If I were king of the world for a day—and we can probably all be grateful that I never will be, but if I were—one thing I might do would be to outlaw headings in pew Bibles. In fact, I might go a step further and order the headings removed from all translations—because those headings are put there by the translators, they’re not part of the Bible. If study Bibles wanted to put in headings, fine, but take them out of your basic Bibles.
Now, that might sound strange to you, and it might sound like a really minor thing to focus on, but I assure you, I’m serious. We read those headings as part of our Bibles, even if we know in our heads that they aren’t, and they shape how we read the Scriptures; and while they’re helpful if they get it right, sometimes they don’t. Too often, they don’t; and when they don’t, they mislead us. If you have your Bible open in front of you this Sunday, and if you did last Sunday—and I do think it’s better if you do—but if, as a consequence, you’ve seen the headings in your Bible, you may have wondered why I’ve broken the text up differently.
The truth is, what those headings miss in James is that we have two long sections here in the middle of this epistle. The first begins at 3:13 and runs through to 4:10, and this is the heart of the book: James has talked about how true faith produces a different kind of life—the works of faith—and he’s talked about how that different kind of life is impossible by human strength; no one can tame the tongue, and that corrupts all the rest of us, and everything we do. Now, in this long passage, he issues what the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls “a call to conversion,” a call to fully embrace that different kind of life that Jesus gives us. True faith produces works, but where do those works come from? They come from true wisdom, from the wisdom of God, which is diametrically opposed to the wisdom of the world that produces a worldly way of living. And where does that wisdom come from? It comes from a complete change of allegiance and priorities.
And with this, we come to the fullest and starkest statement of this great theme in James, that there are two ways to live: the way of friendship with the world, and the way of friendship with God. James doesn’t pull any punches here—he wants to make it absolutely clear that this is critically important, and something God takes very, very seriously. He’s laid out what true wisdom, the wisdom of God looks like, and then he looks at the people he’s addressing—and bear in mind, this is a letter written to Christians—and their lives don’t show that. As he looks at them, he says—you’ll note, I differ with the NIV a bit here—“You want something and can’t get it, so you kill; you covet and don’t get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. But you don’t have because you don’t ask God, or because you ask with evil motives, just to spend it on your pleasures.” In other words, their lives did not show the wisdom of God because their hearts didn’t truly belong to God; they were still really in love with the world, wanting the things of the world, filled with the lust for more, not with desire for God.
And so James explodes at them: “You adulteresses!” The NIV changes that to “You adulterous people,” but literally, James calls them all adulteresses. This is the language of Hosea, of Israel as God’s adulterous wife; it’s the same language Paul draws on when he calls the church the bride of Christ. It’s language that makes clear that God isn’t just thinking about “religion” as we understand it when he saves us and calls us to be his people—a point too many in Israel never understood. It’s not enough just to give God an hour or two a week, especially if we grudge him the last fifteen or twenty minutes; it’s not enough just to show up and go through the motions. What God wants from us is what he offers us: love, loyalty, commitment, faithfulness. He invites us, in Christ, to be not just his servants but his friends; what he wants is for us to respond accordingly. That’s why James compares this to the highest form of friendship we know on Earth: the marriage relationship. If you’re married to someone, that person is supposed to be your first priority ahead of all other people and all other things. What God claims is that first place in our hearts and in our lives, ahead of all other people—even husbands and wives. If anyone or anything else draws our hearts away from him, that’s spiritual adultery; that’s idolatry, and it makes us an enemy of God.
This is why verse 5 reminds us—and unfortunately, the NIV takes the wrong reading here—of a common biblical theme: God is jealous for his people. He is the one who created us and breathed life into us; he is the one who made us spiritual beings, not merely animals, capable of consciously knowing and loving him and being his friends, not merely his adoring servants. He has given us every gift and every good thing we have, and created our capacity for joy and pleasure. He wants our absolute allegiance ahead of all others—he wants to be our unquestioned and unquestionable top priority—and he has every right to expect that from us.
The thing is, of course, we can’t meet his expectations on our own; our love, our loyalty, our faithfulness, our commitment, just aren’t up to that standard. That’s why James follows up by saying, “But he gives us more grace.” God by his grace enables us to do in his power what we cannot do on our own. He gives us the faith we need to please him, and the wisdom to live out that faith day by day in the works that demonstrate and realize our faith and bring it to life; he gives us his love, that we may learn to love him, and to love each other, as he loves us. He frees us from slavery to our desires, from the bottomless hunger for more of things that cannot possibly satisfy, and gives us his peace by teaching us to find our satisfaction in him.
All that he asks is that we draw near to him and submit ourselves to him—that we accept his will for our lives and his way rather than insisting on our own. That’s why Proverbs 3 says, as James quotes, that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Pride, at its core, is insisting on our own primacy, that we are first in our own lives and should be first in the lives of others; it is the attitude of active resistance to the claims of God in our lives. As such, it’s also the act of denying that we need his grace—for why would we need his grace to meet expectations which we refuse to accept? Pride tells us that we’re good enough already, and that anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about and has no right to say so. God opposes the proud because pride is, in its very essence, opposed to him—and unlike some politicians, he recognizes essential opposition when he sees it. He gives grace to the humble because the humble are those who are wise enough to know they need grace.
Which brings us back around to where the larger passage begins, with the connection between wisdom and humility, and the reality that the root of wisdom is the humility to acknowledge and accept our utter dependence on God, and our absolute need for his grace. James doesn’t talk about the Holy Spirit, but in the context of the broader New Testament we recognize that it’s by the Spirit of God that we do what James tells us we must do; and verses 7-10 really do contain the nub of the matter. Do you want to be wise? Do you want to please God? Do you want to live the kind of life that he wants you to live? Draw near to God. Bow your head before him; humbly acknowledge and accept him as the absolute Lord, and thus as the one who has rightful authority over your life. Recognize that saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to the Devil, that as God opposes the proud—of whom the Devil stands foremost—so if we bow to him we are committed to opposing those whom he opposes. Every “yes” logically implies a “no”—this is why saying “yes” in marriage to one woman means saying “no” to any others who might be interested; we cannot draw near to God if we do not resist the Devil. But if we will resist, God will give us the power to hold firm, and the Devil will flee.
The great requirement in this is repentance; the great promise is that if we will draw near to God, he will draw near to us. These two go together, because they must go together; God will not draw near to us if we’re still hanging tight to our sin. James lays out two components to the repentance God desires. Taking them in reverse order, one is godly sorrow at our sin. Those who are too much with the world take sin lightly and laugh it off; God wants us to take our sin seriously as that which mars our relationship with him, and to be honestly grieved by the sorrow our sin brings him, and the harm it causes to ourselves and others. This should then lead to purification, to cleansing ourselves of our sin; and this too has two components: we must repent and cleanse ourselves both externally and internally.
The external component is behavior, of the things we do or fail to do that we identify as sins; that, James pictures as washing our hands. But as important as washing our hands is, it isn’t enough by itself; if we’re sick, washing our hands may help keep the illness from spreading, but it won’t change the sickness within us. We must also, James says, purify our hearts—we must identify, repent of, and be cleansed of the unclean attitudes in our souls that produce the unclean behaviors in our lives. And note what he identifies as the root: double-mindedness. You may remember that word from back in chapter 1—it means those who are unwilling to commit to God, whose loyalties are divided and who are intent on keeping them divided. They are divided against God and thus against themselves, untrustworthy and spiritually unstable. To them, James says bluntly: get off the fence and choose your side. Choose this day whom you will serve.
Repentance is, of course, hard and painful at times, not anything we consider pleasant; but as already noted, it comes with a promise: if we will draw near to God and bow down before him, he will in turn draw near to us and lift us up. It’s God’s work in our lives, and if we will submit to him doing it, he will be faithful to be with us and to give us himself. Whatever he may call us to give up, he calls us to give up only so that we can realize that we have something far better in him; and he commands us to humble ourselves only so that he can exalt us. What God wants us to lay down is temporary, fleeting, not worth what we think it is; what he offers us in return is a gift beyond price.