15. Combatting Worldliness (James 4:4-6)Related Media
Adulterers, do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever decides to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy. Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning”? But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.”
James 4:4-6 (NET)
How do we combat worldliness?
In James 4:1-6, James has been addressing a church at war with one another (v. 1-2). Long-term fights and conflicts were happening within the church. Why was it happening? The problem was that the church was worldly. In James 4:4, James says, “friendship with the world means hostility (or enmity) toward God.” When James refers to the world, he is not talking about being friends with unsaved people. He is speaking about an evil world system ruled by Satan that is hostile towards God. It’s a system that is guided by demonic wisdom. James 3:14-16 says:
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfishness in your hearts, do not boast and tell lies against the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is disorder and every evil practice.
We are very familiar with the wisdom that guides the world. It is consumed with “I.” It is self-consumed—focused on self-actualization (Who am I?), self-pleasure (What makes me feel good?), and self-glory (What will give me more money, power, and prestige?). Because the world is like this, it wars and fights with one another. Friends fight, families fight, co-workers fight, ethnic groups fight, and nations fight. Why? It’s because they are all consumed with their own desires, and anyone who hinders the fulfillment of those desires becomes a nuisance and, at worst, an enemy.
It was these same self-focused desires which caused a war in heaven, as Satan wanted to be like God and stirred up a rebellion among the angels against God (cf. Is 14:14, Rev 12:3-4). It was self-focused desires which caused the fall on earth, as Eve sought to be like God by eating of the forbidden tree and Adam imitated her sin—creating enmity between people and God (cf. Gen 3:5, Rom 8:7). And now people constantly struggle with this selfish heart attitude and the resulting conflict. James 4:1-2 describes this:
Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you? You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask;
It is not that God is against people pursuing their pleasures and passions. God created all things for humanity to enjoy (1 Tim 6:17). These pleasures become sin when pursued instead of God, before God, or in rebellion towards God. Sex within the marriage union is pleasing to God. However, sex outside of it is rebellion towards God and harms us. Sleep is good and beneficial. However, oversleep leads to laziness, and not getting enough sleep is an abuse of our bodies and often is a symptom of idolatry—something we’re putting before God and his plan for us. The world is a system that is antagonistic to God and his ways. It is built on selfishness and envy of others, which leads the world into conflict, disorder, and every evil practice (Jam 3:14-16, 4:1-2).
In James 4:4-6, James challenges these believers about their worldliness, again saying friendship with the world is enmity with God. The more we enjoy the world—sinful desires and passions which are void of God—the more we will draw near the world and become antagonistic to God. Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other…” First John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
James and John seem to distinguish between being friends with the world and being in love with the world. It is possible for a true believer to backslide by becoming a “friend of the world.” This is clear from texts like 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 (NIV) where Paul calls the Corinthians “worldly.” However, it is impossible for a true believer to “love the world.” Again, John said, “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Unfortunately, befriending and then loving the world seems to be a trajectory that many professing believers follow as they first pursue the world and its pleasures, and then ultimately turn away from God. Certainly, many of these continue to profess him with their mouths, but with their hearts and actions, they deny him (cf. Matt 15:8, 2 Tim 3:5). Friendship often starts with not condemning the views and practices of the world, then simply accepting them as alternative paths, and then adopting, enjoying, and defending them (cf. Ps 1:1). Therefore, it must be known that a persistent and continuing friendship with the world leads to loving it and ultimately rejecting God and his Word. This is what happened with Demas, who was an apostolic associate of Paul on various missionary journeys. In 2 Timothy 4:9-10, Paul said, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me…” No doubt, Demas began with little compromises—maybe enjoying the entertainment of the world, becoming consumed with money and pursuing it, then rejecting biblical views like sexual immorality being sin and Christ being the only way to heaven, leading him to reject God and the Bible altogether—ultimately proving that he was not a true believer. This pathway to apostasy must be a sober warning to us, as friendship with the world is not only dangerous, but it can ultimately be damning (cf. Eph 5:5-6).
How can we combat worldliness—the selfish desires and views of the world system which blind unbelievers and compromise believers? Our books, television, music, and social norms are full of secular wisdom, which make us, our physical appearance, pleasure, education, and achievement, the ultimate goal of life. This secular wisdom leads to internal conflicts—anxiety, depression, and even suicide—and external conflicts—such as divorce, war, and rebellion against God. Unfortunately, many of our churches are saturated with this wisdom and, therefore, bear the negative fruits of it.
In this study, we will consider how to combat worldliness, so that we can protect our lives, families, churches, and communities from sin and its consequences, including ultimately turning away from God.
Big Question: How can we combat worldliness according to James 4:4-6?
To Combat Worldliness, We Must Fear God’s Discipline
Adulterers, do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever decides to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy.
After James continually called the believers “brethren” or “brothers and sisters” (1:2, 19, 2:1, 2:14, 3:1, etc.), it would be a shock for them to be called “Adulterers!” Since James was writing Jewish Christians, they would have been familiar with this terminology. In the Old Testament, God considered Israel his wife and when they were unfaithful to him by worshiping other gods or practicing the sins of the Gentiles, he would call them adulterers. Hosea 3:1 says,
The Lord said to me, “Go, show love to your wife again, even though she loves another man and continually commits adultery. Likewise, the Lord loves the Israelites although they turn to other gods and love to offer raisin cakes to idols.”
As Hosea’s wife had committed adultery, so had Israel. Likewise, Jeremiah 2:20 says,
Indeed, long ago you threw off my authority and refused to be subject to me. You said, ‘I will not serve you.’ Instead, you gave yourself to other gods on every high hill and under every green tree, like a prostitute sprawls out before her lovers.
In that text, Israel is pictured as a prostitute for worshiping other gods. Also, Isaiah 1:21 says, “How tragic that the once-faithful city has become a prostitute! She was once a center of justice, fairness resided in her, but now only murderers.” In that text, she is called a prostitute for her rebellion. Where before she practiced justice, now she practiced murder, just like the unbelieving Gentiles.
Like the prophets before him, James strongly rebuked these Jewish believers, so they would turn away from worldliness—living selfish lives which led them into sin, discord, and rebellion towards God. But, not only did James shock them by calling them “adulterers,” even worse, he called them “God’s enemy” (4:4).
Interpretation Question: What does James mean by calling the Jewish Christians enemies of God?
1. Some believe enemies of God refers to professing believers in the church who were not truly saved.
Those who take this view would say, “Would God call true believers God’s enemies?” Throughout the letter, James has been challenging those with false faith. In James 1:22, he said those who just heard God’s Word and didn’t practice it were deceived. Likewise, in James 1:26, he said if a believer didn’t restrain his tongue, his religion was useless. And in James 2:17, he declared that a profession of faith without works is dead. Certainly, many in this church did have false faith; however, that doesn’t seem to be his primary focus in this text. The language of adultery implies a genuine relationship with God—though some amongst them lacked a saving relationship. For the true believers, this was ultimately a warning of God’s discipline if they didn’t repent. And for those who were not truly saved, it was a call to true repentance, lest they experience God’s eternal wrath.
2. Others believe enemies of God refers to how God will act as an enemy to unfaithful, worldly believers, in the sense of disciplining them.
As these believers continually drew near the world, their views and actions would become antagonistic to God, and God would discipline them for that. Evidence for this is seen in James quoting Proverbs 3:34 in James 4:6 when he says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.” “Opposes” in the original language is a military term used of a whole army that was ready for battle.1 Therefore, with believers who are prideful—referring to them being blind to their own sin, living independently from God (and often his church), and following the world—God gets in full war gear against them and fights against them, to humble them and bring them to repentance. For example, when Jonah rebelled against God, God brought a storm in his life which almost killed him. This humbled Jonah and caused him to pray as he was sinking to the bottom of the sea and God saved him using a big fish (Jonah 1-2). When the believers in Corinth who Paul also called worldly (1 Cor 3:1-3 NIV) were mistaking the Lord’s Supper and disrespecting the poor by not giving them food, God fought against them by allowing many to get sick, some to struggle with depression, and others to die (1 Cor 11:30). God fights against proud, worldly believers to humble them, so they’ll repent.
Sometimes, God fights against worldly believers by allowing them to be disciplined by the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, a worldly believer was having sex with his father’s wife (his stepmom), and Paul called for the church to hand him over to Satan—meaning to discipline him by removing him from the congregation. While being faithfully involved in a local church—a body of believers—there is some amount of spiritual protection. Outside the church or when believers are being unfaithful to the body, Satan has doors into their lives to cause them to stumble, trap them in sin, and torment them (cf. Matt 18:34-35, Eph 4:26-27), among other things.
Therefore, to combat worldliness, we must have a healthy fear of God’s discipline. He rebukes the proud through confronting their sin as James did by calling them “adulterers” and “God’s enemies” (4:4). And if worldly believers don’t repent, God fights against them by bringing trials meant to lead them to repentance (4:6). Hebrews 12:5-6 (NIV) pictures these steps in God’s discipline process:
My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.
“Discipline” seems to be a general term for God’s training of believers. “Rebukes” refers to God confronting our sin through his Word (often through another believer). And “chastens” literally means “to whip” or “spank,” even as God used a storm in Jonah’s life, and sickness, weariness, and death in the lives of the Corinthians.
Do we fear God’s discipline over our thinking and acting like the world? The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To combat worldliness, we must fear God’s discipline. Unfortunately, many in the church do not, and therefore, worldliness persists in their lives.
Application Question: What is your view of God’s discipline? Do you have a fear of God’s discipline or an apathy towards the concept of it? What is a healthy view of God’s discipline and why is it important for combatting worldliness (cf. Heb 12:5-13)?
To Combat Worldliness, We Must Understand God’s Committed Love
Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning”?
God’s great love for believers is implied in how James calls the worldly believers, “adulterers.” As with Israel, God sees the church as his wife, whom he loves (Eph 5:22-33, Rev 19:7). But, God’s love is also reflected in James 4:5, which is the most difficult verse in James to translate and interpret.2 Some have said it’s one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament!
Interpretation Question: What does James 4:5 mean by “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning”?
A couple of things that make this verse difficult to understand: (1) When it says, “Do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, ‘The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning,’” there is no one verse in Scripture that says this phrase. So, James must mean that Scripture teaches this truth as a summary of combined verses. (2) Also, there is an argument over the word “spirit.” Is it referring to God’s giving believers the Holy Spirit, meaning that God’s Spirit is jealous for us like a lover? The NKJV takes this view as it translates the verse, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”. Ephesians 4:30 warns us to not grieve the Holy Spirit by practicing sin (cf. Eph 4:29, 31). Or is “spirit” referring to the human spirit, meaning that we all have a natural tendency towards jealousy and evil? The NET takes this view as it interprets the verse: “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning.” This evil tendency in the human spirit is reflected in Cain’s desire to kill Abel because of jealously. God said to him, “sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it” (Gen 4:6). Likewise, we are prone to jealously and covetousness and, therefore, must keep that tendency in check. (3) Finally, the verse could be translated this way, “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?” as in the NIV. With this translation, it is saying that God jealously desires our spirit—for intimacy and communion.
Which translation is correct? The context of believers being called “adulterers” seems to argue in favor of God or the Holy Spirit being jealous and desiring an intimate relationship with us. Since the Holy Spirit is never mentioned in James, many believe the NIV’s translation of God being jealous is best.3 Certainly, God’s jealousy is taught throughout the Old Testament. Even the second commandment calls for us to not have idols because God is jealous (Ex 20:5).
Often, we think of jealousy as an evil emotion and struggle with attributing it to God; however, in the right context, jealousy can be righteous as it is a companion of love. For example, if a husband isn’t jealous of his wife being unfaithful to him, he probably doesn’t love her at all, which would be sinful. With that said, there is certainly an evil jealousy based on selfishness and insecurity. When a husband checks the calls received on his wife’s phone, text messages, or email account incessantly, asks her to give an account for every minute of her time, and doesn’t believe anything she says, then jealousy has become selfish, obsessive, and evil. Ultimately, it will push the wife away instead of drawing her closer through a righteous love.
However, since God loves us perfectly, he also is righteously jealous of our time, affection, and devotion. This is a good thing. This means that when we sin against God, he doesn’t say, “Oh well, just go after your new lover, I didn’t love you anyway!” He doesn’t say, “Well, I did my part. I never failed her, but she failed me, so just keep on moving!” No! God is jealous! He will fight for us. He’s not going anywhere. He will do whatever it takes to get us back, including destroying our other loves. He already spent the greatest cost to get us—sending his Son to die on the cross for our sins. He certainly will spare no cost to keep us.
This is important to understand so that we can combat worldliness. We must understand how good our God is. He is a faithful, always forgiving, always fighting for us, husband who loves us. When we repent and come back to him, he won’t keep throwing our sins in our face. To him, when we repent, it’s like we never sinned. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the eastern horizon is from the west, so he removes the guilt of our rebellious actions from us.”
In addition, this is important for us to accept because Satan always tries to taint our view of God. Essentially, with Eve, he said, “God doesn’t love you! He is holding back the best from you.” When she doubted God’s love, she fell into sin. Likewise, with Job, Satan desired for him to curse God to his face. Therefore, all the trials that God allowed Satan to bring on Job were meant to make Job doubt God’s goodness and love. However, Job responded, “Even if he slays me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). He believed in God’s committed and perfect love, though he struggled to understand it at times. That kept Job from falling into sin, worldliness, and cursing God to his face. He knew the love of God.
The following verses show how important it is to comprehend the depths of God’s love for us: First John 4:19 says, “We love because he loved us first.” The more we know God’s love, the more we will start to love him in return, which includes worshiping and obeying God. Romans 2:4 (ESV) essentially says the same thing: “…God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” Knowing God’s love helps us to repent of sin, including our idols. Ephesians 3:16, 18-19 says:
I pray … you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
The more we comprehend the depths of God’s love, the more we will be filled with the fullness of God, which really means to be controlled and empowered by him. To be “filled with the Spirit” means to be controlled and empowered by the Spirit (Eph 5:18). Likewise, to be “filled with rage” means to be controlled and empowered by anger (Acts 19:28 NASB). Therefore, knowing how much God loves us drastically changes our lives. Paul, when describing his motivation for ministry, said, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor 5:14 NIV).
Certainly, we understand love’s power to change people on a human level. When people know how much a special person loves them (like a future spouse), it can change the trajectory of their lives. People who were single get married, leave their families, sometimes their careers, and even nations to be with the person. Love compels them. Likewise, those who know God’s love deeply, turn away from the world, sin, and self to pursue him and his will for their lives.
Application Question: How, then, can we know God’s love more deeply, so we will turn away from the world and its vices?
1. We come to know God’s love more by reading and studying his Word.
Just like with any lover, love is often confirmed through the spoken or written word. God does the same with us. His love (including loving acts) is continually confirmed to us through his written Word. The more we read and study it, the more we will comprehend it and be changed by it. If we neglect God’s Word, we will doubt God’s love and fall more in love with the world and sin.
2. We come to know God’s love more through prayer.
In Ephesians 3:18-19, Paul prays for believers to know the depths of God’s love. We should pray that prayer for ourselves and others.
3. We come to know God’s love more through being with God’s people.
This happens both as we serve others and by them serving us. It’s very common for Christian parents to feel like they know and understand God’s love more by having children and loving and serving them. It gives them a deeper understanding of the Father’s great love for them. Also, when others love us, especially when their love is underserved, we often begin to understand the gravity of God’s love for us as well. Paul might have been referring to our need to discern God’s love through others in Ephesians 3:18, when he prayed for them to comprehend God’s love “with all the saints….” The depths of God’s love is not something we can fully comprehend in isolation. We need others to understand its depths—both by serving others and being served.
Often pride is a hindrance to learning more about God’s love through others. Because of pride and selfishness, we tend to focus on ourselves and not serve others. Also, because of pride, we often are not willing to accept help, prayer, counsel, or finances from others, among other good things. Again, apart from others (serving them and them serving us), we cannot fully know God’s love and thus escape worldliness.
When we truly know how good God is and how he loves us, it will be easier to turn away from other lovers, including sin and the world. The world’s love never satisfies. Since it leads us into sin, it only leaves us empty, broken, and in bondage (cf. John 8:34, 10:10). In contrast, God’s love heals, restores, and satisfies, as it leads us into righteousness (cf. Jer 2:13, Matt 5:6, 11:28-30). As we experience more of it, it will turn us away from the world.
Application Question: Why is knowing God’s love so important for believers? When are the times that you most sense God’s love? How have you experienced more of God’s love in community?
To Combat Worldliness, We Must Seek God’s Greater Grace
But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.”
When James says, “he gives greater grace,” the implication is that the battle against the world and our lusts is impossible to win on our own; therefore, God gives more grace to those who seek it. This isn’t saving grace, since every believer has that. This is “greater grace”—conquering grace for our battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Are we battling some habitual sin or lust? Romans 5:20 says, “but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more.” Are we struggling with conflict at work or at home? God gives greater grace! Are we struggling with anxiety and depression? God will give more grace! Are we struggling with some debilitating sickness? God’s grace will be sufficient in our weakness (cf. 2 Cor 12:9). John Blanchard said, “For daily need there is daily grace; for sudden need, sudden grace; for overwhelming need, overwhelming grace.”4 Whatever grace we need, God has it. In Romans 8:31-32, Paul agreed when he said:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
If God gave his best to save us, won’t he graciously give us all things that we need for this life and more? Second Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” God has given “all things” that we need for “life” (to save us and give us eternal life) and “godliness” (to make us righteous).
Application Question: How can we experience greater grace to combat worldliness?
1. To experience greater grace, we must repent of our sins.
That is why James says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). Sin blocks God’s flow of grace for our needs. God not only opposes the proud, but he also opposes the idolater, the sexually immoral, the greedy, and any other vice we hold onto (Gal 5:19-22). In Psalm 66:18, David said that if he cherished iniquity in his heart, God would not hear him. If we are going to receive God’s greater grace, we must repent by confessing our sins to God and committing to turn away from them through his grace. When we do this, God forgives us and empowers us to do his will (1 John 1:9, Phil 2:12-13).
2. To experience greater grace, we must humble ourselves before God through prayer.
After confronting his disciples and the Jews with the challenging righteousness of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Christ said this in Matthew 7:7-8:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Literally, this means to ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking, and God will answer. Do we want to be the merciful who receive mercy from God (Matt 5:7)? We must faithfully pray for it. Do we want to be the peacemakers who are called children of God (Matt 5:9)? We must pray. Do we want to be delivered from worrying about what we will eat, drink, and wear (Matt 6:25)? Then, we must seek first God’s kingdom by persevering in prayer (Matt 6:10, 33). Those who labor in prayer find grace for their concerns. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.” Mercy is God’s help for the needy and sinful, and grace is his unmerited favor over our situation.
With all that said, the primary purpose of prayer is to get God’s will done, not ours. Therefore, one of the benefits of prayer is it conforms our hearts to his will. Is God calling us to persevere through difficulty at work, school, or in a relationship? Then that grace comes through prayer. Through prayer, we develop hearts like Christ, who prayed this before going to the cross, “Not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Are we humbling ourselves before God through prayer—declaring, “Lord, we trust you! Your will be done!”
3. To experience greater grace, we must humble ourselves before other believers.
James 5:16 says, “So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.” Though the context of this is physical healing and possibly emotional healing, certainly it is a general principle for any type of healing, including from sin and worldliness. God often gives us his healing grace through the prayers of others. With that said, some are too prideful to ever share about the difficulties in their marriage, the lust they struggle with on the Internet, or some other addiction; therefore, they never receive healing grace. God gives grace to the humble but disciplines the prideful until they become humble (Jam 4:6). Are we confessing our sins before one another so we can experience God’s grace?
To conquer worldliness, we must seek God’s greater grace which will enable us to have victory.
Application Question: What type of grace do you need in this season of life? How is God calling you to seek it? Who do you confess your struggles to in order to enlist their prayers for God’s greater grace?
How should we combat worldliness—a life focused on self-actualization, self-pleasure, and self-glory, which leads to evil, conflict, and ultimately spiritual apostasy (cf. Jam 3:14-16, 4:1-2, 1 John 2:15)?
- To Combat Worldliness, We Must Fear God’s Discipline
- To Combat Worldliness, We Must Understand God’s Committed Love
- To Combat Worldliness, We Must Seek God’s Greater Grace
- Pray for God to deliver us from bondage to selfish, worldly desires which lead to sin, conflict, and rebellion.
- Pray for God to enable us to comprehend the depths of God’s love, so we can be empowered by him to accomplish love-inspired works.
- Pray for God to give us greater grace in every area of our lives for his glory.
Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown
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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 199). Chicago: Moody Press.
2 Hughes, R. K. (1991). James: faith that works (p. 177). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Related Topics: Christian Life