You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”
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. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (NIV)
Apparently, the Apostle James was not trying to win friends. But he was trying to influence people, specifically those who are proud. So, please understand from the outset that James was going tough after haughty persons because it takes a hammer to break a hard heart. And so, his approach ought only to be emulated in the unique context of handling persons stuck in their own destructive hubris. Nevertheless, there is much instruction in these verses to help us all.
Throughout the Bible, a marriage metaphor is used to liken the relationship of God to the people much like a lover. God’s covenant relationship is at the heart of understanding the whole of Scripture. Whenever people stray from divine promises, God is offended and hurt.
Yes, God feels pain. God is an emotional Being, which is why we have emotions as God’s image-bearers. One way to view the Bible is that it is a book about God, the jilted lover. The Lord set affection and love upon people, yet many people have spurned their lover’s advance. And this situation pains God.
When Adam and Eve, decided to find satisfaction outside of God, the Lord was hurt. When people went on to have children and raise them, they did so largely apart from the God who loved them. People strayed so far from God that it caused pain:
The Lord saw that the human beings on the earth were very wicked and that everything they thought about was evil. He was sorry he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6, NCV).
Yet, God was gracious. The Lord took a group of Noah’s descendants, Abraham’s family, and set a covenant affection on them. God hoped to restore the world to right relationship through the Israelites. However, they too, came to set their affections on others. So, nearly half of the Old Testament is devoted to communicating the Lord’s hurt and disappointment.
Like a jilted lover, God longed for Israel to remain faithful. The prophecy of Hosea is a case in point. Hosea had an unfaithful wife, Gomer, and their relationship mirrored the relationship between God and Israel. Just as Hosea did not give up on his wife, even though she was brazenly unfaithful, so God looked at Israel as a spouse and could not bear to give her up.
Israel spurned their lover’s grace and kindness and actively sought other lovers, causing God anger and agony. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God recounted the history of unfaithfulness:
“At every crossroad you built your platform and degraded your beauty by spreading your legs to all comers. And so, you encouraged even more promiscuity. You prostituted yourself with the Egyptians, your neighbors with the large sexual organs, and as you added to your seductions, you provoked me to anger…. Still not satisfied, you prostituted yourself to the Assyrians, but they were not enough for you either. So, you prostituted yourself with the Babylonians, the land of traders, but again you were not satisfied. How sick was your heart that you could do all these things, the deeds of a hardened prostitute?… You are like an adulterous wife: you take in strangers instead of your husband. Ordinary prostitutes are given gifts, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers. From every direction you even bribed them to come to you for your sexual favors. As a prostitute, you were more perverse than other women. No one approached you for sexual favors, but you yourself gave gifts instead of receiving them.” (Ezekiel 16:25-34, CEB)
Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God extended grace to the beloved spouse:
“I am taking you back!
I rejected you for a while,
but with love and tenderness
I will embrace you again.
For a while, I turned away
in furious anger.
Now I will have mercy
and love you forever!
I, your protector and Lord,
make this promise.” (Isaiah 54:6-8, CEV)
The Old Testament ends with God still longing for return:
The Lord proclaims: “I care passionately about Zion; I burn with passion for her.” (Zechariah 8:2, CEB)
All this theological awareness was in the heart of James when he wrote his letter to the hard-hearted. He knew they were flirting with the world and wanted them to stop and return to the God who longed to show them grace, if they only would but humble themselves.
God yearns, passionately, for us to find our needs met, and enjoyment found, in the loving divine embrace. Spiritual adultery hurts God deeply, like it would any jilted lover. God awaits with loving patience to show grace and compassion to wayward people.
Only the stance and attitude of humility can receive grace. Pride and hubris prevent people from receiving God’s good gift. So, the Apostle James rattled-off ten quick staccato commands to remain connected in a love relationship with God. We might frame these as resolutions to live by.
- Submit to God.
Humble folk willingly place themselves under God’s authority because they are convinced God has their best interests at mind. One temptation when facing adversity is to entertain the belief that no one is going to look out for you except yourself. So, to avoid getting hurt too badly, we might become cynical, arrogant, and callous – self-protective strategies designed to keep the hurt away. This only creates hardness of heart. The alternative is faithful submission to God – knowing that God’s Spirit will protect and living with the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
2. Resist the devil.
Satan is a bully. The way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them. We face down the temptation. Notice that James says we submit to God and resist the devil. We are not to be deceived into flipping it around by listening to Satan and avoiding submission to God.
3. Come near to God.
Like a loving parent, the Lord longingly looks out the window waiting for prodigals to return. Coming to God is the first thing we ought to do. When my daughter was young her bike was stolen. So, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God in prayer. I barely finished praying when a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The policeman rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?” We hopped in and he took us to where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life does not always work that way, yet we can be assured that God listens, hears, and will respond.
4. Wash our hands.
We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We must come to God squarely facing our sin and disobedience. We must deal with the wrong we have done without sweeping it under the rug. God wants us to admit our sin, receive grace, and deal with matters of restitution and reconciliation, without trying to save face when found out in a concern for “optics.”
5. Purify our hearts.
Whereas the previous resolution is mostly external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands, our attitudes must be purged of pollution. Our hearts cannot handle two masters. We are meant to be single-minded without mixed motives. There is an African proverb which says, “The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.”
The next four resolutions describe important emotional responses to sin….
Trying to move on without grieving and lamenting is called denial. Grief is not only an event; it is a process which takes time. Grieving is biblical. Sharing our stories with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing ourselves is important. A loving God knows there cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.
Blessed are those who mourn (Matthew 5:4). Mourning the emotional response to devastation of sin, and how much we need God. It is to see sin in all its foulness and degradation. People who do not mourn are or become hard-hearted and need deep spiritual transformation. Jesus offers the remedy: By his wounds we are healed.
We are to cry – more than cry – to wail. Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing has a much more public dimension to it. I believe the great tragedy in many modern churches is an inordinate focus on victory and triumphalism. The result: Far too many Christians cry alone. No one should ever have to cry by themselves. We must weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
We cannot turn the clock back to some bygone idyllic era. We are to grasp the type of change which occurs in living for Jesus Christ and above sin. In other words, no casual cavalier attitudes toward sin. I once had a conversation with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we began the discussion, she expressed a desire to be wherever the better party going on. By the time we finished our conversation she was grieving, mourning, and crying. I never knew what became of her – I even forget her name now. But once she got just a glimpse of the gravity of sin, it undid her.
10. Be humble.
Humility sums up all these resolutions. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and satisfied; through suffering there is glory; becoming last is to become first; entering the narrow gate leads to the broad open space of God’s eternal life.
Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.