Summary: James diagnoses some problems in the churches to which he writes and offers some home truths concerning the Christians' having the Wrong Spirit, the Wrong Friendship and the Wrong Attitude.
HOME TRUTHS FOR CHRISTIANS
The letter written by James is very direct and personal in its message - he doesn't pull his punches. Martin Luther wasn't very keen on this book - he called it "an epistle of straw" because it didn't say much about Jesus or the Cross. But that's an incorrect reading of James's purpose - he was placing the emphasis on the relationship between faith and conduct. What we have to understand when we're reading James is that we're hearing the Sermon on the Mount in action so it's not surprising that it's very practical Christianity. Chapter 4 can conveniently be divided into three sections each offering home truths on Christian behaviour that he'd seen in his ministry. These home truths, sometimes painful to accept, are offered so that each of us can see how we, individually, measure up to this spiritual checklist.
The Wrong Spirit
James asks some pertinent questions that lead him to conclude that his readers had The Wrong Spirit (1-3). Why do wars happen? It's often because the leaders of one country want some territory or other possession belonging to another. It's the spirit of envy and greed that causes so much suffering. But what's true on the national scale applies to the individual because it's individuals who make up communities. Sadly, Christians are not exempt. Notice how James narrows it down; it's "among you." Fighting, probably not literally, but certainly squabbling, was a problem in the early church. This is something shameful for Christians, quite alien to the Spirit of Christ.
What's the cause of discord in churches? It's The wrong Spirit. The early church wasn't perfect by any means. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: "I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord" (4:2). To Corinth he wrote: "It has been reported to me … that there is quarrelling among you" (I Cor 1:11); in fact church members were even suing each other in the law courts! This sort of thing brings the Christian community into disrepute with the result that unbelievers point the finger, rightly saying that Christians are no better than anyone else! It's true all too often.
The Wrong Spirit can show itself in promoting self at the expense of others. There's a fable that illustrates this failing. There was trouble in the carpenter's workshop, and the tools were having a row. One of them said, "It's the hammer's fault. He's much too noisy. "No" said the hammer, "the blame lies with the saw. He keeps going forwards and backwards all the time." The saw protested violently, "It's the plane's fault. His work is so shallow." The plane objected. "The real trouble lies with the screwdriver. He's always going round in circles." "Nonsense," retorted the screwdriver, the trouble really began with the ruler. He's measuring other people by his own standards." And so they went on until the carpenter came in. He was making a pulpit and by the time he'd finished he had used every one of those tools. They were all necessary; none was more important than the others.
Of course, we may not be so blatant in criticising others but should remember that the thought is as guilty as the deed. It's been said that a man is not what he thinks he is - but what he thinks, he is! It's the attitude we adopt, the motive that drives us that makes all the difference. James tells us that this is an important factor in our prayer life. Why are prayers unanswered? Matthew Henry comments: "We miss when we ask amiss" - that is, asking the wrong way. We need openness with our fellow believers and humility before God to ensure that our prayers are heard. The Wrong Spirit is followed by:
The Wrong Friendship
The Christian church is portrayed in Scripture as "the Bride of Christ" so it's not surprising that James classes backslidden Christians as "you adulterous people." This isn't a new concept. The Old Testament prophets often used this imagery. Jeremiah likened backslidden Israel to "a fallen wife" (3:14). Hosea had the same complaint, where Israel is called an adulterous wife because she'd been unfaithful and had broken her relationship with God (1:2). The trouble was that they had made The Wrong Friendship (4-10). In the marriage service the bride is asked whether she will, "forsaking all other", keep only to her husband. We have to decide whose side we're on. James insists that "a friend of the world" equals "an enemy of God". Strong words! He's echoing the words of Jesus, "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt 6:24) and "You are my friends if you do what I command" (John 15:14).
What is worldliness? It's anything that gets between God and us. These things aren't deliberately anti-God but they have the same effect by spoiling our spiritual experience, slowing our spiritual growth, lessening our spiritual appetite and threatening our spiritual influence. And more seriously they may cause other Christians to stumble if they follow our example. The apostle Paul says that in his experience some things were "lawful" but "not expedient": "everything is permissible for me - but not everything is beneficial." He went on to say: "I will not be mastered by anything" (1 Cor 6:12). It's not for me pick out what we can or can't do. It's a matter for the individual before God to decide for himself or herself, in the light of the revelation given in God's word, if this or that is sinning against the light.