James writes about how to practically live as a follower of Jesus Christ. Two themes intertwined throughout James are wisdom and humility. It appears they both are meant to go together. Humility is of great importance to James, and as we’ll discover the Lord. It’s the main focus of the fourth chapter. We’re told that only as we humble ourselves in the sight of God will we be lifted up by the Lord (James 4:10). Although James makes that direct statement about humility, he also makes many indirect statements that have significant bearing upon living for Christ.
Humility is a personal quality in which an individual shows dependence on God and respect for other persons. The importance of this virtue springs from the fact that it’s found as part of the character of God. Since God humbles Himself, it ought not to surprise us that we are to do the same. The antonym of humility is pride. Pride is the excessive love of one’s superiority over God and others. James begins his teaching in James 4:1-10 on humility by looking at pride. James writes about the problem with pride. “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” (James 4:1-3).
James writes about “quarrels” and “fights” happening among those in the church between Christians. Both of these words refer to interpersonal conflicts. James instructs us that we are involved in conflicts because of our desire for pleasure that conflicts with our very selves and others – simply put, pride. James uses the vocabulary of war to express fights and quarrels, animosities, and bad feelings among Christians, not because there is no other way to say it but because there is no better way to express the horror of it.
James moves from the effect of pride on our relationship with others to our relationship with God. As to prayer, it’s clear that prayer requests remain unanswered because whatever God would give in response would be spent on “your passions,” which would harm ourselves and our relationship with God and others. We find that the flow of prayer upwards and response downward is no longer operating. Interestingly, James does not say that God does not hear but that we do not receive. God hears. However, the answer is “no” or “not yet,” because we are incapable of receiving the heavenly gift. John shares with us the proper motive of prayer. “This is the confidence that we have toward God, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14). The focus of Christian living and the motive of prayer is the same – God has called us to deny ourselves, forsake doing our own thing, and seek and do the will of God.
At its heart, our problem is a spiritual one. So, how do we get right with God and stay right with Him? Let’s look at the rest of our passage to find the answer. “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” (James 4:4-10). The strong language used in verse 4 takes up a theme woven throughout the Bible. The Lord has chosen a people for Himself. The church is the bride of Christ. When we forsake the loving choice of God choosing us, and we receiving Christ, violating intimacy with our Lord, we are indeed acting “adulterous.”
James proceeds to instruct us that we must not deceive ourselves into thinking we can live full lives in intimate fellowship with God when we set our hearts toward the stuff of earth. The account given in the Bible of the hearts of people is that by nature, we are sinful. In our flesh, we are corrupted by sin. The spirit that naturally dwells in us produces all kinds of evil. However, when we receive Christ as Savior and Lord, His Spirit indwells us making us more and more like Him in love, character, and sharing in His purpose.
Further, the grace of God, which is contrary to the spirit of the world, corrects and cures the spirit that naturally dwells in us. It’s the work of the Spirit that teaches us to know the difference between pride and humility. After all, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Therefore, we should resist pride in our hearts. The good news is that God gives help to the humble. In fact, to the humble, the Lord gives grace upon grace.
In Christ, we can live humbly. But how? James shares with us three actions empowering us to live humbly. Action number one, we need to submit ourselves to God (v. 7). As followers of Christ, we must have no doubt whose side we’re on. To live humbly in Christ, we must first acknowledge that we are indeed His, awaiting His leading, and ready to act when it comes. Secondly, we need to resist the devil (v. 7). We can never be truly humble if we’re unwilling to actively resist the devil. Resist is not a word of attack but defense. It speaks of one who is manning a defense at camp, knowing the enemy’s pressure is ceaseless, and she is constantly under fire. We do well to notice that it’s those who have submitted to God who are commanded to stand firm against the devil. I love the promise, “resist the devil, and he will flee!” lastly, we draw near to God. Fellowship with God, and its accompanying blessing of His fellowship with us, does not ‘just happen;’ we cannot drift into it any more than drifting into Christlikeness. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we obediently place God at the center of our life (drawing near to Him), and He enables us to walk in the power of His presence.
Humility is essential to the Christian life. James presents us with a practical picture of what it looks like to take this journey with Christ of living humbly (James 4:8b-9). We come to the Lord and, empowered by His Spirit, we begin walking with Him in God-honoring ways. His motives become our motives. We affirm in word and deed that we are His and His alone. We repent, not only acknowledging our sins but feeling remorse that we have sinned against God; we turn away from our sinful path and walk His righteous path. We depart from the shallow laughter and temporary happiness we craved and, instead, walk in the goodness and fullness of life in Christ.
The promise to the person who does this, who acts by submitting to God, resisting the devil, and drawing near to God, is that those who humble yourselves before the Lord; he will exalt (James 4:10). The prideful one, with all his excessive love of his superiority over God and others, along with all the sinful acts and desires that came with such thinking, now find themselves humble, showing dependence on God and respect for others. The way up is down. The lowly one becomes the lifted one. Think about it. There is a marked advantage to humility—eventually, it brings honor and, with-it genuine blessings and abundant life. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!