James 4:1-17.
Practical Atheism:  Leaving God Out of Our Choices.

Copyright © 2009, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

There are many forms of church polity in our Christian denominations today, ranging from groups in which a dogmatic church hierarchy has total control over doctrine and practice to those where this authority resides entirely with the local congregation.  Regardless of the polity model, all of these churches are managed on a daily basis by people.  In some groups, those people give little or no authority to the Holy Spirit in their daily administration, and in others the leaders are very sensitive to the Holy Spirit, seeking to follow the Lord in all they do.  As a consequence, many churches and church groups today give only lip-service to God, and are more characterized as social clubs than as the body of Christ.  Who controls your church?  Is it controlled by a board of directors?  Is it controlled by a deacon or group of deacons?  Is it controlled by an influential family?  Is it controlled by a pastor?

Or, is it controlled by the Holy Spirit?

Chances are, your church may not be characterized by this latter attribute.  Though we desire our church to be under the control of God, immersed in His will by the power of the Holy Spirit, such congregations are rare, and when found they quickly grow in number.  However, that growth often brings with it changes that extinguish the flame.

What is going on here?  What is the sin that is so rampant in the church that has changed it into a set of social clubs with a Christian theme?  The problem is certainly not new.  James is writing this letter to the churches of his day, and is addressing this same problem.  It has been two generations since anyone had seen Jesus, so to many the original testimonies sounded like fables.  The generations of persecution and abuse at the hands of the Jews also impacted the church, and unlike the church of today, they did not have the resources of the gospel writings, or the letters of Peter, James, John and Paul.  Like today, the churches were groups of people, administered by people, and that administration was rarely led of the Spirit, but by men, and such a leadership model brings with it the sins of men. 

James 4:1.  From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? 

The Jews were a very seditious people, continually warring with all their neighbors as well as within themselves.  It was an inherent trait of their culture.  It is evident that the conflicts wherein they were engaged in secular society was brought into the church.  Certainly, there is never any conflict in our churches today.  Actually, we all know that quite the opposite is true.  James talks about wars and fightings within the church.  These two words, polemoi and machai refer to forms of conflict that take place in a national, or corporate setting.  The first refers to conflict that arises from the division of people over issues.  Often when issues arise in the church, leaders divide, and by so doing, polarize the congregation into a multiple of conflicting groups.  The second refers to self-destructive quarrelling between individuals or small groups.  It is these forms of conflict that James sees within the church, and we often see today.

What are some of the reasons that people are so quick to ignore the still-quiet voice of the Holy Spirit and impose their own opinions on others in the church, and create disunity?  James describes the source is those same conflicts that reside within the individual person or persons that are expressed in self-centered means.  Certainly, the most damaging lust is the lust of self-centered pride, a power that rules the world, but is not appropriate in the body of Christ.  People, driven by their own pride, will not hesitate to create a conflict in order to defend their own desires for doctrine, tradition, church practice, the type of music played, the color of the carpets, etc.  There is no limit to the subjects of conflict when people turn their eyes away from God. 

James 4:2.  Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. 

James states that you think you can secure great pleasures and happiness by overthrowing everything that stands in the way of your eager wishes, but in the act of overthrowing you lose your labor, your direction, and destroy one another.  The conflict that James is addressing is significant.  The word translated "kill" refers to pre-meditated acts that result in an intended separation.  Of course, murder fits this definition.  However, it is unlikely that church members were murdering each other by taking their lives.  However, we kill church members every day when we drive a permanent wedge of separation.  In this context, death refers to permanent separation.  People want their own way, they want to express their own selfish desires and motives, and will easily hurt and drive away those who oppose them.  The result is a church in conflict, whether that conflict is loud and explosive, or quiet and smoldering.  Then, amidst this pool of self-will the people are astonished that they are not seeing God working in their lives.  They see the form of religion in their body, but none of its power.  They will voice wonderfully stated prayers that simply end with an "Amen," and the adjournment of the meeting, and all go home unchanged. 

These people think that they should obtain by aggression, but God seeks us to obtain his blessings in his grace.  How do we obtain things by his grace? We ask God through prayer, and receive according to His will.  If our prayers are to be answered in the way of our choosing, our choices must be in His will, not our own.  If you want something, consider stating the desire in the form of a prayer and see if it is consistent with what would seem to be God's will for your life, or for the situation.  For example consider the prayer, "Dear God, please cause my adversary to break out in boils." What does such a prayer imply? How would God most probably respond?  It is unlikely that God shares our selfish desire for retribution against the individual.  Jesus commands us to love one another and pray for those from whom we receive persecution. 

James 4:3.  Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. 

Asking with the wrong motives results in God's rejection of the request.  People in the church fight and do not succeed because they do not sincerely pray.  God will respond to our needs in a fashion which is consistent with His nature.  How can we form our requests of God in a manner which would be pleasing to Him? 

Our prayer requests should be consistent with his nature.  They should address items which are true needs, not necessarily basic needs, but all needs that are real. 

What are some of the things God has promised to us in his word that are available for the asking? Some things that come to mind include wisdom, guidance, fellowship, basic needs, and love.  Is it inconsistent, then, to pray for things which bring us pleasure? That may depend upon or definition of "pleasure."  The word used here, hedonon, from which we get the English word, hedonism, that refers to a philosophy wherein personal pleasure is the primary god of life.  Consequently, we need to differentiate between pleasures which are Godly, and pleasures which are lustful.  Let us seek in our prayers for success, that our prayers sincerely desire the ends of such success be right in the eyes of God.  The result of the prayer should glorify God and further His kingdom's work in our lives or the lives of others.  When our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears, we may be wise to examine our true motives. 

James 4:4.  Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. 

How do you suppose the word "adulterer" applies to these people? Jewish tradition and writings often used the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.  When Israel would turn from God, they would be referred to as adulterers by the prophets.  Even the New Testament describes the church as the "Bride of Christ".  TO turn from God to another is a form of adultery.  Adultery in this context can be described as serving one other than the One who deserves true allegiance.  Who is the mistress in this example, the one who is turning people away from their first love? James describes it as friendship with the world.[1] 

These are some pretty harsh words which should cause us to examine our relationship with the world.  Our relationship with the ungodly world is so intimate that it is difficult or impossible to see the line between them.  Instead of running our churches according the Holy Spirit's lead, we run them using a worldly business model, instituting secular forms of authority in its members.  When we do this, our churches quickly become a business who's primary purpose is meeting the social desires of its members.

Some churches do not place much emphasis on either Lordship, or the Bible, and are not much different from the world.  Others are so careful to avoid the world that they are cloistered and often set up hedge laws to protect them from defilement.  The churches at both ends of this spectrum are doing little to promote the Kingdom of God in the world. 

There are probably three ways to relate to the world, and we have a choice of which one we will seek:

        Be of it.  You may or may not be a Christian.  The world contains those things in which you find security and pleasure, and you are satisfied to live with these.  For you, church is simply a social enterprise within which you find friends and a shallow form of peace.  You attend once a week out of obligation or tradition, and during the services you are watching the clock in anticipation of returning to your true home. 

        Be on the fence.  You have a foot in both the world and in God's kingdom, a spiritual schizophrenic.  You are a Christian who has not completely left the world.  There are areas in your life and experience that are still causing you to turn your focus away from God.  You must be continually reminded to look back to God because the things of the world easily distract you.  You avoid criticism for your church affiliation by keeping it a secret from your co-workers and worldly friends. 

        You are God's missionary to the world.  Your excursions into the world are on God's mission with the Holy Spirit accompanying you as your supporter and paraclete.  You are able to step outside of the Christian subculture and be a useful tool for God's witness in the world. 

Which of these characterizes your spiritual walk?  Most likely, none of the three are accurate, yet your experience is characterized by a little bit of each.  However, it is the third model that should be the spontaneous result of our faith.  If we fall short of that model, we would be well to confess the sin that is keeping us from God's will, repent, and seek Him.

James 4:5.  Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?

It is the nature of man to be prideful, covetous and envying.[2]  It is the nature of God to be humble, generous and gracious.  These natures are mutually exclusive.  However, when the world and the things of it are the focus of his children, this differentiation gets confused.  When pride enters the picture it is possible to rationalize away ungodly actions in the name of a perceived godly purpose.  This was happening at the time when the Jewish Christians were warring and fighting among themselves. 

What are some of the motives generated by our lusts?  Some might include greed (characterized by a need for control and power), pride, selfishness, disunity, etc.  What motives are prompted by the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit inspires love, peace and reconciliation.  Again, we will often find the works of the world and the works of the Spirit to be mutually exclusive. 

James 4:6.  But he giveth more grace.  Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.

We are taught to observe the difference God makes between pride and humility.[3]  God sets himself against the proud.  Antitassomai, (an-tee-TAS-som-aee) signifies God setting himself in battle array against the proud.  Many of us would be astonished to realize that, when we stand before the congregation and make demands, as spiritual as they may sound, that God has set Himself in a battle array against us.  There can be no greater disgrace for the Christian than to set himself against God by overruling His authority, yet we do it every day.  The Christian becomes a traitor to the authority and dignity of God. 

Man is insufficient to handle the conflict.  If God is our enemy there is no hope.  A prideful motivation is a disgrace.  How do we avoid this tragic and destructive error?  Replace pride with humility.  The opposite of pride is humility, and the opposite of disgrace is grace.  God gives grace to the humble.[4]  The humble recognize their need for God's grace.  They seek it, pray for it, and in doing so demonstrate a true recognition of God's authority.  the humble recognize that God's wisdom so far exceeds our own, that no choice of our own can supersede the prompting of the Holy Spirit regardless of how logically correct it sounds.  The humble cannot take a stand on an issue without being clearly led to do so by God. 

James 4:7.  Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 

Consequently, we are taught to submit ourselves entirely to God.  We should forsake the friendship with the world with its envy and pride.  The world will hurt you when it has dominion over you.  God's dominion over you will never hurt you, but will do you only good. 

The Holy Spirit gives us the power to resist the Devil and the world of his dominion.  When confronted by the power of God, Satan and his dominion is totally powerless.[5]  However, we cannot resist the devil on our own natural power, but only in the power of His Holy Spirit.  Yet, God promises that the Holy Spirit will protect us from evil by our simple resistance to it.  We can resist evil by seeking God first in all of our decisions.[6]

James 4:8.  Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.  Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. 

Verses 8-10 direct how to act towards God in becoming submissive to him.  The rebellious heart must be brought to the throne of God.  Draw near to Him in humility and he will respond in grace.

The hands of the worldly are soiled with the impurity of that world.  They must be washed.  How is this to be done?  God is faithful to forgive those who place their faith and trust in Him, confess their sin and repent of it.  It is that sin that stains their hands. 

The hearts of the worldly are wholly impure.  In what way are they impure? We take into our hearts the nature and desires of the world, and like a glass of clear water that is darkened by even a small drop of ink, our hearts are made impure by a drop of worldly lust.  How can such a heart be made clean?  God is faithful to forgive those who confess their sin and repent of it.  It is that sin that stains their hearts. 

The minds of the worldly is inconsistent, with its focus vacillating between that which is of the world and that which is of God.  We fill our minds with images of violence, lust, and power as we submit ourselves to secular entertainment.  We perceive and define the issues of the day based upon the content and opinions of the secular media.  It is no surprise that we are confused.  How can this problem be solved?  Paul provides some good advice to the church at Philippi, 

Philippians 4:8-9.  Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.  Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

James 4:9.  Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. 

James is speaking to those who have been set against God by their pride, covetousness and greed who need to come to a recognition of their error.  As we observe their behavior in the body, we see people who are happy, confident, and think that all is going well since all within the body is being run in their own way.  The response to such recognition should be significant remorse.  The arrogant laughter currently being heard should be replaced by mourning the true state of the sinner.  The joy of the worldly success should be replaced by the gloom of such a holy failure.  Consequently, the recognition of a worldly state in the hearts and minds of God's people should make us feel tremendous regret and sorrow.  It should produce true humility and cause us to seek the forgiveness of God.  Without His grace our position is quite hopeless. 

James 4:10.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. 

This well-known verse is often used in the entirety of its own message in many different contexts, and those applications are probably quite meaningful and useful.  However, within the context of this letter, we see that James is specifically addressing the problem of worldly behavior within the body of Christ.  In God there is hope.  The outward act of humility should be the response of the inward feelings of grief concerning our sin.[7]  God has promised a reward for those who seek Him.[8]  

If we are truly penitent and humble we will see the fruits of His grace.[9]  God will hear the humble desire for forgiveness.[10]  The highest honor in heaven will be the reward of the greatest humility on earth. 

James 4:11.  Speak not evil one of another, brethren.  He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. 

James is considered to have a very practical message.  He must have seen the practices of his day and, as a result, had a grave concern for the people's lack of acknowledgment of God in their lives.  In these verses James is identifying a people who have left God out of their lives, even though they might profess otherwise.  James is still exposing the actions of those who have a false religion, a false faith, and a false sense of Christian authority.  These actions may be the normal manner of the lost; we as His children must guard against the same actions. 

James exposes that those individuals to whom he is writing are attacking each other in word as well as in deed.  Note in the previous verses how James identified that they were warring with each other even unto death.  Here he identifies that they are slandering each other.  What is slander? Katalaleo: refers to speech that is stated with the clear intent of hurting or causing injury to another. 

I find that, as an elder in a denomination that utilizes congregational polity, I am criticized for virtually every decision I make.  Regardless of the simplicity or severity of the decision someone will either directly, or indirectly through another individual, desire a verbal defense of the decision.  People will express a desire that I do something in a particular way, and upon acceding to their request, someone else will complain that the action was taken.  Why do people do this?  It is little surprise that the average tenure for a pastor in a modern New Testament church is less than three years. 

Church members who act this way are generally making comparative judgments that are outside of the arena of their true authority.  We squelch the expression of the gifts of others when, by judging those expressions, place ourselves in authority over them, an authority that is reserved for the Holy Spirit.  What has this got do with the law, the law of liberty? Judgment is reserved solely for God.  He is the only authority who has pure wisdom and knows the heart sufficiently to judge us.  Those who judge and slander one another are placing themselves above those of whom they speak and judge, and are usurping this position that is reserved for God alone. 

When we leave God out of the manner in which we speak (or think) of others, His nature of agape love is replaced by our nature of self-centered pride, spitefulness and vengeance.  Our lips should be guided by kindness, truth and love. 

James 4:12.  There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?

Again, here James exposes the arrogance of those who speak in slander and judgment.  Their pride and arrogance give them the self-appointed position of little gods.  James says, "Who do you think you are?"  If God is the only lawgiver, does this mean that man is not to create laws? In this context, God's law refers to ultimate truth that supersedes any of man's rules or regulations concerning himself.  We may properly establish laws and authority in order to maintain civil control, but we should never forget that God and his word represent the ultimate authority.  The accepted laws of civil society should fit within the context of Godís purposes for mankind.  If God is the only judge, are we to abstain from judgment? God is the ultimate judge, and though we must make judgments in order to function in society, we must recognize our limitations when confronted with the judgment of the character and condition of other men's souls.

God's word advises us to reprove and correct one another when necessary.  How do we do this and not compromise James' teaching on judgment? When we leave God out of our judgments, his nature in us is replaced by our own: one of arrogance and pride.  Christians can make proper judgments when those judgments are tempered by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Such temperance comes from sincere humility expressed in prayer and demonstrated in love. 

James 4:13.  Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: 

Here James describes the foolishness of leaving God out of our plans.  It is our nature to "be in control", or at least strive to be.  The speaker here is making several assumptions concerning his immediate future.  What are they?

  • He is going to travel to a specific place. 

  • He is going to spend a year there. 

  • He is going to carry on a business there. 

  • He is going to make a profit. 

These types of statements may be part of any typical business decision, but what are some things that can happen to obstruct those plans? Again, these statements imply an arrogance, identifying that the speaker is in total control of his destiny.  He is the master of his fate, the controller of his destiny. 

What is the error here? What is the effect of such an error?  He has left out the most important resource for decision making:  God's will.  Important decisions that are made in ignorance of Gods' will may ignore the effect of true probabilities as well as natural and supernatural events.  For example, you want a big, impressive, new house that brags your position in life.  You really know you cannot afford it.  How do you convince yourself to go ahead and make the purchase? How do you approach such a decision properly?  Your selfish desire inspires you to buy it and deal with the consequences later, consequences that will diminish the quality of your life as you are enslaved by the commitment to mortgage payments.  Your ability to support God's work is diminished, and you find yourself stressing over unpaid bills.  If the decision was approached through humble prayer, the Holy Spirit would clearly and easily reveal to you that such a purchase is foolish.  You would clearly know the "right thing" to do. 

James 4:14.  Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow.  For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. 

The impact of our foolish commitments is real.  Here James describes how fragile life really is.  What guarantees do we have concerning tomorrow? What can we accurately predict? We can only predict things in terms of past patterns, and past patterns can be broken.  Do you know for certain that you will even be alive tomorrow? You only make that assumption because you are alive today.  You look at the pattern of your previous days and make such an assumption.  If you were gravely ill, that pattern would be changed and your consideration changes. 

James describes life itself as a mist or vapor.  Where does it come from, where does it go? He illustrates using a vapor as a very unpredictable phenomenon.  A mist is totally subject to its environment, and is not self-determinant.  We are subject to God's creation and His ultimate will.  What happens when we ignore its authority over us?  Like the mist that is swept away in the wind, our lives without God are swept to and fro by every wind of the world.[11]

James 4:15.  For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. 

If life is so temporal and unpredictable, is it foolishness to make plans? Again, it is necessary to make plans in order to achieve a goal.  Otherwise we may poorly define our objectives and direction and ultimately fail for lack of preparation alone.  However, we should always recognize God's ultimate will for us.  How do we do this?

        Lift up prayers that are characterized by true humility and sincerity. 

        Listen to the still-small voice of the Holy Spirit.  Many times we ignore the Spirit's warning signals.  What are they?

Sometimes it may be a lack of peace concerning a decision, a set of unresolved concerns, etc.  Often we use the idiom of a "red flag" to describe such a concern.  When we see this "red flag" we know what the right thing to do really is. 

Consider the context of the argument.  Is it the right (or righteous) choice? Is the choice within the context of God's will for your life?

Ask the question, "Who is glorified or lifted up as a result of the decision?"  Is this truly for God, or does it benefit me or my purposes?  Does it promote God's kingdom or my own? 

Some verses that help the planning and decision making process include Matt. 6:33, Prov. 3:5-10, Ps. 5:8, 27:11, 143:10, 119:30-37, 139:23.  How do we include God in our plans?

James 4:16.  But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil. 

To what is James referring here? James is describing unwarranted self-flattery motivated by self-centered pride and arrogance.  Is there anything wrong with self-confidence? Some level of self confidence and self esteem is a basic need.  We find in the first chapter of Joshua how God encouraged Joshua to be confident in what God had for him to do.  When does self-confidence become harmful?  Self confidence becomes damaging when it blinds one to their true state and/or hurts ones self, other individuals, or God's kingdom.  If the source of self-confidence is pride, the result is damaging to the kingdom.  When our confidence comes from God, recognizing our true, undeserving nature, His work can be done in our lives. 

James 4:17.  Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. 

What is James saying here? We sin when we do not do what we know is right.  When we leave God out of our words, our deeds, and our actions, what happens to our capacity to do what is right?  We sin by both commission and by omission.  James has been describing the devastating result of the expression of self-centered pride in our actions.  James also reminds us that when we fail to listen to the Holy Spirit's call and fail to do what God has called us to do, we have also sinned.

This passage of scripture addresses some very difficult and sensitive issues, issues that warrant our attention.  Do we experience conflict within the body of Christ?  Is our church not accomplishing the ministry to which God has ordained his Church?  It is evident that the church in James' day also fell short of God's purpose, and James wrote to them to expose their pride, their party spirit (divisiveness), and the practice of practical atheism (ignoring God) in the church.  As we read James' words, let us look to our own hearts and see if there is something to be learned here.  If we have allowed ourselves to fall into the error or errors that James exposes here, let us confess those sins before God and seek His forgiveness as we also seek the power of the Holy Spirit to change our motives from those which are self-centered to those which are God-centered.  Only then will we fully understand the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and experience the true joy and peace that He offers.

[1] See Matthew 6:24.

[2] Genesis 6:5.

[3] Psalm 18:27.

[4] Proverbs 3:34.

[5] Deuteronomy 28:7.

[6] Matthew 6:33.

[7] Matthew 23:12.

[8] Hebrews 11:6.

[9] Isaiah 57:15.

[10] Psalm 10:17.

[11] Ephesians 2:14



Burdick, Donald W. (1981).  James.  Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House.  pp. 192-198.