Summary: The key to the whole book is found in the command to submit ourselves to God. duh!
We have all seen, read, or heard something like the following. It describes the attitude of possession for a 2-year-old.
If I want it, it’s mine
If I like it, it’s mine
If it looks like it’s yours in any kind of way, it’s mine
If I need it, it’s mine
If you buy it, it’s mine
If I don’t have anything to do, it’s mine
If you have it, it’s mine
If I see it, it’s mine
It would be even funnier if it wasn’t so dang true. Honestly, it doesn’t apply to just two-year-olds. Each of us can name at least someone who is an adult who acts like this on occasion. Well it is exactly this attitude James attacks as we look at this part of his letter.
The theme of humility comes back with a vengeance in these verses. James ties those who are prideful with Satan and declares that murders that take place in the name of Jesus are not righteous but demonic. As the selfishness of our lives dictates our prayer we find we’re less and less satisfied and more and more frustrated. What we desire, even for supposedly good reasons, never comes about. We’re left wanting.
There has been a discussion among some commentators about the first three verses and the meaning of the phrase "You kill and covet." Dr. Martin and a few others hold out the possibility that this book was written in particular for Jewish believers in Jerusalem and what James is addressing are those followers of Christ who were being caught up in the rebellious actions against Rome. Thus the "killing" is literally murder. Many others see it in terms of overstatement.
But, if both, one or the other is right, the fact is what gets in the way of our answered prayer is our own pride. In 1:5 we are told to ask God for wisdom and not doubt. Here we find out that our asking is scared not only by doubt but also by a selfish spirit tied to a failure to ask God and for an attitude that has ignored God’s reality and truth. It is no coincidence the word translated "desire" is the root from which the English derives the word "hedonism".
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about arguments and infighting among members of a congregation or actual hatred and killing. For James the answer is the same, don’t let the situation rule us; let God rule us. Then we will discover how God’s future comes about even with such situations at hand.
Verses 4-6 tells us something we don’t like to hear. There is a clear and eternal difference between being friends of the world and friends of God. There is no happy medium. God and His creation won’t reach consensus on the issue. We can’t all just get along. Each and every one of us gets to decide if we will be a friend of the world or not. Chose this path and we’ve demonstrated a hatred for God and marked ourselves as God’s enemy. How do you know what camp into which you fall? The easiest way is to look back up at the first three verses and honestly answer whether envy, fighting and selfish desire is alive and thriving in our day-to-day lives.
Romans 5:8 is a personal favorite of mine. It says, "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Folks, here is the gospel, as an enemy of God Jesus was born and died for us. He didn’t wait till we got better because we couldn’t. While we were still grabbing for our things, demanding our way, hating those who had what we wanted and trying to get ahead in the world, God loved us, Jesus died for us and offers us eternal life.
The personal issue you and I get to deal with is whether or not we will welcome such news on God’s terms or try to insist on our way. Because God’s offer of grace is available only for those who are humble. The proud, those who continue on the road of worldly friendship and wisdom will find themselves separated from God when eternity rolls around.
What does humility look like? How does it behave? In verses 7-10 James lists several commands that describe what a humble life looks like. They begin with the command to submit. It is a term describing military units that are arrayed under command and not often used of a person’s relationship to God. James returns to this idea in verse 10 where we are commanded to humble ourselves before the Lord thereby forming bookends of the rest of these verses.
James list is first because it is primary for living a humble life and thereby receiving God’s grace. Let me get a bit technical here; in the Greek this is an aorist imperative. It is a command like all imperatives but the tense makes it all the more urgent to comply. James isn’t just telling us to bow before God but to do it now.