Choose your friends wisely (and humbly) - James 4:1-1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
James 4 v 1-10 “Choose your friends
(Slide 1) Every morning from 8-9am, the staff team of the 3 churches in our Network meet to read the bible and pray. At the moment, as you know, we are trying to immerse ourselves in the book of James, commit it to memory, and have hearts shaped by it.
Last week one of the things that came up while we were praying together was the concern that many of us in the 3 congregations seem so unbothered by spiritual realities. How can it be that as we preach Jesus Christ and him crucified week by week, as we deliberately hold on to and hold out the doctrines of sin, judgement and hell, as we delight in the new life and identity that the Father gives to his chosen people through the blood of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, how can it be that so many people’s lives seem to be relatively unchanged week after week after week?
I think that a big part of the answer to that very unsettling question is given to us in James chapter 4. Christians, that is people who have come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness of all their sins and new eternal life; we have God’s Holy Spirit living within us; so we have everything we need to live lives that are becoming more and more like Jesus, lives that match up to the spiritual realities that God’s word presents us with.
BUT, (Slide 2) like one of those fire blankets nailed to the wall in a kitchen that can dampen down even the fiercest blaze, our spiritual fervour, our hatred of sin, our growth in Christlikeness, our humble obedience to God’s good word is constantly hindered and dampened by a thing called worldliness.(Slide 3) Are we a worldly people and is that why we are so apathetic about God’s rule in our lives?
If you are sick tonight of living a Christian life where what is coming out of you is far less glorifying to God than it should be (we should be sick of that), if you are tired of longing to become more like Jesus but instead you seem to be floating along like a bit of driftwood, then it is good for you to realise that, because James chapter 4 has both the diagnosis of our problem as well as the cure. Praise God for his amazing word to us; let us commit now to listening with open ears, soft hearts and humble hands and feet ready to spring into the action that God commands. (Pray now for this – soft hearts convicted and empowered by the Spirit).
(Slide 4) In verses 1-3 James is really clear about the problem; the problem is our hearts, v1; “What causes fights and quarrels amongst you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”
In each of the churches receiving James’ letter, in every single Christian’s life who has every lived, and in our 3 churches right now, all of the worst problems that should cause the greatest concern and drive us to the most urgent action are not tough external trials (maturity!) but rather they are the consequences of what is going wrong within us.
Quarrelling, fighting, coveting, killing. James describes really bad relationships between believers in the church family in war-like language throughout this passage and this must waken us up to the terrible seriousness of allowing our sinful desires and passions to control us and to point us at our own pleasures as the goal of our lives. War and killing is horrific, and James is desperate for believers in Jesus Christ to see the seriousness of their situation and to instead allow God’s Spirit rather than our evil desires to reign supreme in our hearts.
At this point it can be quite tempting for some of us to switch off a bit – after all there aren’t major fights breaking out in our 3 churches, no-one is killing anyone else so perhaps we don’t really need these warnings? Let’s just ponder that for a moment – because we all know some of what we are really like inside and it isn’t always very pretty. But could it be that we are so far back in terms of relationship and discipleship that we don’t even really get to the point of risking fights and quarrels because we simply never challenge one another about anything? How apathetic are we actually?
So here is what I would like us to think honesty about before we go on in this passage - if you were directly challenged in any of the following areas by one of your leaders or by a brother or sister in the church family, would you respond with humility, grace and obedience, or would you respond with quarrels, fights, coveting and murder (or hatred which Jesus describes as murder)?
(Slide 5) If you were challenged about your devotion to God’s word – let’s say your pastor raises a concern about the amount of time you are spending on Netflix or Fifa or your garden or your grandkids compared to the time you are setting aside for reading the bible by yourself or with others and seeking to act on it, would you be thankful for the question?
If you were challenged about your devotion to fellowship – let’s say your Home Group leader was brave enough to advise you to disrupt your bedtime and bathtime routine with the kids so you could be better at having believers in your home or so that one of you could be freed up to go and do a 1-1 bible-study would you immediately argue back?
If you were challenged about your devotion to gathering together as a church family- if a good friend advised you to take less holidays and see less of your blood family so you could be more faithful and committed at church would there be a gentle and thoughtful answer or would the fight begin?
If you were repeatedly challenged about your devotion to corporate Prayer to “asking God” to provide – the person leading the service asked you to get up early and join in a prayer meeting or say no to watching a football match or joining in a pub quiz in the evening so that you can pray with the church family. How would you respond? To speak frankly I sort of know the answer to this one already. Most of you would respond with outward silence (but probably some inward resentment) and no change in your behaviour at all and a few would respond with humble obedient action.
What is so sad about our apathetic or angry responses to godly challenges like these is that they show up how filthy our desires are and how little we really know our God. (Slide 6) I saw this event being publicised in London last week; “Self-Love fest” and it pretty much sums up the way the world around us thinks – but here’s the thing, that event was being publicised inside the church. That is a great summary of our problem as the worldly attitude more&more comes into the church, like a terrible disease spreading; We try to protect our own comfortable little lives, we try to engineer life to work the way we want it so we can satisfy our desires – and when we do that we forget who the God is who has saved us.
(Slide 7) He has everything we could possibly need and he has promised to give us all that we need. Indeed he is so generous that he seems to give us far more than we need so often. “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.”
Up to this point in the letter James has described God as generous (1v5), as promising the crown of life (1v12), of giving good and perfect gifts (1v16), of choosing to give us birth (1v18), of being the glorious Lord (2v1), of choosing the poor to be rich inheritors (2v5), of allowing people to be his friend (2v23). What a God we are called to worship, what an incredible privilege it is to know him and to live FOR him. Our God is so great and yet our hearts are so filthy – we are worldly.
(Slide 8) We could labour that point far more and it would be of benefit to do that because it is vital for us to see the huge problem of our sinful hearts. But suddenly in verse 4 James helps us to feel the force of his teaching. “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God.” The problem is our hearts and the diagnosis is that we are worldly people. Someone has summarised worldliness as “human nature without God.” And that is just what James sets out so clearly here by talking about adultery and broken friendship (Slide 9).
If any of you here have had a spouse who has torn apart your life by their unfaithfulness, or a parent who has wrecked part of your childhood by their abandoning you for a new person or family, then you can get closest to feeling the desperate reality of James’ accusation here.
When Christians choose to live according to their own desires and ambitions and for their own aims and pleasures, instead of living under the Lordship of the Holy God, they are committing spiritual adultery. And like a wife who runs off with a vicious violent low-life bloke instead of staying with their gentle faithful loving husband, when we choose the world’s ways instead of God’s ways we are making a horrific choice. And it is a choice that makes God our enemy.
It is impossible to be a genuine friend to someone who absolutely hates one of your other genuine friends. It can’t work – you can’t stay whole and keep your integrity in that situation. The world (“the organised system of human civilisation that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God” Mahaney) absolutely hates God and God absolutely hates it – read Rev 20 and 21! “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
Our problem hearts try to trick us all the time into thinking that we can have a bit of everything. And that especially bubbles to the surface in our culture in terms of our devotion to ME. So instead of Christian husbands thinking that being a good husband means helping their wives to be more devoted to Christ and his church, they begin to imagine that being a good husband means making life as comfortable as possible for their family. Why? Because that is what my best friend the world believes (and because it fits right in with our sinful desires that give birth to death). This is no small thing - God HATES that attitude and if you pursue it you are choosing God as your enemy.
Or instead of Christian believers using their bank accounts and wallets to fund gospel ministry and outreach, we begin to upgrade our houses a little bit here or there and take the step up in terms of holiday destinations, store away large amounts of money to make life easier for our children – why? Because that’s what my lover the world enjoys and my sinful heart loves it too. This is no small thing - God HATES that attitude and if you pursue it you are choosing God as your enemy.
(Slide 10) And of course he hates it because as we read in verse 5 God has caused the Holy Spirit to live within us and God jealously longs for us to live according to that Spirit. The sheer price (Jesus’ blood) that was paid to allow sinners to be forgiven by God should alone cause us to tremble at the thought of using our bodies for ourselves now. But the fact that the utterly Holy God comes to actually live within his redeemed people MUST show us and help us to feel with every fibre of our being just how wrong it is that we would want to break this unity and give ourselves to the world that hates him so much. We have a serious heart problem, the diagnosis is worldliness, and what we deserve is for God to wash his hands of us and allow us to walk off into hell.
(Slide 11) “But he gives us more grace.” There are just some verses in the bible that take your breath away. And here in James 4 as light is shone on our hearts showing us just how contaminated we are by sin and the world, once more God’s word reveals God’s heart. And it is pure and holy and loving and completely brilliant.
God has the cure for our worldliness problem and God is delighted to give us the cure. The cure is called humble repentance. Each one of us are to realise and accept the weight of this passage on us so far – James goes from calling us dear brothers and sisters to spitting out “You adulterous people” because that is just what we are. But like the perfect forgiving friend that never ever lets us down, like the perfect faithful husband who is always waiting for us, God has arms wide open for Christians who see where their choices have taken them, who are prepared to admit the filth of their spiritual adultery, and who CHOOSE to turn away from living like the world and instead come close once again to God.
(Slide 12) The language of CHOICE matters just so much here. Christians can choose to obey verses 6-10. Verse 7 is sometimes used by people as a triumphant verse that enables a Christian to avoid sin very easily but the context of it is all about humiliating repentance. James is explaining to each Christian here now that the only thing that will stop you from putting your relationship with God right tonight is your pride. God is ready to pour grace in your life, he is ready to take you back as a spouse and a friend. But are you willing to humble yourself, to admit that self-love and a ME-focussed life is utterly wrong, to TURN from living lives that look like the world and instead live lives that look like Jesus is living within you?
Decide right now to do more than just feel bad about your sin tonight. Decide to humbly repent and to change the direction of your life once more so that everything you have and are is aimed at pleasing God (decide that now and then go home and immediately work out the details, maybe with the help of your home group/close friend).
(Slide 13) Please don’t go away tonight and quickly amuse yourself away from the weight and conviction of James 4 v 1-10. Some people will literally amuse themselves to death, they will wander away from the cross of Christ, they will settle for God being their enemy, they will have to face eternity as God’s enemy. Instead let these words ring in our ears and let them take us back into sweet committed loving relationship with the God who died so that we could be raised up from the grave and be close to him forever;
“Grieve, mourn and wail. Change you laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”
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