1. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and 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. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4 You are being unfaithful! 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. 5 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’? 6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
‘God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.’
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?
There are some translation difficulties in this passage which I think the NRSV negociates better than most. The author’s exposure of bad behaviour rests on his very Jewish conviction that disobedience to God’s Way is fuelled by idolatry. First of all a person falls out of love with God and into a love of the world. This idolatry breeds disordered desires which are competitive and lead to to enmity with one’s neighbours, which in turn may lead to quarrels or even murder. The psychology of this analysis is very basic but shrewd enough. The person who has envious desires cannot pray for what he desires because he knows it is wrong, or if he does pray, his slefishness invalidates his prayer.
The scripture about the Lord yearning for the spirit given to human beings cannot be identified in this exact form, but Exodus 20 states that the Lord is a jealous God, who especially hates those who give allegiance to other Gods. God has given to humanity the breath of life and desires its full allegiance. This “jealousy” of God is a feature of Abrahamic faith traditions, and is of special interest because it excludes the interpretation that the exclusiveness is for the benefit of humanity; rather it issues from the exclusive nature of God’s love which is hurt and angered by human infidelity. That is an element in the divine character that moderm theologians might wish to play down, as being human, all too human, for a respectable God, but it’s a major element in biblical literature. The real offence of this element is that it betrays the fact the human beings are inventing their God, a notion firmly rejected by all right-thinking religious leaders.
Another valuable and radical element in James is his conviction that human beings are not overwhelmed by spiritual powers, but rather determinative of them. The devil flees from those who resist, while God draws near to those who draw near to him/ her. The human being can and should take the initiative in spiritual matters. It is perhaps not surprising to see this applied to the power of the devil, but very surprising to see it applied to the creator God. Yet it is part of both Judaist and Christian theologies that the creator needs the willing cooperation of human beings to complete the work of creation. This chimes with what Paul calls “the weakness and folly of God.”
James’ warning against judgement on others reminds the reader of Jesus’ command, and gives a specific justification for it: the person who stands in judgement usurps the place of God and the Torah. This arrogance is the classic human sin, and is a special case of idolatry, namely, making oneself a God.
We can see in these instances that the ethical wisdom of James is grounded in a fundamental, traditional theology. We might ask, as some scholars have done, whether there is anything distinctively Christian about this theology. It is true that there is not frequent mention of Jesus, nor of the drama of salvation as announced by Paul. That would also, however, be true of the preaching of Jesus as told in the first three gospels! Here we have a way of following Jesus which maintains its links with Judaism or maybe even as a sort of Judaism. It also speaks pertinently about human behaviour in all times. In an era when it is vital for Christian believers to be able say what they do and what they do not share with their sister faiths of Judaism and Islam, this letter, with its reminders of the Jesus of the gospels, its emphasis on right and wrong, and its warnings against idolatry, may be more important to the church than has been assumed in the past.