Suppose you had a business and every night you asked God to bless your business. You prayed confidently that God would do exceedingly abundantly beyond all we could ask or imagine. However, every day you are late to work and sometimes you close early (so no one really knows when you are open). You make promises you do not keep and treat customers as intrusions on your day. To speed your success you add a higher markup to products so your prices are higher than others in your business. Before long your business is really struggling. You return to God confused and angry because God has not answered your prayer.
Has God failed or has the businessman failed? If you really want God to bless your business you will strive to have the best business possible. James has been trying to get this same message across to us.
Many believers are like the businessman. They ask God to give them victory in their lives but they continue to follow the way of the world in their living. They proclaim faith in God but the way they live shows their real faith is in the ways of the world. James has told us that such people actually are living as enemies of God (v.4).
In verses 7-10 James gives us some practical steps to living a godly life. These steps are directed at the very core of our being.
The very first thing James tells us is,
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.
The word translated “submit” is a military term that means “to get into your proper rank”. It would be used of a private who understands that he must follow the orders of a superior officer. The private does not give orders, he follows or submits to them. To submit to God means to live our lives in recognition that He is God and therefore has authority in our lives. Practically this means
- When things don’t go as expected, we trust God’s superior wisdom and love.
- When presented a choice between the way of the world (and often those close to us) and the way of God (as revealed in the Bible) we entrust ourselves to His wisdom.
- When life becomes hectic we choose to rest in peace rather than churn with anxiety because we trust that God is in control and we rest in Him.
This attitude of submission is the opposite of what society advocates. People take classes on assertiveness training and the art of gaining an advantage through intimidation. We strive to “get our own way”. We want to pull our own strings and be our own boss. The idea of submission is scoffed at by the world.
The key to Biblical submission is recognizing the superiority of the one to whom we are called to submit. We have difficulty submitting to a boss who seems incompetent. We have trouble showing respect to someone who seems undeserving of respect. This is why we must know God in order to respect Him. When we compare God’s wisdom with our own; when we compare His excellence with our inconsistency; when we compare His love with those around us, we should be eager to submit.
James, I believe, expands our understanding of submission with practical applications. One is negative, the other positive: “resist the Devil” and “draw near to God.”
Resist the Devil The negative exhortation is to resist the Devil. It means we are willing to say “No” to that which is contrary to the Lord. It means,
- Saying “No” to immorality
- Saying “No” to gossip
- Saying “No” to manipulation and selfishness
- Saying “No” to greed, discontent and materialism
- Saying “No” to those who would have you water down the truth of the Gospel to be more acceptable
Just as a person with lung cancer must say “No” to that urge for a cigarette, or a diabetic must say “No” to excess in certain foods, so we must say no to the temptation of Satan. This is what Jesus did in the desert when He was tempted: He said No and based that “No” on the teaching of the Word of God. The Devil came at Him three times (we have to be serious and determined with our “No”) but when He resisted, the Devil departed until another opportune time.
We can’t do this alone. If we try to take on the Devil in our own strength we will always fail. The Devil is stronger, smarter, more resourceful, and more determined than we are. However, when we resist the Devil as a follower of Christ, the Devil flees because the Lord is stronger, smarter, more resourceful and more committed than the Devil. Standing on the wisdom and guidance of the Word of God is the best way to stand in His strength. I find that often actually saying “NO” helps me remember my responsibility to resist the Devil.
Draw Near to God The positive side of the command is to draw near to God. To do this we must make use of what is called the spiritual disciplines. These are disciplines (which means we work at them) we engage in for the sole purpose of drawing close to the Lord. What are some of these disciplines?
- Regular attendance in worship so we are exposed to God’s Word and encouraged by God’s people
- Reading and reflecting on God’s Word
- Fasting (going without food for a period so you can devote yourself to prayer)
- Sacrifice (deliberately doing things that involve a sacrifice of time, money, and resources)
- Service (doing something for another even though you don’t want to do it)
- Memorizing Scripture
None of these things are an end in and of themselves but they move us toward the desired end. The promise is simple: If we will draw near to Him, He will draw near to us. God has gone way more than halfway to meet us. Our job is to consciously move toward Him rather than continually away from Him.
The second step to godly living is Reformation. James writes, “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
The picture of washing and purification goes back to the Old Testament. Before the priest could make an offering, he had to wash “so that he would not die”. To come before God with soiled hands or feet was considered to be an insult to a Holy God. The washing symbolized cleansing from the daily (even unconscious) defilements. James says we need to change our behavior if we want to live a godly life.
Jeremiah said much the same thing in chapter 7. He was told to speak to the children of Israel from the steps of the temple.
I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; 6 only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. 7 Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.
8 “ ‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here (or because you go to church). It’s a lie! 9 Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, 10 and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again? (NLT)
The idea of an unchanged believer is offensive to God. To claim to be His follower, or to be “born again” or “saved” and continue to live like the rest of the world is a contradiction. Think about it,
- If you really are trying to lose weight, you will eat differently
- If you really want a good marriage, you will stop living like you are single
- If you really want to be a good ballplayer you will work hard in practice
- If you really want to save money you will stop buying so many unnecessary thing
In the same way, if you really want to be a follower of Christ, you will start living your life as He commands. You will start to actually follow Him! Notice we are to wash our hands and purify our hearts. We must follow externally and internally.
- It is not enough to simply refrain from adultery; we should seek to be free of sinful lusts.
- It is not enough to give God a tithe of what we have; we should strive to view everything we have as belonging to the Lord.
- It is not enough to be civil to other people; we are to strive to truly love them.
- It is not enough to show up in church on Sunday; we are to try to serve Him in every area of our lives.
The third step toward godly living is an attitude of contrition.
Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.
It sounds like James is calling us to move throughout life with a negative attitude and a frown upon our face. But that’s not what he is saying at all. John MacArthur writes,
The misery James calls for is not the typical kind of depression people feel when they are dissatisfied with their lot in life. It has nothing to do with the despondency of self-pity or the lack of contentment felt by those who think life has been unfair to them. It is a misery that stems from a true sense of one’s own guilt and a recognition that, because we are sinners, we don’t deserve divine blessing. It is the cry of the heart that knows it has offended the righteousness of God and has no hope apart from God’s mercy.
“Grieve, mourn and wail” These are words which indicate repentance. James tells us that before we can draw near to God we need to be troubled and feel sorrow for our rebellion against God. We must see and feel our sin acutely and sincerely desire to be delivered from that sin. We must come to the Lord as “broken” people.
An old preacher was informed that in one of his services a certain woman had gotten “joy in the Lord” (i.e., conversion). His penetrating question was: “Did she ever get any sorrow?” He knew that a proper grief precedes real joy.
Any true revival is preceded by a time of deep and profound repentance. We must see our sin before we can appreciate His grace. We must see that we are going in the wrong direction before we will have any desire to go in a different direction. James is saying the true believer understands that sin offends God. They do not make excuses. Instead they cry out to God for forgiveness and new life.
Maybe it would help to see practically what this means,
- When we find ourselves enjoying a juicy tidbit of gossip, taking delight in the failure of another, or viewing someone’s hardship in terms of an advantage we can gain or when we look at another person as an object to exploit for our pleasure, we will hit our knees and mourn over our lack of love.
- Instead of giving in to the cravings for more, more, more, we repent of our dissatisfaction with what God has provided and pray for God to help us be content and grateful for what He has graciously and undeservedly given.
- When we see ourselves watering down or negotiating the truth of Scripture for any reason, we will mourn our rebellion in the things of God and our arrogance in thinking we have the right to change His Word.
- When we see ourselves pursuing our glory rather than His we will grieve over and confess our idolatry.
- When we know we have lied to look good, gain and advantage, or to escape a consequence that is rightfully ours, we will mourn over our deception and ask God to make us a person who loves truth.
- When we see that we are indifferent to the poor, the needy, the confused and the broken, we will grieve over our hard and selfish hearts.
- When we find that we are anxious or frazzled, we repent and confess our lack of faith in God’s wisdom and provision.
The person who sees our sin in this manner recognizes that sin is indeed a big deal. It offends God, it hurts others, and it destroys us. Sin is like a disease and we should want to purge it from our lives as much as we want a tumor removed from our bodies. Instead of shrugging off the sin of our lives (which is what we usually do) . . . God wants us to hate the sin of our lives.
Let me remind you that James is not implying that we must live perfectly before we can walk with God. We are saved by grace through faith. God saves us due to nothing we do. However, those who truly trust Him should desire to live fully for Him. When we fail (and we will) we should run to Him, confess our wrong behavior and ask God to help us take steps to overcome our sin.
James concludes his list by saying, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Philip Brooks said, “The true way to be humble, is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature.” In other words the key to humility is not a constant minimizing of who we are or the gifts we possess. Humility is not about comparing ourselves with others. Humility comes from seeing ourselves in light of the greatness of God.
- It is being overwhelmed by the undeserved nature of His love
- it is living each day with a gratitude that comes from knowing we are undeserving recipients of an incredible grace
- It is the humble acceptance of God’s will for our lives anchored to our belief in God’s wisdom and love.
- It is being soft with others because we are so aware of our own weakness
The Christianity that James promotes is not that which we often hear promoted in our country. The church in America tends to be a faith that makes no demands and does not interfere with our goals for ourselves and our families. We too often are driven by the desire to be liked and considered “cool”. We compete for “customers” so we tell our customers what they want to hear.
Such faith is comfortable, pleasant, and popular but it is also powerless to save. It is like giving a placebo to a person with cancer. It is easy . . . . and worthless. The only faith that saves is that which truly comes to the Lord with an awareness of our sin and brokenness. The true faith puts its trust and hope in Jesus, not just for the remission of sin, but also for direction in life. True faith draws its life and values from God’s Word.
This is an important issue. What kind of follower are you? Are you claiming to be religious even as you run frantically after the world? Or do these characteristics (submission, reformation, contrition or humility) describe your life? Here are some questions to help you evaluate where you stand.
- Do you hate the sin in your life or do you secretly cherish and enjoy it? Do you envy those you know who live recklessly wishing you “didn’t have to be so good”? Or do you see and mourn over the short-sightedness of such living?
- Are you submitting to the Lord or are you rebelling against Him today? Are you complaining about your circumstances or are you serving God in your circumstances? Are you trusting or churning?
- Are you making us of the disciplines of faith so you can draw near to God or are you coasting in your spiritual life in the erroneous belief that spiritual maturity will just happen without any effort?
- Does your study of the Scripture change the way you live your life, or do you change or twist what the Scripture says in order to justify the way you live?
- Do you want God to sanction YOUR agenda or are you willing to live by HIS even if it takes you in a different direction?
- Do you proclaim yourself to be a follower of Christ or are you actually trying to follow Him?
- Is there something God wants you to do right now that you have been resisting? Are you willing to trust Him enough to step forward in obedience?
Honestly, I’d rather stand up here today and tell you that God desires to help you reach your goals. I’d rather tell you that He wants you to have a good time, He wants you to be popular and He wants you to have all the stuff you crave. It would be more “fun” to just give you a pep talk. However, it is more important that we hear the truth. A pep talk can make us feel better for awhile. It can make us feel good about ourselves. Those who are good at pep talks can become quite famous and wealthy. However, it is the truth of God that transforms people. It is His truth that brings us into a deep relationship with Him. It is the truth that leads us to eternal life. It is the truth that can truly set us free. If I truly love you, like God loves you, I have to proclaim the truth . . . even if it is hard to hear.