I said last week that if you follow the headings in your Bibles, the way I’m breaking up this part of James will seem strange to you. The reason for that is that the headings were added by people who are used to thinking of the book of James as a collection of practical wisdom on various topics, and thus they miss the broader organization of the book. In particular, they miss the fact that there are two long coherent sections in the middle of James. One is 3:13-4:10, which we looked at over the past two weeks, which is a call to James’ hearers to set aside their worldly wisdom, stop having one foot in the world and one in the church, get off the fence, and choose their side. As we saw, wisdom and humility and the necessary connection between the two is a major theme in that section.
The second long section is the one we’re looking at this morning, which follows right out of the preceding section. That’s not immediately apparent, because it’s easy to focus on the obvious topics James is addressing here—slander, business, oppression of the poor, and judgment coming on the rich. If you do that, though, you miss the common thread running through these three topics: having made it clear that true wisdom brings humility, and called his hearers to set aside the false wisdom of the world for the true wisdom of God, James now proceeds to warn them against pride. He shows them the folly of arrogance, and rebukes them for the ways in which they are living in arrogance rather than in proper humility before God.
Now, remember what I said last week about pride: the core of pride is insisting on our own primacy. Pride tells us that we’re number one, that we’re the most important thing in our own lives, and more important than those around us. It tells us that we have the right to rule our own lives and to get what we want when we want it. Pride says that no one has the right to tell us what to do, or how to do it; it says that we are gods unto ourselves, and no one can tell us different. As such, the core of pride is the root of the sin of idolatry, because it directs our worship toward ourselves rather than to God, and thus will not allow us to worship any external god which we cannot control, or at least manipulate.
This is the spirit against which James is writing, and we can see it in his three sections here. In verses 11-12, he’s condemning slander and false judgment—on what grounds? That the one who does this judges the law. That may seem strange to us, but stop and think about it: the law of God forbids slander and false judgment, and also gossip and other ways of tearing people down. James himself has laid out the case against that in chapter 3. To violate that is to say, in essence, that we have the right to pick and choose which of God’s commands we want to keep and which ones we want to say don’t apply to us. It’s to set ourselves over the word of God rather than to stand under it. As such, it claims a position that does not rightly belong to us, but only to God.
If the one who slanders and attacks a brother or sister in Christ is guilty of arrogance in claiming for themselves the right to judge the law of God, which is the law of love, then what about the businesspeople James talks about in verses 13-16? That sort of business planning makes perfect sense to us; what’s wrong with it? Is planning a bad thing? No, it isn’t, if it’s undertaken in the right spirit; but look at the way these folks talk. “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” There’s no humility there, no recognition that their project depends on many factors beyond their control; they’re talking as if they can control the future and determine their circumstances, and they can’t. They have the arrogance to assume that they can determine their success—and not just to assume that, but to boast about it. They need to learn to recognize that their success, their future, even their very existence, is in God’s hands; rather than taking life as a given, they need to recognize it as a gift—a gift from God, which may be taken away at any time.
From here, James turns to the rich who oppress and exploit the poor and the powerless. It’s an interesting thing that he feels the need to do this in a letter addressed to the church; but this is in line with his earlier remarks to the church about showing partiality to the rich and treating the poor as unimportant. Certainly, it has been a temptation for the church throughout the centuries to try to attract the rich and keep them happy, because they can make your budget; if keeping them happy means not challenging them on how they treat their workers, or on other aspects of their business practices, well, that’s a small price to pay for the income.
As such, it may well be that folks like this were a real problem in one or more of the churches to which James was writing, and that their arrogance was going unchallenged by the timidity of the church leadership. James, however, calls them out for that arrogance: do you think your money will enable you to avoid the judgment of God? No, but God will judge you harshly for what you have done to those who worked for you.
Now, that one might not seem to connect to us particularly, since we don’t have any rich folk of that type among us. The principle still holds, though, as it connects to the previous two sections. We need to remember that we stand under the law of God, that we cannot control the circumstances of our life, that even our life comes to us as a gift from his hand, and that we are liable to his judgment for what we’ve done. The only way to escape that judgment is by his grace—by casting ourselves on his mercy. We have to accept that we aren’t in control, God is; we have to accept that we cannot judge his law, but his law judges us, and that we cannot be good enough on our own to get a good judgment.
James’ purpose in laying all this out is not simply to call out sinners in the church, though there was evidently need for that—indeed, there’s always some need for that. His purpose, rather, proceeds from the previous section: he has called his hearers to be purified of their double-mindedness and to commit wholly to God, but he knows that many of them will resist that call. He knows that they are proud, and that they see his call to humility as foolish; they’ve bought into the world’s wisdom, and they’re comfortable with one foot in the church and one in the world. As such, he takes pains to make it clear to them that their arrogance is the true foolishness, because it leads them to act as if they have far more control than they in fact have, and that can only get them into trouble, sooner or later. His purpose is to show them the downside, the ultimate pointlessness, of continuing on living that way.
This whole passage, then, is in service of James’ statements earlier in chapter 4: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity toward God? Do you not know that you cannot have the best of both?” Therefore, he says, “Wash your hands, you sinners”—deal with the specific outward behaviors he’s addressing in this passage—but not simply for their own sake; rather, he’s highlighting these behaviors to demonstrate and illustrate the double-mindedness of many of his hearers. That’s his primary concern; he’s not just calling them to change their behavior, but to purify their hearts.
This is an area where God’s been working on me, these last few weeks. After our last presbytery meeting, as I was driving back from Rochester, God convicted me of the dividedness of my own mind and heart, of the ways in which I don’t serve and follow him whole-heartedly. He gave me a sense of how much of my energies are dissipated in ways that aren’t really fruitful, that there are things in my life that need to be pruned away, or at least pruned back. Jesus, you’ll remember, talks about that in John 15, about how the vinedresser prunes every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. This isn’t exactly his point, but the principle applies, I think. I have to admit that I am not, within my own mind and heart, simple, whole, at one; rather, I’m at war within myself.
Such, of course, is the human condition; this isn’t just me, it’s something that’s true of all of us to one extent or another. But I found myself strongly convicted of it, and driven to pray that God would correct it—that he would purify my heart and mind, that he would give me an undivided heart so that I might be always moving toward the same goal, in the same purpose. I prayed, and I’m still praying, that he would prune away all the efforts and occupations in my life which don’t bear fruit, all the activities that produce nothing of value, all the wasted effort and wasted motion that dissipate my energies and produce heat but no light.
This is the desire God has given me, and it’s the way of life to which he calls all of us; we’ll never fully realize it in this life, but this is the goal, and it’s what James is talking about in this letter. It’s what he calls us to ask God to do in our lives, that God would prune away all those things that don’t glorify him, and free us from our other allegiances—that he would bring us to a point where we are single-minded in his service, no longer divided against him and against ourselves, so that we might be truly, wholly and completely his.