Christian Humbleness and the Glory of God: An Exegesis of James 4:1-10

By
Nicholas Rudolph Quient

In our first series on the podcast, Thomas and I talked at some length about the nature of faith in and beyond the New Testament. In this post, I want to talk more specifically about the nature of humbleness and human participation in God’s call (i.e. human freedom). While most discussions often shift toward the Pauline epistles, specifically a certain Pauline epistle, namely the ninth chapter, I wanted to explore something a bit new. Much of Protestant Evangelical theology has tended to sideline the so-called Catholic epistles, and I want to bring out some of the major theological themes in the Epistle to James, who is just as captivated by God’s glory and is equally forthright about the necessity of the human will.

The pericope reads:

1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 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. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4 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. 5 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”? 6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
“God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (NRSV).

Christ, The Humble Eternal Son

Before we can dive into this fascinating and compact text, we must first turn to an order of principal importance—namely Christ’s own humbleness and faithfulness. All Christian theology must be filtered through the lens of the Son, namely his incarnation, life, and bodily resurrection. Then, and only then, can we reconstruct our vision of the Christian life from Holy Scripture.

That is, Paul explicitly tells us to have the same mind of Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5). But before Paul can dive into the deep things of the preexistent Son, he asserts an ethical paradigm for our lives in vv.1-4:

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others

Thus, even as a preliminary note, Christian ethics are fundamentally Christological, predicated upon the life and actions and expectations of Jesus. The emphasis throughout Philippians 2:1-5 is on having the same mindset as Christ, which affirms also the necessity of “seeing Christ” as our “common head” (John Wesley). We imitate and participate in Jesus’ life and calling—thus Philippians could be easily categorized not only as a friendship epistle but as a vocation epistle for the church.

Philippians 2:6-8 says

who [that is, Christ] being in the form of God did not consider being equal with God as something to exploit, but he emptied himself—taking the form of a slave and being born in the likeness of human beings. And being found in the likeness of humanity, he humbled himself (ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν) by becoming subject unto death, even the death on a cross” (my translation).

For Paul, his Christological foundation of the life of holiness is enslaved to the image of the crucified slave. While the Son had eternal equality with the Father, he emptied himself off all divine assurance and status, actively taking the form of a slave. Christ becoming a slave assumes that the human race is to be categorized in terms of enslavement and oppression, and Christ actively stepped into that existence with intentional grace. Submission in an ancient context usually denoted forced or oppressive submission, whether in terms of war or in terms of evil slaveholders. However, the call to submit in the Christian tradition is predicated upon the person’s will to do so, and not the person with authority to enforce such an event, and Paul effectively undermines such ideas in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, where the so-called subordinate members of the Christian household are empowered with dignity toward mutual submission.

Thus, the call toward humbleness is a deeply Christological phenomenon, established by Christ’s faithful example of enslavement to the powers by forsaking his divine right as warrior, destroyer, and God.

Humbleness, Grace and Verbs in James

1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 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.

James 4:1-6 is fraught with interesting verb choices and images. V.1b uses the middle στρατευομένων (“warring, at war”), and Greek scholars have moved past a simple passive/active notion of the verb. Here, it most likely suggests an external force among the Christian community, but something operating also with distinct force by the community itself. The dual use of the Greek preposition ἐν (“in, among” usually) suggests this sort of locative or inner working among the community. Verses 1-2 are fixated upon the inner-warfare as the community consumes itself, perhaps echoing the sins noted by Moses at Sinai.

You do not have, because you do not ask.

This verse has often been used to assert that God answers all prayers, including prayers about sinful desires, actions, and self-centered hopes. Read on.

3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

It may seem rather Sunday school-ish to say this, but the manner of approach to God matters a lot. Humbleness and a desire to represent Christ in the community are central to any ethical injunction, especially here in James.

4 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. 5 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”?

These verses are fixated on correcting a caricature of God, and the emphasis is not upon personal friendships, but on allegiances. As Thomas and I talked about in episodes 2 and 3, the human person is told to participate with God in a manner that promotes the glory of God as King. The nature of Spirit is not a reference to the soul, but to the totality of the human person in lived experience, working out her faithful participation in fear and trembling before God. This is what one can call a negative example of a life lived in opposition to God’s Lordship.

6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
“God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”

The Greek language has a great conjunction: δὲ. It can mean “but” or sometimes “and.” In v.6, the disjunctive nature of the conjunction rings across the entirety of the verse, reverberating across the previous words. “But he gifts us greater grace.” The verb rendered “gift” here is δίδωσιν, and means that grace here is stronger than whatever negative activity has come before. Only God can give the type of grace that supersedes evil. “Therefore, God resists (ἀντιτάσσεται) the arrogant.” And then James adds another δὲ: “BUT he gifts grace to the humble ones.” God has asserted that the currency of the kingdom is not found in pride or excessive power, but in a life lived in humbleness before him. Who receives undeserved grace? Those who humble themselves before God.

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Submission here is for the entire church, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female. Our “submission” (ὑποτάγητε) is done in a free manner, a mood of participation. In “resisting” (ἀντίστητε, a similar word as God’s own resistance above) “the devil,” we see God’s own war against the Devil (c.f. Rom 16:17-20), and the Devil flees. All of the verbs in v.7 assume the human person’s capacity to actively and free respond to both grace and to hostiles.

The sequence is compelling in v.8: the verb ἐγγίσατε (“approach”) is an active imperative, which confirms the fact that the human person can come to God, and God subsequently “draws near to us” (ἐγγιεῖ). God has not left himself far off from our presence, and our response to God seems to be viewed in terms of God’s free act of holy love in being ever closer to his creation.

Verse 8b is particularly fascinating. Here is my own translation: “Cleanse your hands, sinful ones! Purify your hearts, the double-minded ones!” James assumes that there are sinful people in the midst of the community church, and yet he orders them to actively (using the imperative mood and active tense-form for both verbs) “cleanse” and “purify.” The Wesleyan model of humbleness and seeking holiness culminates in the human responsibility to respond to God’s own demand for righteous allegiance, and this includes our awareness of sin (individual, corporate, and systemic). This is something that God could do, but God has other plans than fitting into an easy systematic theology.

In reframing our emotional and physiological responses to God in v.9, we can see that God’s call for us to transform ourselves into joy and laughter. Verse 10 is the climax of this section, and James’ admonishment to “humble yourself” assumes that a person can do such a call, and the subsequent result that God will “exalt” that person. James assumes that we can imitate Jesus and that even includes our acting in a manner that showcases the humbleness of the Son. The very nature of James’ words and his use of verbs confirm a synergistic partnership between God and humanity.

Conclusion

The call to humbleness in our lives is a call to holiness, of a life lived in allegiance to Christ. As John Wesley said, “humility, a right judgment of ourselves cleanses our minds from those high conceits of our own perfections.”

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One thought on “Christian Humbleness and the Glory of God: An Exegesis of James 4:1-10

  1. Cindy Meyers says:

    Beautiful meditation of this passage! Thank-you! I love messages that highlight humility in the Scriptures. It is so desperately needed in the Church today!

    Like

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