What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?
(a) Quarrels and conflicts happen because humanity is fundamentally selfish.
We want what we don’t have and we get upset when we can’t get it. We look to people to meet needs that only God can meet and then blame them when they fail to deliver. We invent all sorts of reasons why getting our way is the best way, but our wisdom is stained with selfish ambition (Jas. 3:16).
(b) Pleasures. The pursuit of pleasure can choke the life of God (Luke 8:14) and enslave us (Tit. 3:3). Since God is the ultimate source of pleasure (Ps. 16:11), the pursuit of pleasure apart from God leaves us empty and unfulfilled.
(c) Wage war in your members. When we feed our flesh but neglect our spirits we wither.
We weren’t designed to live like brute beasts. We were created for relationship. Trying to satisfy your spiritual needs through fleshly means will leave you anxious, barren, and exhausted.
(d) Members are body parts (e.g., your tongue). Our bodies are the battleground where we encounter temptation and sin (Rom. 6:12). As sinners, we had no choice but to walk in the flesh. But as new creations, we can walk in the new way of the spirit. We can offer the members of our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness, or we can present our bodies as holy and living sacrifices to God (Rom. 6:13, 12:1).
You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.
(a) Murder. The flesh will fight and kill to get what it wants. “Get out of my way!”
In the pursuit of selfish goals we ruin friendships and destroy our marriages. We put career before family and sacrifice our children on the altar of ambition. In the name of God we’ll kill those who hinder us. This was certainly true of those who murdered the followers of Christ (John 16:2). Angry people killed most of the original apostles, and they killed James the author of this letter.
In context, James is talking about rich and powerful elites who exploit their workers and destroy those who get in their way (Jas. 5:4–6).
(b) Envious and cannot obtain. Our flesh covets what it doesn’t have. “You’ve got it, I want it.”
(c) Fight and quarrel. When it doesn’t get its way our flesh is easily angered. “I should’ve got that promotion.”
(d) You do not ask because you are too proud to ask. “I’ve got this.” No, you don’t. “I can do this.” No, you can’t. “I don’t need God.” Yes, you do.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
(a) Do not receive. Selfish prayers go unanswered.
When we pray with faith, we can be confident that our Father hears and answers our prayers (Matt. 21:22, John 16:24). But faithless prayers, such as the pompous prayers of the religious or the formulaic prayers of the superstitious, do not get heard (Matt. 6:5, 7).
(b) You ask with wrong motives. God will not indulge our covetous or adulterous desires. Our prayers should be in the vein of “your will be done” not “my will be done” (Jas. 4:15).
(c) Wrong. There is a right way and a wrong way to pray. The carnal prayers of the selfish can be contrasted with effective prayers of the righteous (Jas. 5:16).
(d) Your pleasures. A good Father does not give a young child everything the child asks for because that would be negligent parenting. But you can be confident that your good Father is always good to you. Everything he does reveals his love for you.
You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
(a) You adulteresses. Loving the things of this world is cheating on God. This rebuke is not directed to those who have faith in Christ (Jas. 2:1), but those who’d rather befriend the world than be friends with God.
(b) Do you not know; see entry for 1 Cor. 3:16.
(c) Hostility toward God. Those who bet on this fallen world are backing the wrong kingdom. They’re setting themselves up as an enemies of God. However, any hostility is all in their minds (Col. 1:21). God does not hate them. God loves his so-called enemies and will do whatever he can to save them.
(d) A friend of the world is someone who values worldly things more highly than spiritual things.
A friend of the world is not necessarily a wicked person. They may be quite moral and religious. But they walk by sight rather than by faith. They have an earthly mindset and make judgments based on a worldly point of view (2 Cor. 1:17, 5:16). Instead of relying on God’s grace they value human effort (Gal. 3:3, Php. 3:4). They prefer the corrupt and counterfeit life of Babylon to the new and everlasting life of the New Jerusalem.
Some say that the church should have nothing to do with sinners or “secular” society less we inadvertently become too friendly with the world. But Jesus was the friend of sinners. He dined in their homes and invested in their lives. Jesus does not want us to withdraw from the world like cloistered monks. He sends us into the world to be salt and light (John 17:17–18).
(e) An enemy of God. The religious Jews thought they were God’s people, but the hellish fruit of their tongues (Jas. 3:6), their constant squabbling (Jas. 4:1), and their murderous tendencies (Jas. 4:2) showed that they were citizens of Satan’s realm. They wanted to be God’s friends, like their forefather Abraham (Jas. 2:23), but they acted like his enemies, like their father the devil (John 8:44).
Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?
(a) The Scripture. Scholars don’t agree on which scripture James is quoting. Some say he’s referring to those Old Testament passages where God is portrayed as a jealous God (e.g., Ex. 20:5) or a jilted husband (e.g., Jer. 31:32). Others say he is quoting a New Testament scripture (e.g., Gal. 5:17). Another possibility is he intends to quote Proverbs 3:34 (see next verse) but interjects with a question.
(b) Jealously. The spirit of unregenerate man is selfish, always wanting what it doesn’t have.
The original word (phthonos) means envy, which is fruit of sinful flesh (Rom. 1:29, Tit. 3:3). It’s derived from a word that means to shrivel or wither, which is certainly what envy does to us. Those who are possessed by envy will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). Since God cannot sin it is unthinkable that this is describing the Lord. (The word translated here as jealousy is not the same word that appears as jealousy in 1 Cor. 10:22.) God does not watch you like an insecure lover. His unconditional love for you is constant and shadowless.
Further reading: “Is God a jealous God?”
(c) Spirit. Although Spirit is spelled with a capital S, the original word is simply spirit. It is the spirit of unregenerate man that covets and quarrels (Jas. 4:2). “The spirit that God placed in us is filled with fierce desires” is how the Good News Bible translates this passage.
As Spurgeon once said: “There is a spirit, resident in the natural man, the human nature of man, which is always inclined toward hate and envy, always wanting to get something from other men and always grieved if other men seem to be or to have more than the person himself has.” The remedy for an envious and quarrelsome spirit is the greater grace of God (see next verse).
But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.”
(a) It says. The quote comes from Proverbs 3:34 in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).
(b) Greater. The original word (megas) means exceedingly great, high, large, loud, and mighty. God is not stingy with grace. He gives us exceedingly great grace to set us free from sin and selfishness. Sin has a power that no flesh can resist (Rom. 7:18). But God’s large, loud and mighty grace is greater still. See also the entry for Rom. 5:20.
(c) God is opposed to the proud. The self-righteous see no need for God’s grace. “I am good enough.” So God hammers their pride with the merciless law. “You are not good,” says the law. “You are a lawbreaker in desperate need of grace.”
(d) Grace captures the goodwill, lovingkindness, and favor of God that is freely given to us so that we may partake in his divine life. Grace is God’s divine aid that supernaturally empowers you to be who he made you to be. See entry for Grace of God.
(e) But gives grace to the humble. Grace comes to those who humble themselves and acknowledge their need for it (1 Pet. 5:5).
When we stumble, our natural inclination is to reach for the fig leaves. “I can fix this.” Or we defend ourselves by blaming others. “It was the woman you gave me.” These are the pitiful boasts of a self-righteous heart. A healthier response is to own our mistakes and receive the grace that God gives to the humble.
Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
(a) Submit therefore to God. Say yes to God.
To submit is to surrender. It is agreeing with God and confessing, “I am a sinner in need of grace” (1 John 1:9). It is thanking Jesus for the cross and his blood that cleanses us from all unrighteousness. It is downing tools and abandoning the futile quest for self-improvement. It is receiving the righteousness that comes by faith and trusting that God’s grace is sufficient for all our needs.
(b) Resist the devil. Say no to the devil.
To resist is to oppose and reject the devil’s lies. It’s refusing to believe that you must work to prove your salvation or earn your Father’s favor. It’s resisting the temptation to say, when things go wrong, that God is testing me (Jas. 1:13). It’s choosing to lift up the Name of the Lord. It’s declaring the good promises of God over yourself and your family.
(c) He will flee from you. The devil cannot stand to be around those who know their God and are confident of their Father’s love.
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
(a) Draw near to God. Approach God, freely, boldly and with the confidence that he will receive you (Heb. 4:16).
Like all good evangelists, James tells unbelievers what they need to do. Submit and draw near to God (Jas. 4:7). Humble yourself and receive his grace (Jas. 4:6, 10). These are life-saving words for sinners who think they are far from God. Yet some Christians think these words are for them. “I need to cleanse myself to get closer to God.” Saint, you have been washed by the blood of the Lamb and are as clean as can be. One with the Lord, you are as close to God as you can possibly get.
See entry for Union.
(b) He will draw near to you. The God of the old covenant was distant and unapproachable (Ex. 19:11–13, 40:35), but the good news declares that through Christ we may draw near (Eph. 2:13). All the obstacles that stood between us – our sin, our hostility – have been done away with through one audacious act of love.
(c) Cleanse your hands… purify your hearts. The ceremonial washing of hands was part of the Jews’ religion (Matt. 15:2), but in the new covenant we are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb (1 John 1:7) and washed by the word of Christ (Eph. 5:26). We purify our hearts by submitting or turning to God in faith (see previous verse).
(d) You sinners. You unbelievers who are in two minds about the gospel.
Religion portrays sinners as bad people doing bad things – tax collectors, prostitutes, etc. Yet Jesus said these sorts of “sinners” were quicker to enter the kingdom than religious people (Matt. 21:31). Show a sinner that God loves them and he holds nothing against them and they come running in. It’s the religious and self-righteous who remain uncertain and outside.
(e) You double-minded. To be double-minded is to be caught between the old covenant of DIY religion and the new covenant of grace.
People who have invested in religion or their own moral performance have the most trouble receiving grace. They accept that God gives grace to sinners, but they would rather rely on their own good works. To those in two minds the apostle shouts, “Choose grace!” (Jas. 4:6). Grace saves us and keeps us. In the kingdom of God, it’s grace from start to finish.
Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.
(a) Be miserable. Those who remain captive to sin and self-righteousness are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (Rev. 3:17).
(b) Laughter. Stop joking around. Stop numbing yourself with religion, pleasure, and trivial pursuits.
(c) Mourning. Sorrow is a fitting response to a wasted life.
Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
(a) Humble yourselves. Stop pretending. Repent, turn to God, and receive his great grace (Jas. 4:6).
(b) He will exalt you. He will lift you up from the miry clay and seat you in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). He will deliver you from the prison of sin and adopt you into his family (Rom. 8:15).
Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.
(a) Do not speak against. Do not backbite, badmouth, or slander others.
(b) Brethren; see entry for Jas. 1:16.
(c) Judges his brother. Don’t play the judgment game (Matt. 7:1). You are not the Lawgiver and Judge (see next verse). When you judge others, you are usurping God’s role.
(d) Speaks against the law. If you are using the law to judge people, you are not using it for its proper purpose.
The law is not your guide for holy living, nor is it a hammer to be cracked over the head of your brother or neighbor. The purpose of the law is to reveal your need for grace and point you to Christ (Gal. 3:24).
See entry for The Law.
(e) Not a doer of the law. When you tell tales, you are breaking the law (Lev. 19:16–17).
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?
(a) One Lawgiver and Judge. The Jews understood that the Lord is our judge and lawgiver (Is. 33:22). James wrote so they would learn to see God as their heavenly Father (Jas. 1:27).
(b) Save and to destroy. God holds the power of life and death. He is the Judge with the power to carry out his righteous judgments
(c) Who are you? Someone who judges and condemns sinners has nothing in common with the One who came to justify sinners. Jesus came to dispense grace, not judgment (John 3:17). When we judge others we are acting more like the Accuser than the Savior.
(d) Judge your neighbor. We are to love our neighbors, not judge them (Lev. 19:18).
When we position ourselves as judges we assume the high ground of our moral superiority. This holier-than-thou attitude is a million miles from the heart of the One who humbled himself taking on the form of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). The wisdom from above is merciful and compassionate, not critical and condemning (Jas. 3:17).
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
(a) Engage in business. There is nothing wrong with planning ahead or building a business (Luke 14:28). The Bible is full of stories about farmers who sowed in anticipation of a harvest (e.g., Jas. 5:7). But the business of the kingdom always puts people before profit.
(b) Profit. It’s better to be rich toward God than to be rich in earthly treasure.
Profits put food on the table but the pursuit of profit can distract us from matters of eternal consequence. In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus spoke of a successful businessman who was so focused on accumulating material possessions that he died without giving any thought to God (Luke 12:16–21).
Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.
(a) Tomorrow you could be dead.
Making long-term plans with imperfect knowledge is risky, but trusting God is a sure bet. You don’t know what tomorrow may bring, but those who trust the Lord can be confident that he will bring them safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18).
(b) Vapor. Life is short, like grass that flowers and is gone (Jas. 1:10¬–11).
Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”
(a) If the Lord wills. The future belongs to the Lord.
When God told Abram to leave his country he left (Gen. 12:1–4). When it came to making plans, Abram’s attitude was “if the Lord wills.” He held his plans loosely and was quick to lay them down when the Lord called.
(b) Do this or that. Be open to the possibility that the Lord has better plans for you.
But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
(a) Boast in your arrogance. Bragging about your grandiose schemes makes you sound like the rich fool (Luke 12:18–19).
(b) Evil. Bragging about how you are going to make a big name for yourself makes you sound like the devil (Is. 14:14).
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.
(a) Knows. Religion is vague leaving you uncertain, but faith comes from knowing how much God loves you. One of James’ favorite words is know. “Do you not know?” (Jas. 4:4), “You do not know” (Jas. 4:14), “This you know” (Jas. 1:19). James writes so that you may know the word of truth and believe.
(b) The right thing to do is to stop being arrogant (Jas. 4:16), stop acting like you’re going to live forever (Jas. 4:14), and repent. Humble yourself, submit to God, and receive his grace (Jas. 4:6, 8, 10).
(c) Sin. If you don’t turn to God, you have well and truly missed the mark. God will still love you, but your life will fall far short of all that your Father has in store for you, and in the end you will be lost (Rom. 6:23).
See entry for Sin.
The Grace Commentary is a work in progress with new content added regularly. Sign up for occasional updates below. Got something to say? Please use the Feedback page. To report typos or broken links on this page, please use the comment form below.
- James 4:1
- James 4:2
- James 4:3
- James 4:4
- James 4:5
- James 4:6
- James 4:7
- James 4:8
- James 4:9
- James 4:10
- James 4:11
- James 4:12
- James 4:13
- James 4:14
- James 4:15
- James 4:16
- James 4:17
I love all this. It really is all about Jesus. My reading of the word is becoming more and more grace centred. Thank you.