dear wife Callie the error of her ways,” like deep down I know, you know, God knows, that that prayer has no legs, that it smells kind of rotten. And we either know that deep down, or we, as James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
When it comes to the selfish and sinful desires of our heart, whether it be for convenience or pleasure, power or control, wealth or possessions or whatever else it might be, we either know we’re wrong to ask God for them or we ask for them wrongly, with impure motives. And if we can’t get those things from God, sometimes we fight with others for them. That seems to be the logic of these first few verses.
The fights among you are because of the desires within you. Here we have the problem, James’s diagnosis of the human condition, the fallenness of our human nature. In many ways, it’s a continuation of a point that James made last week, when James described what earthly wisdom looked like, it’s a selfish and self centered kind of wisdom that says, “Me first,” one that’s rooted in envy and selfish ambition.
So there’s the problem, there’s the diagnosis, now how about some hope, let’s get to the cure, if you will. After all, I promised you there’d be some good news.
Here’s what James says in verse 6:
6 But he [God, that is] gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
This in many ways, here’s the good news as James sees it.
That no matter how much we fail, no matter how much we struggle, no matter the sin and selfishness that wages war within us, God gives us all the more grace, he lavishes his grace upon those who are humble, those who acknowledge and admit their sin and brokenness.
As I was mentioned at the top, James has been building towards this moment for much of his letter as he crescendo’s his letter with this announcement of grace.
A few weeks ago, we looked at the end of James chapter 1, where James laid out before us the three characteristics of true religion and that true religion: 1) looks out for orphans and widows 2) taming the tongue and 3) keeps oneself unstained by the world.
And between that point and now, James has been systematically making the case that to some extent, we fail all the characteristics of true religion, where we in some ways fail the test.
When it comes to looking out for widows and orphans, or more broadly caring for those in our society we often forget or overlook, we often show favoritism or fail to meet their physical needs, as James described in chapter 2. So there we have strike one.
When it comes to bridling our tongue, James rebukes us for the ways in which we curse our fellow brothers and sisters and even goes so far to say that no person can tame the tongue. Strike two.
And then today, James boldly and unapologetically calls us adulterers, saying that our friendship with the world is enmity with God, that our fights and quarrels reflect a kind of worldliness, rather than godliness. Strike three.
From then to now, James has been saying, you know those three characteristics of true religion? Well, guess what, you all fail the test. You all fall miserably short.
And as utterly depressing and futile as that may sound, James has us right where wants us … as he says,
"6 But he [God, that is] gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
James is trying to bring us to this place, this moment, where we would get on our knees, where were would throw our hands up in the air, where we would say, like the humble tax collector from one of Jesus’s parables, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Where we would say, “Lord, I all too often fail to live a life that is honoring and one that glorifies you. I all too often fail to live a life of holiness before you and others, I all too often fail to obey your commands, I all too often fail to obey the royal law, as James calls it, to love our neighbors as ourselves.” That we would say, “Lord, I fail and fall short, and need your grace.”
James says, God gives grace to the humble. This is the gospel according to James.
After all, the gospel says that our identity isn’t based on what we’ve done, but what Jesus did for us on the cross.
The gospel says that there is no condemnation or guilt or shame for those who are in Jesus, not because of what we’ve done, but what He’s done.
The gospel says that our success and accomplishments aren’t our own doing, but rather it’s God’s power, the Holy Spirit working through us.
The gospel at its very core sees our sin and shortcomings and failures, our inability to pass the test, and brings to a place of humility, where we fix our eyes on Jesus.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
That’s our hope, that’s our cure. Now, let’s get to the third and final part of our passage today. It’s our application, our treatment plan if you will.
Here’s what James says, in light of this truth, in light of the fact that God gives all the more grace to those who are humble, he says,
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 Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.
Now, you may have even done a double take with that final exhortation, “Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.”
Other scriptures seem to communicate the exact opposition, in fact there are Psalms that talk about how God turns our mourning into dancing, our sorrow into joy.
But here James seems to be saying the opposite. And here again context ought to guide us. He’s talking about how we should feel about our sin and selfishness, our failure to fully God and our neighbor. And James wants to make sure we sit in the right emotion, that we wouldn’t look at our sin and laugh it off or brush it off or worse rejoice in it, but rather than we would lament and mourn and weep over our sin.
So friends, maybe it’s worthwhile to take a few minutes this week and write down before the Lord a list of your sins and struggles, your failures and shortcomings, your sorrows and laments, confessing before the Lord the ways in which we have fallen short. And let that list linger for a while, let the emotions that James is encouraging us towards really sit in.
And then when the time is right, ask for God’s forgiveness, ask for His grace, ask that he would continue to change your heart, and then maybe symbolically, take that list, that sheet of paper and crumple it up, through it in the garbage can or in the fire as a way of reminding ourselves that through Jesus, through his death and resurrection, God forgives us of all our sin.
Jesus says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” And that’s good news.
I’ll finish with this. One of the most troubling and disturbing trends in our world today is something known as “cancel culture.” Maybe you’re familiar with this trend, maybe not. In short, cancel culture is essentially a modern form of ostracism in which someone is cast out of social or professional circles – whether it be online or in person. Where society distances itself, shuns or “cancels” public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. And in our social media and internet world where stuff lives forever, people are being “canceled” for things said and done not only in the present moment but also 10, 20+ years ago.
And cancel culture, in some ways, gets it’s partly right. After all, people should be accountable for their actions. People should show genuine remorse and regret and to use a biblical word, repentance for their wrongdoing. And there should be justice wherever there is injustice. But yet, there’s also a fatal flaw or gap in cancel culture as well.
There’s a famous comedian out there, her name is Sarah Silverman, and in a podcast, Silverman was lamenting this growing trend of “cancel culture,” even describing ways she’s experienced it herself. And from all I know, Silverman is not a Christian, at least nothing in her stand-up comedy would lead a person to believe otherwise.
Even still, as she was talking about cancel culture, she noted the fatal flaw or gap in cancel culture, that there’s no, as she describes it, “path to redemption.”
That cancel culture is all judgment and condemnation without any hope of restoration or as she describes it, “no path to redemption.”
And she is absolutely right. Cancel culture is all condemnation without restoration, guilt without peace, shame without hope.
Friends, what a moment, what an opportunity we have through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Through James words, through Jesus’s work, through his death and resurrection, we are offered a path to redemption.
So Sarah, if you’re listening this morning, still looking for that path to redemption, well look no further, it’s all right here.
James says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Words that echo
Jesus, his brother, who said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
So friends, with all this said, I want you to finish this call and response with me. “This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”