So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. (James 4:6-10, NLT)
This section of James chapter 4 builds upon his quotation of Proverbs 3:34, which reads, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Having made that citation, James presents two commands that are followed by three couplets which serve as an action plan.
Since God provides sufficient grace to the humble, it would naturally follow that we assume our two-fold responsibility, which is to humble ourselves and resist the devil. The concept of humility was foreign to the culture of James’ original audience. In first century Roman-Greco society, humility was for the weak and insignificant. So his summons to humility would have been more difficult to accept in that context. No one was conducting seminars on servant-leadership in the first century. Humility is important, though, for humility provides the platform for the second part, which is resisting the devil. In this context, the devil should be understood as the one who seeks to destroy through division, which is one of the chief concerns James is addressing. The devil’s primary goal is to divide us from God and from one another.
So how do we accomplish this admonition to humility and resistance? First, we come close the proximity gap by drawing close to God. The significance of this is that we take the first step. It takes humility to recognize that we are not in close proximity to God. We are the ones who wander, and we are the ones who need to return. Jesus gave a great example of this principle in the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The Prodigal chose to distance himself from the Father, and it was in the depths of humility he chose to return. Like the Father in Luke 15, God is waiting and welcoming.
The second step in this process is to choose to lived divided no more. One of the most unfortunate results to the devil’s work is often the one most overlooked. The devil seeks to separate us from God and one another, but he also seeks to separate us from ourselves. James phrasing of divided loyalty is literally translated “double souled.” We live divided lives when we try to have the best of both worlds, attempting to satisfy God and satisfy our selfish ambitions and desires concurrently. The solution here is to cleanse our hands and hearts, a metaphor for our actions and attitudes. The goal of cleansing is not to be sinless, although believers should sin less. The goal is to eliminate the clutter and noise in order to create more space for God.
His final step is to abandon the false paths to joy that over promise and under deliver. James’ audience is similar to you and me in this regard. Left to our own devices, we seek pleasure and happiness in ways that often result in pain and sorrow. Those false paths that look promising at the beginning are, in reality, dead ends. The values that we once celebrated are to be mourned for what they really are. They are not life giving, they’re life taking, and as we consume, we are ultimately consumed.
This brings us back to a restatement of his original command with a summary promise. If we humble ourselves, God will exalt us. This is part of the “upside down” value system of spirituality that Jesus taught and modeled. In the face of suffering, he was exalted. There are no crowns without crosses. If we want to live in the “power of the resurrection” (Philippians 3:10), we must be willing to experience the fellowship of his sufferings. The way “up” is “down.”