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James 4:1-17

Leader Guide

Participant Guide

Lesson Focus: Our selfishness hurts us and those around us. Humbling and submitting ourselves to the Holy Spirit is how we overcome our selfishness.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that our selfish and disordered desires lead to conflict within the church.

  2. Understand that our prayers will not be answered when we pray for selfish things.

  3. Be encouraged to humble themselves and submit to the cleansing and empowering flow of the Holy Spirit.

Catch Up on the Story Chapter 4 comes on the heels of what is probably the most famous section of James. In chapter three, James admonishes his friends to control their tongues.  The conversation, however, is about much more than tongues; it’s about the kind of wisdom that is required to live the kind of Christian life James believes we need to live. More specifically, James is talking to those who think that being a teacher or leader within the body of Christ is a way to garner honor and prestige. 

When we’re working under the guidance of our wisdom and our desires, things go amiss quickly. One of the chief culprits or indicators of our not following God’s wisdom is an uncontrolled tongue. James goes to great lengths to highlight the dangerous nature of such a tongue, calling it a small part that can wreck ships, a small flame that can burn whole forests down, and a deadly poison capable of causing pain and disease in the body.

Dependance on our own desires and wisdom causes a breakdown between what we say and what we do. We seek to praise God while we still use our tongues to curse our brothers and sisters who have been made in the likeness of God, just like us. Such behavior is incompatible with the genuinely Christian life because, at the very least, it causes judgment, divisions, and the breakdown of the Christian social unit.

Those Conflicts James begins chapter 4 with another question, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” James has been speaking to a gathering of believers, some of whom have become too big for their britches, riddled with partiality, judgment, and conflict. James’ aim here is to help his friends see the root of the problem. As we have already discovered earlier in James’ letter, the devil is not to blame.

James answers his own question with another question, “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” Again, the root cause of many of our problems is that our desires have become disordered or uncontrolled. When our desires get out of hand, we are more likely to do and say things that harm the relationships we have with others, specifically within the church.

Verse 2 gets a little tricky, “You want something, and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.” Are we to believe that the conflicts and disputes that existed in the community to which James writes resulted in murder? There is wide disagreement about this point, with actual murder not ruled out.

At the very least, James is highlighting where unchecked desires lead us toward death and destruction. Those of you who have children or have been around children for any time understand the nature of desire and what happens when it is not fulfilled. Young children who do not yet posse a strong moral compass can get downright violent. Imagine two children playing on a playground or in a nursery. There’s a particular toy that both children want. Equitable sharing does not seem to be an option, so a struggle ensues. A parent or teacher steps in, intending to help the pair learn about sharing, and gives one of the kids the toy promising the other that it will be their turn soon. When the child who does not have the toy thinks his adversary has had the toy long enough, he goes and takes it by force. In retaliation for the wrong done to him, the second child hits the first. Conflicts and disputes.

While this scenario has not led directly to murder, you should get the picture James is trying to make. For adults, however, the stakes are higher because the toys are bigger and more expensive, the money to be made is better, or the power to be made is greater. Sometimes, were no better than our younger selves; only our means of conflict and disputes are often less physical but no less violent.

James moves on, continuing the line of thought, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” I think this verse might help us understand something important about the nature of prayer. God is not our cosmic Santa Clause to whom we can write a letter to him in hopes that he might fulfill all of our desires.

James has already confessed that God is the giver of every good and gracious gift, but when our desires are out of whack, and we’re only focused on ourselves, then, as James says, we ask wrongly. God knows the intention of our hearts and knows that sometimes we’ll take whatever good and gracious thing God gives us and use it to fulfill our desires.

Ok, so don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that you should feel guilty for having desires. Most desires we have are natural and good. We desire good food. We want good companionship. We desire to be helpful in our community or at our place of work. It is when those desires get out of hand that things go south. Part of James’ main point is that our desires are at war within us, fighting for dominance over each other and the direction of our lives. The war that rages inside does not stay inside. It spills out into the open and affects all of those around us.

The other part of James’ point is that we are divided, halfheartedly following Jesus. We want our cake and to eat it too. We desire what we want more than we desire what God wants for us and the world. I think the following quote from one of the commentators I’ve been reading sums things up nicely.

“Our desire for God is halfhearted and double-minded. Our pursuit of true religion is mirrored in the words of a poem by Wilbur Rees:

I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please,

Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep

But just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.

I don’t want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.

I want ecstasy, not transformation;

I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth.

I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.

I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.

In our consumeristic world, where everyone is looking for a bargain—a real “steal”—some have the misguided notion that God is selling himself cheap. The idea that possessing God can be accomplished like possessing any number of other trinkets of the “good life” is exacting a terrible toll inside and outside of the church. The problem of this kind of religion is where James now turns his attention.[1]

Here, James wants to make a clear distinction between those whose desires have all but conquered them and those who have placed God’s desires above their own. We are either a friend of God, or we are friends with the world.

God wants us to be friends with him and not the world, not because he wants to steal all our fun, but because friendship with the world, allegiance to things which are not God, only leads to conflict, disruption, and ultimately, death. Being friends with the world is what the devil wanted of Jesus when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Friendship with the world is “My will be done,” not “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God Gives Grace to the Humble It is in verse six that the tone of James’ letter shifts. James moves from the problem to the solution, and the answer is submission and humility. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

It is not all doom and damnation, as James reminds us that there is always grace. The war that rages within us will, at times, get the best of us. We’re not perfect, and I don’t suppose God thinks we’ll be perfect this side of his return, so there’s grace. But we can’t take advantage of God’s grace.

Submission to God and God’s desire for us is the key. As we understand and appreciate that all we have is a gift from God, we will humbly come before God in grateful response. A humility born out of recognition of and gratefulness for the good gifts that God has given us is the beginning of submission. And there is power in submission.

When we submit to God, we can resist the devil and have victory over the desires that war inside us. We can be pure and right and close to God in a way that transcends temporary emotionalism and experience. When we humbly submit ourselves to God, we’re giving up on the world, and in exchange, we get the universe, eternal life beginning here and now with God.

So What? When we look at this chapter in the light of what James has already written, we discover two things. First, as much as James talks about our individual struggles with our desires, he’s also talking about how our selfish behavior within the church affects the whole body. When we do Christianity poorly, we damage each other and our witness and testimony to the world. As one commentator said, “Playing at religion is even more costly than ignoring religion wholesale.”[2] We warp and twist Jesus until he is made in our selfish image.

We discover that while James is addressing everyone, he’s also concerned with how teachers and leaders behave in the community of faith. Christian leadership and teaching begins with humble submission to God. Whenever we lead or teach, we must, as Jesus did lay down our lives for the sake of others so that they might find full life in Christ. When we approach scripture, we do so with an open heart, ready to receive what God has to say to us. It means we don’t go to the Bible looking for verses to reinforce our point of view. It means that when we pray, we pray that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. And then we stop and wait to see how we might be the answer to someone else’s prayer. That doesn’t mean we don’t pray desperately for healing and the like. It means that we have confidence that as we submit to God’s will, in the end, all will be made right. It means that as we plan and dream about the future together, we don’t come up with a plan and ask God to bless it. We ask God to help us discern, together, which way it is that we must go.

This is what we call sanctification in the Wesleyan tradition. It is a complete surrender of ourselves to the will and way of the Holy Spirit. While we do this as individuals, we seek to learn submission as a family. As we submit to God through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will learn healthy submission to each other for the betterment of ourselves, yes, but ultimately the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Read verse one and answer James’ question. Justify your answer.

  2. Make a list of “cravings” that might be at war in the average person. Did or do you struggle with any of the listed cravings? If so, share with the group if you are comfortable doing so.

  3. What reason does James give for the times when God does not answer our prayers for things?

  4. In verse 4, James insists that if you are friends with the world, you cannot be friends with God. You will be God’s enemy. What does “a friend of the world” mean? What does the nature of your internal cravings have to do with whether or not you are a friend of God?

  5. In verse 6, James tells us that God gives grace to the humble. What do you think that means? What makes you believe that?

  6. What does “Submit yourselves therefore to God” mean? How do we submit ourselves to God?

  7. In this part of the letter, James addresses the conflict that has taken place within the body of believers. What, if any, connection between us humbling ourselves before God and avoiding conflicts within the church?


[1] J. Michael Walters, James: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1997), 143.

[2] Walters, 146.