(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

This rather difficult passage deals with the causes of disunity and conflict within the church and the cure for it. Sadly, few churches are without friction and trouble for long and so you would think James 4 would be popular with preachers. In my experience it is rare for James to be preached from at all and I have never heard a sermon on wordly desires and effective remedies.

(B) Wrong desires.

The pleasures we covet to our hurt are not things like a gorgeous sunset, the scent of honeysuckle, birdsong on a summer evening, a good walk, a healthy appetite and a hearty meal to satisfy it or a story well told. No, the pleasures that cause untold trouble are:

(1) The pleasure of getting our own way. This desire is very evident in all walks of life. My brother Philip's children are still all at home. He told me at Christmas that the Internet causes more quarrels in his house than anything else. His children are always arguing about who should be using it. At the very highest-level ministers of state get very upset when the Chancellor thwarts their spending plans. Great is our exultation when we succeed in bettering our opponents and getting our own way.

(2) The pleasure of being right. How smug we feel when proved right and others are shown to be wrong. The satisfaction we experience when a rival is discomfited is the same whether we be contesting a point of doctrine or an item of sporting trivia.

(3) The pleasure of being valued more highly than another. It is very sweet to be promoted when others are overlooked. It is wonderful for the ego to be head hunted. Men and women are often embittered and resentful if there worth is never recognised. There are some cricketers, even at the level at which I perform, who are always picked to play for representative teams. There are others who are ignored. It has little to do with playing ability!

(4) The pleasure of acquiring things. I find it very difficult to understand this pleasure. However, it undoubtedly makes a lot of folk feel better about them selves to accumulate possessions - especially if they measure their status by what they have. In the world of business executives, one quite foreign to me, the company car is a very significant status symbol.

(5) The pleasure of being made much of. This is very evident in the worlds of entertainment, politics and religion. Actresses and actors love the fuss they get at award ceremonies. Politicians enjoy being feted at party conferences. Clergymen thrive on the attention their flock pay them. In the time of Jesus the Pharisees expected the best seats at feasts and revelled in being greeted in the market place.

(6) The pleasure of being the boss. This motivates many in their drive for promotion in teaching, the police force, business and even churches with a hierarchical structure. There is a group of fiercely competitive individuals who long to be top dog.

(7) The pleasure of being recognised and respected as an authority. This is a common failure of academics including theologians. There is delight in being spoken of as the leading authority on .... . Some will fight tooth and nail to preserve such reputations. We have seen the consequences in court cases where the specialist witness has been unwilling to acknowledge fallibility. Reputable Bible scholars, who should know better, rarely admit that they have been wrong for fear of being discredited. Why else do glaring errors on straightforward matters like baptism persist in mainstream denominations?

(8) The pleasure of being much loved and popular. This appears to be a ruling passion in the lives of numerous teenagers particularly in American High Schools. It is common among certain schoolteachers who have been known to boast in the staff room about how many Christmas cards they have received. I am afraid it is a weakness among chapel going folk too.

(9) The pleasure of being a success. This makes a man or woman better than those who fail or who are less successful. I have often desired to be a winner at cricket, as a teacher and as a preacher. I have known more failure than success and haven't enjoyed it. It has been hard not to envy the achievements of others.

(10) The pleasure of doing what we want. I am afraid that some Christians have got so much in the habit of doing what they want that they do not even recognise it can be wrong. If we refuse to take on family or church responsibilities because we wish to be free to enjoy ourselves in the way we choose this is wrong. It is not right for a retired man to give up being church treasurer so that he can spend half the year holidaying in his mobile home.

These are the worldly pleasures that cause havoc in our spiritual development and disunity in the church. We need to recognise them and avoid them like the plague. Friendship with the world is hatred towards God. v4.

(C) The results of wrong desires.

Wrong desires are associates with three destructive sins: covetousness, envy and jealousy. They are all slightly different. Covetousness desires eagerly and obsessively what belongs to another. So I might covet a star preacher's popularity. Envy is the active resentment of someone because they have what I want but haven't got. If I envy a revered preacher I bear him ill will because he is more highly regarded than I am. Jealousy is the smouldering hatred of someone for getting what you believe belongs to you. So if I have been the most admired preacher in my church and some one comes along and usurps my position I might be jealous of him. Samuel Pepys was jealous of his wife's singing master because he erroneously thought the tutor was taking his place in his wife's affections. Pepys' description of jealousy in his famous diary is very instructive. It was akin to a raging fever the violence of which wholly disorientated him.

The products of covetousness, envy and jealousy are:

    (1) Conflict - quarrels and fights. What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you. v1.
    Worldly desires result in quarrels, fights and even murder. A man may want something so much he will kill to get it. Pepys had murderous thoughts about his wife's singing master!

    Unfortunately it is only too easy to illustrate the damage wrong desires have done the church. Fellowships have been destroyed because individuals have fought tooth and nail to get their own way. When the attendance at our evening service got low I suggested at our church meeting that we meet in the schoolroom. I thought this would be more conducive to worship. The members accepted my proposal. However, it was not long before I experienced opposition from non-members and members alike who wished the evening service to remain in the chapel. Sadly they were quite unpleasant about the matter. I could have made a fight of it! I could have got much nastier than anyone else who attends our fellowship. My potential for nastiness is very great! Instead I let the others have their own way.

    I am usually convinced that I am right. I suppose I am dogmatic. Unfortunately I have rarely been able to convince others to agree with me. This has resulted in battles in school staff meetings. I have tried on a few occasions to persuade my fellow church members that I am right on certainly controversial issues that affect the Association to which we belong. I do not believe that God's election is unconditional , grace is arbitrary and salvation a lottery. I am sure that faith is man's responsibility and God chooses to save those that believe in Jesus. I would find it very satisfying if my brothers and sisters at the Brockley Church agreed with me. They don't - or at least they won't say they do. This disappoints me. I am tempted to resign as church secretary and leave. So far such love as I have for my fellow Christians has triumphed and I have humbled myself and carried on. It is not hard for me to see how the desire to be right can split a church.

    Another period of disharmony occurred sometime in the past when we had some young couples worshipping with us. These young people, as is very natural, were friends. They spent a lot of time doing things together and some of the older folk felt excluded. They felt undervalued and left out and were rather envious of the young couples who seemed to be having a good time. People started to mutter and complain about cliques in the church. There was a certain amount of unrest and it didn't do our fellowship any good. The desire to be valued and made much of is worldly, destructive and unjustified.

    I have illustrated how just three wrong desires can harm the church. All ten are equally bad in causing discord where there should be concord.

    (2) Unanswered prayer. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask from the wrong motives that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. v3.
    So often when I prayer my prayers are tainted by wrong motives. They are impure - exactly like the prayers condemned by James.

    I pray for conversions and church growth, not out of care for the lost or for the glory of the Saviour, but because I long for success. I am fed up being on the losing side. I want to be part of a booming organisation. It is not surprising my prayers are unanswered.

    Jack Finch, who has been some years dead, used to attend our prayer meeting and pray for his friends at Brockley chapel who were in error. He petitioned God at length, for much longer than most of us found acceptable, to open our eyes to the truth. He wanted God to show us that Jack Finch was right. What a pleasure that would have been! His prayers were unanswered and we still meet for worship on Sunday rather than Saturday.

    I sometimes pray a blessing on my website. I have to be very careful. Quite often I am probably only praying for recognition and respect. God will never answer that request. If the intent of my heart is that God will use what I have written to provide spiritual help then I am sure he will do that.

    I used to pray that my father would die before my mother. My father was very ill and I knew that I would have to care for him if mother died. I didn't want to lose my freedom. I wanted to keep doing what I wanted! God didn't answer that prayer. However, I had another that I prayed in tandem with it - if mother does die first help me to look after father. That was the prayer God answered!

    We need to look at our prayers to check that our motivation isn't one of the deadly worldly desires.

    (3) Alienation from God. You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. v4.
    The ten desires I outlined are all common in society at large but they are not approved by God's word. They reflect the values of mankind living outside the will of God. In this sense they are of the world.

    A Christian who falls in love with the world and embraces its standards is being unfaithful to God. James puts it very strongly - such a one commits adultery with the world and becomes an enemy of God. We actively oppose God when we despise the teaching of his son. For example, any believer whose main priority is to be rich ignores what Jesus said about wealth: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Mt6v19to21. "You cannot serve both God and Money." Lk16v13.

    Verse 11 is notoriously difficult to translate. I prefer the alternative translation given in the NIV: Or do you think that the Scripture says without reason that God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us. God yearns for us to be in a good relationship with himself and with one another. He hates it when we squabble. My brothers and I very much disliked it when my mother picked a fight with my father once a month. It left its mark on us. I always turn off the TV if there is domestic discord. Ill-tempered quarrels in the church have a very bad long-term effect on those involved. The wounds heal slowly.

    (4) A tendency to bear false witness. Brothers do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. v11.
    One of the inevitable outcomes of covetousness born of wrong desires is slander - speaking ill and falsely of those who are envied. It is not difficult to rubbish a popular preacher. We can accuse him of lack of originality, of telling other people's anecdotes and borrowing plentifully from the sermons of better men. I have heard teachers say of a well liked colleague, "The children either love him or hate him." If we envy a relative her wealth it is easy to speak disparagingly of her vulgarity, poor dress sense and lack of taste. I wonder how many of you have said of your boss, "His deputies do all the work while he takes all the credit." Academics are particularly good at casting doubt on the credentials of rivals: "He's merely a publicist - never done a days worthwhile research in his life."

    God's law prohibits bearing false witness against our neighbour. If we ignore the prohibition we judge the law and find it wanting. We place ourselves above the law and offend the one Lawgiver, the one who is able to save and destroy. v12.

(D) What to do about wrong desires. Luke gives us 6 strategies:

    (1) Submit yourselves to God.v7: Submit yourselves, then, to God.
    The virgin Mary is a fine example of submissiveness. After the angel had told her that she would bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit Mary replied: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." Lk1v38. She was content to be in the Lord's will.

    I suppose the worldly desires that trouble me most are the wish to be popular and the longing for recognition. I am God's servant; I believe that I am in his will and with that I should be content.

    The last time I visited Henry, who is confined to his home by Parkinson's disease and osteoporosis, he told me that he was quite content. His wife Jesse said, "You're too content, Henry." I don't think he is too content! I know what Jesse means. She thinks her husband should make more fuss when he sees the doctor and get better treatment. However, Paul is right in saying: But godliness with contentment is great gain. 1Tim6v6. Henry has accepted with good grace the restrictions God has placed upon him and been saved from bitterness and resentment.

    (2) Resist the Devil. Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. v7.
    Satan excels at putting thoughts into our minds. One of his favourites is, 'You deserve better.' You deserve more reward and recognition for your efforts. You deserve higher pay and the better things of life. You ought to be loved and admired more. After I had tried to persuade my church without success that fellowship with other Christians did not depend upon a mutual commitment to a set of doctrines but a shared belief in Jesus I thought, 'John you are right. You deserve a lot better than this.' In such circumstances how is the Devil to be resisted. Paul wrote: If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing. 1Cor13v2. Satan always gives way if we apply the appropriate Scripture as Jesus showed during his temptation in the wilderness.

    (3) Come near to God. Come near to God and he will come near to you. v8
    We draw near to God when we try to please Jesus. One of the ways we can be like Jesus is to possess a serving mentality. The Master said to his disciples in the upper room: "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." John13v14and15. A servant looks away from self to satisfy the needs of others. His own interests take second place.

    I sometimes wonder what I would do if I had my life all over again - knowing what I know now. I might be tempted to look for a wife during the four years I was at London University. I would be happier if I had found a loving Christian wife! I could only satisfy that worldly desire of doing what I wanted by ignoring the needs of my parents. Remaining single I was able to help them in ways I never could as a married man. I rather think I would have to live my life pretty much the same way. (Sadly I don't think I could do much about what really needs to change - my temperament, disposition and carnal appetites!)

    (4) Regain integrity. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. v8.
    If we flatter to gain popularity; if we fight a cause to get our own way or to prove we are right; if we dress or behave to be made much of; if we pray God's blessing upon our ministry because we wish to be a success; if we manoeuvre to opt out of church responsibilities because we want more freedom; WE MUST STOP.

    (5) Repent with sorrow. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. v9.
    It is possible to achieve our main worldly desires and to be happy. People who have got their own way, who are valued, popular and wealthy are often very satisfied with life. There are others who exercise authority and are recognised, respected and successful who feel fulfilled. James tells us that a misspent life, however happy, is a cause for sorrow rather than joy, mourning instead of laughter. Solomon had all a man could desire but in the end it was written of him: So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done. 1Kings11v6. The words of the Preacher apply to Solomon: "Wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner. Ecc5v13.

    The chastening and often repeated advice of Jesus should never be far from our thoughts: "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." Mk9v35.

    (6) Humble yourself. Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
    God is very great and we are very small. When we are a tempted to exult in our achievements and glory in our accomplishments we need to remember how puny they are compared with all God has done. Our righteousness is a very tawdry thing compared to God's goodness. At Christmas I preached about God's grace to the graceless in sending his Son to this earth. How difficult we find showing grace to the graceless! I was asked this week to do a favour for someone that I do not like very much. I agreed - reluctantly, grudgingly and with slight feelings of resentment. We struggle to love our fellow sinners as ourselves. God loved us, despite his hatred of sin, while we were still sinners.

    We are very undeserving of the wonderful provision made for us in Christ Jesus. We should be profoundly grateful for the grace of God and that gratitude should inform our lives.

(E) Three precious promises.

If we follow the instructions of James:

    (1) God will give grace. But he gives us more grace. v6. We are given the ability to bear patiently with failure, unpopularity, obscurity, rejection and restriction upon our freedom if we are in the will of God and serving Jesus.

    (2) God will draw near to us. God draws close to guide, strengthen and reassure when we live in sympathy with the teaching and example of his Son. God has different ways of drawing near. The apostle Paul went to Corinth in fear and trembling. Luke tells us: One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city." Acts18v9. See exposition on Acts18v1to11

    One day at school a parent complained and the headmaster dealt with me quite roughly. He informed me that my style of teaching antagonised the children. I thought his criticism was a little unfair! At the end of school I did bus duty in low spirits. I watched the pupils as they got onto the buses with their usual alacrity. Some of them went home on a service bus. As I waited one of my former students got off this bus, walked over, threw her arms around me and kissed me. Lucy then got back on her bus. She was a stunning beauty. I thanked God for sending her to restore my morale and to reassure me that I had not alienated all my pupils.

    (3) God will lift us up: and he will lift you up. v10. Jesus consistently did what his Father wanted and was despised and rejected of men. God vindicated him. Jesus triumphed over sin and death and Satan. He was raised up and has ascended to the right hand of God. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. Phil2v10.

    If we renounce worldly desires and seek first God's kingdom then we will share in Christ's triumph and be raised up at the last to share his glory. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Lk18v14.

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