The Envy of All the World
James 3:13 – 4:10
You know it’s going to be a good night when we’re called adulterers right there in the epistle. It could have been avoided but, luckily for you, I decided to include this and a couple of other verses left out of today’s reading by our lectionary. I understand the desire to skip over the unsavory language, but when New Testament scholar (and my seminary professor) Luke Johnson calls this passage – the entire passage we read – “the heart” of James, I pay attention (New Interpreter’s Bible, VOL XII, p.182).
Another thing Luke Johnson says about this passage is that they’ve got the translation a little wonky in this one part. And, of course, it’s this one part that he considers the very heart of the heart of James. This one part is the central question and hinge for our passage.
It’s in verse 5 of chapter four, right after the adulterers part. The way we read it is this (James 4: 4-5): “Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?”
The problem with the translation is that one of the Greek words in the phrase “yearning jealously” here is never applied to God in the Septuagint (the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). In Greek usage it’s only ever used for human envy. To translate this as God feeling “put out” by our behavior gets the language wrong and, more importantly, misses the intent of James’ letter. James relies on the breadth of scriptural witness to inform his and the church’s understanding of how God acts in the world. As he makes his case for God’s wisdom, he knows it’s a tough sell to those swayed by envy and inner warring cravings. He’s demonstrating here that we can trust the scriptural witness to the nature of God.
Luke Johnson suggests this as an imperfect but more acceptable translation of verse five (New Interpreter’s Bible, VOL XII, p. 210):
“Does the scripture speak in vain? Is the spirit God made to dwell in us for envy?”
Aaah, well that’s something else entirely. Isn’t it?
Envy and its cohorts are not just “out there” in the world, they are also the cravings of our hearts. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (4:1). But sometimes we don’t recognize that those deep passions are not for God. We have forgotten where they come from or convinced ourselves that God always wants for us what we want for ourselves. Any want.
We hear the call to tithe but we’re saving up for a new car. Maybe we can start tithing after that. We are called to celebrate one day a week as Sabbath, release from all work, errands, and getting ahead. But surely God didn’t mean that one for people as important and busy as we are? We know the word “vocation” but when it comes to how we choose a career path, we rely more on market trends and who’s hiring than on God’s call.
James says there are no two ways about it. There is no fence-sitting allowed. We either choose God’s way or the other way. God’s wisdom or the world’s. James’ letter is written to people just like us. We want not to have to choose (New Interpreter’s Bible, VOL XII, p. 212). Can’t we just have a little of all the wisdom? Can’t we be friends with God and a little friendly with the worldly wisdom too? Can’t we just not be quite so Christian? Can’t we maybe just do that on Sundays or in church settings and go with the way of the world the rest of the time?
Can’t I get the new car first and then tithe? Can’t I just rest a little after church on Sunday without having to take a whole day out of my schedule? Can’t I just pick the career my parents are pushing me towards and, in my free time, I’ll volunteer or donate money or something to the things I’m really passionate about?
God, can’t I just have enough of you to make me feel good, and then go about my business as I see fit? Must you meddle in all of my affairs?
The answer from James is unequivocal: “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (v. 4). We are called to covenantal relationship with God and when we play at that relationship — while spending all of our time, money, and energy with the rest of the world — “adulterer” is an apt description. It’s not just some incendiary word James threw in for kicks. Trying to have it both ways – the way of God’s wisdom and the way of the world – is cheating our relationship with God.
Life with God is not the icing on the cake of an already really good life. Our friendship with God is not how we pass the time before Lost comes on – it’s not something we fit in. Living life in God’s wisdom requires more of us. It requires a rethinking of priorities, goals, relationships, time, money, and neighbors. If you take this — if you take God – seriously, your life may end up looking a lot different than you thought.
I know someone with a passion for arts education with children. She’s one of the lucky ones because she recognized her passion early, while she was still in college. But her folks were concerned. “There isn’t any money in that,” they said. They wanted her to pick a career that seemed more stable and would pay more substantially. She listened to them and went into interior design. She’s good at it and it pays ok, but she spent three years doing that while wishing she was working with kids and the arts. Finally, after a lot of soul-searching and prayer, she told her parents she was going back to school to get the arts education degree.
I know someone else who was interested in medical school. At the top of her class, she has a thing for organic chemistry and biology and all those prerequisites. She was made to explore the art and science of human bodies. But when I asked her why she was planning to go into surgery, her only answer was, “Because it’s a field that makes a lot of money.”
Envy can work in subtle ways. James warns against it leading to murder but it doesn’t have to go that far to be destructive. It is good to respect and honor your parents’ wishes. It’s good to want to contribute to society through your work and it’s good to be financially compensated so that you can support yourself. But when our worldview gets distorted we can start to think that these are the highest goods. And then we structure our lives around getting more and holding onto more of these goods. We forget or ignore the wisdom of God, the questions God asks of our lives.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a doctor. There’s nothing wrong with being an interior designer. There’s nothing wrong with having a job that earns you a lot of money. There is something wrong when we can’t hear God’s call or when we mistake the myriad calls of the world for God’s voice.
It’s significant that James wrote his letter to communities of faith. It’s significant that they were struggling and that there were numerous communities. It’s significant because it means we are not meant to be in this alone. This is a group effort and it takes the whole Body to live up to our calling.
I know someone else who tried to take a weekly Sabbath a few years back. He’d been listening to God’s call and decided to institute Fridays as his Sabbath. He spoke about it theologically and planned ahead to be able to take that day apart each week. He told people what he was doing and how it was going. He asked for our prayers. But he ran into something unexpected. After all the preparation and the prayer and the good theology, once he started into his practice, he found it difficult.
Of course it’s difficult to engage deeply in any spiritual practice, but I think he was prepared for that. What took him by surprise was how much more difficult it was to celebrate Sabbath alone. When your day off and apart is different from everyone else’s, you are in it alone. He reflected that communities of faith that take Sabbath seriously can encourage each other better and schedule communal life around this commitment. My friend had a hard time doing this as a college student living in a house with 3 other students on different schedules.
I’m not discouraging you from Sabbath on your own, especially since our church and our culture no longer observe one. You have to start somewhere. What I am saying is that we are made to engage in the spiritual life within the context of a broader community. We aren’t meant to go it alone. James didn’t write his letter to Mike or Sue or Zach or Mary. He wrote it to numerous churches.
We aren’t in it alone — and there is more good news! We don’t have to muster the power to do this on our own. God “gives all the more grace” to those who seek this wisdom and practice this faith (v.6).
One of my favorite groups, the Indigo Girls, sing, “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear” (Emily Saliers, “Closer to Fine,” Indigo Girls, 2000 Sony Music). But you can hear it, at least every now and then, and you know it’s for you.
It matters. It matters how you spend your money and your time. It matters what you spend your life doing. It matters what and who you stand up for and when you are silent. It matters who you befriend and who you welcome to your church and into your home.
The question is: How will we live? Sometimes the answer comes in a flashing before-and-after conversion moment. But most often the question comes to us in the midst of daily living and our answer emerges in our daily choices. Show by your good life who it is you live for (3: 13).
The call can be hard to hear over the din of advertisers and ingrained expectations. But it’s there and so is the grace God gives to help us live this out.
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis