James 4: 6 – 10
“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 is a wise and also compassionate shepherd, so after a string of probing questions, he has a list of ten commands that show how to move forward rather than staying stuck feeling bad about ourselves. But notice first that these ten commands are sandwiched between two promises which he draws out of the Old Testament: God gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34) and God will lift us up (Job 5:14). Undoubtedly, James is remembering that Jesus also promised that whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt. 23:12). When God makes a great demand, he gives great grace so that we can do it.
We can group the commands into three characteristics: godly humility (submit to God, resist the devil, come near to God, humble yourselves), godly purity (wash your hands and purify your hearts) and godly sorrow (grieve, mourn and wail). If you’re trying to put on those characteristics without God’s involvement, they will be just an ugly counterfeit. I read Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield when I was in high school. I don’t remember much about the story except the man named Uriah Heep who was always claiming to be “umble”, but he was probably the most distasteful character in the book. Purity that is not from God reminds us of Pharisees, and sorrow without God’s touch looks more like self-pity. Even as I was writing this, I had an incident where my over-reaction to an unwanted question turned into an apology that sounded like humility, but was more like a cover-up for continued indignation mingled with self-pity for good effect. I’m thankful God showed it to me and kept the situation from escalating.
Just as grace comes from God, humility and purity and sorrow are initiated by God because they come as responses to His greatness and His glory. Practically speaking, this is always going to involve reading His word and obeying what it says and talking with Him in prayer. Our responses to other people are a lot more likely to be godly when our minds and hearts have been intentionally engaged with God. And even in the times (which happen more often than we like) when we are less engaged and more just going through the motions, it’s better to be defaulting (including on our screens, radios, phones) to God’s words than to the world’s. Before James started giving people advice and diagnosing their problems, he had spent a lot of time in the Scriptures and a lot of time with Jesus. His words, even his short and pointed one-liners, had the weightiness of God behind them. They didn’t come across like a bumper sticker slogan or a meme, a zinger, witty comeback. Before saying (or posting or forwarding) something, we would do well to pause and think first about whether it is wise or merely clever.
In the church where I grew up, there was an older gentleman whose words always made you listen and stop to think. He had been a pastor and missionary and served as a consultant evaluating Christian organizations. I remember someone saying that pearls of wisdom rolled off his tongue. At that time, there were a lot of Christian “bumper sticker” slogans going around such as “Keep lookin’ up.” As Mr. Bower was going out the door after church, he would often say good-bye with the encouragement to “Keep looking down,” and coming from him, you knew it wasn’t a slip-up. He would go on to explain, “Paul wrote in Ephesians that as believers we’re seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, so keep looking down!” And seeing how he (and his wife) lived and hearing his words, it wasn’t hard to picture him there.
Here is a prayer written by Warren and Ruth Myers in the book 31 Days of Prayer that sums up James 4:1-10. “Holy Father, enable me to live out what You have already done deep within me. May your Spirit of holiness empower me to grow in righteous thinking and living. I pray this also for believers in my church and neighbourhood. Make us quick to confess our sins and rely on You to forgive. Make us clean and pure in every part of our lives. Deliver us from the evil ways we used to cherish when we didn’t know any better. May we feed daily on Your holy Scriptures, letting you use them to cleanse our lives and remove our blemishes and wrinkles and defects. I worship before You as the God of peace and well-being who is committed to making us holy. I count on You to do this day by day, giving us grace to cooperate with you.”