“You shouldn’t pick fights you can’t win.” You’d think this was common knowledge, or “street smarts” as some call it. But, it’s not. Every moment of the day, intelligent people, even of the Christian variety, pick fights with God. It’s a battle we can’t win, no matter how tough we think we are. Squaring off with the God of the universe is a futile fight. It’s over before it starts. As they say, “Your arms are too short to box with God.”
Still, this doesn’t stop us from trying. We can be so full of pride to think there is a chance. Our reasoning faculties completely shut off and we attempt to stand up to God. James says that if you love the world, this is exactly what you are doing—challenging God to an after-school fight that you can’t win.
“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Ja. 4:4-6)
In this passage, we find ourselves in the middle of another spiritual test. James is putting our faith on trial by calling our loyalties out. In James 4:4, he says that “friendship with the world,” or affectionate attachment with the world, “is enmity with God.” Since it deals directly with our deepest affections, it deals directly with the matter of the gospel message which demands that we love God supremely. So, James is coming in hot. His tone is urgent. His words are punctual. His statements are direct, even accusative. He is rattling our cage, shaking things up, and calling the self-deceived Christians to repentance and loyalty to God (Ja. 1:8; 4:8).
We should have seen it coming. In the prior chapter, James argued that genuine believers possess heavenly wisdom. Heavenly wisdom promotes peace. Therefore, those who possess heavenly wisdom also possess peace and peace follows them (Ja. 3:13-18). So, when he abruptly asked the question, “Where are all these conflicts come from?” We knew he wasn’t playing around.
“Your external conflict comes from your internal conflict,” he answered. “And, your internal conflict comes from your spiritual conflict.” The conflict he was referring to was the conflict of desire. “You are in love with the world.” To his readers, scattered Jews who claimed to be Christians, this was alarming. But, nothing could prepare them for what he said next, “You are in conflict with God.”
Disloyalty Opposes God’s Wishes
No one appreciates being called a name, certainly not an ugly one. “You adulterous people!” (Ja. 4:4). It’s even worse than it sounds. In the Greek, it’s one word, a feminine noun with a direct address. It is like he is pointing his finger at the reader and saying, “Adulteresses!” To the Jew, this was the worst kind of name-calling.
Imagine how this stung their hearts. James was not just their pastor, but their pastors’ pastor. He was the leader of the Jewish Council, pastor of the Jerusalem church, and commissioner of missionaries. If the early church was a union, James was the president who led from the Oval Office. How would it feel if your senior pastor called you on a video conference call, leaned into the camera with his finger wagging at the lense, saying, “You two-timing, double-crossing, cheaters!” It wouldn’t fall off his tongue without serious ramifications. Your heart would sink into your stomach.
Now, let me dig that hole a little deeper. The Jews have a long history with the word “adulteress.” The prophet Jeremiah, speaking for the Lord to the Israelites, said:
“How can I pardon you? Your children have forsaken me and have sworn by those who are no gods. When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of whores” (Jer. 5:7).
In other words, God gave to Israel, loved Israel, cared for Israel, but Israel left God to love other gods. Would God let that go? Would He sit back and allow their adultery to foster? Would He continually watch their whoring with no retribution? Certainly not. God is not a friend with benefits (Ex. 34:14).
This just about summarizes their history. It is filled with a cycle of union and disunion. In Genesis, God made a covenant with them through Abraham (Gen. 12:13). It was later codified in what were the beginnings of the nation of Israel (Ex. 19:3-6). At the foot of Mount Sinai, a majestic display of God’s power consummated the covenant between God and Israel. It was like a supernatural wedding ceremony. God bound Himself to Israel and Israel to Himself.
This was how the prophets described the covenant—a marriage covenant. In Jeremiah 31:32, God is “their husband.” In Hosea 2:16, God says, “you will call me, ‘My Husband.’” And, in Isaiah 54:5, God reminds them that “Your maker is your husband.” God was the husband of Israel. Israel was the wife of God. It was a cosmic covenant, a bond of affectionate attachment between God and God’s people. So, when Israel broke this bond by affectionately attaching herself to other gods, it was nothing less than cosmic adultery.
Time and time again, Israel cheated on God. The prophet Ezekial recounted their treacherous two-timing this way:
“And after all your wickedness (woe, woe to you! declares the Lord GOD), you built yourself a vaulted chamber and made yourself a lofty place in every square. At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring. You also played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, to provoke me to anger. Behold, therefore, I stretched out my hand against you and diminished your allotted portion and delivered you to the greed of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were ashamed of your lewd behavior. You played the whore also with the Assyrians, because you were not satisfied; yes, you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring also with the trading land of Chaldea, and even with this you were not satisfied.”
“How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute, building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different.” (Ezekiel 16:23–34)
Israel was an unfaithful wife to God. She was an adulteress. And, she wore this label like a dirty shirt throughout her long history of cheating. The term itself reminded them of their unfaithfulness, infidelity, and even faithlessness (Mal. 2:16). It was a distasteful word associated with breaking their sacred marriage vows with God and incorporated a constant reminder of God’s eternal wrath for opposing His love.
The term was so integrated in the truth of God’s covenant with man that it was carried into the New Testament. Here, Christians are described as betrothed lovers of God who are waiting for her husband to prepare her home in heaven and consummate the marriage with His return.
Jesus, who is the heavenly groom, is preparing His wife as well. “Christ loved the church” in order that He “might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25). Like the Jews of the Old Testament, Christians are bound to God in holy matrimony. It is His new covenant.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.” (Jer. 31:31–32)
Therefore, who profess to have faith in God, but manifest an affectionate attachment to the world, are faithless adulteresses. James explains it this way: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Ja. 4:4). Spiritual adultery is opposing God’s wishes to be your only true love. Even worse, it is picking a fight with God, a fight we cannot win.
Disloyalty is Friendship with the World
Again, the word “friendship” denotes a bond of intimacy, obedience, and knowledge. Friends of God, the Lord teaches us, are disciples of God (Jn. 15:12-15). Consequently, friends of the world are disciples of the world.
In this context, the term “world” refers to a theological infrastructure that opposes God. It is a system of thought, behavior, living, morality, ethics, and institutions that are contradictory to God’s system. Paul describes it as strongholds, arguments, and lofty opinions that are “raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
Paul recognized the deceptive thinking of the world. He warned believers in Colossae to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). A mind that is shaped by the world is wired to think in ways that are contrary to the truth of God, viewing God’s design as absurd and upside-down.
To the Corinthians, Paul described the world as man-centered and Satan-directed. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). To the Romans, he said, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). In reality, the world’s thinking is upside-down and must be turned right-side up.
In this epistle, James called it “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” and full of “jealousy and selfish ambition” (Ja. 3:15-16). The wisdom that God provides is “pure” and “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere,” sowing seeds of peace wherever it goes (Ja. 3:17-18). True faith is “unstained by the world” (Ja. 1:27).
Scripture has much more to say about the world. It is a system of self-ism. Roman 8:7-8, for example, uses the word “flesh” as a synonym for this system. It says that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” The world, because it is self-seeking, is incapable of following the path God lays out. Instead, it conflicts with God’s design, even the design with which He made man. Therefore, it churns with hostility.
This is what we found in the earliest passage of the trial of loyalty. James says that conflict characterizes the world (Ja. 4:1-3). It festers feud. It desires dissension. It stirs strife. Contention is the shadow of the world because it is quarrelling within itself. It is demonically directed. It hates God and everything that is of God. For this reason, Jesus said, “if the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn. 15:18).
In short, the goal of the world is summed up in one word—pride. It is self-seeking, self-glorifying, self-leading, self-indulgent, and self-satisfied. Anything that prohibits self from attaining its selfish desire is nothing short of an enemy that must be defeated. Therefore, God is the enemy of the world. “Friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Ja. 4:4).
Disloyalty is Enmity with God
It doesn’t take a lofty education to know that an enemy is the opposite of a friend. Of course, James understood the difference (Ja. 2:23). Scripture tells us that an enemy of God has the “mind of death” (Rom. 8:6), cannot “submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7), cannot “please God” (Rom. 8:8), and does not have the Spirit of God dwelling within him (Rom. 8:9).
The enemy of God, which is an affectionate lover of the world, walks contrary to the “cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:8). He is “alienated from God” (Col. 1:21) and unreconciled to God (Rom. 5:10). He is, to put it plainly, not a Christian in the truest sense of the word. He cannot be a person of saving faith.
Maybe, this is James’ point. If you call yourself a Christian, but you act like a lover of the world, you are nothing short of an enemy of God. John, in his first epistle, nails this to the wall with fierce words:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” (1 Jn. 2:15-16)
Scholars differ on James’ intended audience at this point. Some suggest that he is tightening his focus in order to put the fire under seats of the self-deceived Christians—those who claim Christ, but love the world. The language of the epistle certainly suggests it. Until now, James has referred to his readers as “my brothers,” over eleven times (Ja. 1:2, 9, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14, 15; 3:1, 10, 12). It seems abrupt, even strange, for him to now call them “adulterous people” who are positioning themselves as God’s enemies (Ja. 4:4).
Scripture reinforces this idea. It never describes a sinner as a “friend of God” nor a genuine believer as an “enemy of God.” James would have known this. In fact, he used the phrase “friend of God” to refer to Abraham, the father of the covenant (Ja. 2:23). However, this may be James’ way to shake things up for his audience causing genuine believers to repent (Ja. 4:7-10).
Whatever the case, the point cannot be missed. Examine your faith and take appropriate action. If you have true faith, clean up your act. If you have false faith, repent and be saved. In the local church, both the saved and the self-deceived can exist. This is taught by Christ in the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-25). Both groups need to hear about the danger of disloyalty. And, it doesn’t get more dangerous than this, “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Ja. 4:4).
It is one thing to make God your enemy. It is something far different to make yourself God’s enemy. Consider the ramifications. Your threats don’t frighten God. His threats, however, should scare you silly. Do you know what God does to His enemies? Deuteronomy 32:41-42 reminds us:
“If I sharpen my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me. I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh—with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired heads of the enemy.”
There’s more. The prophet Isaiah has similar sentiments, “the Lord goes out like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his zeal; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself might against his foes” (Is. 42:13). Nahum tells us that God’s wrath is reserved for His enemies like a storehouse (Nah. 1:2, 8).
And more. The psalmists tell us that God’s enemies cannot hide from Him (Ps. 21:8; 68:21) and that He puts them under His feet to crush them (Ps. 110:1). They stand no chance. “His enemies lick the dust!” (Ps. 72:9).
Lest we think this is typical of God in the Old Testament only, Jesus adds, “as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before” (Lk. 19:27). Make no mistake, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Disloyalty to God sets you against God. It makes you His enemy. And, you don’t want to pick a fight you can’t win. Scripture tells us repeatedly that God’s desire is for you to be His friend. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). Friends of God embrace His love, not oppose it. Examine your faith and take appropriate action.