I’m reading in James this morning and it’s kind of stopped me in my tracks. I’ve read these verses before. I’ve received teaching on this passage a number of times. But as I paused after reading the first ten verses of chapter four, I asked myself the most fundamental of questions, “Is James writing to Christians or to non-Christians?” I’m pretty sure he’s talking to blood-bought, born again, believers. But good night! What went wrong?
Looking back on my reading from yesterday in chapter three, within this body of believers “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” were at play with disastrous results (3:14-16). Chapter four continues describing the climate amongst these brothers and sisters . . . quarrels . . . fights among themselves . . . driven by covetousness, the level of animosity in their midst rising to murderous levels. It’s so bad that James is moved by the Spirit to exclaim, “You adulterous people!”
“You adulterous people” . . . sounds like language I’ve been reading in the prophets. So how does this happen? I can’t imagine it being a conscious decision among a group of God’s people to one day pass a resolution that “in our family we are going to tear at one another’s throats.” No . . . you know that getting to this point has to happen gradually. Something I read in Jeremiah this morning I think gets to the heart of such a dynamic.
But My people have forgotten Me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway . . . (Jeremiah 18:15 ESV)
God’s covenant people of the Old Testament had drifted off into spiritual adultery because they had ceased to care for the things of God . . . and had set up for themselves other objects of worship. And so, they staggered onto other paths . . . straying from the ancient roads of God’s leading . . . wandering from the highway of God’s perfect will . . . choosing instead to trudge down the muddy paths of fleshly pursuit. They chose the side roads.
Just as ancient Israel had drifted off course down the side roads, I’m thinking these New Testament believers had fallen into the same waywardness.
James says it starts with ceding the battle to our passions and pleasures which war within us (4:1). Rather than pursue the things of heaven, we instead pursue the things of having. We covet and so we avert our gaze to a lesser prize. We desire and so determine to acquire . . . whatever the cost . . . be it relationships with God . . . be it relationships with friends and family. That’s the entrance to the side road.
And the side road doesn’t eventually lead us back to God. In fact it only leads us further away. Once on the road, our pursuit of the worldly things then draws our affection to the ways of this world. That which we were saved out of, now becomes our friend. And, says James, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” and “whoever wishes to a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (4:4).
Ouch! Maybe that’s why it sounds like James is talking to unbelievers. Loved the world . . . forgotten their God. Pursuing “the dream” . . . replacing the prize of heaven with idols. Wandering from the narrow way . . . sucked into the mire of the side roads.
How I need to beware of the side roads. Those rabbit trails that turn the affections of my heart from seeking Him to seeking other stuff . . . and draw me into a love relationship with the world that severely impacts my relationship with my God and with His people.
And when I do find myself going down such side roads, I need to remember that God’s grace is sufficient to restore me to the highway. That He gives grace to the humble (4:6). That, if I will draw near to God, He will draw near to me (4:8). That, if I humble myself before the LORD, He will lift me up (4:10). His grace is sufficient even for wanderers down the side roads.
Beware the side roads . . . by His grace . . . for His glory.