People fight all the time. Turn on the TV and one will hear about the latest fight between a celebrity couple. Tune into the news and one will hear about violence all over. When people get upset they usually settle it with hostility. What happens when that hostility finds its way into the church? Although it is difficult to pinpoint all the details, it seems evident that the saints to whom James wrote were coming to blows regularly. Imagine that – here are people who are to pursue peace and reap a “harvest of righteousness” that is “sown in peace by those who make peace” (3.18). Yet among these brethren who should have been peaceable, “fights” and “quarrels” were breaking out, possibly in the assembly (2.2). Two thousand down the stream of time we might look down upon our brethren. But how many church league softball fistfights have broken out or, worse, were instigated by our hands? Into this calamity, quarreling, and fisticuffs, James speaks a better word, indeed, the Word of God
James 4:1–12 (ESV)
1What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you?
2You 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.
3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
4You 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.
5Or 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”?
6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
9Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.
10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
11Do 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.
12There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
Dissatisfaction with the World (1-6)
James identifies on key root to the problem in the church: personal passions. The fruit of this problem is all the quarrelsomeness and worldliness. Until we are thoroughly fed up with the world and worldliness, we will not find satisfaction with God. Notice how the world makes us unsatisfied as a people.
At war with one another (1-2a). Adam Clarke dives into the contemporary culture of these first century Christians to discuss the various insurrections the Jews led against Rome and says these are the wars and fights here mentioned. However, James is not writing to Jews as a whole, but to those Jews who have come to Christ and become “brothers” in Him. No, the “quarrels” (Lit. open warfare) and “fights” (Lit. serious conflict whether physical or not) which James here addresses are happening in the church among brethren! He asks a question: what causes the warring and fighting in the church? He answers his own question with a rhetorical question: isn’t the root of these battles hedonism? James says “passions” (or “pleasures” or “desires”; Gk. hedone from which we get our English “hedonism”) which are internally causing strife and disquieting the soul are the source of the tumult in the church. All the external strife in the church is the result of the internal conflict of personal passion for what one does not have.
James cuts even further explaining that they wish for something they do not have, in and of itself not necessarily a bad thing until, frustrated by failure to get the thing desired, “you murder.” Kept in context of Christian brethren apparently coveting what another brother has, it would seem when James speaks of “murder” in this context it is somewhat akin to what the apostle John would write decades later. Failure to obtain what another brother has produces resentment, distain, and full blown hatred. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer,” says John (1 John 3.15). So James brings these Christians face-to-face with who they have become and it is far short of the character of Christ. They are covetous and when frustrated by not obtaining what they covet, fights and quarrels (same words as v.1) break out among brethren. A modern-day illustration might be something like a church league softball game in which both teams desire to win. How often these friendly exhibitions turn into a fistfight!
At war with ourselves (2b-3). James next turns his readers inward as he forces them to examine their prayer life. All this external strife cause by internal desires can and does wreak havoc upon one’s prayer life. “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Clearly, there is an allusion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt 7.7). What James means here is not that God would grant them the wishes of their sinful covetousness. Rather, what is in view is the fact that these Christians are not praying. Their conversation with the Father in heaven is non-existent at this point.
In addition, there would no doubt be those who would object to James and say “We did ask!” So James tells them that when they do hit their knees and actually do voice their desires to God, what they ask for is not given “because you ask wrongly,” seeking to use what is received on hedonism (same word as v.1). Their asking is incorrect and improper. Their desires are self-seeking when they should be seeking to glorify God with what He bestows and blesses them. Prayer is powerful and effective, but only for the righteous who would seek to ask rightly. Even Christians can turn prayer into a gross form of idolatry, merely using God to get what you want.
At war with One (4-6). Finally James brings us up close and personal with the One whom we are at war if we seek satisfaction from the world: God Himself. While not calling them idolatrous, because they have so perverted prayer and battled their brethren, he calls them “adulteresses.” James reaches into the Old Testament for this figure. The Jewish community in the Old Testament was personified as an adulteress when in unfaithfulness they abandoned God (Cf. Hosea). Spiritual adultery has taken place in the church of Christ: these Christians were covetous (which is idolatry, Eph 5.5; Col 3.5), had perverted and polluted prayer, and had fallen in love with the world. James sugarcoats nothing. He is not soft. So appealing to their sensibilities, emotions, and faith, with great urgency he rebukes his brethren and calls them to repentance. They’ve not yet launched into full blown apostasy, but given their present course if they remain on it disaster looms. James portrays their present relationship with God as a woman who turns away from her husband in order to follow after other lovers. In this case, they abandon Christ, lover of their souls and lover of His church, for their love of worldliness. So speaking in generalities, James asks yet another rhetorical question: don’t you know that friendship with the world will produce and promote enmity (or hostility) with God? Of course they knew this! To fall in love with the world will take a Christian right back to where they started before they came to Christ and His church – an enemy of God (cf. Rom 5.10). You are no longer a part of the family of faith of which Abraham is patriarch and God is our friend.
But James does not stop there. He appeals to Scripture to drive his point home further. Master of the rhetorical question, James asks two more questions. First, do you think the Scriptures speak in vain? What a powerful question which must be answered by every man and woman who bears the name of Christ. If the Scriptures speak in vain, they are void and without power. If the Scriptures speak in vain, they are powerless to communicate the word of God and deliver us from worldliness. What a potent question! A negative answer is assumed by James – of course the Scriptures do not speak in vain! So when the Scriptures speak, especially in regards to worldliness, covetousness, and quarrelsomeness, there is purpose and power. Second, does the (Holy) Spirit which He (God) has made to dwell in us intensely desire jealousy? Again, a negative answer is anticipated – of course not! God’s Spirit in us does not produce or promote the feelings of ill-will toward the brethren because of some advantage they might possess, be it real or imaginary. Quite the contrary, God’s Spirit produces and promotes love, peace, goodness, and self-control (all fruit of the Spirit, see Gal 5.22-23). Therefore, the jealousy, covetousness, and strife among the members of the body are evidence that they have ceased to walk by the Spirit and are not walking according to the flesh.
All the more reason grace is needed. “Moreover He gives more grace.” God or the Holy Spirit? Yes. God through the Holy Spirit bestows grace into the life of the Christian. This is what friendship with God means for the Christian. Would they forfeit this or would they repent? And repentance is the reason more or greater grace is needed. Once more James appeals to Scripture, this time quoting Proverbs 3.34. Those proud ones who refuse to repent and turn from wicked ways are opposed by God. That is He stands in battle against them. But those individuals and congregations who will humbly repent of past failure to walk in the way of the Lord, putting away quarrelsomeness, worldliness, and prayerlessness, are the recipients of the gift of God’s unmerited favor.
Satisfaction in God (7-12)
Having brought his readers face-to-face with the pollution in their hearts, he goes off. James rolls out a litany of commands to his brothers, being quite frank in his evaluation of who they are (“sinners” and “double-minded”) and in his instruction of what they should do. In these verses is the solution for the human heart.
Submit (7a). “Therefore,” since you are guilty of the preceding indictments, submit yourselves to God. Adam Clarke says this means to “continue to bow to all his decisions, and to all his dispensations.” The reason is because all of his decisions and ways for obtaining His favor are good and beneficial for us. Literally James is calling his brethren to come under the control of God. They’ve been living for themselves and their passions and pleasures and the result has been disaster. But coming under the control of God brings grace.
Resist (7b). Submit to God “but resist the devil.” The devil wants us to harbor and manifest jealousy, worldliness, quarrels, and the like. The church is never more in line with the purposes of Satan than when she is demonstrating these. Hence, James exhorts the church to not only psychologically oppose the devil but to match the thoughts with appropriate actions and behaviors. No doubt James has in mind the episode in the life of Christ when He resisted the devil (see Matt 4.1-11; Luke 4.1-13). The devil fled from Jesus when Jesus resisted his advances. So too Christians, following in the footsteps of Christ, are to oppose his schemes and when we do the devil will move along.
Draw Near (8a). For too long these Christians have withdrawn from their God. Now James implores them to once more draw near to Him. If Christians would find the grace of God, they must approach the God of all grace. Even as the prodigal who arose and went “drew nigh” unto the father’s house, so James exhorts these prodigals to arise, go the father, and draw nigh unto Him. There is a promise attached to this command: when we draw near to God, He, like the prodigal’s father, “will draw near” to us. Not may or might; He will and therein lies the promise.
Cleanse (8b). James knows his audience well. They are “sinners” and as such they need cleansing. Indeed, only the clean-handed and pure of heart will dwell on the high, holy hill of God (Psa 24.4). No doubt James has this passage in mind as he writes this and the next exhortation. Washing or cleansing the hands was a ceremonial sign of purity and innocence. James wants his brethren to likewise determine to be pure and innocent before God. Sin has marred their walk. But now their conduct will be changed and different before God.
Purify (8c). Again, James shows he knows to whom he speaks. These brothers are “double-minded” (lit. two-souled, see 1.8), wavering between love for the world and love for God. But “no man can serve two masters.” So to purify the heart is to cease in wavering between the two. Love for the world, all jealousy and quarreling must be removed from the heart. They were to be done with their own base desires. What would be left is pure love for God, pure desires for His desires, and love for the brethren. From this and the previous imperative, both outward and inward purification are vital. What good is a clean inward man without corresponding action? What good is a clean cup if the inside of the vessel is rotten? Clean hands and pure hearts are both vital.
Mourn (9). James issues four (4) imperatives in a single verse which quantify the language of repentance. The first part of this verse can be translated “be sorrowful even mourn even weep” with an effect in which each of these commands builds on the next. First, James exhorts his brethren to feel bad. They need feel bad about what they have become (adulterous). Second, he tells them to feel sad. They should be grieved and mourn over their present condition. Third, feeling bad and sad about their circumstances these feelings should break forth in weeping and wailing. The emphasis of this command is upon the noise made. Thus, James fourthly demands that their laughter, a joyful expression and noise, should be turned into mourning accompanied by weeping, a sorrowful expression and noise. Do not be glad at the present situation but be sad. When God’s people adulterate their relationship with Him, this is not a time for gladness but for sadness and sorrow. This sorrow should drive us to repentance.
Humble (10). Building upon the previous four commands, part of repentance is humiliation. So James commands his brethren to humble themselves before the Lord. Adam Clarke points out the relationship of verse 7 with submission to God and verse 10 with humiliation before God. He says “submission to God’s authority will precede humiliation of soul.” Indeed, some ancient manuscripts begin verse 10 with “therefore.” Further, no doubt James is appealing also to the teachings of his half-brother Jesus (cf. Matthew 18.4; 23.12). These Christians had a haughty and proud spirit before God and therefore needed to make themselves low and once more view themselves in perspective to God. They are continually in the presence (i.e. in His sight) of Him who alone should be exalted and lifted up. It is God alone who exalts men from their lowly estate. Thomas a Kempis says,
“It is the humble man whom God protects and liberates; it is the humble whom He loves and consoles. To the humble He turns and upon them bestows great grace, that after their humiliation He may raise them up to glory. He reveals His secrets to the humble, and with kind invitation bids them come to Him. Thus, the humble man enjoys peace in the midst of many vexations, because his trust is in God, not in the world. Hence, you must not think that you have made any progress until you look upon yourself as inferior to all others.”
Do not Speak Against (11-12). The final imperative in this litany of commands is a relational one. It would seem that much back-biting and gossip is happening among these Christians. Brother slanders brother and therefore James must tell them to cease and desist in this. False reports, false charges, discredit and disesteeming are all in view here. In addition, James will include judging into this discussion. Here are brethren passing judgment on one another and speaking evil about one another to other brothers! James highlights the severity of this sin by pointing out that speaking evil and judging a brother is tantamount to speaking evil and judging the law.
The question is asked: what law – the Law of Moses or the law of liberty (i.e. Christ)? It should be immediately noted that there is no definite article before the word “law” in the original language. Hence James speaks of simply “law” not “the law.” Further, it must be noted that James exposes this sin in a striking manner – showing its relation to “law” and law’s relation to God (as Lawgiver). Many scholars will say that this is the “law of Christ” (i.e. Coffman, Gibson, Alford, Lenski, Plumptre, Luther, Barnes, et al). However, it should be noted that James has already spoken of “royal law” previously in this epistle and when he did he appealed to “the Scripture,” namely “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19.18). It just seems that James in similar appeals to that same “royal law” here. Specifically, he seems to have in mind the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20.16). So by speaking evil against a brother in Christ, one is not a doer of the law, but is in fact a law breaker. Further, one sits as judge over the law (and the contrast is emphatic by the word used for “but”).
On top of all this, James shows that by passing judgment upon the brethren one sets himself up as superior to God Almighty who is the one who determines and dictates law as well as sits in judgment upon those who would break His law. So James closes with a rhetorical question: who are you? The assumed answer is that compared to the supreme Lawgiver of the galaxy and judge of this universe, I am no one and therefore have no right to pass judgment upon my neighbor (i.e. brother). And so we see the necessity of humility before God Almighty. If we properly view ourselves and one another in relation to God, then we have no right to slander our brother.
It is necessary to point out that all of these imperatives are spoken not merely to individuals but to the congregation as a whole. In other words, these are things we are to do together in community. The church collectively submits to God, resists the devil, draws ever nearer to God, cleanses their hands, purifies their hearts, mourns over past failures (sin), and walks in humility. In addition, it should be noted that the previous imperatives are aorist tense verbs (snapshot or once-for-all) whereas in verse a shift takes place and James uses a present tense imperative. This leads some scholars to believe that James has shifted somewhat in subject matter while still tackling the obvious problem of brotherly hostility.
 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996). 63-64.