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The Cure to Gnawing Sorrow

Sermon 338 St. Martin’s 94 (Riverway) 2/4/24


"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,

‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’"

James 4:1-6


Well, here we are. We are rounding the corner and on the final stretch of our series on James. I’m excited that Jim Jackson is going to close us out next week with a bang. We can almost see the finish line.

As we’ve been journeying through this tough letter, we’ve been reminded of the call that is placed on each person who dares follow Jesus. It is the way of life, and it can bring such joy and fulfillment to us, but it’s not a cakewalk. Maybe James’ tagline about discipleship could be: This Is Not a Drill. 

James wants us to put our actions where our mouth is. But last week Eric took a close look at how even our words play an important role in our faith. Truth matters. Words matter. And we are called to be springs of fresh water for the life of the world.

This letter can be intimidating for many reasons—James comes across as a stern teacher of the faith. He may not be on the top of your list for dinner party guests, but you can see his heart come through in this short epistle. He wants people to be whole Christians, well-rounded, well-formed believers. 

If we say all the right things but don’t do any of them then we’re not whole. You don’t serve half a steak or half a cookie to someone at a dinner you’re hosting—you give them the whole thing! You want them to have the full experience.

Christians don’t need to be half-eaten cookies. If we’re going to try to walk the walk, then we need to dive in headfirst.

This doesn’t mean we are flawless. This definitely doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes (maybe even some big ones), but the road of discipleship is always moving in the direction of Jesus—desiring daily, to grow more and more into his likeness.

And so, that’s what I want to look at today. There are a number of things we could cover in this chapter, but I’m going to focus on the first half of our reading. We’ll have to set aside the portion on judgment and boasting about tomorrow for another time, but I think some of what we’ll look at will answer the questions raised in the latter half of the chapter.

So let’s look at this first half of James 4.

James 4 One thing that you may have sensed while listening to these long readings from James (and by next week you will have heard the entire letter read) is that it feels like a random list of James’ pet peeves, with little coherence as he moves from one thing to another.

But looking a little closer, we find that James has intricately woven the entire letter together. Many times, he answers later in the letter something that he brought up previously.

A good example is looking at what we read last week compared to this week. Chapters 3 and 4 are linked together quite closely.

A few examples:

Wise and discerning “among you” (3:13) --- Fights and quarrels “among you” (4:1)

God gives grace to the humble (4:6) --- Humble yourself before God and he’ll lift you up (4:10).

He talks about bitter jealousy that leads to social unrest (3:14-15) --- Jealousy/Desires expressed as wars and battles (4:1).

Selfish ambitions of your heart (3:14) --- Call to purify your heart (4:8).

A theme that has appeared throughout this letter and really comes to a head in chapter 4 is this idea of desires. “What is it that is causing fights and quarrels among you? Where is that coming from? It’s so unlike you to be this way,” he might’ve said.

James’ answer is that our desires are out of order. Inspired by his brother’s teaching (meaning Jesus) and the Book of Proverbs, James says there are two competing wisdoms: the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world, and there’s not any grey area between the two.

And time and again in his letter he has portrayed these two forms of wisdom as coming from above and below. The wisdom that comes from above is ultimately from God “who is the father of lights” as he said in the first chapter (1:17). All good gifts flow down from him. 

Now the irony is that those who humble themselves are raised up by this divine wisdom. Again, think about Jesus’ Beatitudes here: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5). The Kingdom of God's values are radically different than the world’s. The low are raised up, and the poor are exalted.

So, God’s mercy flows down and has the power to raise up.

For James then, the wisdom from below (meaning, this world) is arrogant and self-aggrandizing. It seeks to raise a person up by pushing others down; it is completely driven by competition and the fear of scarcity. “I must take this from you before you take it from me.”

It’s very Darwinian if you think about it: only the strong will survive, and the weak don’t only lose but ultimately, they will cease to exist. Note, the Nazis adopted this way of thinking wholeheartedly and it allowed them to kill many they deemed as weak or a cancer to society. “For me to thrive you must die.”

Though Nazism is the extreme of this position, for James, there are only two camps: The Kingdom of God that is from above and raises up those of low estate (like Mary said in her Magnificat), or the kingdom of this world that sows seeds of ambition, pride, and envy that leads ultimately to our own demise.  

Both of these positions call for the allegiance of our heart and soul, and both are a religion of sorts. Will we choose to worship ourselves or God?

Envy But it’s this idea of envy that I want to explore for another moment. In chapters 3 and 4, James uses two words that connect the vice of envy with his original audience, something that we miss at first glance. James uses the words zelos, “jealousy” [think zealot] and phthonos, “envy” to make a larger moral argument (Johnson 211).

Greco-Roman philosophers and moralists talked about virtue as health and vice as a sickness. Socrates said that envy is the “ulcer of the soul,” and you can picture envy gnawing away at us and our health. Something Aristotle called a “certain sorrow.” Put the two together and you have “a gnawing sorrow” (Johnson 211).

Why does envy bring sorrow? The scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says that “because envy derives from the ‘wisdom from below’ that indemnifies being with having. A person’s identity and worth derive from what can be acquired and possessed. In such a view, to have less is to be less real, less worthy, less important” (211). And all of those nasty feelings can lead to grief and sorrow.

If we are always measuring ourselves up to others—and acutely aware of our lack—then we’re back to a Darwinism that says we never have enough…it will never be enough…WE will never be enough.

In the end, it will lead to murder, either in our intentions or in the very act itself, which James addresses in verse 2: “You desire but do not have, so you kill.”

James connects ancient philosophers (pagans, mind you) to the worldview of the Torah. Envy will lead to our ruin, but there’s no reason to let the seeds of zelos and phthonos to take root in our heart because the children of God have ALREADY been given everything, in Christ.

It would be redundant to want something that is ultimately already yours. And so, we cannot be double-minded. James calls us to choose the wisdom from above. And remember, he is saying this to people who are already Christians, so he is telling them that this choice is presented to each believer on a regular basis. We must daily choose the kingdom of God in the face of the world we live in. Conversion is a lifelong process.

Conclusion And so, one lingering question I have is what is James offering his readers? What does he hope we get out of these proverbial sayings?

It seems to be a roadmap to life, a path that leads to our wholeness, wellness, and true fulfillment. Sandwiched amid this stuff about quarrels and the devil and boasting James says in v. 6: “But he gives us more grace.”

When we feel envy setting in, we can just say, “But he gives us more grace.”

When we are about to boast we can say, “But he gives us more grace.”

When we feel like we’re not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough…when we don’t feel…enough…“But he gives us more grace.”

Grace precedes everything we are called to do, and grace is where it all ends. Who knew salvation was full circle?

When thinking about how this is not only applied to us as individuals, but also to us collectively as a body of believers, I keep coming back to this idea we explored last fall about a Community of Delight.

When I talk about Riverway being a Community of Delight it is embracing the grace that God has so graciously given to each of us but also as a community. We are linked together by God’s saving work.

We bask in God’s delight, we find our meaning in his delight of us, and thus we are also to delight in God, in one another, and in his creation. James is pointing us—sometimes with both hands on our shoulders—in the direction of God’s delight. All signs point to God’s grace down this road. “Now go!” he exclaims.

I don’t know about you, but I long for that reassurance that when everything else is spent, there is still more grace and because of that I can love because God loves me.

I’ve gotten to a point in my life that nothing else will do. I honestly, with every fiber of my being, want that—I want what James is selling—I want to be a part of a community “of transformed desires” that is rooted in God’s delight and grace—that’s the real deal; that’s what this life is all about.

I want to be whole, and I know who can make me whole. Everything else this world offers is just half-eaten cookies. 



James 4. Much of the research is from NIB vol. XII (1998) Luke Timothy Johnson.  Delight from Mark Clavier. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

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