Practical Christianity: Resisting Worldliness

Practical Christianity: Resisting Worldliness | James 3:13-4:6
Brian Hedges | July 15, 2018

Turn in your Bibles this morning to James, the third chapter, James 3. So, this summer we’ve been doing a series on practical Christianity, and we’ve been working through the letter of James, and we’ve kind of been taking this thematically, looking at themes in this letter that pop up in different places, sometimes pulling texts together, so we haven’t been going strictly chronologically through.

We’ve been looking at some of the practical kinds of things that James teaches us about living the Christian life. James’s concern is that we be fully formed Christians, that we be whole Christians, that our faith have a wholeness to it, an integrity to it, as we seek to walk with Christ. So, James is one of these in-your-face kind writers, just constantly pressing upon us the demands of the gospel and what that should look like in practical application in our lives.

I’ve pointed out a couple of times that in James 1:26-27 James highlights three things that he says are characteristics of true faith, or true religion. Those three things are a controlled tongue (and he revisits that in James chapter 3), and then secondly caring for the vulnerable, visiting the widows and the fatherless in their affliction; and then he applies that principle in terms of how we treat the poor, and we looked at that last week in James chapter 2. And then the third thing he says is that we are to keep ourselves from the world, unpolluted from the world.

That’s the theme I want to pick up this morning in James chapters 3 and 4 as we think about what it means to resist worldliness, to keep ourselves unstained from the world. We should just say at the outset that there is a wide range of Scriptural teaching about the world; James just gives us one particular aspect of this, so we need to understand that walking in.

Sometimes in Scripture “the world” refers to the created world. So we read it this morning, Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” When James is talking about worldliness and being unspotted from the world and not being friends with the world, he’s not talking about the created world, he’s not talking about the goodness of created things in and of themselves.

Sometimes “the world” refers to lost humanity whom God loves. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” and certainly we are to have that kind of a love for the world. We are to love those who are in the world, we are to love them in their lostness and seek to win them to Christ. So James isn’t referring to the world in that sense.

He’s thinking of the world in terms of the world in its opposition to God. He’s thinking of the world system, he’s thinking of the world as it is under the domain or under the control of the evil one. So, for example, Jesus calls Satan “the ruler of this world,” Paul calls Satan “the god of this world.” The apostle John says that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” and then John in his letter talks about the love of the world and tells us not to love the world. He says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” and then he defines it. He says, “For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world.”

I think that’s the sense in which James is talking about being unspotted from the world, or undefiled from the world. So we need to understand that going in, that there’s a very specific concern here about worldliness, and as we’re going to see this morning, that’s not as easy to define as we might think. It has to do with a certain set of dispositions in our hearts, so this is one of those passages that really requires some self-examination.

Okay, so James 3:13 through 4:6. We’ve already looked at some of this in the past, in terms of wisdom; today I just want to tease out some of the symptoms of worldliness. So let’s look at the text, James chapter 3, beginning in verse 13.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet 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 wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”

This is God’s word.

So, three things I want us to do here. I want us to look at the symptoms, the diagnosis, and the cure for worldliness, love for the world, friendship with the world, whatever you want to call it.

1. Symptoms
2. Diagnosis
3. Cure

Alright, this is going to be simple.

1. Symptoms

First of all, symptoms. There are a lot of things I could highlight here; let’s just focus on two.

(1) First of all, the symptom of envy, selfish ambition. You see that in chapter 3:14, again in verse 16. The word could be translated “jealousy” or “envy.” They both have basically the same meaning. Okay, so this is a kind of disposition towards others where there’s jealousy or envy towards others; rather than happiness at the blessing of others, this is sorrow when others have something that you don’t have.

Let me give you a couple of definitions. Thomas Aquinas called envy, “Sorrow for another’s good.” The philosopher Aristotle called it, “A disturbing pain excited by the prosperity of others.” Here’s my favorite: Frederick Beuchner defines envy as, “The consuming desire to have everybody else as miserable as you are.”

There’s a great illustration of this, an ancient Jewish story, where an angel visits a shopkeeper. This shopkeeper is known for his envy of his rival, a competitor in the little village. The angel offers to give him “anything you want.” The one condition is that his rival will get twice what he gets. The shopkeeper thinks for a few minutes and then he says, “I wish to be blind in one eye,” because he wants his rival to suffer even more.

That’s the heart of envy. It’s a disposition that is so self-centered that it is unable to rejoice when others prosper and it wishes for others to suffer harm.

You know, examples of this aren’t hard to find. I mean, think about our fairy tales for a minute. You remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who’s the fairest of them all?”

So here’s the witch, the queen who becomes a witch, the queen who is envious at the beauty of another, and so eventually seeks to kill Snow White.

Or you could think of something slightly more recent. Do you remember The Brady Bunch? Okay, and do you remember the episode with Jan Brady, when she’s so jealous about Marsha, and she says, “Well, all day long at school I hear how great Marsha is at this and how wonderful Marsha is at that. Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” Right?

That’s the heart of envy! You know, it’s petty, really, when you name it out loud; it’s petty and it’s even kind of humorous. But you don’t have to look too far to see that in your own heart, that you start to notice that others are enjoying things that you’re not enjoying, that others prosper in ways you don’t prosper. You start to think, “I wish I could have that vacation,” “I wish I could drive that car,” “I wish I could live in a house that nice.” You know, “I wish my spouse was like their spouse.”

You start thinking in those kinds of ways, and it’s an insidious, kind of subtle, sinful disposition, and it’s right at the heart of what James is calling worldliness, friendship with the world. He says this is the wisdom that is not from above, it’s of the earth; it’s earthly, it’s sensual, it’s demonic. So, envy. Envy is a symptom of this worldliness.

(2) Here’s the second one: conflict. Conflict. You see that in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 4. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”

Alright, so he’s using pretty graphic language here. He’s saying, “Your church [he’s writing to a community here] is a war zone. Your church is a war zone. There are wars, there are battles, there are conflicts going on among you.” There are all these quarrels.

Verse 2, “You desire and do not have, so you murder.” Now, he’s probably speaking metaphorically. He’s probably thinking of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, that if you hate your brother it’s equivalent to murder. That’s probably what James is thinking here. It’s probably not actually that the members of the church were killing each other, but they were behaving in really bad ways that were effectively expressing hatred towards one another, they were murdering one another’s reputations, they were hurting one another in all these ways.

He says, “You covet and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel.” Again, there’s a deep dislocation in their hearts that’s producing this.

Now, we’ve all seen this, haven’t we, in churches. We’ve seen this in communities where – in fact, it’s famous, isn’t it, or infamous, churches that have fights over really silly things. I was kind of curious about this, so I decided to look it up. What are the most ridiculous things that churches split over? I came across a great list, I want to tell you.

This is Thom Rainer, and he gave 25 silly things that church members fight over. I’m not going to read them all, but let me just give you a few of the ones that really take the cake. These are all true stories, okay? This is what’s so crazy about it.

A church that fought over whether to build a children’s playground or to use the land for a cemetery. Can you believe that? I mean…

A church argument and vote to decide if a clock in the worship center should be removed.

A dispute over whether the worship leader should have this shoes on during the service.

An argument on – this was just ridiculous – an argument on whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal! I don’t think what James meant by demonic was deviled eggs. Okay. Two more.

A disagreement over using the term “potluck” instead of “pot blessing.”

This is my favorite: an argument over the appropriate length of the worship pastor’s beard!

Now, I mean, it’s funny because it’s so silly and so crazy, but, you know, we don’t have to think long, do we, about the seriousness of this and how churches actually can be destroyed by this kind of pettiness in the church.

Now, one of the things I think this shows us is that worldliness is not quite what we initially think. A lot of us grew up with a definition of worldliness that went something like this, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t go with girls that do,” right? So basically you define worldliness as drinking, smoking, hanging out with the wrong kinds of friends. That was kind of our definition of worldliness.

Well, that doesn’t seem to be at all the kinds of things James is concerned with here. What James is concerned about is a set of dispositions in the heart, that whether you do those kinds of things, whether you drink in moderation or not, whether you go to a theater or not, whether you play cards or not…you can abstain from all of those things and still have a worldly heart, because the worldliness is seen in the envy, it’s seen in the conflict, and it’s seen in what gives rise to that.

Those are the symptoms; the question, then, is what’s the diagnosis? Why are these things going on in our lives, going on in the church.

2. Diagnosis

So that leads to the second point, diagnosis. The diagnosis is twofold, and really it’s kind of going down a level and then down another level, okay, to the deepest diagnosis.

(1) So here’s the first level, what we might call disordered desires. Again, you see it in verses 1 through 3, just highlight different words here. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Alright, your passions are at war within you. And then verse 2, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.” And then this is even affecting the relationship with God, verse 3, “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

Alright, so this is at the root of all the conflict, this is at the root of the envy, this is at the root of the worldliness of the church. The heart of worldliness is seen in disordered, self-centered desires. That can show up in all different kinds of ways.

So we need to just think through application for a minute. Here would be a couple of ways to think about this. Our desires are disordered when we reverse God’s intention in creation and we love things differently than he intended [us] to.

So, for example, you might think of it this way: we were created to love people and to use things. We were created to love people and use things, but a lot of times what we do is we love things and we use people. That’s the heart of worldliness. We love things.

We love the shiny new car, you know? So here’s a dad, he gets a new car. He loves this new car, and it’s not merely a vehicle to get him from point A to point B. This car is always polished, it’s always clean. He loves the paint job, he loves the leather interior. He loves the car so much that when his teenage son takes it out for a spin, gets a scratch, spills something on the interior, it’s not just minor correction; there’s an explosion that happens when the son gets home, because the dad is loving the thing rather than using the thing and not loving his son more than the thing.

Now, that’s an example of a disordered desire. When we use people and love things, something’s wrong.

Or here’s another form it can take: when we love people disproportionately or we love them in the wrong way. Now, we all know there are different kinds of love. In fact, C.S. Lewis wrote a really famous book called The Four Loves. He talked about these different kinds of love. There is affection, natural love in the family, it’s a love of a parent for the child, a child for the parent. There is friendship, that’s a kind of love; that’s the love you have for your friend. That’s when you have something in common and you enjoy doing something together and it’s kind of a collegial kind of love. Then there is romantic love; this is the love that binds lovers together, people fall in love and they get married; there’s that kind of love.

And then Lewis says that above all of those there is agapē, there is what he calls charity, and that is Christian love. It’s the unique kind of love that God has shown us and that we are to show one another, and Lewis’s point in this book is that when any of the other loves are not governed by this highest love, those other loves go bad. They go sour.

So, it’s not so much that you can love your spouse too much if you’re loving them with an agapē kind of love, if you’re loving them with Christ’s love; but there is a kind of love for a spouse that is disproportionate. There is a kind of romantic love that gets twisted, that begins to draw on the other person, almost living like a parasite on someone else. It’s when love becomes more need-based than gift-based. It’s when the disposition of your heart is, “I need your love to complete me,” instead of, “I love you so much that I will gladly and quietly and uncomplainingly give up what I want for your sake.”

Those are very different kinds of love, and what Lewis is showing in this book is that when our friendships or when our relationships in home and family or church or anywhere, when those relationships are governed by the lesser love rather than the higher love, the lesser love goes sour, begins to go bad. That’s where we get into trouble.

Well, James is diagnosing our problem here. It’s disordered loves, it’s disordered desires. It’s that we have things out of order, that, essentially, our desires are not governed by this greatest love of all; that is, God’s love for us and our love for him.

(2) That leads to the second part of his diagnosis, which is where he really gets to the root of all the roots. You see that in verse 4, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God,” or hostility with God. “Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

So here James’s diagnosis is spiritual adultery. Spiritual adultery. It’s interesting; in the Greek here it doesn’t actually say, “You adulterous people,” it says, “You adulteresses.” It’s feminine. Now, he’s addressing a whole church, right; he’s addressing men and women, but he’s calling them all adulteresses.

The reason that he does that is because James is tapping into a biblical theme, and that is the theme of Yahweh’s divine love for Israel – that’s all culminated in Christ’s love for the church, for the new Israel. It’s God’s love for his bride, where God is masculine, God is the husband, and his corporate people are the bride, they are the feminine. You see it throughout the prophets especially, especially in Jeremiah, Hosea, places like that, where God has this jealous, passionate love for his people. He loves them like a husband loves a bride, but the bride has become wayward. They’ve started worshipping other things, they’ve started bowing to other idols. They have let their desires take them astray from God, and they are now guilty of whoredom, they are guilty of harlotry, they are guilty of spiritual adultery. That’s what James is saying is going on. In your disordered, misdirected passions and desires, he says, you have committed adultery with the world.

Let me tell you a story. This actually comes from a friend of mine. I’ve known this guy now for over 20 years, and we first met – this is Trent Griffith, okay. Trent Griffith is the pastor over at Harvest Bible Chapel in Granger. So, Trent and I traveled together years ago in a para-church ministry, and I heard him tell this story way back then. So if you’ve ever been to Harvest or listened to Trent, maybe he’s told this.

He told a story about when he was in college. He was studying like crazy, and every once in awhile he would get so tired of studying he would just go to movie just to chill out for awhile. One day he went to a movie and he noticed that there were three teenagers sitting there in the movie theater, a guy, a girl, and a girl, sitting like this. It was pretty obvious that the guy and this girl were together; she was his girlfriend.

He was sitting a row or two behind them, and he noticed that the guy was holding hands with the girl, but he was doing it kind of in an odd way. His right hand was kind of reached across his body and he was holding her hand. He said the movie was kind of boring, but it got really interesting watching what was going on with this trio, because the guy put his arm around the girl, and before long his arm kind of dangled down, and the girl on the other side put her arm out and her arm kind of dangled down, and he was holding hands with her behind this one’s back! He’s holding hands with two girls at the same time!

That’s a pretty good illustration of what James is saying is going on. In fact, a few verses later he calls them double-minded. They’re double-minded. They’re trying to hold hands with Jesus and hold hands with the world behind Jesus’s back. That’s the idea. It’s spiritual adultery. It’s unfaithfulness to Christ because we have so loved the world, the things of the world, more than him, and it’s producing all of this conflict and havoc in the church.

Worldliness is loving the world more than God, it is loving created things more than the Creator; it is looking to things, to people, to relationships, to experiences to find the deepest fulfillment of our hearts rather than looking to Christ himself. That’s the diagnosis. Disordered desires, spiritual adultery.

3. Cure

Now, here’s the question: what is the cure? What’s the cure for this? Actually, James’s prescription fills up verses 5 through 10, and I only read through verse 6, because there’s so much here that I have to take two weeks on it, so next week we’re going to dig into verses 7 through 10. So, I’m just going to focus on verses 5 and 6, and I want you to see two things here that James prescribes as the cure for the worldly heart.

(1) Number one is God’s consuming love, God’s all-consuming love. You see it in verse 5. “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He years jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?”

Now, a very short parentheses: I have to just acknowledge here [that] this is probably exegetically the hardest verse in James to translate, and your translation may read very differently. There’s a question over whether the spirit is the Holy Spirit or is it the spirit of man. There’s a question over what this ‘yearning jealously’ means. Is this God’s Spirit yearning jealously over us or is this the spirit of man yearning jealously, in kind of the negative envy sense? I’m taking it here, based on context, which is addressing spiritual adultery, I’m taking it here as a connection to the biblical theme of God’s jealous, all-consuming love for his people, and that what James to be saying, essentially, is this, that the Spirit who dwells within you (that’d be the Holy Spirit within Christian soteriology) yearns jealously. God has this all-consuming, jealous love for his people.

So this is a theme all the way through the Old Testament. Let me just give you one verse, Exodus 34:14, “You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is jealous, is a jealous God.”

This isn’t hard to grasp. We know this, okay? The most intimate human relationships, marriage relationships, the most intimate human relationships are exclusive, alright? They’re exclusive. Anytime you break that exclusivity, there are always going to be problems. There’s always going to be a problem. Even in cultures that permit polygamy and even when you see polygamy in the Old Testament, it’s always a mess. Jacob, Rachel, and Leah? Total disaster, because it’s a violation of God’s pattern, which is one man, one woman, devoted to one another for one life; an exclusive relationship.

One reason that relationship must be so exclusive is because it really is a mirror of God’s exclusive relationship with us. God is our divine lover, and he is to hold the place in our hearts that no one can violate, and when that place is violated we’ve committed spiritual adultery and God has this all-consuming, intense, burning, jealous kind of love for us. His Spirit dwelling within us yearns jealously.

So that means a couple of things. It means, number one, that Jesus lays exclusive claims on our hearts’ deepest desires. He’s the lover of our souls, and our love should answer him.

It also means this, gloriously, it means that his love never stops. It means his love never lets go. When Christians sin, when we drift into disordered love, when we commit spiritual adultery, God still loves us, but he loves us with a burning, passionate, all-consuming kind of love that pursues us in order to bring us back to repentance.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke about this in Jeremiah chapters 2 and 3. He’s talking to God’s people and he says, essentially, “You’re prostitutes. You’re seeking out all these other lovers.” Again, it’s metaphorical. He’s looking at them as idolaters. They’re worshipping other gods, and he calls them prostitutes. They’re guilty of this.

And yet, there’s this refrain in Jeremiah 2 and 3. Here are just a couple of verses of it, where he says, “Return, faithless Israel!” “You’ve been unfaithful, but return to me. Return to me.” “…faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful, declares the Lord. I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt. You have rebelled against the Lord your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree and have not obeyed me, declares the Lord. Return, faithless people, declares the Lord, for I am your husband!"

That’s what God wants. He wants us to return, and he pursues and he pursues and he pursues with his all-consuming, jealous love until we return, until we come back to him.

You remember the words of that wonderful hymn,

“Oh love that will not let me go,
I rest my wear soul in thee.
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.”

God’s all-consuming love. That’s the cure, that God loves us so much that he pursues us.

(2) And then secondly, it’s God’s all-sufficient grace. God’s all-sufficient grace; look at verse 6, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”

I just love this. He gives not just grace; he gives more grace. One time an artist was commissioned to paint a portrait of Niagara Falls for an exhibition. He painted this beautiful portrait of Niagara Falls (a beautiful landscape, I should say), and he didn’t title it, but the gallery needed to title it for the exhibition. So someone gave it this title: “More to Follow.”

You just think about this for a minute. I mean, I wonder how many billions of gallons of water, over thousands upon thousands of years, have fallen over Niagara Falls. Billions upon billions, and it just doesn’t stop! It just doesn’t stop. There’s always more to follow. It’s a seemingly infinite supply of water; it’s not infinite, but it seems that way. You look at it and it’s just more to follow.

That’s what God’s grace is like. There’s always more to follow. He gives more grace! That means that if God finds you this morning, right now, guilty of spiritual adultery, where you have been so in love with things or you have so misused people, you’ve been looking to people and relationships and approval and friendship or maybe even your children, you’ve been looking to these things to satisfy the deep, cavernous desires of your heart that only God can satisfy, you’ve been doing that, you are guilty of adultery; God says you’re an adulteress, and then he says, “I have grace for you. Come home. Return to me, for I am your husband”! That’s the word of the Lord. He has more grace.

But notice, this is grace for certain people. “God opposes the proud,” he says, “but gives grace to the humble.” That means there’s something for us to do to receive that grace. We humble ourselves. We acknowledge our need. We acknowledge that we are poor, that we are bankrupt, that we are miserable; naked and blind, to use the words of Revelation chapter 3.

We come to him with humility and with penitence, with broken hearts, and we acknowledge, “You’re the fountain of living waters, and I turned away from you. I’ve been drinking out of broken cisterns. I’ve been looking to this, I’ve been looking to success, I’ve been looking to things, I’ve been looking to people to satisfy my soul, and the results of that are evident in my life, and all of the discord and the conflict and the problems…” And you repent, and you say, “Lord, give me grace,” and he’ll do it. He will do it.

(3) Here’s the final comment about it. How do we get this grace? James doesn’t spell it out, okay; James assumes the gospel. He’s writing something like an in-office memo, as someone once described it, to the church, assuming the gospel and applying it to us. But I don’t want us to assume it, because the only way you get grace is through the cross of Christ, because on the cross here you have the divine Husband, and what is he doing? He is dying for the sins of his wayward, adulterous bride, and he is doing it so that through the wounds of love he can woo her back to himself.

Where do you stand with the Lord this morning? Where’s your heart? How’s your home life, how are your relationships; is there conflict? Is there envy? Is there discord? If there is, look a little deeper. What do you desire? What do you love? What’s really the priority of your heart? Do some self-examination, but don’t see there. See what’s going on, and then turn to the God of grace, the God who loves you; receive fresh forgiveness, experience fresh repentance, turn to him, and be reconciled to God.

Let’s pray.

Lord, we acknowledge this morning that all too often our hearts are disordered, our desires are disordered. Our hearts are a mess. We love things too much and we love people in wrong kinds of ways, using people rather than seeking their good. We ask you to forgive us for it.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of it, Father, is that in doing that we lose out on the fellowship, the communion with you that we could have. We seek satisfaction in the world and we abandon the satisfaction we could have in you, and we suffer for that. So we come this morning and ask you for broken hearts, we ask you for real repentance, and we ask you for fresh faith to believe the gospel, that there is grace for us, that there is mercy for us, that there is forgiveness, and that there is a reconciled relationship with you through Jesus Christ. We thank you for that.

As we come to the table this morning and we take the bread, we take the juice, we take these as emblems of the Lord’s body and blood, the one who died for us, the one who went to the cross for us and took our place, he bore the sins that we had committed. He bore their penalty, he died the death that we should have died. So we’re humbled by that, but we’re grateful for it, and we receive by faith the mercy, the grace, the salvation that is offered to us in Christ. Even as we take the bread and take the juice we do so, in our heart of hearts, taking Christ himself. May that be our heart as come to the table this morning.

Father, finally I just want to pray for anyone here who does not know Christ in a saving way, that right now you would give the gift of faith and that the person in need of salvation would turn to Christ and be saved. So work by your Spirit, we pray in Jesus’s name, Amen.