A Friend of the World Becomes an Enemy of God

Many months I was teaching a bible class at church as a part of a series on the book of James. I was working through Chapter 4 which contains a string of rapid-fire imperatives:
James 4.7-10
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Submit. Resist. Come near. Wash. Purify. Grieve. Humble yourselves.

When we read texts like this our tendency is to interpret them pietistically and individualistically. Our struggle to resist the devil, for example, is a struggle to purify our hearts in a private, spiritual battle against lust or anger or addiction.

This interpretation is reinforced by the text that comes directly before the command to "resist the devil":
James 4.4-6
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
Again, the temptation here is to interpret "friendship with the world" pietistically. The world is a place where people are sinful and we aren't to be friends with sinful people.

All in all, then, James 4.4-10 has tended to be a text read about Christian withdrawal from the world in an effort to maintain our moral purity.

But the context of James 4.4-10 is not about a private pietistic struggle. The context is about communal peace-making within the church.

The backdrop of the imperatives in James 4.4-10 starts back up in James 3.18. Here's the full context leading up to "do not be a friend of the world" and "resist the devil":
James 3.18-James 4.3
Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. 
"Friendship with God" is being a peacemaker. And "friendship with the world" is associated with violence. "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" "You desire but do not have, so you kill."

In this text "the world" isn't a place full of moral depravity. "The world" is a place where people fight and kill. And Christians aren't to be friends with fighting and killing. "The devil" is using our desires to tempt us into fighting and killing. And Christians are to resist that.

In a world of violence, quarreling, fighting and killing James is very clear:

Friendship with violence is becoming an enemy of God.

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3 thoughts on “A Friend of the World Becomes an Enemy of God”

  1. My favorite verse in James is "the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God." 1:20.

    I have always shied away from the book of James because it has been used throughout my Christian history in the manner that you said it should not be. When I heard that Luther called it an "epistle of straw" I assumed I was in good company. Maybe I can go read it now in a different light. Thanks Richard.

  2. Richard,

    Your statement a few days ago of how "empire interprets scripture", can certainly be applied to "culture" in regard to this text. Culture that is set on protecting guns, preserving the death penalty, placing the quick use of war in the hands of politicians who boast of godly "values", and revering the rich and powerful, interprets, and pretty much limits, "Friendship with the world" to sex, alcohol and drugs.

    A number of years ago many Christian youth rallies used as their slogan, "What Would Jesus Do?", focusing only on the "big three sins" listed above. Compassion, tenderness and peace were seldom topics. In fact, after having grown up in such a culture, I can relate to how the topics of compassion and peace were seen as weak and a waste of time, as having no teeth in helping Christians, especially young people, in righteous living; the hypocrisy of many adults in their preaching to the youth in regard to sex, alcohol and drugs, not withstanding.

    Nothing is as ugly in a so-called Christian culture as a hardness toward life, while limiting and reserving "compassion" for those who "think like us". "The world", as some like to call it, is pretty savvy in looking at Jesus, then taking notice as to how those who claim to follow him embrace his compassion. The little bumper sticker that says "Forgiven, not perfect" impresses no one when we remain hard and violent toward those we deem more imperfect that ourselves.

  3. I always interpreted "world" in this verse to mean material things. Essentially he is calling them out for putting possessions and social positions above spiritual matters and loving each other.

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