After a few weeks away from James (because of meetings connected with organising the joint carol service), we resumed our Bible studies tonight and looked at James 4:1-12. Here, common themes in James are developed: the idea of single-minded and pure-hearted devotion, asking in faith and not unbelief and looking at the desires that battle within us.

The words translated in the NIV as ‘desires’ or ‘pleasures’ and in the KJV as ‘lusts’ convey both the Greek idea of pleasure (from which we get our word hedonism) and also a sexual connotation. God often describes the relationship He has with us as like that of marriage and in the Old Testament (in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea, for example), Israel’s fickleness is often likened to adultery, as here (‘you adulterous generation’). So often, the problems we face arise from conflicting desires or passions. We are like Israel in 1 Kings 18, ‘wavering between two opinions’, literally ‘hopping from foot to foot’. God does not want this kind of double-mindedness. Jesus condemned the Laodicean church for being lukewarm (which is caused by mixing hot and cold!) in Revelation 3 and James too condemns the people for their wayward attitudes: “You’re cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way.” (James 4:4, The Message) We may find the language stark and uncompromsing, but God often needs to shock us in order to make us aware of the cold realities of our behaviour and actions.

The desires that battle within us (not all of which may be intrinsically wrong but which, if unsurrendered to God, inevitably lead to inner conflict which is often manifested in ‘fights and quarrels’) often explain our poverty in prayer. James is blunt in telling us that we don’t have because we don’t ask God and when we do ask, we often ask with wrong, selfish motives, thus hindering God. As with so many aspects of prayer, we need to learn submission to God, so that our will can be aligned with His. Prayer arises from a personal relationship with God, a God who longs for us passionately (James 4:5)

The language used in this chapter is strong: ‘desires’, ‘pleasures’, hatred towards God (enmity), adultery, jealously longing. It’s the same language used in Matt 5:28 (where Jesus describes a man looking lustfully at a woman and therefore committing adultery in the heart) or in Matt 13:16–17 (when we read how the prophets longed to see and hear what the people heard when Jesus walked on earth.) Perhaps that kind of language makes us feel uncomfortable. If so, maybe we need to be reminded of the simple truth that God is looking for purity of heart and single-minded devotion to Him (see 2 Cor 11:2, 1 Cor 7:25).