Resist him, but don’t fear him

The devil.

Last week I read an article about atrocities committed in abortion facilities, and I hated him again for what he’s doing to the way we value life.

I see people redefining marriage and forgetting the God who created it, and I hate Satan for what he’s doing to our homes.

I see a headline about rape, child abuse, or murder, and I hate him for getting into our hearts.

I visit a cancer patient in the hospital, or comfort a grieving family at a graveside, and I hate him all the more for the tears he causes.

And, of course, I hate him for what he’s doing to you and me . . . for our constant struggles, for all the times he wins when he shouldn’t, for all the lies he convinces me to accept (even when I know better).

Please keep reading, because this story has a happy ending—all stories involving God do. But we tend to forget what Satan’s doing, and that’s exactly what he wants.

He’s working in you, especially if you’re trying hard to follow Christ.

He craves your kids, and he’d do anything to steal their hearts while they’re young.

He’s trying to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, because happy marriages kill his work.

He’s slithering between the pews at your church, hoping he can persuade everyone not to take this Jesus thing too seriously. He doesn’t mind church attendance, and singing and praying don’t really bother him either. Just don’t get on fire for the Lord—he hates that.

Oh yes, he’s working every day, so we’d better acknowledge it, but I love James’ simple answer:

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).

We’ve got to remember that we don’t fight alone. He’s tough, but he’s nothing compare to who’s fighting for us.

John puts it like this: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

My encouragement for you today?

Resist him via the Spirit who lives within you. Satan’s a coward when he sees God, and he’ll run when he sees what the Spirit is doing within you.

Respect the devil because he’s tough. Hate him because he’s evil.

But don’t fear him, because he’s nothing compared to the One who was raised to destroy him.

More grace

“For we all stumble in many ways,” James wrote (3:2).

Amen to that. Most Christians I know are quite aware of the myriad ways they fall short.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but James is on a bit of a negative kick. He accuses his Christian readers of lusting, fighting, and coveting. He insinuates that they’re selfish, then—if that wasn’t enough—he calls them adulterers.

He doesn’t seem very happy, does he?

I’m glad there’s this next verse, because it brings us back to the place we all need to be:

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

Isn’t that beautiful? He gives more grace.

We all stumble in many ways, but he gives more grace.

Every day we fall short, but he gives more grace.

We struggle and fall and get up and fall again, but he gives more grace.

It reminds me of what Paul wrote in Romans 5:20: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” All of us need a lot of that grace, don’t we? It’s good that it’s not a finite resource.

But notice the last part of James’ thought: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

One thing will put a barrier between us and God’s grace, and that’s pride. Pride makes us think that we don’t need God, that we’re doing pretty well on our own. Pride trusts in our own righteousness, our own ability to be good, do good, and look good. Pride emphasizes self over God, works over grace, appearance over substance.

So in James’ statement there’s a tremendous promise, but also a warning.

God gives more grace to anyone willing to accept it—what an incredible blessing!

But he withholds it from the proud—nothing could be worse.

Today, let’s pray something like this:

Father, remove all traces of pride from our hearts and fill us with your humility. Though we’re not worthy, please give us more grace. Never oppose us. Never reject us. Keep us humble and within your will. We ask this through Jesus. Amen.

Cheating on God

You should probably stop reading now if you’re uncomfortable with a little PG-13 language. James wasn’t afraid to “call it like he saw it,” as the saying goes, and he didn’t shy away from ruffling feathers when they needed ruffling.

I suspect this statement hurt some feelings, but I doubt he minded that (assuming it helped some of them):

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 4:4).

If you’ve been around church for a while, James’ language probably doesn’t surprise you, but we ought to remind ourselves again exactly what he’s saying.

You’re cheating on God!

That’s exactly what he meant. These people were married to God, but they had another lover. They were having an “affair” with the world.

James’ marital/sexual language reflects something found all over the Old Testament. God’s wife, Israel, repeatedly slept around, embracing all sorts of different lovers. Usually their affairs consisted of their flirting with and embracing other gods and turning their back on the one God.

For James’ readers, and for us, there’s a similar application.

This ought to make us pause, because what James is writing about has been going on since the first days that human beings had a relationship with God. We’re tempted every day to love something instead of God.

In biblical parlance, we’re tempted to commit adultery, to cheat on our First Love.

How are you doing? Are you faithful in your relationship to God? Is there any doubt about where your allegiance lies?

The last part of the verse is downright scary: “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” There are many things I don’t want to be, and at the top of that list is an “enemy of God.” Can you think of anything worse?

It’s worth some serious reflection, so let’s focus on this today. Let’s ask God to give us the willpower to refuse the world’s advances. Let’s pray that he’ll keep us where we need to be, and that he’ll never let us forsake him for some other tempting but ultimately unfulfilling lover.

It just doesn’t make any sense to cheat on God.

Why God doesn’t answer some of our prayers

I’d like to think that God answers all my prayers, but he doesn’t (at least not by saying yes). Can you relate? It happens for dozens of reasons, and James gives us one of them here:

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:3).

I can think of specific times when it seemed like God was ignoring me, but now I know why he refused to grant my request . . . my motives weren’t right. I wanted what I wanted because I was selfish.

James doesn’t tell us exactly what was going on with his readers, but apparently they were asking God for things that they would use in self-advancing, impure ways. Some of them may have been rich people who were using what they had to oppress the poor.

Regardless, the principle is clear—we need to think about what motivates us to ask what we ask.

Are we asking him to help us financially? Sometimes God doesn’t answer that prayer because we haven’t been faithful with the money he’s already given us. Why would he give me more when I’ve used most of what he gave me to meet my unending list of wants? On the other hand, he who is faithful with little might be trusted with more.

But it extends beyond money, of course, and I think James wants us to look carefully at all of our prayer motives.

Why do we ask for better health and a longer life?

Why are we pleading for a better job?

Why do we ask God to remove our stress?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking for any of that, but we ought to think about why we want it. Everything we take to God’s throne should have some connection to our primary desire to bring him glory through what we do.

We want better health so that he might work through our lives to honor him. We’d like a better job that would give us an opportunity to reflect his glory more widely. We’d like less stress so that our focus on him wouldn’t be diluted by all the cares of life. And we’d like more financial resources so that we can give more and use his money in ways that spread his word and honor his name.

It would be a good exercise for each of us to keep a prayer journal and write down everything we ask God about. And then—for each thing—we could reflect on our why.

God loves giving us what we want, but only when we’ll use the gifts to come closer to him and draw others toward him.

Why we argue

Been in a fuss lately?

Maybe it was with your spouse or kids. Could’ve been a co-worker or neighbor. Maybe even someone at church.

It doesn’t really matter what it was about, or who the person was, but I can predict a couple of things: One, it was unpleasant, and two, somebody was being selfish. Those two facts are amazingly consistent.

Something pretty bad was going on in the church James was writing to, and he gives us several hints. It’s also amazing how much things haven’t changed in the last two thousand years:

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 (James 4:1-3).

Those of you who are married know what it’s like to argue, at least occasionally. If you’ve got a sibling, you’ve been in a few dozen (or hundred?). If you’ve got more than one kid, you’ve refereed a quarrel or two. If you’ve ever had a job or interacted with other human beings closely, you’ve had a disagreement.

In other words, if you’re alive you know what James is talking about.

But it’s interesting to hear what he says about the cause of quarrels. It’s usually not just a difference of opinion, and often it’s not about right and wrong.

It’s about the sinful stuff inside of us. It’s about selfishness and lust and covetousness. It’s about our being very concerned about getting what we want.

So let’s pray about this today. Ask God to remove your selfishness. Ask him to use your desires to seek him, not things that hurt you and others. Ask him to address your pride.

We can’t fix other people, and it’s frustrating and futile even to try. But we can submit to God as he works on our flaws, and whatever he does in us will improve all our relationships.

The earth needs a little more heaven

You can just see Jesus in some people.

Folks who’ve been with the Lord for a while—really been with him—have a different spirit about them.

In contrast, we’ve all been around the guy who argues just for the pure fun of it. He’s always mad at someone, always spoiling for a fight, always looking for an excuse to lose his temper.

That guy isn’t following Jesus. He just isn’t.

Notice the contrast James makes in this passage. He says that jealousy and selfish ambition don’t come from heaven; instead they’re “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” But following Christ is different:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:17-18).

Purity, peace, gentleness, reasonableness, mercy, goodness, impartiality, sincerity, righteousness.

That’s what heaven produces in us, and that’s what we want, isn’t it? We live in a world that doesn’t look much like that. God calls us to be pure in a world of filth. He wants us to be peaceful in a world of strife. He wants us to be gentle, merciful, and good in a world that doesn’t value those qualities.

But we’ve got to keep trying. We’ve got to submit to the Spirit of God who shapes his children into his image. And the longer we walk with Christ, the more faithfully we follow him, the more we look like this “wisdom from above.”

Practically, here’s what it is.

It’s the guy who’s got strong convictions but expresses them with the spirit of Jesus. It’s the teenager who’s holding on to her purity in a world that thinks she’s old-fashioned. It’s the lady who helps the people around her live in peace . . . because she’s at peace. It’s the gentleman whose faith leads him to treat everyone with a spirit of kindness and respect.

That’s what wisdom from above looks like.

As long as we live down here, we’ll struggle with it, of course. But as much as we can, we ought to bring a taste of heaven to this struggling earth.

Getting to the top

Emphasizing this part of James “would not be warmly received in the modern church,” writes one commentator (K.A. Richardson).

That’s an interesting thing to say. Surely those of us in the church wouldn’t shy away from listening to any part of the Bible, would we?

Here’s the verse he’s talking about: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth” (James 3:14).

At first glance, the verse might seem relatively harmless, but as we look closer we start to realize the author was probably right.

Jealousy and ambition. They’re things you see in the real world, right? One employee envies another’s promotion and does what he can to undermine him. A corporate ladder-climber’s unbridled ambition leads her to step on whoever gets in her way. You’ve seen this happen too many times. It starts on the playground and continues through life, reaing its head on the college social scene and in the corporate boardroom. It’s scary what people will do when they’re jealous or overly ambitious.

Oh, but it doesn’t just happen out there, of course. It’s part of our sinfulness that doesn’t get washed away in the waters of baptism. It’s certainly forgiven, but the impulse remains with us.

And so we sometimes see it in the church. Which means we see it in ourselves.

Can you think of a time when you found yourself being jealous of something good happening in a fellow believer’s life? It’s not hard to weep with those who weep, but rejoicing with those who rejoice doesn’t come naturally.

Sometimes preachers are guilty of letting ambition drive them to compare themselves to other preachers, measuring success by numbers or baptisms or busy schedules. Others in church leadership might fall prey to the same sin.

Remember Diotrephes? He was the apostle John’s nemesis who liked “to put himself first” in the church (3 John 9). He embodied jealousy and ambition.

People like that wreak havoc in a church, which ought to be characterized by humility and selflessness.

If we’re going to fix it, where do we start? With ourselves, of course, the only people we really have any control over. We ought to spend time in prayer that God will help us overcome our pettiness.

That he’ll rid our hearts of jealousy and selfish ambition.

That he’ll fill us with love and a servant’s heart.

We’re not surprised when we see it in the whispers at work, but the church ought to be free of it. I suppose it hits pretty close to home, which is why the writer said we church folks might not like to hear it.