The Devil Made Me Do It
The Devil Made Me Do It
Text: James 4:1-12
Some of you are old enough to remember some of the earlier comedians. We remember Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Jonathan Winters, Shecky Greene, Jackie Gleason, and the musical comedy of Spike Jones. They were replaced by the denizens of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. One regular on that program who eventually had his own show was Flip Wilson. If you remember him, you may recall his alter-ego, Geraldine Jones, the sassy Southern girl. You may remember Geraldine saying things like, “When you’re hot, you’re hot. When you’re not, you’re not.” Or, “what you see is what you get.” And this one, “The devil made me do it.” That last was the excuse for all sorts of mischief, and not just for Geraldine. We heard a lot of people begin to use that as their excuse, too.
Now, before we get too far, we need to back up and remember to whom James was writing. His opening lines include the address of his intended recipients: To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations. And he refers to them frequently as my brothers. Modern translations render that word as “brothers and sisters,” which I think is actually harmful, but they are trying to make the point that the Greek word is generic and includes all believers, men and women. But what we need to understand is that James is writing to the Church. He’s writing to Christians.
This is vital for understanding this particular section. It is far too easy, as we read this, to suppose that James is talking about society, about sinners. He writes about desire, ambition, discord, fighting and killing, and we think that he must have been talking about the world around us.
No, James was writing to the Church. He’s writing to saints, to believers, to followers of Jesus. He’s not writing about sin in society; he’s writing about sin in the Body of Christ. We need to pay attention because he’s writing about us. These words are addressed to the church. James was writing to a church in crisis.
There’s another part of the context that we shouldn’t miss here. It’s context that is mentally separated from us by the chapter divisions. James has just been talking about the distinction between worldly wisdom, fueled by ambition and jealousy, and the wisdom that comes from God, characterized by purity, peace, good manners, mercy, and honesty. Worldly wisdom, the so-called wisdom of the culture, is characterized by selfishness and discord. All you need to do is look at what kinds of things are taken to our courts. People don’t get their way, so they fill a lawsuit. Somebody does something they don’t like, so they sue. The secular courts are clogged with people trying to get their way. It doesn’t seem to matter if actual harm has been done. All that’s necessary is the perception of harm. James wants the church to focus instead on the kind of wisdom that comes from heaven, the kind of wisdom that is fair, honest, and the goal of which is actual peace in society. True wisdom seeks righteousness in a climate of peace.
And then (James did not write chapters) he goes on to talk about the kinds of quarrels and fights that were - and are - going on in the church, between believers, perhaps even between groups of believers. I hear James beginning here with a rather shocked question: What causes fights and quarrels among you? Why are you fighting amongst yourselves?
And if you make the connection with the bit about wisdom, you can see James answering by charging the church with worldliness: Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? There are a couple things that we need to see here.
One, the “you” is plural. It is a battle in the church, not within the individual. However, we need to understand that the battles between us begin with the battles within us. Second, the word we translate “battle”, is also translated “soldiering”. It is a word that refers to troops drawn up for battle. This is people choosing up sides, picking favorites, arming themselves for conflict. And third, the word translated “desires” in the NIV is the word hedonon (©donän) from which comes the word hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure, what feels good to us rather than what is good. It is the feeling that stimulates gluttony, sexual license. It also has to do with a lack of restraint. It’s the “I want ...” that drives ambition, jealousy, and ultimately, moral anarchy. I can do whatever I want and you can’t tell me what to do. And, James reminds us, it was happening in the church. Your conflict comes from your desire for pleasure at any cost. You fight because you want what you want.
You desire but do not have, so you kill. This is a different word for desire, and we might translate it as lust - you long for, you eagerly desire to possess, and in some contexts this has a sexual connotation. It is shocking to us - or should be - that James charges here that there may have been actual murder within the church in these fights. There is, at the very least, an intense rage that may lead to murder. It ought to bring us to our knees that this sort of anger might be manifest in the Body of Christ. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight in violation of both the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ own command to love one another. You do not have because you do not ask God. In fact, I would add to James’ thought here by suggesting that such quarrels happen in the church because we’re not even thinking of God. God is the farthest thing from our minds in those situations, because it’s not about what God wants, but what we want.
And when you do ask, James says, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. There’s that word again, hedonism – it’s all about pleasure, about what feels good, about what I want. The wrong motive is that you want what you want, not what God wants. It’s reflected in selfish prayers when, for example, we pray that we will win the lottery “in Jesus’ name”, while you’re thinking of all the things you might buy with that money. It’s not really about Jesus at all, is it? Churches sometimes pray that way, not about the lottery necessarily, but about things that make them look good, help them compete with the mega-church down the road, or give them prominence in the community.
James accused the church of adultery, of trying to be friends with the world rather than friends with God. We want to have our cake and eat it, too, as the old saying goes. We want to be godly and worldly at the same time. I have talked to you several times about the Barna studies that show how little difference there is in morality between the world and the church. By just about any measure, the church is practically indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. But we want to proclaim that we represent Christ. Listen, we can’t have it both ways. We have to choose one or the other. Because there is no such thing as a “worldly Christian.” You are one, or the other.
What does God want? What is God’s deepest desire for his Church. James says that God “yearns with jealousy” that his Holy Spirit might dwell in, occupy, possess, and control the Church. He gave real blood to make the people holy (Hebrews 13:12). He addresses the Church as holy ones. He wants the Church to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, a people called out of darkness into his light (1 Peter 2:9). Peter declared that God is patient with you, plural, you, the Church, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). James responds that God gives us more grace.
God loves the church, gave himself up for her, desires to present her to himself at the wedding supper of the Lamb as a glorious church without spot or wrinkle or any blemish (see Ephesians 5:25-27). He calls us by a name we do not yet deserve, he describes us as what he desires us to be. What grace is that! He does not call us what we are, but what he wants us to be. He places us in a holy place and calls us to live up to our new name. He creates us anew (2 Corinthians 5:17) and invites us to live into that new creation. The call to the church is a call to every part of the church, and for the church to be holy, we, individually, must be holy. We must belong to God. For the Holy Spirit to dwell in the church, he must dwell in each of us.
And we must make it about Him. It’s no longer about us, our ambitions, our pride, our pleasures, what we like or don’t. God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. And remember that attribute of godly wisdom - it is submissive (James 3:17). It recognizes that I don’t know it all; that there are those who are wiser than I; that wisdom comes from God, not from me. That is humility. And the humble, the submissive, accept that God is God and I am not, and receive God’s favor with gratitude. So, James says, to correct the problem, Submit yourselves to God.
This is actually one sentence, a poetic couplet: Submit yourselves to God; resist the devil and he will flee from you; Come close to God and he will come close to you.
James calls the church to repentance. But not to the sort of repentance that simply tries to sweep the past under the rug. We should acknowledge the depth of our corporate sin, that we have mis-represented God to the world, that we have cared more about the world than about God, that we have not only compromised with sin outside the Body, but we have brought it into the Body. And so, James uses drastic, dramatic language to call for repentance:
Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. The Psalmist asked, Who may ascent the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god (Psalm 24:3-4). Hands cleansed from violence, and a heart that is purified, single-minded, and devoted to God. They are the ones who may enter the presence of God. Isaiah 35 - And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it (Isaiah 35:8). God wants his people to be cleansed from their sins and purified for his presence.
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. I know this sounds drastic, but James wants us to know, I think, just how offensive it is to God that the Church had adopted the wisdom of the world, with all of it’s arrogance, selfishness, in justice, and pleasure-seeking. And to do it in God’s name? That must surely qualify as taking the name in vain, making God’s things profane. It is surely not enough to merely apologize and try to go on as if nothing had happened. Whether God calls for this sort of abject sorrow over sin, James certainly thinks we need it. We ought to grieve that we have grieved God, and mourn that we have profaned his name before the world. We should mourn if we have been the reason someone else has turned their back on Christ.
Now, you and I have been in places where people start looking around for the guilty party, like the apostles at the Last Supper. Surely it isn’t me. It’s got to be someone else. I sure with So- and-So were here to hear this. They really need this message. I sure hope So-and-So is listening. No, James tells us that we need to look inside ourselves. It is pride that makes us think calls to repentance are not for us but for someone else. It is arrogance to believe that sermons are preached for others but not for me. And, oh, how I want this message to be for someone else.
James has issued this condemnation of sin in the church. He has shown us the remedy. He has called the church to repentance. Brothers, do not slander one another. Do not declare that someone else is responsible, that someone else is the real sinner. We declare that the law is not for us, but for someone else – “they” are the ones who need it. “They”, that nebulous other that excuses me – “they” need to repent and be made holy. James points the finger straight at me, straight at each of us, and says, But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?
The sermon isn’t for someone else; it’s for me. James’ message isn’t for the church down the road; it’s for this church. As hard as it is for me, as your pastor, and as hard as it is for us to hear it, James calls us to repent. Have we been arrogant? Have we turned people away – even inadvertently – by our attitudes, by something we’ve said - or left unsaid, by something we’ve done - or not done? Have we made a mockery of Jesus’ name to our community? Are we “that church”? Have we fought with one another, gossiped against one another, held grudges against one another? Are we the church God wants us to be?
We have been praying for revival. Perhaps this is where it begins. God desires for himself a holy people, washed in the blood of the Lamb, purified by the Holy Spirit, a new creation in the very likeness of Jesus Christ.
Lord, we want to be that – the Church you intend for us to be.