James 4 Commentary

Practical Christian Wisdom from the New Testament Book of James

Warning Against Worldliness (James 4:1-12) 

Verse 1: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1 NIV). 

The Epistle of James was simply a letter from a first century apostle, yet it is a profound statement of divine truth concerning the very nature of ALL human conflict. James reasonably addresses “fights and quarrels” (James 4:1 NIV) within the church. James asks the question, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (4:1 NIV), then he gives the answer, “Don’t they come from your desires [Greek, hēdonē, pleasures] that battle within you?” (4:1 NIV). Notice that James places the blame for war on “desires that battle within you” (4:1 NIV). The same Greek word for “desires” (4:1 NIV), Jesus used to explain why some respond to the Word of God and others don’t. “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures [Greek, hēdonē], and they do not mature” (Luke 8:14 NIV). Again, neither James nor Jesus claimed sin to be the reason for war, conflict, or not receiving the truth of the Word of God. Instead, the simple “desires that battle within you” (James 4:1 NIV) are sufficient to cause us to go to war or neglect God’s truth. In other words, we do not sin because we are sinners, but we commit sin because we allow the desires that battle within us to master and control us. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24 NIV). Observation: The solution to not sinning is not merely possessing the Holy Spirit, but allowing the Holy Spirit to direct us, i.e., walking in the Spirit (Romans 8). 

Verse 2: “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2 NIV). 

God being all knowing, certainly has an explanation and plan for correcting why angels and man sinned. Simply saying we have been saved or baptized does not stop us from sinning. How does God prevent another outbreak of sin in Heaven, like when Lucifer fell? The All Wise God certainly has had a plan for judging angelic rebellion, redeeming mankind, and directing us to a subsequent holy life through walking in the Spirit; but, the prosecution of His plan in these Last Days will evidently cure humanity of choosing war as the inevitable conclusion. It is as if He plans to give humankind a massive dose of everything they want, like giving the malcontents quail in place of manna, which will result in the Final Conflict with the Antichrist (Revelation 13) and the penultimate Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16). “Whenever God slew them, they would seek Him; they eagerly turned to Him again” (Psalm 78:34 NIV). Scripture prophetically witnesses that humanity will eventually have a change of heart about warfare —  because, no doubt, it must be preceded by a newly found, right relationship with the Judge of All the Earth. “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war ANYMORE” (Isaiah 2:4 NIV). 

The Epistle of James tells us the proper response that will prevent killing, quarreling, and fighting is prayer, i.e., “you do not ask God” (James 4:2 NIV). It is a disarmingly simple explanation for how a needy people are to receive benefit from an Abundant God. Pray about everything. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6 NIV). Always understand your prayer requests must be with the provision, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV). 

Our problem with praying is really ourselves. How often have we not received our desired answer from God and have seen an accumulation of seemingly inexplicable trouble instead? We could do as Job’s distraught wife recommended, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9 NIV). Or, we can confound the devil, and glorify God with Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (13:15 KJV). Who are we to teach the Almighty wisdom? God’s heart yearns for our implicit trust of Him without the bitterness of our disappointment disfiguring God as not being who we had previously hoped. “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does? declares the Lord. Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6 NIV). Shall we angrily say to the Potter, “Who do you think You are? What do you think You are doing?” God forbid! 

Why cannot God answer our prayers? FIRST, God cannot answer a prayer, if obviously “we do not ask God” (James 4:2 NIV). SECOND, God cannot answer a prayer, when we don’t know what to ask. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26 NIV). THIRD, God cannot answer a prayer, when we aren’t truly praying. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5 NIV). 

Verse 3: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3 NIV). 

James gives us a definitive statement from God as to why God will not answer our prayers. Remember, Jesus already modeled the Lord’s Prayer or the Disciples’ Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) as how to correctly pray. Let us think through James 4:3 (NIV), starting with its concluding word. FIRST, “pleasures [Greek, hēdonē]” (James 4:3 NIV), as also used earlier in verse 1, may be but are not necessarily evil, since nowhere in Scripture are we disallowed from seeking our pleasure, as God does His, UNLESS our pleasure is contrary to His pleasure. Remember, as is true with our purpose for being, it will be true for our joyful purpose in eternity — we exist to pleasure God. “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created” (Revelation 4:11 KJV). So, determining whether our prayer request pleasures God should be our first priority. “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts” (Psalm 139:23 KJV). SECOND, “spend [Greek, dapanaō]” (James 4:3 NIV). The same Greek word dapanaō is used by Paul to the Corinthians in a good way. “So I will very gladly spend [Greek, dapanaō] for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less?” (2Corinthians 12:15 NIV). So, any wrongness of motivation in the prayer request’s asking must be because you seek to “spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3 NIV), and not for His pleasure. THIRD, “you ask with wrong motives” (James 4:3 NIV) is not simply a possible reason for why our prayers are not answered, but it is the reason for God not answering our prayers. But, we may object, that puts us in the negative class of being an “adulterous people” (4:4 NIV) — see the next verse. 

Why will God not answer our prayers? Essentially, God refuses to answer our prayers because “we ask with wrong motives” (James 4:3 NIV). In other words, we are playing the part of an unfaithful, “adulterous” (4:4 NIV) spouse making improper advances with the Prince of the Power of the Air, trying to get the riches of the world that our Lord Jesus Christ refused in His Temptation. Here are seven reasons that more fully explain the “wrong motives” (James 4:3 NIV) of why God will not answer our prayers (see R. A. Torrey’s “How to Pray,” Chapter IX, “Hindrances to Prayer”). FIRST, when we harbor any sin in our hearts, the LORD will not hear us. “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2 NIV). SECOND, when we refuse to forgive others, God will not hear our prayer to forgive us. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25 NIV). THIRD, when a husband does not treat his wife with respect, God will not respect his prayers. “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1Peter 3:7 NIV). FOURTH, when we refuse to hear the cry of the poor, God will not hear our cry to Him. “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13 NIV). FIFTH, whatever we value more than God is our idol, and He will not let an idolator to be heard at all. “Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of Me at all?” (Ezekiel 14:3 NIV). SIXTH, doubting God and His Word is withholding confidence in Him, which He deserves. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:5-7 NIV). SEVENTH, any desire or pleasure, which is put ahead of His pleasure is selfish, and God will not condone it by answering our prayer. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3 NIV)

Verse 4: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4 NIV). 

What happened to James’ initial greeting, “my brothers and sisters” (James 1:2 NIV)? Who is James now talking to, “you adulterous people” (4:4 NIV)? Evidently, James is able to switch his labels from “brothers and sisters” (1:2 NIV) to “adulterous people” (4:4 NIV) as quickly as Jesus did with Peter, from “blessed” (Matthew 16:17 KJV) for Peter’s confession of Christ as God, then to “Satan” (16:23 KJV) for denying Jesus must suffer, die, and rise from the dead. The “friendship with the world” (James 4:4 NIV) condemned is a worldly friendship John also condemned. “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world” (1John 2:15-16 NIV). This is where disciples have pledged their loyalty to Christ confessing Him as Lord before angels, devils, and man, when baptized, becoming friends of God. The opposite is also true. “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4 NIV)

Verse 5: “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that He jealously longs for the spirit He has caused to dwell in us?” (James 4:5 NIV). 

Perhaps, the New King James Version (NKJV) can give us a better translation of this verse. “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously?” (James 4:5 NKJV). In other words, the Holy Spirit jealously yearns for our friendship. And, a prime example of this is Abraham, who God avowed with great pleasure, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend” (James 2:23 NIV). Honestly, this verse (v. 5) causes difficulty to expositors, because no such alluded to OT reference can be found; instead, it is apparent that the totality of OT Scripture — as affirmed by James’ NT declaration — supports this idea of God’s Spirit jealously longing, yearning, and envying for friendship with us. “13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are My friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15 NIV).

Verse 6: “But He gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6 NIV). 

Friends of God walk humbly with Him not only because He is infinitely greater, but He is also a gracious benefactor, who gives even more grace to those who continue to walk with Him. God is the great power to be reckoned with. King Nebuchadnezzar finally confessed, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything He does is right and all His ways are just. And those who walk in pride He is able to humble” (Daniel 4:37 NIV). With the same certainty God helps His friends, He always humbles the proud. “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 NIV).

Verse 7: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7 NIV). 

Spiritual warfare begins with submitting to God. “Submit [Greek, hupotassō] yourselves, then, to God” (James 4:7 NIV). Submission is to willingly be subject to a greater power, i.e., to be obedient. “Let everyone be subject [Greek, hupotassō] to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1 NIV). Without God’s grace or help, we have no hope of resisting the devil. Only with God’s help will the devil flee from us. Not that we are greater than the devil, but the “one who is in you [the Holy Spirit] is greater than the one who is in the world [the devil]” (1John 4:4 NIV). The promise of victory over sin and the devil must be written in the innermost part of our being. We must be unwilling to surrender to our adversary. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 NIV). Our resistance will be successful. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1Corinthians 10:13 NIV). Our victory is secure. “Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1John 5:4 NIV). Praise God for His deliverance through Jesus Christ! 

Verse 8: “Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8 NIV). 

How often do we hear God promising to act toward us after we do the same toward Him? “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (James 4:8 NIV). At first glance, it sounds like we are taking the initiative, but Scripture is abundantly clear that God is the First Mover. “We love because He first loved us” (1John 4:19 NIV). If we find ourselves far from God, then the solution is “come near to God” (James 4:8 NIV). He will then “come near” (4:8 NIV) to us. How do we come near to God? “Wash your hands, you sinners” (4:8 NIV). Remember Isaiah’s advice concerning being separated from God? “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2 NIV). Quickly, repent! Confess your estrangement is not His fault, but it is your lack of devotion in seeking Him. “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and He will have mercy on them, and to our God, for He will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7 NIV). “Purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8 NIV). Here, double-mindedness is sinfulness, just like Jesus’ counsel, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13 NIV). Whenever we attempt to play both sides, we are hot then cold, appearing lukewarm. “So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold —  I am about to spit [Greek, emeō, vomit] you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:16 NIV). Again, lukewarmness or double-mindedness must be purified through repentance, i.e., admitting, confessing, and ceasing from sin. 

Verse 9: “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9 NIV). 

James describes what repentance looks like. True repentance is not repented of. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2Corinthians 7:10 KJV). Regretting our repentance means we never truly repented. 

Verse 10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10 NIV). 

Our problem is we want to elevate ourselves. We reason, if we do not do it, no one else will. This is man’s humanistic reasoning for self-promotion. Essentially, it views rewards as if earthly rewards alone count. Jesus agreed that earthly rewards might come, but nothing else. This would not bother those who do not believe in a life hereafter, but it would devastate those who understand the preeminence of eternity. “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward” (Matthew 6:2 KJV). But, if we understood that True Elevation comes only from God, then we would promote ourselves only when unavoidable and necessary. “But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, Friend, move up to a better place. Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:10-11 NIV). 

Verse 11: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it” (James 4:11 NIV). 

“Do not slander [Greek, katalaleō, speak evil] one another” (James 4:11 NIV). Slander is to spread a malicious and false statement designed to defame someone.  “Let not an evil speaker be established in the earth: evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him” (Psalm 140:11 KJV). Speaking evil of another brother or sister is one of the easiest ways to bring the way of the world into the Church. The law always demands treating our neighbor equal to ourselves, i.e., “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39 NIV). Slander not only violates love, but speaks against the law, which love represents. 

Verse 12: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12 NIV). 

The way of the world is to destroy our neighbor before he seizes the advantage to destroy us first. This requires us to become Lawgiver and Judge in order to exact our judgment upon the world. Here, James is reminding us that God alone is “Lawgiver and Judge” (James 4:12 NIV). He preempts our right to be a law unto ourself. “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” (4:12 NIV). They say you cannot legislate love; but, God does exactly that. Not only does He require love, but all of human existence has been so providentially arranged that God will be justified through the people He will gather, who will trust, love, obey, and glorify Him. “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14 NIV). Everything God has done from Creation, the sin of Lucifer and his minions in Heaven, the worldwide flood of Noah, the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, the giving of the Law to the Nation of Israel, the Atonement of Christ on the Cross, the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church, the Second Coming of Christ, the Final Judgment of Man and Angels, have been prophetically orchestrated by the Almighty to bring about the sublime, voluntary submission of angels and humanity to the perfect will of God “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11 NIV).

Boasting About Tomorrow 

Verse 13: “Now listen, you who say, Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” (James 4:13 NIV). 

Human history upon this planet has been the rise and fall of civilizations, nations, and peoples, who have said, Let us “carry on business and make money” (James 4:13 NIV). God Himself commanded us, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 NIV). But, He also inspired Paul to say, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1Timothy 6:10 KJV). Is it evil to build wealth? No, but wealth is only what we have, when God takes from us and leaves with us, whatever He chooses. “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21 KJV). 

Verse 14: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14 NIV). 

Man takes great pride in his ability to forecast the events of tomorrow. Will it rain tomorrow? Will the economy be good? Will there be peace in the nation? The uncertainty of tomorrow is a demonstration of how small we are. God’s ability to say with certainty what will happen tomorrow is the indication He alone is God. “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned” (Jeremiah 18:7-8 NIV). In contrast, our lives are like a “mist” (James 4:14 NIV) that appears for a moment, then disappears. “Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?” (Isaiah 2:22 NIV). 

Verse 15: “Instead, you ought to say, If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15 NIV). 

Though saying, “If the Lord wills” (James 4:15 NIV) sounds indecisive, then we have good company. James said it. Jesus prayed it. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV). Better God wills the creation of a house, dynasty, or nation, than man merely builds it. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1 NIV). 

Verse 16: “As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:16 NIV). 

Man’s evil, arrogant boastings will come to nothing. “And I’ll say to myself, You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry. But God said to him, You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:19-20 NIV).  

Verse 17: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17 NIV). 

Sin is defined as “lawlessness” (NIV) or the “transgression of the law” (KJV) in 1John 3:4. James defines sin as, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17 NIV). Here, the lack of doing the good they know they ought to do is “lawlessness” or “transgression.” Sin requires understanding of something to be done or not done. Refusal to comply then becomes sin. God does not punish sinners because of an unavoidable condition they were born with. Sin defies God. Sin incurs the eternal death penalty from God. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NIV); but, praise be to God, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23 NIV)! 

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com (https://www.zondervan.com/). The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™