Divided loyalty toward God is like adultery against one's spouse. James 4:4-6 reads, “You adulterers! Don't you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. What do you think the Scriptures mean when they say that the spirit God has placed within us is filled with envy? But he gives us even more grace to stand against such evil desires.” As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.”
Friendship with the world's values makes us enemies of God. (This does not mean we are not to cultivate relationships with non-Christians.) The only trouble is that friendship with the world is so “normal" we just naturally go along with our inclinations without thinking about it. Pleasing God is often a matter of going uphill or swimming upstream, and neither task comes easily or automatically to us.
Actually, what often happens is that many people try to have both worlds. They try to love God and do their own will. Judas Iscariot tried both worlds; and Simon Peter, for a long time wanted both, as did the rich young ruler (Luke 18:23). James says this is impossible. Being responsible to God means being His servant totally—body, mind and spirit—for His employ and for His glory.
Verse 5 is more than a bit problematic but roughly means, “Do you think Scripture is fooling when it says 'God jealously wants us for His own'?” Scholars disagree over what specific Scripture passage James is referring to. Some have suggested that it might be “a poetical rendering” of Exodus 20:5. On the other hand, James may be merely invoking a broad truth rather than citing a particular verse. In any case, the point is that God is not playing games; He wants us for His own and is giving us the grace to follow Him. The only question is whether we are humble ourselves enough to ask for His help.
How does God help? We may be surprised by James's answer: God gives us more grace. Grace! It's a word not always associated with this apostle, but James loved grace. Having rained bad news upon bad news, shaming sinners into contrition, he suddenly steps back and lets the clouds lift.
Grace! Verse 6 comes like a songbird in the midst of a ruthless, driving windstorm. The thunder is still very much in the picture—we can still feel its shock waves—but fresh grace now breaks through. Paraphrasing Proverbs 3:34, James says that God gives grace to the humble and lowly.
He goes on to say, “So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.” James 4: 7-10.
James has now made an important turn in emphasis. In these verses he doesn't harp on what is wrong, but tells what to do. He becomes a spiritual coach, a friend, a strong ally. Formulating a strong Jewish-Christian definition of repentance, he outlines what a sinner or wayward believer should do to regain friendship with God.
That appeal is emotional, yet rational. Note the colorful language James employs. We are to take action: Submit to God, resist the devil. If we will come near to God, He will come near to us. What! Are we hesitating? We should wash our hands and purify our hearts. Only the double-minded hesitate. And we should be emotionally involved in what we are doing. Mere cold performance of the right ritual isn't enough. Our actions should be accompanied by genuine grief and mourning. Our casual attitude should be changed to one of seriousness and gloom. But when we have done all this, in sincerity, God will lift us up. He “gives grace to the humble.”
Verses 7-10 bear close resemblance to Levitical purification rites. For example, the cleansing of hands was ritualistically prescribed under the law, and mourning was an official act of penitence, often done literally in sackcloth and ashes. The emotional aspect of Jewish worship wasn't neglected either. James's reference to “your joy” turning “to gloom” is reminiscent of the many emotional turns in the Psalms, where, in one moment, David is exalted and in the next he is on the border of despair.
Surely, James's conclusion gives the sought-after assurance: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”