The Church God Exalts (James 4:1-12)
Big Idea: We can become a church that God exalts by abandoning selfishness and pursuing humility.
I’ve been going to church my entire life. As should be obvious by looking at me, that’s a long time. And so I want to give you three scenes in my long church history that stick out to me.
Scene One: A man in church had left the church and fallen into addictions. It was a tragic story. The good news: he was back! He came back before the church, confessed that he had struggled, and told the story of how God had brought him to his senses. It was like a modern-day Prodigal Son story. The best part: he was back in church, back in the community that could love and support him and cheer what God was doing in his life.
But that’s not what happened. The leaders of the church stood and said, “How do we know that he won’t do it again?” They refused to welcome him back in the church. Even as a young child, I knew that I had seen something tragic that broke God’s heart. The prodigal was not welcomed back. The prodigal was shunned.
Scene Two: I was a student pastor still in seminary working in a church for the summer. I was attending the church’s leadership meeting. Things were a little tense in the meeting no big deal. But at one point, the pastor pushed back against a leader. The leader said, “Wipe that smirk off your face.” The pastor said, “You shouldn’t even be here. You should resign.” The leader said, “In that case, I quit.” He pulled a letter of resignation out of his pocket, threw it on the table, and stormed out of the meeting. The pastor waited a few seconds, and then he stormed out of the meeting. The rest of us stood stunned wondering what had happened.
How do you like my scenes I’m painting so far?
Scene Three: A pastor was let go by his church in a very ugly and nasty way. He and his wife were, as you’d expect, deeply hurt. But a small group of people gathered around them and began to dream of God doing something new. They began to dream about a church that would be a safe place for messy people. This pastor thought that his ministry was over. But slowly that church grew and was filled with all kinds of people — hurting people, messy people, normal people. It’s planting other churches. When you go there, there’s a sweet spirit. They recently called a business meeting to call a new pastor, and if you attended you would have thought it was a worship service, not a business meeting. It’s not a perfect church, but it’s a grace-filled church that God is blessing.
That’s it. Scenes one, two, or three. My question: what kind of church do we want to become?
That’s really the question that we have before us today. How can we become the kind of church that God blesses?
James 4 tells us. Let’s look, and let’s pay attention, because this is crucial for our church.
How to Not Be a Church That God Blesses
How do we not become a church that God blesses? How do we become a church that God opposes? It’s easy: do nothing. As one of my friends recently tweeted, “My problem is not that I’m not good at Christianity. My real problem is that I’m really good at anti-Christianity. Why I need Christ.”
We’re really good at becoming a church that doesn’t reflect the beauty and generosity of God. We see this in this passage. Left to our natural devices, we’ll become exactly what James describes in the first few verses of this passage:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:1-4)
I think I’ve been in this church! As a new church, we’re nothing like this right now. It’s one of the things that I love about being a new church. We’re nothing like what James describes. We’ve got a lot of problems, but one of them isn’t that we’re fighting. But what would it take for us to become the kind of church that James describes? Absolutely nothing. Left to ourselves, this will be the path that this church will take. Why? Because it comes naturally.
The problem, James explains, is something within us: passions and desires. When we’re in conflict, it’s natural to think the problem is the other person. It’s never our fault, for course. But James says that this is wrong. The problem is ourselves. The problem is that we want something. It’s interesting that James doesn’t say that our desires are necessarily even wrong. Some of the desires may be legitimate: for friendship, for support and understanding for instance.
The problem is that these desires can actually begin to war within us. What this means is this: we begin to live to advance our own interests and desires. We want to please ourselves. Nothing will destroy relationship faster than this. When we begin to put ourselves first, people either become objects that we can use to satisfy our own desires, or obstacles who get in the way. Either way, community is killed. When we approach community like this, it’s inevitable that people won’t always meet our needs. And when this happens, James explains what happens next. We get angry. We get ticked off. He says that we end up murdering, fighting, quarreling, and coveting. James is saying that we can hide our selfishness for a while. People won’t know at first that we’re approaching community this way. But eventually it will come out. It will come out in the ugliest behavior that you can imagine.
But wait. It gets worse. What happens when we approach life with a selfish desire to put ourselves first? James tells us that it also affects our relationship with God. It does this in a couple of ways, and both are deadly. One way it affects us is that we don’t even pray. Why would we pray when it’s all about us? When we’re prayerless it’s a sign that we’re trying to run things on our own. We decide what’s good and try to accomplish it on our own. God becomes an afterthought rather than our greatest desire.
So either we’re prayerless, or we go to the other extreme and pray selfishly. We approach God as a means to get what we want. I like how one author puts it:
We turn God into a divine waiter. He is there to deliver our daydream to us. We touch base with him on a Sunday; we put our order in via prayer; we might give a decent tip in the collection plate. But God is essentially there to give us what we feel we need … and we get furious with him if he doesn’t deliver. (Rico Tice, Honest Evangelism)
James doesn’t pull any punches. When we act like this, he says, we’re guilty of spiritual adultery. We’re cheating on God. We know the pain of a husband or wife finding out that their spouse is having an affair. We’ve witnessed the devastation that this causes. It’s like a bomb detonating that damages anyone within the blast radius. James says that this is a good picture of what happens with God. When we use other people and God as a way for us to meet our desires, it’s devastating. It destroys community. It’s cheating on God himself. The scariest part: this is what will happen naturally, because selfishness comes naturally to all of us.
If there’s any consolation in this passage, it’s the next couple of verses:
Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:5-6)
James gives us two truths that should comfort us as we consider our selfishness and how it will destroy our relationship with others and with him.
First: God is jealous. You’re thinking: that’s good news? Jealousy is a bad thing! To which I’d say: not necessarily. There’s a good jealousy. It’s actually very good news that God is jealous for us. God cares for us enough to care. Paul Copan says:
A wife who doesn’t get jealous and angry when another woman is flirting with her husband isn’t really committed to the marriage relationship … . Outrage, pain, anguish—these are the appropriate responses to such deep violation. God isn’t some abstract entity or impersonal principle … . We should be amazed that the Creator of the universe would so deeply connect himself to human beings that he would open himself to sorrow and anguish in the face of human rejection and betrayal.
God loves us enough to care when we live this way. He’s not going to sit back idly and let it happen. God cares passionately about our relationship with him and won’t settle for our unfaithfulness. He longs for our love. He will have his people.
Second: God is gracious. We’re going to look at this in a minute, but this is the best news going. Our failure and our unfaithfulness is not the last word. God’s grace is the last word. God extends his grace to selfish people like us. We will never exhaust God’s grace. If you recognize yourself in this passage, as I do, then there’s good news for us. God is ready to welcome us back by his grace.
At the start of this sermon I gave you two ugly scenes from church life. How do we become a church that becomes ugly, that lacks grace and is filled with fighting? We don’t have to do anything. We’ll get there just fine. All we have to do is to come to church asking, “What’s in it for me?” and we’ll get there. We’ll begin to see others as either objects to be used or obstacles to overcome. We’ll even start to see God this way. It will kill our souls, and it will kill our church. Let’s not go there.
What’s the alternative?
How to Be a Church That God Blesses
We already know how to become a church that God won’t bless. Just do nothing. It will come naturally. It’s how every good church becomes ugly.
How do we become a church that God blesses? One word: humility. We can become a church that God exalts by abandoning selfishness and pursuing humility.
James says, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God.” (James 4:6-7). There are few qualities more honoring to God, more conducive to community, and more beautiful and attractive than humility. When we get over ourselves; when we resolve to follow God no matter what, no matter how much it costs; when we lay down our lives for the sake of others, we get our lives back a hundred times over. It’s the upside-down way that God created the world. The way to find our lives is to lose them. The way up is down. The way to become great is to become a servant. The way to find life is to lose it. The way to be exalted is to be humbled. It’s how God created us. It’s exactly opposite to what comes naturally. It’s the way that we can become a church that God blesses.
James unpacks how we can do this in verse 7 to 9:
- resist the devil
- draw near to God
- repent and deal ruthlessly with your sins
All of these are acts of humility. They’re ways of laying aside our natural inclinations, saying no to sin, and pursuing and submitting to God. They are ways of not calling the shots, not putting ourselves first. Each one will feel like a little death to us at first.
He then calls us to apply this to the ways we relate to each other in verses 10 to 12. It’s a way of applying our humility to our relationships. Stop slandering and judging others, he says. Humility will mean we lay aside our position as self-appointed judge, and leave that up to God.
But when we humble ourselves, when we stop putting ourselves first and lay down our lives for God and others, two things will happen. James says in verses 6 and 10 that God will exalt us. The lower we go, the more he’ll lift us up. But something else will happen as well. We’ll become the most beautiful community. We’ll become a church that God blesses: one that reflects the beauty and humility of God himself. Who doesn’t want to be that kind of church?
We can become a church that God exalts by abandoning selfishness and pursuing humility.
When we lay down our lives, after all, we’re doing what God the Son did for us. We’re reflecting the very character of God himself, who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
To become an ugly church, no action is required. To become a church that God blesses, let’s keep looking to Jesus. Let’s lay down our lives for him. Let’s pour out our lives in service to others. Let’s not see each other as objects or obstacles, but as people to love. Let’s begin by repenting of our selfishness, by asking God to change us. Let’s not pray for our selfish desires, but that God would make us exactly this kind of church.
James says: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:8-9). How can you obey this command today? How can you cleanse your hands, purify your hearts, and mourn over your selfishness? Spend a few moments confessing your selfishness before God right now.
Lord, bring us down. Humble us so that you can exalt us. Help us get over ourselves so that we can live lives of sacrificial service. Help us to become great by becoming servants. Help us to be like Jesus. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.