A Conversation with James

One of the enjoyable things about the biblical epistles is the occasional conversation that almost reads as if the reader’s inter-monologue is involved and necessary for the epistle to move forward. The writer is thinking in advance of what the hearer/reader may say next and then addresses that matter right in step with a moving conversation. James has sections of his Epistle of the same name that read like just such a conversation.

As James moves toward the conclusion of his letter to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, he shifts his attention to division among the Body, specifically things that divide and cause disorder among the local church (James 3:16). He opens the next section of his letter—which was later numbered as chapter 4—with a question. In what follows, you almost get the feeling that James is anticipating the conversation that would play out if he were having this discussion with his audience in person. And what is fun about James 4:1-12 is that we easily slip into this conversation if we allow ourselves to do so.

By taking the text and inserting our lines, we get a more complete picture. But please remember, our lines are not authoritative or inspired. We may be wrong as we think about James’ epistle. But it may also help us to see James’ argument with a little more clarity. (The biblical text will be bold for this exercise and my dialogue will be italicized. James's lines are taken from the ESV.)

James: What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? (4:1a)

Reader: Well, I think some of our fighting in church has to do with some minor theological differences. Some of us are Calvinists and some are Armenians and we have trouble getting along.  And then there are some who see the Spiritual gifts as operative today and some that just don't.  Some think seminary is necessary for the ministry and others argue against it.  Some think learning the biblical languages is helpful and some say it's a waste of time.  Oh, and we fight over how involved to be with our denomination.   And some among our church think church is about fun and activities while others want to learn and spend more time in study and meditation.  We have arguments about music choice, hymns versus contemporary music, and especially volume.  And do we do missions for reasons of justice, mercy, or the proliferation of the gospel?  We argue about that.  We also argue about the purpose of community groups.  And what really gets me is that it seems some of our church body is more about consuming while we have a small group that's doing everything.  Oh, and commitment levels; don't get me started with commitment levels. . . . 

James, (Cutting the person off after listening for a while): Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? (4:1b)

Reader:   What? What do you mean?  

James:   You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.  (4:2a)

Reader: That's a little extreme, don't you think.  I mean, it's not like we're murdering anybody.  But you might be right about some of our quarrels.  It would be nice if we had more resources and maybe if we did, we wouldn't fight as much. 

James: You do not have because you do not ask. (4:2b)

Reader: No, that's not it because I pray all the time.  I'm always asking God for the things I want. 

James: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (4:3)

Reader, (Wrestling with James' hard indictment): Well. . . . Doesn't God want to bless the Church?  And I would think God would want me to have some good things in this life.  I mean, if he really loves us wouldn't he want us to be wealthy and in good health, and wouldn't that would help us spread the gospel.  We should be able to enjoy life like our neighbors, right? How is that asking wrongly? And when we do get to do the things our neighbors do, we get to know them and can tell them about Jesus.  Seriously, I ask for more money so I can be generous.  That doesn't seem so bad.  If I just had more money, I could be generous and serve Jesus better.  And maybe if we had a nicer church and a better softball team, more people would come and hear about God.  I know if God would give us more money for our youth program we'd have lots of people at our church because people make choices based on how happy their teen-agers are.  What's wrong with asking for that?  Why wouldn't God want to give us more money so we can do more?  How is this praying wrongly?  Isn't this what God desires for me and the church I attend?  

James: 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.  (4:4)

Reader: An enemy of God? Why, because we want God and we want our passions fulfilled?  What? How is that unreasonable? Doesn't God want me to be happy?

James, (Picking up intensity): 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." (4:5-6a)

Reader: I know, God loves me and has a plan for me--I hear it all the time.  But what you're saying is that I'm cheating on God with the world but God wants all of me and I can't have what I want?  What next, I should repent, right?  You believe that will make me okay with God?  And then that will make me happy. . . is that what you're saying?

James: Submit yourselves 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.  (4:7-8)

Reader (Smiling):   Sure, I can do that.  I'll repent.  Piece of cake.  And then I'll be happy and have what I want?

James: Be wrenched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:9-10)

Reader: Okay, I get it.  I'll take this more seriously.  This is what I need to do, and our church too?  And that's it?  You think this will cause less quarrels and fighting?  If we repent and turn from our own passions and idolatry, we'll have more unity? 

James: Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.  The one who speaks against a brother of judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.  But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (4:11)

Reader: Oh, there's more?  But now that you mention it, gossip is a big part of our disunity. But I don't understand how this is judging the law? 

James:  There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.  But who are you to judge your neighbor?  

* Photo by Tracy Byrnes. Register under a Creative Commons license.