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

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. This is the second part of our look at James 3:13-4:10.

The cure for envy (4:7-10)

So far, James has told us about two sets of values – two types of wisdom. There’s the world’s wisdom, which is self-centred and promotes envy and selfish ambition; and there’s God’s wisdom, which is other-centred and promotes peace and servanthood.

The problem is that many Christians can be double-minded: we try to be friends with both God and the world, and so experience competing values. We end up being taken in by the world’s lie that says put yourself first. And this produces in us the same envy and selfish ambition that’s found in the rest of the world. And God’s not happy.

That’s the diagnosis. But what’s the cure? This is what James turns to next, and it’s a cure that comes in two parts. Have a read of the next four verses:

4:7-10  Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

This two part cure is summed up by verse 7: submit to God; resist the devil. That is, there’s both a positive and a negative to the cure.

Resist temptation and the causes of temptation

Firstly the negative: Resisting the devil means actively saying ‘no’ to the world’s wisdom; we’re not going to live by those values any more. ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you’ means that saying ‘no’ to temptation on one occasion will loosen the hold that temptation has over us, making it easier to say ‘no’ the next time… and the next…

But resisting the devil also means being proactive about avoiding the causes of temptation. In the case of envy, which is the focus of this passage – what are the things we should avoid if we want to discourage envy?

The more we fill our eyes and minds with images of people who have more than us, the more we’re likely to envy them. The more we focus on the gap between us and the rich & successful, the more dissatisfied we become. The more we’re going to be tempted to adopt the world’s values which tell us: “go for it – you can have that too – you deserve it.”

That’s why magazines that are all about celebrities can be unhelpful. If we’re constantly feeding ourselves with images of people who are richer than us, better looking than us, thinner than us, or more ‘successful’ than us (at least by the world’s definition) – if that’s what we’re immersing ourselves in, then it should come as no surprise when we’re tempted to chase after those things, too. We’re tempted to be a double-minded friend of the world who ends up living by the world’s values. We’re tempted to be dissatisfied with who we are and what we have; to become envious of others instead of satisfied in God.

Now it may not be celebrity images that are the danger for you. I think I’m reasonably immune from that, apart from my aborted 2005 attempt to grow my hair as long as the guy who played Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. It’s not going to influence my behaviour one bit whether I see stars with or without their makeup who are heartbroken over exclusive photos of their current boyfriend seen dating their pre-baby body. What is it for you?

For you, it might be too much window shopping; or car magazines; or IKEA catalogues; or travel shows; or social media; or in my case browsing consumer electronics stores. I think the government should force all sources of addictive behaviour to have voluntary exclusion, just like gambling venues; I’d get myself voluntarily banned from entry to Dick Smith stores Australia-wide. Going in there makes me want things I never knew existed, and dissatisfied with what I do have. What is it for you?

Do you want to know the cure for double-mindedness? As much as is possible in our marketing-saturated culture, avoid those things which make you envious. You know what they are. Don’t fill your minds with images of things you don’t have, or can’t afford, or shouldn’t afford.

Replace it with the source of superior satisfaction

But as well as saying ‘no’ to the temptation to envy others, and avoiding the things which encourage us to be envious, there’s also a positive aspect to the cure. We need not only to get rid of the bad stuff, but to replace it with good stuff. James tells us to wash our hands – that is, clean up our actions; and purify our hearts – that is, realign our wills with God’s. And the only way we can do that is to be active in our single-minded pursuit of God.

An empty mind will soon be filled with something, and the best defence against the values of the world is to fill our minds with God’s values. And there are many ways we can do that.

First of all, we can’t understate the value of regular bible reading. It acts as a constant reminder of God’s values, God’s wisdom – an antidote to the values of the world around us. But not only that. Possibly the more important function is that it fills our minds with the story of who God is; it reminds us of what we already have in Christ. Who would want to pursue the values of the world when we have so much already? Only a Christian who has forgotten the supreme source of satisfaction we have in Jesus.

So when you feel yourself being envious of what others have, not only resist that temptation, but actively turn your mind toward thinking about Jesus. Read a favourite passage that reminds you of the state you were in before, and what you have now in him. (Ephesians 2 is a good one!)

As well as reading the bible, there are plenty of other ways to influence our behaviour. Just as we try to avoid focusing on those who have more than us, we can also consciously seek out those who have less.

For example, you can subscribe to a newsletter like Voice of the Martyrs which sends weekly news and prayer requests about Christians who suffer for their faith around the world. Or doing the Bibles for the persecuted programme in October each year – which not only raises money for Bibles but has a daily prayer guide to read – a story a day about Christians who have far less than us in terms of wealth, support and freedom.

The first year my church did this, quite a number of people spoke to us about how reading through this booklet changed their perspective: their own problems and dissatisfaction with life seemed a lot smaller. People kept telling us this, so much so that for a while there, the pastoral team joke was that we’d found a new pastoral care strategy: no matter what the problem was, just give people the booklet and say ‘here, read this’.

But more seriously: spending time not lusting after the lives of the wealthy and successful, but praying for the poor and persecuted does have a positive impact on us. We become more satisfied with what we have, and less inclined to be double-minded; less inclined to buy into the world’s wisdom.

You can do this through short-term mission trips: I haven’t met anyone who has come home unchanged by these experiences.

Or even mission right here. An article in Christianity Today was about developing practices which inoculate us against buying into the world’s values. A friend of the author found a very practical way: volunteering once a month at the local homeless shelter:

… in the course of working breakfast, dinner, and midnight shifts, he’s learned to let go of his preconceptions of “successful homeless ministry” and begin to simply learn to be with the homeless. His most rewarding moments come after breakfast is served and he stands with the smokers outdoors in the patio, talking with them, mostly just listening to their stories—often narcissistic and far-fetched tales of injustices visited upon them, but sometimes poignant narratives of lives gone terribly awry. “I’m still not very good at entering into their suffering,” he says, “but my life is so sheltered with material blessings and psychologically healthy friends, it’s better than nothing. At least once a month, I’m forced to think about those who genuinely suffer.” (Dave Goetz, CT)

Spend time feeding your minds with images not from glossy magazines, but of human suffering and pain, and you’ll see the difference. You’ll find yourself less and less double-minded; more and more satisfied in God and God alone. And more and more motivated to go and actually do something about it (see James 2:1-13 if it’s already slipped your mind).

In the movie City Slickers, an old cowboy played by Jack Palance asks Billy Crystal if he wants to know the secret of life. “It’s this”, he says, holding up a single finger. Billy Crystal asks “the secret of life is your finger?”. “It’s one thing”, replies Jack, “the secret of life is pursuing one thing.”

In the movie, Jack couldn’t tell Billy Crystal what that one thing was. “You have to find it for yourself” was his answer. We’ve found that one thing. We’ve found Jesus. And the only way we can be robbed of the joy of following him, is when we double-mindedly adopt the world’s views as well. When we compare ourselves with others. When we envy those who, when it comes down to it, chase after self – rather than embracing the other-centred wisdom that comes from above.

To think about

James 1:5 says:

1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

Ask God’s help to live by his values, and not those of the world.

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