Fighting for Humility

April 7, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: James

Topic: Humility Scripture: James 4:1–12

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. 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”? 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.

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?

The first hockey game I ever went to was to see the Kansas City Blades of the now-defunct International Hockey League. I knew nothing about hockey, but that didn’t matter so much. What everybody went to see were the fights. And there were some really good ones. It’s what we found ourselves cheering for, egging on, and most interested in. Getting your money’s worth for this form of entertainment depended on seeing a good brawl break out on the ice.

Seems like everyone likes to watch a fight. Now, if you really want to find a good tussle, one place you might want to go is your nearest church. Church fights can be quite epic. It would be funny if it weren’t so true and if it weren’t so destructive. People get seriously wounded from church squabbles.

In our passage today, James confronts the morbidity of Christians and Christian communities at war with one another. Ever since the previous chapter, James has been addressing the importance of how we use our words and how that affects our relationships with each other. The first twelve verses of James 3 introduced this topic, showing us that there must be consistency between how we use our words in relation to God and how we use our words in relation to God’s image bearers. Then, in verses 13-18 of James 3, we see that those who possess God’s wisdom know how to use their words to bring “a harvest of righteousness,” sowing peace and bringing peace about in the Christian community.

Now in these verses, James confronts this problem of the lack of peace in the church, telling us why we lack peace with each other, what we can do about it, and what it looks like when peace rules the day among believers in Jesus.

Why We Lack Peace

First, in verses 1-5, James addresses the question of why Christians so often lack peace even among their own community. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” he asks in the opening words of the chapter. Why do Christians quarrel?

Raising the Question

‌Now that’s about as practical as it gets, isn’t it? Why do human beings sometimes not get along so well? Why are there quarrels and fights, why are there tensions and troubles, why are there wars and hostilities? Why can’t people always get along?

‌There could be all kinds of answers to those questions, but James is asking the question not about human persons in general but about Christians in particular. The very fact that he asks the question suggests something we might not have otherwise considered. The expectation is that in the Christian community, in the church of Jesus Christ, things ought to look very, very different than they do in any other community of people.

Why? It’s not because the church is supposed to attract nice and moral people. Quite the opposite. The church is supposed to be composed of sinners. No, the reason why we should expect to see something different in the church is not because of the kind of people that we are who are members of it. It's because of the kind of Savior that brings us together. The reason we should see something different in the church is because of Easter, because Jesus has been raised from the dead.

You see, the surprising thing about the Christian community is that it has historically been the place where people who otherwise would have nothing in common find themselves together, living in peace. If a group of people all share the same devotion to a particular sports team or share interest in the same hobby or come from the same hometown or are all in on the same political party or candidate, they can get along with each other quite a bit, especially if they stay focused on what it is they have in common.

‌The same is true for Christians. From the very beginning the Christian church began to be known as an alternative society, a gathering of people who would otherwise never be seen together. Jews, along with Gentiles from every nation, began to assemble and worship Jesus together as their true Lord. It was a striking sight to see, explainable only because they all believed that Jesus was their risen, living Lord. It was Jesus himself who was their peace because he had made them one having “broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” that divided them and creating “in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).‌

But it should go without saying that what Christians share in common that ought to keep them at peace with one another is nothing other than this, that we all “hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 2:1). What really makes a church a credible gospel community is when it is this, and this alone, that explains the peace found within the community of faith.

Passions at War

This then is what explains the lack of peace in the church, among Christians. As James says in verse one, the cause for our conflicts with one another is this: “your passions are at war within you.” Passions is the Greek word from which we get our word hedonism. It refers to that which delights us, brings us pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction. When two people have competing delights, we should not be surprised when we find them at odds with one another.

‌But James does not say the problem is competing passions between two or more believers; he says the problem comes from competing passions within each one of them. When Christians cannot get along, when there is conflict within the church, the problem might be because some of them aren’t really Christians after all. But it’s not like all true Christians will always get along. The reason why they sometimes won’t is not because of something outside of them they can’t agree upon; the problem is from something inside of them. “Your passions are at war within you.”‌

James’s words in verse 4 comes as something like a shock. “You adulterous people!” That’s quite a different way to address his audience than the typical way of calling them “brothers and sisters.” But this way of speaking comes right out of the Old Testament. The Scripture he cites in verse 5 is not any particular verse in the Old Testament but to a scriptural theme.[1] The God of Israel is presented as being in a covenant relationship with his people, like in a marriage. His jealousy for them is what you would expect from any faithful spouse. But his people are adulterous. They have divided hearts. They are double-minded. Their passions are at war within them, and they keep going back to find satisfaction in someone—or something—else.

The Key to Peace in the Community

In the Bible, this is the sin of idolatry. And you don’t have to literally bow down to some statute to commit it. All you have to have is a divided heart that leads you to say “God is good” one moment and then go looking for someone or something else to satisfy your passions the next.

And nothing will bring a brawl faster than when your idol you look to for satisfaction comes under threat. “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel,” James says in verse 2. Right? If you really, really want something, what might you be tempted to do to get it?

You might even be tempted to murder. I mean, that’s what James says in verse 2.

We Christians can fight and quarrel with one another just as well as any good pagan can do. A Christian could even end up committing murder, not because such a person would prove they really aren’t a Christian after all, but because they’ve got some desire that they’ve been trying to satisfy with some other god.

What are the idols that tempt you to find satisfaction in them?

That’s the reason you quarrel and fight with other Christians.

What To Do About It

Alright, so what can be done about this problem?

Greater Grace

What James says in verse 4 is what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. You can’t serve two masters. If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God.

The world here is not the created reality in which we live. Way too many well-meaning Christians have turned verse 4 into a demand that we must stay separate from certain material objects that they deem have been unredeemably tarnished. Problem is that Christians disagree about what those things are, and ironically, often end up fighting among themselves about which kinds of behaviors are and are not allowed for Christians.

What we need to fight the idolatry within is not a new set of rules. What we need is something more powerful than the urge to have a dalliance with idols of the world that diminish our zeal for the kingdom of God. That something that we need is grace, and God is eager to give it to us.

As jealous as God is for his people, he is even more jealous, we might say, to win us back from our spiritual adultery. “He yearns jealously,” verse 5 says, “over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” In other words, God is so radically committed to his people that he is dead set on wooing us back to himself, no matter how far we have strayed into worldly infidelity. He has caused his own life-giving spirit to dwell in us, after all, so he’s not going to accept seeing us defile that spirit forever. The “spirit” mentioned in verse 5 can be either the spirit that God breathed into us at creation (Gen 2:7) or the spirit he breathes into us at regeneration (Tit 3:5). In either case the point is the same. God is jealous that we be the full image bearers he intends for us to be.

So, God takes the initiative. “He gives more grace,” verse 6 says, but this may be better translated, “He gives greater grace” (CSB). What God expects and demands of us, by the spirit he made to dwell in us, is not some impossible standard. Because, after all, God lavishes his grace upon us which is powerful enough to overcome all of our sin and see to it that his demands for us are met.

Grace for the Fight

Now hear that carefully, brothers and sisters. All of that is true only because of Easter. It’s only in light of what Jesus has already done for us that grace can be understood not simply as the gift of God that forgives our sins but also the grace of God that overcomes our sins. Yes, God’s holy jealousy and demand for total allegiance may be terrifying, but God’s mercy, love, and grace in Jesus is more than enough to provide us with all we need to be what he expects us to be.[2]

Here again we must remember to read all of this in light of Easter Sunday. In and through Jesus, the question of whether or not God will accept us, sinners though we are, has been definitely answered in the affirmative. His blood has washed away our sins.‌

So, now what? What happens after resurrection? Seriously, just think about it. On the one hand, things seem to just keep on going like they always have. The sun comes up, the sun goes down. But, on the other hand, for those who hope in Jesus, who believe in Jesus and his resurrection, nothing could ever be the same again. Nothing. And that includes ourselves.‌

Believers in Jesus can never be satisfied with statements of resignation about the kind of people we are. We ought to know all too well how sinful we are, how idolatrous we can be. But never, never, never can we simply accept that and say, “Well, I am saved, so at least I’ve got my ticket to heaven.”‌

No way! If Jesus has been raised, and you believe in him, then that means you have been raised with him (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). The old has passed, the new has come. Why would you be satisfied with the old and all of its broken, hopeless relationships?‌

If Jesus lives, and we live with him, then we must retain our hope that everything can be changed, including ourselves. Peace can come where only war existed before. That can be true on the job as well as in your home. Never be content with a lack of peace. You want peace in your home? Fight for it! You want peace with your spouse? Fight for it! You want peace on the job? You can have it, but you must fight for it!

Grace to the Humble

How do we fight for peace? What must we do with God’s grace? James reminds us what the Scripture says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34). So, you know what to do. He circles back to it in verse 10. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Everything in between verse 6 and verse 10 must be taken as an exposition on the fight for humility before the Lord. All of these commands come together to show us the way.

The way of humility begins with recognizing our proper place as God’s people. “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” The word submit means to be put in proper order. False humility is out of order and is another form of pride, where we present ourselves as worthless and insignificant, all the while hoping someone will come along and give us the recognition and acclaim we crave. True humility submits to God, knowing our proper place as creatures—we are not God—but also as creatures-in-his-image. No human being can give you anywhere close to the value, worth, and dignity that God has given to you.

The way of humility then moves to resistance. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The devil, the satan as he is also called, is that dark, mysterious power that has been soundly defeated at the cross of Christ and in his resurrection. The humble do not give in to the devil or make compromises with him—beware the danger of assuming you must take the “lesser of two evils.”

Finally, the way of humility is the practice of regular repentance. That’s what verses 8-9 are all about, their language drawn from the expectations of priests and prophets and calling us to the sincere worship of God.[3]

This vision of biblical humility is what we must fight for, all because of what we believe is true about us and about our world now that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

What We Can Expect

What, then, can we expect will be different as we fight for humility?

Rest for Your Soul

Let’s say this first: Humility is not a feature of a particular personality. It is a characteristic of Christ. If you want to be humble, then you must devote yourself to being a disciple of Jesus. “Learn from me,” Jesus says in Matthew 11:29, “for I am gentle and (humble) in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Now that’s worth fighting for! To the extent that we learn to practice true humility, we will begin to take on the character of Christ himself. Yes, we can begin to look a bit more like Jesus. We might even begin to be known as, well, as Christians, as little Christs. The only way for this to happen is for us to learn it by daily following after Jesus and learning his way.

His way is always an alternative to the ways of the world. You don’t learn Christ by immersing yourself in the pantheon of the world’s ways. Whether your daily digest is chock full of conservative or liberal ideologies, both of these are full of pride and self-confidence and will steer you away from the humble, life-giving way of Jesus. Nothing else will lead you to “rest for your soul.”

Peace for Your Relationships

Were we all to turn away from all our idols and be fully devoted to Jesus and to his kingdom, then we would also be at peace with one another.

That is the vision James spells out as he brings this section on “speech ethics” to a close. In verses 11-12, he argues that the humble do not speak evil against others. They don’t set themselves up as somebody else’s judge. Judgmentalism is the virtue of the proud and does not lead to peace. We are not called to judge our neighbor but to love them. Not because we don’t believe in judgment, but precisely because we do. “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.” But we are not the lawgiver; we are not the judge. We are free! So be at peace! What God requires of us is to show to one another the same self-giving love that he has shown to us. That is the greatest power in the world. It is therefore the power that brings peace, which is what we must expect in the church of all places, not because we agree about everything, but because we see in Jesus the power to be humble, to have no need to insist on our own way (1 Cor 13:5).

That, of course, is how the Bible describes the power of real love. It is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, is not arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful (1 Cor 13:4-5). That is the love that will change the world.

And that is the power that comes to us only in the love of God made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth. He calls us to fight for humility and thereby to silence the chaotic storms that trouble us all.


[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Second edition, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 240.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 145.

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