The Tyranny of Petty Pleasures

(Jas 4:1-10, NIV) 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.

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.”

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.

Lots of people count James as their favorite books of the Bible because he often seems so darn practical. But then we get to a passage like this—and let’s get real for a second—does anyone else feel a bit overwhelmed by it all?

With this chapter, it happens around verse 5—he says something about some kind of spirit within us and some kind of jealous longing and James just loses me. And yet he keeps on writing—sentence after sentence keeps washing over me—but it starts to sound like every adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon. (By the end I’m hearing, like, every third word—wa, wa—submit—wa, wa—purify—wa, wa—devil—wa, wa—gloom.)

For a book that rides the reputation of “being practical” James doesn’t read like an article on Or even better than eHow is YouTube. Who has ever looked up how to do something on YouTube? A few years ago I looked up how to replace a brake light bulb, and there were—seriously—like 10 videos for the make and model of our car. 

But not all of those “How-To” videos are created equal. Some really need to work on their camera work, some assume that you know more than you do, some skip entire sections of steps. If the letter of James were YouTubing step-by-step advice on following Jesus, we would probably type below in the comments:

“Whoa slow down, James—LOL. You’re giving us a whole lot of what to do—submit—purify—resist the devil—but can you tell us a bit more how to do it?”

But I actually don’t think practical advice is always what James is trying to communicate. Despite his reputation, James is often aiming to move our hearts as well as our hands. I certainly think that’s what is happening here. As chapter 4 begins, James isn’t trying to drive us to action; James is trying to drive us to our knees.

James risks overwhelming us with wave after wave of words because he’s aiming to move our hearts. Some scholars argue that right here, we’re reaching the emotional climax of the letter. This is the heart of what James wants his hearers to hear.

He starts really broad in verses 1-3 by talking about how devastated the world is. Do you know where “wars” and “battles” come from? Most translations—including the NIV right here—use words like “fights” and “quarrels.” But I feel like that kind of trivializes what James is saying—it sound a bit like annoyances and squabbles. Like we’re talking about why arguments start people pick on each other? What he’s saying certainly includes that but it’s more along the lines of: “You wanna know why bombs drop and people shoot each other?”

The words he uses are literally the words for “combat” and “wars.” (It’s the word Jesus uses when he talks about “wars and rumors of wars.”) James says wars wind up raging on the outside because of a war raging on the inside. “Hēdonē” is waging war with your body. Ever heard of hedonism? It what we call like a wild, crazy, unchecked pursuit of pleasure. “Hēdonē” is where we get the word. There are all kinds of desires for pleasure battling within us—and within everybody—from priests with collars to generals with tanks. We all desire and hunger for pleasures and experiences and sensations that we don’t have… and eventually if these desires go uncontrolled, they lead us violence.

This brokenness of desire is deeply engrained within humanity, and we see it in the most ancient stories of Scripture. The first couple is hungering for divine wisdom and breaking the world by seizing it for themselves. The first son, Cain, is longing for divine favor he does not have and murders his brother, Abel. Esau is ravenous to satisfy his cravings and abandons his birthright for food.

But it makes perfect sense that in a broken world we would struggle with pleasure because we were made for pleasure. We were made for the limitless pleasure of partnership with God. James calls it “friendship with God” in chapter 2. And “friendship” in the ancient world was breathtakingly significant. It meant something like “seeing the world the same way someone else sees it.”

And how does God see the world? Well, it brings him pleasure. I mean, have you read the Bible’s opening creation poem? Almost every other line involves God taking pleasure in what been created—like a chef taking tastes as he cooks. (Oooo… that’s good. Oh man—it’s good.) Seven times we’re told how good, good, very good creation is to its Creator. 

As that opening chapter of the Bible ends it says that God creates humanity to… Do you know what? To rule. To reign. To partner with him. The delighting God who takes pleasure in creation wants to share existence—to give away life—to empower others. God desires that we would experience the jaw-dropping pleasure of smell and taste, and space and time, and sex and salsa—the sound of laughter, the feel of fresh laundry, and the smell of freshly cut grass. That’s just who God is. God orders the world and wants us to enjoy it. 

And then the closing chapter of the Bible says that humanity will do what with God….? We will rule. We will reign. We partner with him. God is so good, so powerful, so sovereign that God’s end-goal is to share his sovereignty with us. God intends for us to partner with him in his pleasure and delight—enjoying his creation and him.

But then every page of the Bible in between those chapters reminds us how our built-in capacity for pleasure and delight can and does go horribly off-course. 

An author named Garret Keizer puts it this way:

The God of Genesis is characterized in part by the pleasure he takes in what he has made. ‘And God saw that it was good.’ The worldview of the envious – and to a certain extent, of the lustful and [greedy] too – runs counter to God’s vision. Nothing they see is good, or good enough, or else nothing they see is enough of the good. In other words, you can never please them, which is as good a definition as you may get of what it means to be damned.”

The problem, as Christians see it, is NOT with pleasure in itself. We believe that God is pleased—God takes pleasure—and that God’s goal is to share pleasure with us. The problem is that we’re living in a world where our desires have become disordered and petty pleasures hold power over us. Our desiring is misfiring. And the pursuit of pleasure holds absolute power. 

Think about the things we chase… the big three: sex, money, or power. Or maybe affirmation, or relationships, or beauty, or security, or comfort. The problem is NOT in those things, as such—God is a good Creator and everything he has made is good.

Most of the time, we’re hungering for something good and right—a certain kind of opportunity, a certain sense of fulfillment, a certain kind of future—and the problem comes in what we’re doing with that hunger. Very often, we wind up trying to seize them like fruit from a tree that doesn’t belong to us. We don’t recognize the good already given to us. Or we want someone else’s good. Or we want need more and more of the good. We crown the pursuit of a certain pleasure as king, not realizing: When pleasure sits on the throne, pleasure becomes a tyrant. When we allow the pursuit of pleasure to rule our lives, the pursuit of pleasure eventually destroys our lives.

And this isn’t just something that happens to “them”—“out there”—someone else—this is true for us—the people of God. That’s why James calls us all “adulteresses” in verse 4. The NIV says “adulterous people” but the word is indisputably female. This is ancient Israel language.

The prophets of ancient Israel would sometimes call Israel “harlot” or “adulteress,” and sometimes say things that you absolutely should not say in polite company and absolutely cannot say in a family service… and all because that was the heart of the matter for them. These people were not living as themselves.

According to Genesis 12, the people of God—the family of Abraham—had been called to receive blessing so they could restore blessing.

(Gen 12:1-3) The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

The family of Abraham was meant to have the pleasure of partnering with God—of bringing blessing to a world that fallen sick to sin. But there are long stretches in Israel’s history (most of it really), where Israel isn’t bringing blessing. They’ve stepped out on God. They weren’t bringing peace or love or justice or order. They weren’t helping bless or order the world—they were just joining in the chaos, allowing the tyrant of petty pleasures to destroy them. 

This isn’t just ancient history. We all know this experience of NOT living as God as made us to live. We know what it’s like to NOT live in our deepest identity. To NOT live as our truest selves. To live a lie. To become a walking contraction.

And this is actually the point that James is making in verse 5. You remember that strange verse about “spirit” where the passage starts going all Charlie Brown on me? There are over 450 English translations of the Bible, and if you start comparing them, they go in a dozen different directions right here. I don’t say this very often, but I think the good old King James may actually render it best:

(4.5, KJV) Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?

Scholars are pretty certain that James isn’t talking about God being zealous after us because the particular Greek word here—the “envy” or jealousy” or “lust”—is always a sinful thing. This would literally be the only place that this word gets used of God. I think James is asking them the same kind of obviously crazy question that he was asking in chapter 3:

(3.11-12, NIV) Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

In effect, he’s asking: Do you foolishly think that Scripture teaches the insane idea that God gives us life—grants us spirit—breathes breath into us—so that we can waste it on pleasures that kill us? Whatever is going on in us that looks like untamed hunger and ache and envy and lust… That’s NOT God’s Spirit. That’s NOT even the human spirit. Whatever that is, it’s a lie. It’s a contradiction. That’s NOT who you were made to be.  Even that “pleasure” you’re finding isn’t true pleasure.

But—thank God—(v6) God gives us more grace. And then James—true to the spirit of wisdom—goes on to hold a proverb before us:

(4v6) God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble. 

Do you want to know why God opposes the proud? Because that’s what it looks like for God to love the proud. God is against us to whatever extent that we have become against us.

All of us have felt this in our bones at some point. Maybe you’re there tonight. You feel like a walking contradiction—that you’ve lived the lie so long—that you feel torn apart by desires and hungers and passions and pleasures. Know this: God is working against your cheating with all his might… and he’s doing it so that you can be whole. Because even against us, God is always for us.

And we see this (of course) supremely in James’s brother by blood, Jesus. Jesus shows us that even when we’ve become the worst—the deepest contradictions of what we were made to be—God himself is extending love to us. Even when we’re reaching out to murder God, God is reaching out to make us whole. 

What we’ve been trying to say tonight is… You were made for better pleasures than the pleasures killing you. And the way to life is way of the cross. You don’t stay double-minded (v8)—torn down the middle—falling apart. You don’t have to keep living the lie and dying from petty pleasures. We have to—no joke—be willing to partner with God and take up a cross. And shouldering it is one thing, but we’ve also got to be willing to carry it. 

Almost everything important that God wants to do in our lives involves time and patience and our partnership. From cover-to-cover in Scripture, that’s the priority. God’s priority has never been efficiency; God’s priority is partnership. Maybe God isn’t snapping his fingers to change things quickly because God loves the change of hearts that only happens slowly. 

…and that sometimes feels like crucifixion. 

But can I tell you the gospel this evening? God is close to the crucified because God is one of the crucified. God has chosen to partner with us in our pain so that we can partner with him in his pleasure. God has chosen to die in our sin so we can live in his satisfaction.

James is right though—we have to live on our knees. Humility is where you’re going to find stability. Do you want freedom from darkness? It means getting vulnerable and coming into the light. Vulnerability is where you’re going to find security. It feels like that step may be off a cliff—it may feel only downward—like you’re risking getting really low. But we’ve got risk getting low if we’re going to be lifted up.

It may look like a season of things getting harder before they get better (v9) of weeping before you see laughter again—of gloom coming before the dawn. The crucified don’t stay dead. Easter is coming. So get low. Get vulnerable. Allow Jesus to dethrone whatever is killing you and to fill you afresh with hope.

This world is beautiful—there’s more to live for than you can imagine. 

God is going you lift you up.