James 3:13-4:10 – A Cure for Envy (part one)

This week we’re continuing in the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. Over the next two days we look at James 3:13-4:10.

Alain de Botton, in his book Status Anxiety, argues that our happiness and satisfaction with our life aren’t related to what we have. Instead, he says, our happiness and satisfaction are usually dependent on what we have when compared with everyone else!

Transport me into the majority world and I’ll instantly feel like a millionaire; take me to a cocktail party in the eastern suburbs of Sydney (American readers: in the Hamptons) and I’ll feel like a pauper. Although my actual wealth hasn’t changed, my perception of my wealth has. My satisfaction, then, has become dependent on the relative wealth of those around me.

As humans, our tendency is to compare; to compete. We resent those who have more than us and  look down on those who have less than us. We envy what others have – not primarily because we don’t have it, but because we don’t have it and they do!

And so the more time we spend observing and thinking about people who have more than us, the more envious we become. The more we focus on the gap between us and the rich and successful, the more dissatisfied we become.

This is the way the world works now; and it’s the way it worked back in the first century when James was writing. And in today’s passage, James talks about envy; but not just envy itself, but the double-mindedness that causes us to be envious in the first place.

The cause of envy: having the world’s values, not God’s (3:13-4:4)

In the first half of the passage, James looks at both what causes envy, and the effect of envy on the world. And what causes envy among Christians is this double-mindedness James has been talking about throughout his letter: the double-mindedness of claiming to have become a friend of God, but in our speech and actions showing that we are still trying to be friends of the world. Envy is caused, says James, by still living by the world’s values – values we should have renounced.

The world’s values (‘worldly wisdom’)

What are the world’s values? Let’s take a look:

3:14-15 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 

The world’s values are about self. About looking after number one. It’s the lie the serpent told Eve – ‘you will be like gods’. And that same desire has been tapped relentlessly by the similarly smooth salesmen of our age. We’re told by advertisers that we are the most important person in the world.

This is the wisdom which is earthly, unspiritual, and ultimately of the devil, in that it presents the temptation of the Garden of Eden all over again. The wisdom which says ‘look out for me first, because no-one else will’. That puts me before those around me; that puts my family before other people’s families; that puts the citizens of my country before citizens of other countries.

And when you take a look at the world, you’ll see that this ‘worldly wisdom’ hasn’t gotten us very far:

3:16  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, in the corporate boardrooms you find deception and exploitation.

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, in the Middle East you find chaos and death.

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, in the streets of Sydney you find gang warfare and rape.

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, in your own heart, there you find disorder and every evil practice. Because it’s not just the rest of the world that’s torn apart by envy; it’s us; and it’s in the church.

4:1a What causes fights and quarrels among you?

…you’re the people of God, for goodness sake!

4:1b-2a Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet…

…Just like Cain coveted God’s approval of his brother Abel, and so killed him.

4b but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.

Christians envy other Christians. They might resent the fact that other Christians are wealthier. Or perform a supposedly more prestigious function in the church. Or get their own way in meetings. Or they resent how the worship services seem to be done to meet other people’s needs, but no-one caters for my needs. And so we harbour envy and selfish ambition. We envy what others have, and we resent that they get their way but we don’t get ours. And this bitterness can, in mild cases, act as a lead weight on the church’s mission in the community, preventing it from being effective. In its worst form, it can tear churches apart.

God’s values (‘wisdom from above’)

In contrast with the world, the church should be known for having different values. God’s values – the ‘wisdom from above’ that opposes the self-centredness for the world. Wisdom which is not self-centred, but other-centred:

3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

This is the very opposite of worldly wisdom that says ‘look out for number one’. God’s wisdom says look out for others first. In humility perform good deeds for the benefit of other people, rather than in pride thinking only of your own needs.

3:17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

God’s wisdom produces purity and peace, not corruption and disorder. It considers others and submits to them, rather than promotes self. It’s impartial – it doesn’t favour my family, or my country, or my culture, or my type of person I like to be around – to the exclusion of others. It’s sincere in wishing good for others, rather than enviously wishing what they have for ourselves. It follows the example of Jesus in adopting the stance of servanthood, rather than demanding our rights.

These are the values that should have already been adopted by those who claim to be ‘friends of God’.

Envy in the church: when we adopt the world’s values (4:3)

So why, then, do Christians still envy? Have a listen to James’ assessment of the situation:

4:2b-3 You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

This verse is a little complicated, but the line of thought boils down to this: You fight among yourselves because you are envious of what others have that you don’t. But you don’t have ­– that is, you don’t experience satisfaction – because you’re not looking to God to be your ultimate source of satisfaction.

And when you do ask God for things, he’s not giving them to you – because your motives are wrong! Your requests are self-centred, not other-centred. When it comes down to it, says James, you’re living by worldly wisdom, not God’s. You’ve bought the world’s lies over God’s truth. You’re thinking and behaving and praying just the way the world tells you to – you’re looking out for number one. And that’s why you’re all in such a mess! You’re envious of others, because you’ve bought into the values of the world, rather than the values of God!

Selling out to the world’s values is idolatry (4:4)

James then goes on to show how this focus on our own pleasure and comfort – this selling out to the values of the world – is the new idolatry:

4:4 You adulterous people…

James picks up on a common OT image for Israel when they were unfaithful to God and looked elsewhere for their security and satisfaction. When they went chasing after other gods to provide food & rain they are described as committing adultery – being unfaithful, ‘cheating on God’ with other lovers. That is, they were committing idolatry. And this is what James warns his readers against:

4:4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Our idolatry is idolatry of the world. We look to the world for our security and satisfaction, rather than the one true God. And that, again, is double-mindedness: how can we be friends of God, says James, when we share the values of the world? How can we be ‘of one mind’ with God if we are also ‘of one mind’ with the world? For the world, as we saw before, is diametrically opposed to God!

The world says put yourself first; God says put others first. We have to choose. We can’t stay on the fence. We can’t have it both ways. It’s black or it’s white; it’s one or the other.

Ironically, this makes God envious! (4:5-6)

Ironically, this makes God envious! For God is jealous for our allegiance:

4:5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?

God envies our loyalty. Because he alone deserves it. He made us; and what’s more, he sent Jesus to save us, to buy us back from slavery to the world’s values. And it makes him rightfully jealous when we go off and chase after other gods again.

4:6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”

God envies our loyalty, and it’s always been that way throughout history. He opposes those who live by the world’s values, those who are proud. And he gives favour, or ‘friendship’ to those who seek after his values. Who are humble enough to turn to him.

To think about

Ask God to reveal to us where there might be envy and selfishness in your relationships with others – especially those in the church.

Ask God to reveal to us where we are being idolatrous, coveting what others have rather than being satisfied in him.

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