As we continue our James series, This Is the Life, I invite you to open your Bible to James 4:1-10.
Well, I think it’s worked. Long about the end of the 70s, American culture fell in love with self-esteem. The self-esteem cult creeped into education, advertising, and sports. This is the …
- “You’re special”
- quit keeping score
- everybody gets a trophy
- feelings are paramount so don’t hurt them
- politically correct language
- no spanking
- I’m entitled
- the ad pitch: “You deserve this, and you deserve this now”
- inane social media posts about my perfect family and where I happen to check in at any given time because I’m special and everyone wants to know
- oh, and I need to take another selfie and post that because people just don’t see enough of my pretty face.
(Yeah, I know, maybe we should have installed barf bags in the pews this morning.) Anyway, it’s worked.
In 2010, David Brooks posted a column in the New York Times online edition called “The Modesty Manifesto.” He’s as sick as some of the rest of us are of the unmitigated, unwarranted pride and self-worship that runs rampant in our culture. He cites some articles and studies on the matter to make his case. Listen to a few snippets from the column …
We’re an overconfident species. Ninety-four percent of college professors believe they have above-average teaching skills. A survey of high school students found that 70 percent of them have above-average leadership skills and only 2 percent are below average.
College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as “I am easy to like” than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.
I wonder if the rise of consumption and debt is in part influenced by people’s desire to adorn their lives with the things they feel befit their station. I wonder if the rise in partisanship is influenced in part by a narcissistic sense that, “I know how the country should be run and anybody who disagrees with me is just in the way.”
David Brooks is just asking for a little modesty. I’m afraid nobody’s listening.
The Bible has a name for this anything-but-modest attitude: sinful pride. The church fathers considered pride (Latin—superbia; Greek—hubris) the first and chief of the seven deadly sins. Sinful pride is an excessive view of oneself without regard to God, to others, or to facts.
Here’s a classic example: just a week ago Saturday, Tennessee went to Alabama to play football. Bama was up 28-0 in the third quarter and poised to score another touchdown when Alabama’s second-string quarterback threw an interception to Tennessee defensive back Daniel Bituli. Bituli returned that interception 97-yards for a Tennessee touchdown. And after he crossed the goal line, another Tennessee player, Rashaan Gaulden, flipped off the Bama crowd with both hands. You know, “Take that, Bama fans!” Dude didn’t even score but he flipped off the crowd. Bama won 45-7. Is it safe to say Gaulden had an excessive view of himself, an exaggerated sense of his self-importance, without regard to God or to others or to facts? We can give him this: he was a stand-up guy and apologized for his actions after the game. But you know where that impulse came from: sinful pride.
This is I-disease—as in capital I—of the worst order. It causes trouble. It gets in the way of our relationship with God and with others. It is blind to basic facts. And God can’t stand it. I-disease is a biggie in the Bible. It’s part of what got Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden of Eden. Proverbs repeatedly condemns it. Jesus condemns it. Both Old Testament and New are laced with stories of I-disease run amok and the price arrogant people pay when it does.
You didn’t think James was going to let us skate on this one, did you? As we’ve discovered, James is less like a love letter and more like a summons. It’s a call to quit playing around and live the Christian life. Few things get in the way of a healthy Christian life like sinful pride—I-disease. And in our text, James diagnoses it by its symptoms and writes a prescription. I invite you to join me as we take our medicine in the word of the Lord … (read the text).
This is what I-disease looks like …
It looks like conflict. James asks, “What is the source of wars and fights among you?” (v. 1). It’s selfish pride. A battle rages on the inside to push for personal preferences and pleasures. It’s the “I want what I want” mentality. So if you and I don’t want the same thing, “wars and fights.” Churches in James’ day, churches in ours, have been torn apart by such battles:
- I want hymns / Hymns are old and stupid—I want the new praise choruses
- I want pews / I want chairs
- I want a multi-cultural church / I want people who look like me
- I want to keep my Connect Group room. This has always been my Connect Group room. I’ve got it decorated just the way I want it. / But that growing class of 20 needs that larger room more than your class of 4. / But it’s my room!
And there it goes. Somebody starts pounding the war drums. Murderous speech is directed toward those with whom one disagrees. It’s not about us; it’s only about me. It’s not about the kingdom of God; it’s about the kingdom of me.
You get the idea. Lurking in the shadows, or even standing out in clear view, selfish pride and personal preference ignite and fuel most church wars: “I know best. I am right. I want what I want. And if I don’t get it, put up your dukes! I’m going to go after you. I’m going to act like a whiny baby and spoil it for everyone else.” Selfish pride is an IED in every church. It’s here. But we don’t always see where it’s hidden, and we can’t predict when it might explode and who it’s going to maim. But it’s here. Sooner or later something ignites selfish pride, and BOOM—“wars and fights.” I-disease looks like conflict.
I-disease looks like no prayer: “you do not have because you do not ask” (v. 2). F. B. Meyer said, “The greatest tragedy in life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” Sometimes we don’t offer prayer because of our pride. Prayer humble us. It reminds us of our neediness, our dependence, our frailty. Many of us would prefer to think of ourselves as strong and independent. There’s something a little charming when a 5-year-old pushes your hand away as he tries to tie his shoes: “I can do it by myself.” But there’s nothing charming about saying that to God. It smacks of arrogance. Sometimes it is our attempt to play God, to pretend we are God. I heard Robert Smith say in a sermon one time: “When I became a Christian, the Trinity did not become a quartet.” There is one God. I am not God. You are not God. Only God is God, and every person in the world stands beneath him and in need of him. Sinful pride gets in the way. I-disease looks like no prayer: “I can do it by myself.”
I-disease looks like selfish prayer: “You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (v. 3). This is less prayer to God and more talking to ourselves. This is God as an Amazon warehouse clerk: you one-click your order, the clerk fills your order, and you get it in two days. This is God as vending machine: put in your dollar, make your selection—E-4, and it drops into the bin. “Lord, please give me a boat.” “Lord, help my team win.” “Lord, smite the girl who’s trying to steal my boyfriend.” “Lord, help my yard look better than my neighbor’s.” Selfish prayer. This is way beyond, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Way beyond prayer for the necessities of life. This is prayer that is all about me and my wants.
The late Pam Stockburger, a sweet lady and one of our members, was her mother’s caregiver. Her mother was rarely kind to her and was as obstinate and stubborn as an ornery mule. One morning, her mother claimed she couldn’t raise her arms and wanted Pam to take off her pajama top for her. Yet Pam said that when she left the room she could hear her mother lifting and flailing her arms, which of course her mother denied. Finally, Pam told her, “Mom I’m going to go to make my bed. While I do, why don’t you take time to pray and ask God to give you the strength and ability to lift your arms, so I can help you.”
As Pam went to her own room to make her bed, she heard her mother’s voice across the hall, praying, “Dear Lord God, heavenly Father, make Pam do what I want her to do!” Pam buried her head in her pillow so her mother wouldn’t hear her laughing out loud.
After composing herself, Pam finished her chore and went back to her mother’s room and very seriously asked her mother if she had prayed. Her mother said, “Yes.” So Pam asked her, “Well, mother, did you pray for the right thing?” To which her mother quickly replied, “I think I did.” I-disease looks like selfish prayer.
I-disease looks like friendship with the world. “You adulterous people!” shouts James in v. 4—yeah, adulterous: they’re dumping God to chase the world. “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God.” This is the envious spirit that says, “I don’t trust God to look for my best interests or to know my needs. I’m going to tend to that myself. I’m going to let the world tell me what I need. I’m going to let culture dictate what matters in life and how I’m going to live it.” And culture is pretty clear about its message here: “You are number one! You matter most. Forget God’s dream for your life; chase the American dream. Chase your own dream. Get all you can. Can all you get. And sit on the can. One-up your neighbor every chance you get. And whatever you do, look good doing it because image is everything.” I-disease. It’s all about me. It looks like friendship with the world and it’s adultery against God.
I-disease. James shows us what it looks like.
And he tells us that God won’t stand for it.
Look at v. 6. James dips into the Proverbs and pulls out this text: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” You want to be an enemy to God? Then you better put on your big boy pants, snap on your chin strap, and get ready for fight. “God resists the proud.” The word resists is a strong word. It carries the sense of fighting against. This is not a picture of God reaching out his long arm, putting his hand on your forehead to keep you out of range while you flail away at him with empty hooks and jabs striking nothing but air. And all the while God is amused at what amounts to a flea picking a fight with an elephant. That is not the picture here. When you puff up with selfish pride, God is not amused—at least not in a merry-go-round way. And God doesn’t just keep you at distance. God resists you, opposes you. God fights back. And he will humble you.
Psalm 2 provides a picture of God’s posture when nations rise up against him. Listen to some of that psalm.
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand,
and the rulers conspire together
against the Lord and his Anointed One:
“Let’s tear off their chains
and throw their ropes off of us.”
The one enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord ridicules them.
Then he speaks to them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath:
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
If God can humble an accumulation of arrogant nations for their selfish pride, God can certainly humble you. My experience in the times God has humbled me and in the times I’ve watched him humble others is that God resists the proud by kicking their props out from under them—a job, a house, a reputation, a family. God exposes our weakness and our neediness.
Don’t you bow up against God. God won’t stand for it and you cannot win that battle. You remember Proverbs 16:18? “Pride comes before destruction,
and an arrogant spirit before a fall.” God will not stand for I-disease. “God resists the proud … but—and here’s the good news …
God gives grace to the humble.” In vv. 7-10, James writes God’s grace prescription for I-disease that can make us well. It’s two words: humble yourself. That’s the name of your medicine. And James provides the directions for how you swallow it down. He’s firm in these directions because there are 10 imperatives—10 commands—in vv. 7-10. Proud people don’t like to be bossed around. James understands this, so he bosses proud people around—10 imperatives.
The first direction is, “Submit to God.” To submit means to stand in proper rank. You willingly and joyfully place yourself under the direction of God. Turn your life over to God. Submission says, “I am no longer the boss of me; God is the boss of me.” Submission says, “My rights don’t come first; God’s will comes first.” This is no easy step for someone stricken with I-disease. But if you don’t make this step on your own, God will make that step for you. Don’t force God’s hand. Submit yourself to God.
Next direction: “resist the devil.” The devil loves to use your pride to drive a wedge between you and God. Resist him. Once you’ve submitted to God, you can resist the devil in God’s strength rather than your own. That’s important. You don’t intimidate the devil in the least. Jesus does. Someone put it this way: “The devil knocks at the door. When I let pride answer, the devil comes in and gets free run of the place. When I let Jesus answer, the devil runs like a scared cat.” Resist the devil.
Next direction: “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” Pride digs a chasm between God and us. When we humble ourselves we build a bridge across that chasm and have a path to draw near. And when we do, God doesn’t play hard to get. God doesn’t act like the spurned lover who gives you the cold shoulder as some sort of payback for your drifting from him. “I’m trying to humble myself and draw near to God but God won’t answer and won’t return my calls.” Nor does God take advantage of the opportunity to dig at you, “Oh, so now you want to draw near. Then get down on your knees and crawl.” Nope—no games with God. You draw near to God, God draws near to you. Remember the waiting father who raced down the road to meet his humbled, broken, returning prodigal son? That father is God. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. He’ll beat you to the spot. Draw near.
These next directions show us what drawing near looks like. It looks like repentance: “Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Repentance—which means turning from sin toward God—is “both hands and heart, actions and attitude, behavior and mindset. Repentance of attitude without change of conduct is no repentance at all.” Repent!
And it’s okay to mourn in the process. Listen to James in v. 9: “Be miserable and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” This is godly grief, good grief that leads to healing. When’s the last time you wept over your sins? When was the last time you took your sin seriously? Our sin of pride separates us from God. It is an affront to his love, an offense to his holiness, a rebuke of His grace, and full-blown coup against his lordship. That’s how pride gets in the way of our relationship to God. People with I-disease don’t mourn their pride. They take this posture: “So I’m a sinner. So what? Everybody is. At least I’m not as bad a sinner as that guy over there or that lady two pews back.” Which is kind of like saying, “Everybody poops but my poop doesn’t stink—or at least it doesn’t stink as bad as the guy in the next stall.” “Newsflash,” says James. “It stinks every bit as bad.” No wonder James commands us to “be miserable, mourn and weep. Quit laughing and start crying over your sin.” Take your sin seriously. God does. How dare you laugh it off as no big deal! Your sin—your pride—crucified the only perfect man who ever lived, Jesus Christ the Lord. Jesus died to forgive your selfish pride, to heal your I-disease, and to bring you into relationship with him.
So “humble yourselves before the Lord,” James concludes, “and he will exalt you.” The only way up is down. Taste godly grief over your sin. God calls you to do this. But God won’t leave you there. He won’t leave you in the crying and the mourning and the gloom. He will exalt you. He will put a song of joy in your heart over his salvation and grace. Grief over sin and joy over salvation strikes the perfect balance for a Christian. This is what keeps us humble.
- Isaiah 66:2 reminds us that God “will look favorably on the one who is humble, submissive in spirit.”
- Jesus declared in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:3-4). Blessed is more than a throwaway word or spiritual jargon. It means “supremely happy.”
Sorrow for your sin, joy for Jesus’ grace and salvation, keeps before you the reality of who you are and who Jesus is. That balance makes us humble. Striking that balance—some of which depends on us (“humble yourselves before the Lord”) and some of which depends on God (“and he will exalt you”)—is the prescription that cures every trace of I-disease. Not only does it cure it, it prevents it from coming back again and again and again. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Nobody understood that balance better than that old slave-trader John Newton. Proud, self-serving, human-trafficking to line his own pockets, John Newton came to Christ and was transformed from head to toe. His mourning over his sins became songs of joy the church still sings today. His most famous one:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
At the end of his life, Newton said to a friend, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
We sure are and he sure is: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Preached: October 29, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II