If you were to flip through different Bible translations and read James 4.5, you would be hard-pressed to find any that agreed with each other.
- Does God threaten to withdraw the Holy Spirit when Christians try to be friends with the anti-God-world (NASB)?
- Or does the Holy Spirit desire to serve God when Christians try to be friends with the world (NKJV, HCSB)?
- Maybe the Father himself is jealous over the adulterous people who have gone astray in Jam 4.4 (The Message)?
- Or maybe God yearns for the human spirit, and he desires that that we follow him (ESV, NIV, NLT)?
- Or . . . maybe . . . our own spirit jealously desires the world (Jam 4.4) instead of God (Lexham English Bible, Amplified Bible)?
If you’re like me, you’re already confused.
How do we make sense of James 4.5 when very few Bible translations agree with each other? Is it really that difficult to know what James is saying? Apparently, yes, it is.
In his rewarding commentary on James, William Varner presents 6 questions that comes up when reading James 4:5. A few of them are below*:
- How should the phrase “for envy” be taken? Can God ever be said to do anything “enviously”?
- Is the “yearning” seen positively or is it a sinful lusting?
- Is the “spirit” God’s Spirit or the human spirit (and is it viewed neutrally or negatively)?
- Did the original read either “he dwelt” or “he caused to dwell”? (420)
- A fifth question would be, “Where does Scripture say this? Is James quoting a specific text, or is he speaking generally?”
* I’ve taken the Greek text out for easier reading.
What is Going On Here?
In James 4.4, James rebukes his readers who have followed the wisdom of the world and who have preferred friendship with the world over friendship with and loyalty to God.
Then James brings up the Scripture which speaks to us all, and the spirit which God created in us. Varner believes that James asks two rhetorical questions. Varner says, “Such questions are not meant to search for an answer but to function as a more powerful statement” (418).
Varner translates the James 4.5a as saying, “Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks to no purpose?”
if we remove from our thinking that this is a citation from Scripture, canonical or not, and read it as a question that expects a negative answer, the answer to the question would be as follows: “No, the spirit which God has caused to dwell in us . . . does not long enviously.” In other words, God did not create man this way, i.e., with a spirit that longs enviously. This is because God is the source of only good (1:13–18). (421-422)
Of course the Scripture doesn’t speak in vain. Our good God didn’t create man with a spirit that jealously desires to be better than everyone. In fact, James 4.6 tells us what God does give, “But He gives more grace.”
We must not forget what James has told us about God earlier. God tempts no one, but we are all tempted by our own desires.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jam 1.5).
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jam 1.17).
“God is not only associated with light rather than darkness, with stability and consistency rather than with change and alteration, but (as in 1:5) with the giving of every good and perfect gift, rather than with the attitude of grasping that is characteristic of [“desire”]” (176).
So while James’ readers (which includes us) desire, covet, quarrel, and fight amongst each other, all they (and we) have to do is ask. We can come to God and ask for what is good and right. But there’s a problem. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Jam 4.3). So if I can’t go to God and get what I want, why should I ask at all?
What the “Scripture” Does Say
James’ flow of thought from 4.5-6 could be explained like this:
“Does the spirit that He has caused to dwell in us long enviously?”
Then be humble! God gives more grace. He gives you a chance to submit to him.
“God opposes proud people, but gives grace to humble ones” (Prov 3.34).
Here we have the Prouds facing off against the Humbles. If this were a football game you could already bet on the winner: the Prouds. They’re strong, they’re fast, they’re confident, and they’re not afraid to show it.
But there’s a catch here. James tells us this game is fixed. The Prouds can’t win. They won’t win because “God opposes” them. Their wisdom does not come “from above.” Instead it “is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3.15). But God does give grace to the Humbles.
In fact, the Prouds will most likely destroy themselves. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (3.16). They desire and do not have, so they murder (4.2a). What they do receive, they spend it wrongly. They spend all that they have on their passions (4.3), which give birth to sin, and when full grown, death (1.14-15).
The main message announces that “arrogant and proud people do not acknowledge their dependence on God but choose to live according to the order of the world and as enemies of God. By contrast, God gives grace to lowly people . . . who are acknowledging their dependence on God” (424).
Varner translates James 4.4-6 (below), and I’ve added some of what we talked about above and other parts of James’ to hopefully show more of James’ meaning.
You adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world means enmity with God?
Do you want to be friends with the world which will pass away (1.10), which brings death (1.15), and which when it tries to do something good, its religion is useless (1.26)? Do you want to be opposed to the God who gives every good and perfect gift (1.17)?
Therefore whoever decides to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy.
Q: Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks to no purpose?
Does the spirit that He has caused to dwell in us long enviously?
A: No, God did not create us to jealously desire for other things. To yearn over and fight with people. He created us to know him, and to humbly serve and honor him as our Father who gave us life (1.18).
But He gives more grace.
God gives more grace. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands of your sin and purify your hearts. Follow God alone (4.8). Confess your sins to him and to each other (5.16).
Therefore it says, “God opposes proud people, but gives grace to humble ones.”
If you are reading this letter, you still have a chance to submit to God. Know that you live in the last days (5.3), and that the best earthly treasures are corroded and molded in the sight of God (5.2), the Judge (4.11-12). Instead, seek wisdom from God on how to live. Be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. Make peace, and reap peace.
Varner says, “God’s people are indwelled by a spirit from God and there is no way in which that living presence is compatible with promptings of self-interest that are destructive of peace among the brothers” (426).
We the Church have been chosen (Eph 1.4) and adopted (1.5) as sons and heirs to the Father above. We were dead in our sins (2.1), we followed the course of this world (2.2), and we deserved God’s wrath (2.3). Now we are alive in Christ (2.5), created to walk in good works which God already prepared for us (2.10) who are citizens of God’s household (2.19). We are a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (2.22). Christ won the victory, and he gives gifts to his people (4.8). In the end, we will, together, all see God’s face, and his name will be on all of our foreheads (Rev 22.4).