The Gospel for the Rest of Us: Will I Ever Change?

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on January 29, 2017

James 4:1-5

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Again, if you’re a visitor, welcome. Glad you’re with us; glad you’re here tonight. We are continuing our study in the book of James. You’ll find our passage on pages 1012 and 13; if you’re using a pew Bible, 1012 and 1013. James 4:1-5. James 4:1-5. Let’s pray and ask God’s blessing on our time together!


Father, tonight we come in here as people broken by a broken world. All our relationships are tainted by sin and so we need, more than anything else tonight, to see how Jesus affects everyday life. Would You show Him to us? Would you placard Him, as the apostle wrote, in front of everybody here tonight? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, You our solid Rock and Redeemer. In Jesus’ name, we pray, amen.


James 4, beginning at verse 1. This is God’s holy, inspired, and therefore inerrant Word:


“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?”


The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Amen.


Do you want to age well? That is a silly question. Everybody in here does. And I was reading a study recently. The most comprehensive, longitudinal study ever conducted by Harvard. It’s called the Grant Study. And they followed the lives of this remarkable class from Harvard in the ‘30s – like John F. Kennedy was part of this class. They followed these men’s lives for over seventy years and they were thought to be the most well-adjusted, happy, geared for success people. And they found just wildly different conclusions about each of these lives and what shaped each of these men and the influences in their lives. But here’s the surprising conclusion. There’s what the study’s leader, the late George Vaillant said. He said the key to aging well is our relationships. “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class that leads to successful aging. The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Now if we’ve read the Bible, we understand that he’s on to something there because you read Genesis 2 and it says that it’s “not good for man to be alone.” God created us to be social beings. Our relationships matter. But in a post-Fall world, nowhere do the effects of sin show up more than in the strife and brokenness in all of the relationships we find in our lives – whether in our homes, in our workplaces, or at school. The full effects of the Fall are on display in how much strife and brokenness there are in our lives. James wants to take a look at the root of our relationship problems tonight and show us how the Gospel heals them.


Now, remember what James has been doing in our context here. He is so concerned in this entire book to teach us what genuine faith looks like. “You say you are a Christian,” James says. “Here’s what genuine faith looks like.” And where we ended last week, he told us about these two kinds of wisdom. There’s this false wisdom that’s according to the world’s standards and dictates and that’s what most people follow. Then there’s this godly wisdom. And both kinds of wisdom – one true and one false – produce different kinds of communities.


Now tonight James zeroes in on that. That’s how he opens tonight. He’s going to zero in on these community effects of bad wisdom and he’s going to contrast it once again and offer us two choices. Here’s the main point of what he’s doing tonight. He uses our relationships as a window to look into the desires of our hearts in order to show us how the Gospel helps us there. He uses our relationships as a window to look into the desires of our hearts in order to show us how the Gospel helps us there. Just two quick points tonight. Our first point is our outward symptoms; the outward symptoms that James diagnoses. And then more briefly and more to the point, he goes to the inward disease. So outward symptoms and inward disease.


Our Outward Symptoms


Look there again at verse 1. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on yourselves.” Here’s how James begins. Did you see that contrast? He begins with what are the problems among us and then goes right to the problems within us – fights and quarrels among you; passions at war within us. And then he begins to diagnose the relationship component of these outward symptoms. When we follow the world’s wisdom, when we end up with the chaos and disorder that James mentioned last time, the first place it will show up is in the relationship strife that all of us face.


Strife in Our Daily Relationships

Isn’t James so contemporarily right here? Fights and quarrels. Would those be two good words, to sum up your week? They would mine. When I look around at this past week and see the interactions I’ve had with people, so much of it – and if we’re honest with ourselves this is all of us – so much is marked by fights and quarrels. There’s so much strife in our daily relationships. And James goes right to the heart of the matter here and he says this is what happens when this marks out your life. These painful, wounding relationships allow James to describe our brokenness in the strongest possible terms. Did you see how blankly he stated it? He said, “You murder.” Now James is not talking about physical murder here. He’s not saying this early group of Christians literally got in fights, pulled out a gun or a knife, and killed each other right off the bat. That’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying when we experience this kind of relational brokenness, we are quite literally killing each other.


And that goes right to the heart of what this Grant Study was all about. The key to a long life, according to this researcher, is how well we do in our relationships. James beat him by 2,000 years. He says your relationships make the difference between life and death. And notice again that he’s focusing on the communal aspect of our lives. As David Felker so wonderfully said this morning, “Hospitality comes from being a hospital for broken people, for people wounded by the Fall.” And what James is saying is, if we imbibe of that heavenly wisdom God gives us, the Church and the relationships we experience here inside, together as a gathered body of believers, are to be a respite, a hospital, from coming out of a week where everything else just goes wrong; everything else is just chaotic, striving. The Church’s relationships, our relationships with each other as Christians, are meant to provide a respite from that. So here’s what James is saying! When it comes to the reality of the Gospel, we can measure the genuineness of our faith by how we relate to one another. Are we bringing life to each other or are we killing each other with our relationships? That’s what James is saying!


The Influence of Worldliness on Prayer

And not only does this affect us in our horizontal relationships, our relationships with one another, he says it also affects our relationship with God. Notice how he transitions there: “You do not have because you do not ask.” What is the first mark of somebody who is wise in his own eyes or her own eyes? You see, that’s what James is going back to in this last section. If you already think you’re wise, you’ll never pray. By definition, prayer is a humbling exercise. It is admitting that we are weak, dependent, that we don’t know it all, that we don’t have it all together. But if you believe that you do, you will never pray. So James is saying, “You want to see where worldliness shows up?” Don’t look so much at what kind of music people are listening to or movies they are watching. Those things are important, but James says it’s this spirit of prayerlessness. It’s imbibing so much of the world’s wisdom that we just kind of let go of prayer and say, “I’ve got this God!” And then James goes even deeper and he says, “When we do manage to pray, if we’re so infatuated with the world’s wisdom and we’re so self-confident, when we do manage to pray and God doesn’t answer our prayers,” he says, “here’s the problem – the reason why He doesn’t answer is because we ask with wrong motives to spend it on our passions; to spend it on our desires.”


Our Inward Disease


And this is the heart of the section here, friends – our motives; our desires. Why do we do what we do? And here’s where the Bible is just wonderfully diagnostic. And that leads to our second point. James goes right to the heart of the matter of our inward disease. He uses this word, “passions,” twice there. Verse 1 and then in verse 3; “These passions that are at war within us.” When we desire and we don’t get what we want, we find ourselves frustrated all the time. Now, how do these desires play themselves out in our lives? Well, the first thing to recognize is this. If there are disordered desires – and that’s really what this word, “passions,” is keying in on; these disordered desires. If there are disordered desires in our lives, it follows that there are right desires. And as one author put it so well, he said this – “The evil in our desires often lies not in what we want but in the fact that we want it too much.” You see what he’s saying? Desires are good in and of themselves. God gave us desires. It’s when they go astray; when we need something insanely. When we say, “I cannot be happy unless I have X-Y-and-Z” – a good spouse, good children, good job, good school, people’s respect. Whatever it is, desires for good things like that that have gone insane.


Our Frustrated Desires

Let me see if I can give you an example to make it concrete. Think about this week! How many times did you raise your voice and yell or get angry? Maybe it’s this way? You come home from work and your only desire is a little bit of peace and quiet. It’s been a long day and you’re working hard. And you come home and the first thing is you have a spouse who needs your attention or children or friends; you’ve been at school all day, whatever it is. And your desire for a little bit of peace and quiet is a good desire. But then all of a sudden that desire is frustrated by people’s needs. And we do believe that God has everything under His providence so that whatever things come into our lives come from His Fatherly hand. Now when our desires come on a collision course with God’s providence, one of the two is going to win out. And it’s when we sinfully react to those things that James is diagnosing our problem here. So why do we yell? Why do we get upset or impatient with a child? Because our desires are frustrated. We wanted something and when that didn’t happen we feel like, “I’ve got the right to get mad. I’ve got the right to sin in my anger.” And by the way, I chose that example because it’s something I wrestle with. I’m well-versed in how this works. And you do this and you stop yourself and you go, “Why do I keep doing this?”


And here’s the point! Your frustrations and my frustrations are telling us our love stories. We’re coming up on Valentine’s Day and everybody loves a good love story. Every day, as we talked about last time, our hearts are telling us stories. And when we look at how we react to certain situations, it tells us what our love story is. That’s because of our passions, what we desire, as one friend of mine likes to put it, “We do what we do because we love what we love.” If you love peace and comfort and security more than dying to yourself and serving a wife and children or friends or roommates, whatever it is, then you’re going to go with what you love over what God calls you to do every time. And that’s why we fall into these ruts where we have the wrong reactions to situations because we do what we do because we love what we love.


Are You a Control Freak?

Here is another point to make here. Here’s the flipside of these disordered desires. They lead to being a control freak. Are you a control freak? Again, guilty! I like everything to be in order. I like my schedule to never be interrupted. I want things on my terms in my way. What is that my friends but declaring to God, “I don’t like the way you’re running my life!” And that’s what James is diagnosing for us here. The flipside of disordered desire is an insane desire to control. And how does that play itself out? We manipulate people, and then as James has pointed out, we try to manipulate God to giving us what we want. One thing that struck me this week is how many of my prayers go unanswered because God loves me too much to give me what I don’t need. That’s an amazing truth to grasp hold of. God loves us enough, James says, not to answer our prayers so that we don’t spend what He gives us wrongly. And it’s not just material wealth. It’s whatever we think we need that has gone badly astray.



The Relationship Between Disordered Desires and Sin

And here’s the result of all this. Notice his strong words there in verse 4: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Here’s what wrong desire leads to. Think about sin in these categories. Sin is not just something we do that makes God angry or incites His wrath. It is that, but if we just keep thinking of sin as something we do, bad things we do all the time or good things we’re supposed to do but we don’t, it will never land with us. And James gives us a powerful category to look at sin here. He says, “Think about it this way. When we go off after these disordered desires and commit sin, it’s like a husband or wife who’s got the perfect spouse at home and says, ‘You know what? I would rather go with this other spouse. Somebody else’s spouse maybe; this other love. I like this one better.’” And sin, therefore, is when we commit adultery against God. Doesn’t that land? When we sin, when we chose to deliberately disobey or leave undone those things God has called us to do, we are saying to Him, “I like other lovers better. Let me get in their bed and not Yours.” And that’s why James, I think, puts it in these categories so we see what we’re really doing.


And by the way, this is all over the place in the Old Testament. This is not a New Testament reality. When you read the prophets, again and again, God says to His people, “You’ve left Me and you’ve gone after these foreign lovers and I promise I will love you the best.” And that’s why when God calls us to obey, to love Him, to follow Him, it’s out of a loving Father’s posture towards us, a loving spouse’s posture towards us; somebody who wants our best for us. Not just rules from a cranky deity, but out of a lover’s desire to have His beloved faithful to Him. And so James then leaves us with that choice – friends with the world and an enemy of God, a spiritual adulterer, or face to face with Jesus our faithful spouse and saying, “I want to be Yours and Yours alone, Jesus.” There are only two options. He keeps coming back to that again, doesn’t he? Again and again and again!


And that’s why he finishes up here summarizing the Scriptures. This is a notoriously difficult verse to translate. And here’s the point! I won’t bore you with all the details. Here’s how one translation from a bunch of really smart Greek scholars puts it. Verse 5 is translated this way – “This spirit that God calls to live within us has an envious yearning.” So what is James’ point? He ends this section here and kind of puts a period at the end of the sentence and says that the combined teaching of the Scriptures is all of us have a problem with passion. Our sin problem is a passion problem. The spirit that God calls to live within us has an envious yearning all the time. And therefore the question is, “What can be done?” How does Jesus help disordered lovers like us?


And here’s again the key to Biblical religion. One thing that struck me afresh this week is, Christianity, of the world’s religions, is the only one that’s really passionately concerned for us to look at our motives, to look at our desires. Everything else is really just a veiled form of behavior modification in order to placate, to appease, to satisfy the cranky deity. Only Christianity asks for our hearts. And so what we need, if we need our disordered loves cured, is not a new list of rules; it’s a better love. And that’s where Jesus helps us.


How Jesus Helps Us

Do you remember what He said in the Gospel of John chapter 8 verse 29? He said something – again, this is one of those times when Jesus speaks it tells you He is no mere man because if a mere man said this he would be certifiably insane. Here’s what He said; speaking of His Father, “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” Can you say that? Can I say that? Never! Nobody in here, I venture, if I were to take a poll and say, “Raise your hand if you always do the things that are pleasing to God the heavenly Father,” nobody would take that. And so Jesus alone can say, “My desires have always been rightly ordered.” And those desires that He has, expressed themselves towards us. His last prayer, John 17, “Father, I desire that they also whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am to see My glory that You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”


The Great Exchange of the Gospel

What’s His desire? For us to experience the fullness of God’s glory, of His love, of our union with Jesus by faith and by faith alone where we are His forever. And He says, “Here’s My desire. It’s for the welfare of My people.” And what is the welfare of us His people? More of God’s glory. That’s what Jesus’ desire is. No disordered loves. Always focused on doing what was pleasing in His Father’s sight. So here’s what the Gospel tells you. In place of our disordered desires, Jesus gives us His right desires. His selfless life of obedience to the Father’s will, day in and day out, for our selfish, disordered lives. His life for ours. That is the great exchange of the Gospel. That’s what He’s offering us tonight. That’s the first step in curing our disordered desires. It’s our union with Christ. That’s what Paul is so concerned for us to see, page in and page out of his letters. By faith, you become united to Jesus. His life is reckoned in place of your life. Your life is “hidden with God in Christ,” he says. And the fullness of that union is realized in glory when all that we’ve tasted in shadows and partially here in this life, comes to full fruition when we can scarcely take in the glory of being with Him forever. And He wants to give us a foretaste of that now, here, in this life in the healing of our relationships as Christians in community together.


How Our Desires Change

So how then do our desires change? They change when the object of our desire changes. We must do the hard, daily work of dying to self. When people say, “You’re a Christian because you need a crutch; you need some hope for the afterlife.” I know that person’s never tried to live as a Christian. It’s hard to follow Jesus. It’s hard to die to yourself. It’s hard to be somebody who looks at others and says, “My goal is not to satisfy my desires but to give myself for you because Jesus gave Himself for me.” We do the hard work of daily dying to self and we begin to change, my friends when we begin asking that hardest question of all, “Why do I do what I do?” Change will only come as we think about that, as we think about our motives; when we don’t just think, “Oh, it’s normal for me to react this way. It’s normal for me to get upset and angry with people around me. It’s normal for me to speak harshly. It’s normal for me to harbor grudges and unforgiveness. After all, I’m only human.” Yes, we are! We’re fallen; we’re broken. But did you know that Jesus came to make your humanity what it was meant to be? And when He causes that to happen in your life it shows up and cannot but help to affect everybody around you. We do that work of dying to self, we look at our motives, and then, then we see all of the wrong motives in our lives and we look upon Jesus – sufficient for every need.


Our Tangled Motives

And our motives are tangled, aren’t they? It reminds me of a story I read recently about the world’s largest knot that was just disentangled at a university in Japan. It took fifty-three people working for hours to disentangle this knot! When we start looking at our motives, our motives are like that knot. Right? Tangled; different motives for everything. None of us have pure motives. That’s precisely why we need Jesus. He alone had those pure motives. He alone is at work to change our motives. So be patient. Sometimes change comes immediately in your life. Sometimes God is pleased to just get rid of some sin that has been clinging to you and it just goes away. But more often than not, Romans 7 becomes a precious verse to us, doesn’t it? “The good that I want to do, this I do not do. But the evil that I should not do, this I find myself doing,” Paul says. Can you relate? I can. We want to do better but we can’t. We keep falling into these ruts. Will there ever be change?


God is at Work in You!

And the Bible says God is not done yet. Your canvas that He is painting His masterwork of grace on has not had its last brush stroke from the master painter, Jesus. He’s not finished. Be patient with yourself and with others. That’s one of the ways that we change together as a community. We look at others where God is at work. We look around us and instead of judging each other – we’ll talk about that here in a couple of weeks – we begin to be replaced with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. And that is because, my friends, finally, change is a supernatural work. It is a supernatural work. It will require wrestling in prayer because it’s only the third person of the Trinity that changes us. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work. And we say, “Well then do we just ‘Let go and let God’?” No. It’s the Spirit’s work. And mysteriously we work with the Spirit. How does that work? I don’t know! I don’t know! I know it’s right there where Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling because God is at work in you.” And we say, “Which one is it, Paul?” and he says, “Yes!” It’s both. But it’s the Spirit’s work primarily, my friends. And therefore, not only is change possible, change will happen in our lives because God’s purposes are never frustrated and He will never give up on His people. He will never give up on His Church. He will make us into a hospital for sinners.


I read recently a column in USA Today by Ted Fishman. He told the story of Andrew Panter. Have you ever heard of him? I hadn’t. When Andrew Panter died, over 2,500 people filled the Symphony Center there on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, one of the world’s foremost concert halls where the Chicago Symphony plays. And when these people gathered for Andrew Panter, all of them had stories. A few were allowed to speak. Who was Andrew Panter that could pack one of the most prestigious environments, venues in all this country? Who was he? He was a music critic; a music critic. Why did a music critic get this kind of an honor? Here’s what Fishman wrote. “One can expect a concert hall to fill with people honoring a great composer, a Nobel laureate, or a spiritual leader. Andrew was none of those. He built a monument to friendship, the power of which doesn’t often receive the tribute paid to it that day. It should.” Friendship, in other words, should receive the tribute that was paid to it there at Andrew Panter’s memorial service.


And what that demonstrates, what the gathering of people as a monument of friendship demonstrates, is exactly what James is talking about here. All of us value deep relationships. Nobody in here wants to be lonely. Everybody wants to have a deep connection. And James tells us that this is what Jesus is up to in this place with all of our frailty, all of our sin, all of our failure to do relationships well. He is up to changing us, His people, from being a monument to the chaos and discord and strife he mentioned in the last section, to a monument of the power of Spirit-filled, Gospel-saturated, friendship and relationship which is a foretaste of heaven now and will continue throughout all eternity.


Let’s pray!


Thank You, Lord, for Your Word. Make us people who are full of the Holy Spirit and love one another well. We ask in Jesus’ mighty name, amen.

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