The Plague of Our Passions

The Power of Pleasure

How about Lay’s potato chips? I bet you can’t eat just one. Allow me to pose a question to you to ponder. What have you done that you just had to do again? In America, we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that pursuit of happiness is certainly not an American tradition. The search for our desire, our passions is as old as the human race. In the Book of James, we see him talk about it to the early Christians that have been dispersed—removed—from the promised land and scattered throughout the known world.

These Christians have been given a job to do – share the Gospel with those they meet, but as we have seen throughout much of this book so far, their actions are not lining up with their calling. In chapter 4, James gives us a pretty clear understanding of why their Gospel footprint has not left a mark, and we will see that it has to do with that very pursuit of happiness.

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?  — James 4:1-5

James 3 ends with the visual of Heavenly wisdom leading to a righteous life and peace flowing out from the Christian; chapter 4 starts off with the truth that those Christians are not living up to that potential.

Why We Fail

I would like to discuss a concept called Text vs. Framework. This is important because it is something that we all do. We all have our framework and we bring it into every passage we read, even every situation we walk in to. Your framework is your presuppositions, prejudices, perspective, etc… In other words, you see things through your unique lens; a lens that was colored specifically by your life experiences. Take me, for example. No matter what, I have a really hard time rooting for any football team in the Big 10, save Nebraska. We were all taught to root for the conference as a whole, but I spent so many years of my life being a fan of the Big 8/Big 12 that it is still hard for me to root for the Big 10 in important games, even if Nebraska has nothing to do with it. Yes, my team is now in the Big 10, but my framework makes it hard for me to adjust to the new situation. The fact is, other Big 10 teams playing well is good for Nebraska now, regardless of whether or not I am happy about it.

The text part of this simply means to take the text as it is, not as our framework perceives. Usually, with this passage, we read the first part of James 4 and automatically assume that he can’t be talking about us, because we don’t do those things! Do we? Looking at the text directly and looking into the meaning of the words as originally written, it is clear that James was writing to Christians that were fighting among themselves and it was leading to violence and murder!

A Christian History of Violence

It’s Christians that were lusting and committing murder; being envious and fighting among themselves. Christians don’t have because Christians don’t ask, and we don’t receive because we are selfish and adulterous! That can’t be about us, can it? A brief look through history tells a disturbing story about Christians and violence…

  • The Holy War
  • The Inquisition
  • Slavery
  • Westboro Baptist Church

Within the last few weeks and especially since the election violence has been significantly on the rise. There are numerous viral videos of people being hurt/beaten up for talking about God, or even over the person they voted for. And on top of that, people are posting their approval and inciting others to do the same!

The seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza observed: “I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion—namely love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men—should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criteria of their faith.”

Bringing it to the Personal Level

Yet I am still bringing my framework into this a little. James is not talking about “Corporate Christianity” or all Christians as a group. That’s not what the text is saying. James is bringing this all the way down to the personal level. We have issues at the corporate level, yes, but it all started and James is focused down here at the personal level. What he is saying is this: You do not have an effective gospel footprint because you are too busy trying to live your life with a foot on both sides of the fence. It is our personal pursuit of pleasure that is causing the problem. Is pleasure your end goal?

Power of Marketing for PleasureIt is these passions that wage war against your members. The Greek word there simply means what is pleasurable, or what makes you happy. It doesn’t start with murder, it starts with desire, for something even as simple as an extra potato chip. I bet you can’t eat just one! James’ language here is rather harsh, but the point is all the same. Whether it is that extra chip or murder in the first, this is all purely and completely SIN.

In our lives, on the personal level, we are ineffective for the Gospel because these things that we are seeking, along with trying to be good Christians are in reality at war with our faith. We all have these temptations in some way or another – no one is immune. It could be money, companionship, power, fun, an escape, anything. It is our desire to have pieces of what the world has, yet not completely be of the world. This is why these marketing slogans are so powerful – because they know how the world makes decisions! That emotion to have, to enjoy is so strong. Yet, James is saying here that doesn’t work. We can’t love our personal comfort on the same level as we love God, because if we do, then we by definition have put comfort on the top spot, because God calls us to put Him at the top – alone.

It is these passions that cause us to fight among ourselves. These passions are what make us friends of the world and hostile towards God, therefore motivated by our selfishness and quick to quarrel. We’ve all seen it; a discussion among Christian friends that turns into an argument; an argument that turns into a fight; a fight that causes a rift. Whether you are arguing over the color of the carpet, the air conditioning, theology or ministry activities, it doesn’t matter. If we are arguing and fighting, then there is a reason, and it is most likely not about that topic. Please note, there is a difference between peaceful disagreements and debates. We can disagree on things – that is not the point. The point is how easy it is to escalate – and we escalate because of that sin; that friendliness with the world. I challenge you to ask yourself: are you ready to give up whatever pleasure is in your life for your relationship with God?

A Way to Wisdom and Peace

James, however, does not leave us in this place of emotional pain. He offers us a way out; steps to success. And as for “how to’s”, this one is pretty clear and direct.

But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. – James 4:6-10

God is jealous for us; James is not the only one to make that statement. He desires us and is willing to give us what we need in order to overcome. His grace. We, however, have to act. As Indiana Jones had to learn in the search for the Holy Grail, “only the penitent man will pass”. The penitent person is someone who is humble before God and kneels. How do we humble ourselves before God? Take a look at this list:

  • Show and read through list on the screen
    • Submit to God – do what He says – not what you want to interpret or the framework you want to perceive. American Christianity has done so much damage to the true church because they re-write what God says.
    • Resist the Devil – fight those temptations!
    • Draw near to God – seek Him out! Put effort into your relationship with Him.
    • Cleanse – get far away from your sin. Don’t look at it or leave it close, but block it away, step back from the ledge and get it out of your mind. This does not mean saying your piece and washing your hands of something.
    • Mourn/Repent – let the effect of your sin hurt! When you are truly broken over how you hurt someone, you feel it – it is the same with God. Take a look at Psalm 51 in regards to David’s mourning over his sin. Then make sure to turn from those ways.
    • Humble yourself – be conscious you are the presence of the great God. Consider yourself as less than those around you. Posting on social media counts as your “tongue”. Do your words there promote peace or do they rile people up?

This is the pathway on which we can move towards holiness and live with our feet on the right side of the fence. Only then will our footprint truly be a Gospel footprint. These instructions, however, are not an end state to aspire to. They are living, daily tasks for overcoming the sin that still weakens us. You are not “there” if you have done all these things, because there is always tomorrow. Remember, Paul says you are being perfected to completion at the day of Christ in Philippians; you are not there yet.

You Aren’t Done Yet

It is that very reason why James finishes up this section with a warning.

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? — James 4:11-12

After a while, a person working hard on their spiritual life with Christ can see great success with those six steps above. In fact, after a while, the can start to attain a good level of Christian maturity, wisdom, and success in Gospel impact. It does, however, leave us vulnerable to another pitfall – judgmentalism. We need to be clear, here. James is not contradicting Jesus from Matthew 18, but rather our “holier than thou” attitude and putting down another person because of their sin. We are called to confront our brothers and sisters when caught in sin, yes, but we are NOT to gossip about, to talk down about them, or to be harsh. In fact, true Matthew 18 confrontation is gut wrenching and heart breaking, because it can only come from a true love—motivation to restore, not condemn; thus there is pain for the one who has to confront. Condemning someone, slandering someone, hating someone, is what James is referring to; and that is a huge trap to fall into. By doing that, we are actually setting ourselves about the law, therefore above the law giver, God.

“We should probably identify the law here also with that wider body of teaching, focused especially on the teaching of Jesus, that James considers authoritative for Christians. How is it that ‘judging’ a fellow believer involves ‘judging’ this law? Since James contrasts ‘judging the law’ with ‘doing the law’, he apparently thinks that failure to do the law involves an implicit denial of the law’s authority” (Moo, D. J. 1985. James: An Introduction and Commentary [Vol. 16, p. 156]. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). We deny the law’s authority and instead, place ourselves in that spot. We need to remember that God is the One with the ability to save and destroy, and that we are among those who are trusting in Him to save us. Putting ourselves in His place would be a bad idea.

Remember: Friendship with the World is Hostility Toward God

What is the point of all this? James 4:4 – friendship with the world is hostility toward God. If we want to leave a Gospel footprint, do we think our witness is any good if we look just like the world? No – we need to stand out as different. We need to be a light in the darkness, which is done through our lifestyle, not just our words! Non-Christians can see the bickering and fighting inside our doors and are turned off by that. We have to be different, and James here brings it back to the ground level. In order for any of this to work, we have to have our own lives in the right place – and not just today, but to consistently be working on that throughout the journey of our lives.

Let us be thankful that God, who punished Christ on our behalf, now gives us the Holy Spirit. For we could not accomplish that list by ourselves, but this is only possible with the work of the Spirit in you and me. Turn to Him, trust in His work, let Him work in you; only then will your feet be firmly planted and you’ll be able to leave a Gospel footprint.