“Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you.” So says James in 4:10. It is a teaching that is counterintuitive to our sinful nature, not only as individuals but culturally as well. We do not necessarily like bravado in others but neither do we actively believe that it is the meek who inherit the earth. There is a certain self-promotion that fuels our ambitions and characterizes the nature of our relationships. We long to be exalted, and we fear that if we do not do it then it may not be done, or at least not be done so well. We need only peruse our own social media posts to see this grim reality firsthand. James understands the human condition. He knows how pride lurks within and how it corrupts our relationships with God and others.
James proceeds to point out some of the pitfalls into which the heart, guided by sinful self-glory, can lead even believers. The first danger of which he writes is that of slander, or speaking evil against another (4:11-12). This is one of the most often mentioned sins in the Old Testament. In fact, the command to love your neighbor as yourself is the culmination of a list of sins against others (Leviticus 19:9-18) that includes a prohibition against slander (Lev. 19:16). Perhaps James had this passage in mind as he wrote to the dispersed Christians of his day. James points out the arrogance of someone who dares to speak evil against another. Such a person ignores the command to avoid slander as well as other commands to do good to others. In doing so he pridefully judges himself as above God’s law. He also seeks to stand as judge over his brother, acting as if he has the authority to save or destroy. This is self-exaltation at its worst.
He moves from there to speak of a second danger of pursuing self-glory – arrogant presumptuousness. The example he gives is somewhat general. A man presumes he will have life today, tomorrow, and into next year. He further presumes that he has the right to choose when and where he does his business. Finally, he presumes that he has the ability to achieve success in his chosen endeavor. It needs to be stated that James is not forbidding all future planning in business, family, church, or any other areas of our lives. What he is condemning, however, is the pride of presumption, entitlement, and self-determining autonomy. He points out the foolishness of such pride, for we are but a “mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (v. 14). The mist he has in mind is like that which rises up from a fresh cup of hot coffee. Its existence is relatively brief, unimpactful, and completely dependent upon another. How can the mist, which is vanishing from its “birth”, justify acting so presumptuously towards its maker? How can we do likewise? Rather, we are called to be humble, grateful people before Christ in whom we have life and purpose and value.
James argues that the believer who lives by true wisdom will show humility by acknowledging the Lord, His will not our own, as supreme in everything. Any boasting in what, when, where, and how WE will do anything apart from Him is simply sinful, arrogant presumptuousness. Instead we should learn from Christ who, knowing the Cross lay before Him, humbled Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane by praying “not My will but Yours be done.” Such is to be the humble nature of the Christian’s life. Not my will for myself but God’s be done in Christ. Not my will for my family but God’s be done in Christ. Not my will for my community, my church, my country but God’s be done in Christ.
We might speak of two aspects of God’s will. One, His decreed will or that which comes to pass. Nothing comes to be that God has not allowed, or decreed. This will is not for us to know in detail. Often times it is only seen in the moment of need or understood in hindsight. Then there is His prescribed will, which He has revealed in His Word through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Inasmuch as we study the Word prayerfully, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are made to know what is right according to the Lord. That is, His will for us. James says, if you have access to this will and you do not do it, then you arrogantly sin, presuming your will is better than His.
Praise be to God there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. While we still fall prey to our old prideful ways, in Christ we are given the grace to put our sinful arrogance to death more and more, and to increasingly live in the joy of humility before Christ.
Discuss and Pray – James 4:11-17
- 1. Consider that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father interceding for all who are His (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1). Despite all of our sin against His name, Jesus is humbly speaking good for us through His love and mercy. How does that reality produce and grow humility in you? How can that Gospel-birthed humility help change your speech to and about others?
- 2. What rights do you, in and of yourself, have before the throne of God? What does God owe to you? Life? Health? Happiness? Comfort? Wealth? (Answer both from the Biblical perspective and from the functional way in which you live)
- 3. What would be different in your life if you said more and more, “If the Lord wills, I/we will live and do this or that”? How would it affect your view of worship, discipleship, servanthood, and evangelism?
- 4. Do you believe you know and understand God’s prescribed will perfectly, or do you have a humble desire to increasingly grow in the knowledge of the “right thing to do”? Why is such a humble desire so necessary? What holds us back from that pursuit?