You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. Do you think the Scriptures have no meaning? They say that God is passionate that the spirit he has placed within us should be faithful to him. And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:4-6, NLT)
The previous nine verses have analyzed the perils of selfish ambition and human jealousy. In this section, James begins to challenge the readers to consider their ambition in light of their own relationship with God.
Adultery is a common biblical metaphor for believers who are prone to idolatry. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea are samples of Old Testament prophets who used the imagery of marital unfaithfulness to describe Israel’s spiritual condition. Jesus also used the metaphor to describe those who rejected him and his teachings (cf. Matthew 12:39). In these images, the Lord is always pictured as the ‘husband’ and Israel as the ‘wife.’
James uses the concept as a means of characterizing his readers as the unfaithful people of God. By seeking friendship with the world, which includes adopting the practices and patterns of the world, they have committed spiritual adultery. This creates a schism between them and God, as well as between God and them. James’ harsh language here is intended to induce a level of conviction that will incite repentance and return.
This brings us to an interesting, seeming contradiction of terms. The original readers have been criticized for having a spirit of jealousy, yet their call to return and repent is founded in God’s legitimate jealousy. How do we make sense of that?
First, I believe that what James is describing in his readers is more akin to envy. Envy is wanting something that is not yours and that you do not have within your possession. A person can be envious of another person’s appearance or their possessions, for example. Jealousy, especially in the sense of God’s jealousy, is one’s protective attitude toward their rightful possession and desire to maintain it for their exclusive use. Suppose you have a classic automobile that you have restored and drive only on special occasions. An appropriate level of jealousy would be your unwillingness to let me borrow it to run errands. Granted, you might offer to take me for a ride in your collectable, but even then it remains under your custodial care. Another example is how parents watch their children in public, making sure they are kept under watchful eye. And of course there is marriage, where the partners view their relationship as exclusive and monogamous.
Second, it is important to understand that in the context of the Christian faith, we live in covenant with God, who has pledged a total, unreserved, unwavering allegiance with those he has joined himself. The expectation is that we reciprocate with the same undying devotion. Our relationship with God is covenantal, not contractual, because our relationship is based on love and not law. Our choice to live outside the bounds of this covenantal relationship is a deliberate one, thus the call to repent and return.
The third and final thought is that God provides ample grace for us to return to him and live lives of undivided devotion. We cannot manufacture grace from our own means, but we can humble ourselves and create a broad avenue for grace to flow down. Pride is what gets us in trouble, keeps us in trouble, and always prevents us from getting out of trouble.