James 4:10-17

What True Humility Looks Like

I am including in our study this week the last verse from the passage last week.  Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you (v.10).  In this next section James is going to show us what this looks like in two important areas of our life: how we treat others and how we think about tomorrow.

#1 How We Treat Others

James tells us not to speak evil against one another (v.11) and warns us of the danger of becoming one who judges his brother (v.11).  The reason this is wrong is because we are actually speaking evil against the law (v.11)  and therefore are not a doer of the law but a judge (v.11).  We are reminded that there is only one lawgiver and judge (v.12) — and it’s not us! The big idea here is that we are not God, nor are we a little “g” god.  We are all, to use the common saying, on a “level playing field.” No one is exalted above another.  We are all brothers and sisters.  The first-born brother in our family is not — it’s Jesus!  And so we humble ourselves and surrender to the One who is God.  It is his role, not our role, to save and to destroy (v.12).

The issue here is that of a believer judging another believer (i.e. his brother) based on his own standard.  Now, he is not telling us that we never have a place to speak into someone’s life.  Nor is he telling us that we shouldn’t call out sin where we see it. (For more on this read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:12 about “judging” those within the church.)  The issue is that we create our own law and evaluate others by it.  The issue is that we speak evil against a brother rather than in love seeking to restore that brother.  James asks a penetrating who are you to judge your neighbor (v.12)?  We are not the lawgiver.  We are not the judge.  We are not God.

How can we correct this sin of judging others? What do we do when we suspect someone is caught in sin?  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Begin by evaluating your own heart first.  Jesus tells us (Matthew 7:5) to first take the log out of our own eye.  We must begin by inward before we look outward.
  2. Assume the best about others. We resist the temptation to assign hidden motives.  We examine ourselves to see if we’ve made any unfair assumptions.  We work to see others in the best light possible.
  3. Go to God’s Word.  In other words, we don’t begin with our own opinions; we go to the  real lawgiver.  If, by the standard of Scripture, someone appears to have come up short, then we have cause to move to step 4.
  4. Seek restoration not defamation.  This is that James is saying here.  We have no place — even if sin is present!!! — to speak evil of others. But Paul tell us in Galatians 6:1 that if someone is caught in sin those who are spiritual should seek to restore him in a spirit of gentleness.

#2 How We Think About Tomorrow

James turns his attention from the one who presumes to sit on the judgment seat to the one who presumes to sit in the director’s chair.  He addresses the one who says “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit (v.13).” This is an example of a business plan.  This person has laid out where they plan to go and what they plan to do.  James is not here telling us we should never have a plan.  Jesus, after all, commends this forward thinking when he asks in Luke 14:28, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”  The issue is not that this person has made a plan but that they left God out of the plan.  They’ve separated their “spiritual” life from their “secular” life.  God has something to say about Sunday but what about Monday through Saturday.  We are familiar with this sacred/secular divide that seems to be forced upon us.  As a former public school teacher I was told I could believe what I wanted to believe but not to let my faith make it’s way into the classroom, as if it was possible to separate my faith from how I live my life. And it turns out this sacred/secular thinking is nothing new.  James addressed it 2000 years ago.  He tell us that God needs to be a part not only of our Sundays but the rest of the week.  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will I’ve and do this or that (v.15).”  

Does this mean we need to add this clause “if the Lord wills” before every statement we make?  Not necessarily.  There are times we will need to use these words, but what is more important is that we have the conviction fixed in our hearts rather than the words on our lips.  John Calvin puts it this way:

“…for we read everywhere in the Scriptures that the holy servants of God spoke unconditionally of future things, when yet they had it as a principle fixed in their minds, that they could do nothing without the permission of God (Commentary on James).”

Besides the fact that we are not God and therefore are not in the director’s chair (of even our own lives), James gives us some other reasons to not presume to know the future.

  1. Life is uncertain.  We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring (v.14).  Our life can change radically from one moment to the next and there is nothing we can do about it.   I spent some time once with a young man from a Buddhist background who struggled deeply with the uncertainty of life.  Over the course of weeks and then months we met and explored Christianity and he came to see that while we don’t know what life holds, we do know the One who holds our lives.  This was one of the catalyst God used to bring him to faith to Jesus Christ.   Proverbs 16:9 says   that “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
  2. Life is fleeting.  James asks us to consider our life.  What is your life?  For you are a mist (v.14). I am writing this in the first days of fall.  Frost is just beginning to appear on the ground.  When you walk outside in the morning, you can see your breath floating in front of your face.  And then it quickly fades away.  James says our life is like that!  We are a mist — a vapor!  The psalmist writes: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”   We are like mist that fades away or like a blade of grass the flourishes just for a little while.  This is very humbling!  
  3. Life will end.  This mist that appears for a little time will soon vanish (v.14).  Our days on this earth will end.  In our youth we tend to think about this very little. But the older we get the more this reality sets in. Our days are number.  Time is precious.

Life is short and uncertain.  This is not a uniquely Christian idea.  It is a truth that is abundantly clear to all.  The question is: what do we do in response to this?  To get a good dose of worldly wisdom on this topic, I Googled this phrase “life is short and uncertain.”  The articles, blogs, and other posts on this topic were numerous.  Most said about the same thing.  Life is short, so live it up!  You only live once so learn to enjoy your life.   Now there is nothing wrong with living life to the fullest.  But it matters very much how we define what “life to the fullest” is to be about.  If we define “life to the fullest” as living for whatever makes you happy, we are mistaken about the full life.  “Life to the fullest” means I am living for those things which really do matter.  It means I am investing my life in that which will outlast this life.  For those of us who are convinced that the God of the Bible is the true and living God, this means living for His glory.  It means we live like we know that our life does not belong to ourselves!  It means we seek to good in his eyes.

This is perhaps what James has in mind when he concludes the chapter with So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails do it, for him it is sin (v.17).  Sin isn’t just about breaking the commandments of God.  It’s failing to do the good we know that God has called us to do.

So what is your life?  Have you taken stock of your life?  Do you know the uncertainty of your days?  Do you know your life is short?  Are you truly living for those things which are eternal?

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think that humility is a character trait that our culture highly values?  In what ways does the world celebrate the opposite of humility?
  2. Humility at the very least means we understand that we are not God.  In what way does the truth free us to live our lives?
  3. What reasons does James give in verses 11 and 12 for not speaking evil against a brother or sister in Christ?
  4. Does not “speaking evil” mean we never have a place to call out sin?  What is the godly way to go about confronting sin in another believer?
  5. To what extent are you a planner?  What kinds of things do you plan?
  6. What warning does James give about making future plans?
  7. What does he say is wrong about making these plans?
  8. Do you think it is always necessary to add the phrase “if the Lord wills” to whatever plans to announce to others?  Why or why not?
  9. Do you regularly reflect on the fact that your life is short and uncertain?  What do you think would change in your life if this reflection was a regular habit?
  10. What kind of good things (v.17) do you fail to do?
  11. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?

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