1.22.23 James 4:1-3
Imagine a small child trying to unravel the mystery of her parent’s will.
-Why did they say “no” to the cookie today but “yes” last week? It makes no sense.
-Why did they let my brother stay up late but not me? Not fair.
-Why did they make me stay in my room, they are so mean. (I was only throwing a little tantrum)
-Why did they take me to the doctor, I told them I didn’t want to get a shot, it hurts. They don’t love me.
We don’t tend to think of ourselves as children…we are adults…responsible, capable, mature, smart, logical…we know how things should be done
But children, when questioning their parents…don’t think of themselves as children either…their conclusions about what is fair and right…makes perfect sense to them…and they believe, that their parents, if they were wise and good, would see it like they do.
We are, in fact, much more like children than we like to think.
Our span of years and intelligence and experience…are incredibly small.
We will either come to the place where trust God or not…if not, then we are going to trust ourselves.
Or, more accurately…we will be growing towards that place of trusting God…but the key is which direction are we heading…towards or away from trusting God over self.
But we will never come to the place where we completely figure God out.
What we know of him, is because he has made himself known…but how much we can know is limited by our capacity.
Imagine trying to fit the ocean into a dixie cup…that is what it is like trying to fully understand God
A dixie cup full of ocean water…contains real ocean water…but a very, very small part of the ocean.
What God has given us to know about him…is true knowledge…and it is enough knowledge…to be saved and to live thriving lives.
But it is not enough to try to position ourselves as his peers, or his judges.
Job, confused as he was by his suffering, went from:
1. Trust: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away”
“Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me; if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.” Job 9:20
He goes on to say, it’s not a fair fight…God will just use his power to overwhelm me.
*You can’t win with God…it’s lose, lose…try to reason with him…he will just “Hulk smash you”
3. Trust and renewed perspective:
“My ears had heard of you, my eyes have seen you…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
“What a minute, that’s not good…to despise yourself?”
We will talk about it more next week…but the real problem for us is not in feeling shame, shame can be a good thing when it leads us towards a thriving life…away from folly
The problem is staying in shame when we don’t need to; or trying to live as if some things are not shameful for humans to think, do and become…when they are, shameful.
Some say…like Job, while in the middle of his crisis of faith…God has set things up such that “Heads he wins, tails we lose.”
We are supposed to praise him either way.
-The whole thing is fixed in his favor-
When he answers like we want him to, he is good…and we are undeserving.
When he doesn’t answer like we want him to, he is good…and we are undeserving.
We are supposed to dutifully, like mindless robots, trust & praise him no matter what.
Let’s reframe this.
It is often framed as if we are somehow God’s near peers, or even in some cases his superior…. “If I were God, here’s how I would do it.”
He is doing it wrong…he is not competent, or he is not good, or he is not there.
Or, he is not who I have been told he is, so, I’ll just remake him into something that fits fully in my mind.
*These are the things behind the “deconstructing faith” movement, that is so in vogue (but truth be told, always has been)
It’s rooted in the illusion that we are more than dixie cups and God is less than the ocean.
In reality, we are infinitely far from his greatness in every way…we are no more his peers than a dust speck is our peer.
But, he has chosen us, made us in his image, offered us his glory, his glory as his beloved.
He does not want mindless robots…he does want kids who trust him.
Back to the child…puzzling over her parents will.
Is the child a fool for not understanding all the ways of her parents…and yet, still trusting them?
Being confused and yet till finding her greatest joy, comfort, purpose in relationship with that parent?
I’ve watched, many times as my grandchildren are told “no” by their parents and they skulk away unhappy…only a short time later to see them nestled in that same parent’s lap, secure, loved, happy.
Such is the way of a child…it is not “heads the parent wins, tails the child loses”…this is no coin flip…it’s not lose/lose or even win/lose…it is about a child and parent…and trust.
The child that trusts the parent even when she doesn’t understand is no fool.
That child is simply a happy child, who is positioned to grow up into a thriving adult.
Christy and I have a friend whose grown daughter was saved from serious injury in a car accident and our friend gave thanks to God online, for his grace of protection.
And our friend was criticized, online, for daring to be grateful,
“What about all those whose children who were not saved from injury and death in car wrecks? How careless and selfish of you to dare be grateful for God’s provision for your family.”
As if her gratitude, also meant…she had no compassion for others.
It’s not either/or
Sadly, a few years later, our friend’s daughter, the same daughter who been spared in one car crash, was killed in another one.
And guess what, our friend gave thanks to God for her daughter’s life and confessed continued confidence in God in her daughter’s death.
Now, finding herself on the other side of God’s will, so to speak…she continued to trust him.
She is no selfish, careless, naive fool…she is no mind-numbed robot…she is mature and secure in her father’s love.
Let’s go to James 4:1-3
4 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
James, in his letter, is rebuking the church, for confessing faith in God and then living as if God doesn’t exist….practical atheism.
Most atheists confess disbelief and then act as if God does exist…it’s called practical theism
*When an atheist acts if there is ultimate meaning, or absolute or real ethics (right or wrong)…they are acting as if God exists…though they say he doesn’t.
This makes sense because he does exist, so their atheism is illusion and cannot be consistently lived out.
What is tragic is when Christians confess belief in God and then act as if God does not exist…Practical Atheism
This drives James crazy…it’s part of what he calls double-mindedness…or literally, “double-souled”…this is not just being conflicted or confused in thoughts but conflicted in the depths of a person’s being.
Living undecided at the heart level…who will I trust?
Me now…God now…me now…God and me now…
Go back to last week, James asked in 3:13…
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his life.
Real wisdom shows up externally in relationships and is rooted internally in a heart orientated to God.
Now he asked the corresponding question for Christian community…
What causes fights and quarrels among you?
The answer is, of course, your heart does.
Your insides are showing up on the outside…they always do.
The fights and quarrels between you, are the result of conflicting desires inside of you.
Wisdom inside a person will result in certain kinds of choices…and certain kinds of relationships.
James is not interested in wisdom per se but the fruit of wisdom…3:13-18 was setting up his rebuke for the quarreling in the church.
2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.
James doesn’t mention the issues under dispute, probably because they were irrelevant to his point…the selfishness and bitterness of their hearts was his main concern.
Ironically…they were so concerned with winning their points (whatever those points were), he wasn’t concerned at all with their points.
*This happens in marriages and friendships…we feel so justified in winning our point…and God says, “Who cares…look at your heart”
James was concerned with their hearts…the place the battles originate.
Now, don’t misapply James…some battles need to be fought…he was committed to the truth.
When truth dies, then all hope for peace between people dies with it…let alone peace with God.
But there is never a time when we are to fight for truth in a way that is out of line with our faith in Christ.
We must not betray the truth in the defense of the truth.
In the 1940’s, with WWII raging, CS Lewis, who had become a Christian about 10 years earlier was already a well-known author/apologist.
He published the problem of Pain in 1940, The Screwtape Letters in 42, he gave a series of radio talks from 41-44 defending Christianity that became Mere Christianity.
After WWII, in 47 he published his book, Miracles.
To counter the prevailing narrative that all that exists is the natural, there is no supernatural…no God, no gospel.
The next year, an up-and-coming philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who was studying at Oxford presented a paper at a group called the Socratic Club.
The club existed as a forum for the discussion of the intellectual difficulties connected with religion and with Christianity in particular…Lewis was the first president of the club.
Anscombe’s paper critiqued part of Lewis’ argument in his book, Miracles…he made a philosophical error.
In the meeting of the club, where she presented the paper, Lewis lost the debate to the young, and then unknown female philosopher.
Here’s why I bring up this example.
Anscombe was a believer, she was not attacking the realities of miracles…she believed in them.
She saw a flaw in Lewis’ argument and wanted to address it because the truth matters.
Lewis, then internationally famous and revered…did not dismiss her “Who is this upstart young lady…doesn’t she know who I am?”
He admitted she had beaten him in the debate.
He rewrote a chapter in his book, for the next addition, to address her concerns…the truth mattered more than his own self-image.
He suggested that she become the new president of the club.
And fortunately for us…he turned his mind to writing the children’s series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
This is how it must be done.
All that matters in the end, “Is it true”
James is not denying this in his letter…he is dealing with the heart of the matter…battles without come from battles within.
Lewis and Anscombe…demonstrated their hearts in their famous encounter.
Truth won…and both demonstrated Christian character in the process.
Look again at verse 2
2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.
Where people in the church literally killing one another?
I suppose it was possible…but not probable.
People were killing each other over religion then as they do now…there was a group called the Zealots, who were religious terrorists.
James would not have been so casual in mentioning it…if he meant real murder.
“You guys need to watch yourselves…I mean, come on you shouldn’t be murdering people in Sunday School class.”
He was writing in line with the teaching of Jesus where if you “hate in your heart” you have broken the “do not murder” command.
However…it is also true that real lives are lost every day because of human coveting.
Murder in our cities, War in Ukraine…all have a direct line to a human heart full of coveting.
Mark 15:10 says that the Chief priests delivered Jesus to Pilate to be murdered out of their envy.
So, James wants them to see the root cause of the problems in the church…it is their own selfish desires.
*But what if my desire is for the truth and not for self?
Then you will be prepared for others to disagree and disregard you and not become bitter and demanding when you pay the price for the truth…if it really is about the truth and not about you.
But bitter envy and selfish ambition…shows, it’s not really about the truth, it’s about me.
Last year an officer in the military took what he believed to be a principled stand on an issue.
Okay, fair enough…you took your stand, now what do you expect to happen, what price will you pay for what you believe is true?
He went on the news complaining about how he is being treated, threatening legal action.
So, I want to take a principled stand on truth…but it better not cost me anything…and I will come after you if you disagree with me.
That is exactly the kind of heart James was going after.
James would be soon executed for his faith…he was more than willing, clearly, to take principled stands on truth.
But he pushed the church…to live with Christ’s principles in everything…which would obviously, preclude being covetous and demanding.
So, James writes…”You want something but don’t get it? So, you covet and quarrel and assassinate others with your words.”
The pull of these people relationally was… “What do you mean no? “How dare you!”
Whatever the exact circumstances of the situation, they are demanding that others (and God) do things their way, and they are furious when others (and God) don’t comply.
Now look at verse the end of verse 2 and 3 in their overall context.
You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
Here’s why you don’t have what you want …you don’t ask God.
“Oh, yeah I did…I asked him alright and he said no!”
Well of course he said “no” your heart is messed up.
So, what are we to think about prayer then?
What are we to do?
My heart is always going to be somewhat messed up…should I even ask God for anything?
Maybe James sees that question coming so very shortly he will write,
Elijah was just like us…his heart was a mixed bag and God answered his prayers, in spectacular ways.
The point here, chapter 4, is not so much about how to get your prayers answered but how to evaluate your heart direction.
“What’s wrong with having desires James? Didn’t God make me to have emotions and desires?”
“What’s wrong with asking God for what pleases me? Isn’t he a good Father?”
The word translated “desires” that are at war inside of you in verse 1 and “pleasures” in verse 3 is the same Greek word.
We get our word hedonism from it.
Hedonism as a philosophy is the belief that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of my desires) is the highest good for a human.
It is also translated “passions”…not as in a good thing but a bad thing.
I know it is possible to have sanctified passions and to find pleasure in God…but the way James is using the terms he is not talking about that but about selfishness.
Making life about me…what I want.
If I am making life about me and you are making life about you…what do you think is going to happen between us?
Phil 2…says each of you should put the interests of others ahead of your own.
If I am putting your interests first, and you mine…what happens in relationships?
Whenever it is tried…beauty and thriving are what follows.
In regards to prayer, Jesus said,
“Ask and it shall be given to you.” Matt 7:7
And he also said,
9 “This, then, is how you should pray…
10your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Matt. 6:9-10
I don’t believe we are to overthink prayer…we should ask God for what we want…and trust God for what he gives.
I think James’ focus is that we should look at what is happening around us and then look at what is happening inside of us.
Look at the dissension between you guys…it’s because of the dissension within your hearts.
You heart is divided…that’s why there is division between you.
If it were not divided, if your heart was surrendered to Christ…then instead of envy and fighting you would simply ask your father for what you desire.
You wouldn’t be so mad and divisive…you would ask God and trust God.
Notice, they were not even doing much of that…”You don’t have because you don’t ask God.”
Maybe they were not asking because they had enough sense to know God was not going to play that game.
“God, make them do what I want!”
“God, give me my angry and selfish way!”
Maybe they had just wondered so far from God…they no longer lived in relational intimacy with God…asking him for things and trusting him with outcomes.
We don’t have to have perfect hearts to ask God for what we desire.
But if our desires are 180 in the wrong direction…we are probably not even asking him…we are probably just living as practical atheists…taking things in our own hands.
Mucking up relationships around us…getting hurt, and petty, and angry when others don’t bow to our demands.
If we were to ask God…to comply with our selfish demands…well of course he is going to say “no”, how could he not?
God used Winston Churchill to help save England, and the wider world from disaster.
He did believe in God, but he did not believe Jesus Christ was divine…he thought he was just a wise teacher.
And Churchill believed God was largely focused on Churchill
One biographer wrote:
“Although Churchill believed in an almighty, the role of the Supreme Being in his theology seems to have been primarily to look after the safety of Winston Churchill.”
I could see why he came to believe this.
He was involved in three car crashes and two plane crashes…he was staying in part of a house that burned to the ground in the middle of the night, very nearly drowned, was stabbed, and had four serious bouts of pneumonia (at a time when many did not survive) as well as a series of heart attacks.
He also fought in 4 wars, went into what was called “no man’s land” in WWI 30 times (often 1 time was enough to be killed).
(Roberts, Andrew. Leadership in War (p. 57). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
Obviously, God did not exist for Churchill’s purpose, Churchill existed for God’s purposes in human history.
Sure, it seems like God kept him safe for his purposes…but it was about God, not Winston.
Clearly there are not many humans in history with Churchills’ fame and global impact…but there are many, I believe, with his theology.
God exists for my purposes…he exists to keep me safe, or to make me happy.
Back to where we began…part of the journey of a child to adult is understanding that though her parents love her and care for her…life cannot be just about her.
Part of the difficulty in a child understanding a parent is that the young child’s world is entirely focused on self.
Others exist for them…the world itself (such as they understand it) exists for them.
This is good and normal…when a young child’s needs are not met by loving parents…when their world feels only unsafe…that child does not develop in healthy ways.
At the same time…as the child grows, if that child continues to be treated as the center of the universe…this too will not allow the child to develop into a healthy adult.
This will lead to very unhappy people…both the grown child and everyone around them.
What will happen to child who doesn’t learn to order their inner world to not make life about them?
They will go from one train wreck of relationship to another…what is inside, always shows up on the outside.
James is encouraging, rebuking (wait till next week) and challenging this church made up of fairly young Christians to grow up.
“Yes, Jesus died for you…that is how precious you are…now grow up, live for him, it’s not about you.”
When you make life about you it is crazy…it doesn’t work…and it shows up in broken relationships.
There is no wisdom there, no joy there.
Selfishness is a universally failed method for personally happiness…stop trying it.
Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross.
Now you guys, for the possibility of real joy…grow up, put others first, lay down your lives.
The problems around you…are because of the problem inside of you.
You are not fully decided…who will you trust? Who will you live for?
TERRY LEAD IN TIME OF REPENTANCE: