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James 4:11-17: Where Humility Leads Print E-mail
Sunday, 10 May 2009

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While I was in college I was often involved in intramural sports. Even though I had never played organized football in my life, I decided to give flag-football a try. So I signed up to play with FCA, went to all the practices and attempted to understand the rules, and showed up to play. It did not take me too long to realize that I was not a very good flag-football player and that we were not the best team in the league. This point came crashing home on one particular play. We were facing the best team of one of the fraternities and had high hopes of taking them down a notch. The game had gone pretty well for us, well, at least the warm-ups had. On the first play from scrimmage, their quarterback threw a length-of-the-field pass that was caught by a diving receiver (and I mean, horizontal-to-the-ground diving) in the end zone. Nothing like a spectacular play from the other team to take the wind out of your sails. But this was not the particular play that I referenced earlier, no things were just getting started.

Later in the game, our offense had driven the ball all the way down the field and was close to scoring a touchdown. On a somewhat broken play, I found myself in the back of the end zone all alone (actually there was just nobody else open). Our quarterback heaved the ball in the air in my general direction. Not being the tallest man on the field (alright, I was the shortest) I jumped to try and catch the ball and came up with only the head of the defender in front of me, who was of course intercepting the ball and who was in fact the guy who made the diving catch earlier. Upon coming down I felt bad for hitting him the head (hey, even in the heat of battle guys have feelings) and so I patted him on the back. My teammates were yelling something about me pulling his flag, but for some reason I thought the play was over. Slowly the defender/receiver walked out of the end zone, only to take off in a dead sprint once he cleared the goal line. Needless to say, after a series of laterals and fancy moves, they ran the ball all the way down the field and scored. I remember walking over to the sideline and taking a knee (looking back I should have probably just prostrated myself in the dirt). I drank in a good dose of humility.

That play had a pretty profound impact on my approach to intramurals. I never really expected all that much from the rest of my career. I was on more successful teams and had a lot of fun, but I tried to never take it that seriously. I never wanted to be judgmental toward someone because they made a mistake and I never had real high expectations. There is something about humility that changes us. It changes how we look at others and how we approach life in general. James teaches us this point in 4:11-5:6. He ended our passage from last week by calling us to humility before God (see 4:10). From there, he gives us three practical applications of such humility. We will look at the first two today and the third next week. This morning I want us to consider the two ways that humility should change us according to James 4:11-17.

First, we will not speak evil against one another (v. 11-12).

The passage begins with an imperative in verse 11a. Look at that with me. James has dealt at length over the issue of sinning with our tongue. He has told us to be slow to speak (1:19) and defined true religion in part as one who can bridle his tongue (1:26). He pointed out the hypocrisy of praising God with the same mouth that we use to curse our brother (3:9-12). And here he commands his readers to not speak evil against one another. The idea seems to be that of slander and speaking lies about a person. This is one of the sins that flow from selfishness and jealousy. We put others down in hopes that that will make us look better. We focus on the struggles of others (be they real or not) to keep from focusing on our own. And before we know it, we are speaking evil against a brother. James is commanding us to stop such action.

James goes on to explain some reasons for this prohibition in verses 11b-12. Look at those with me. First, he tells us that when we speak evil and judge our brother, we actually put ourselves above the law. As James pointed out earlier in the letter, the law, the law of Christ, calls us to love our brother. If we speak evil against him, then we are not loving him. In one sense, we are acting as if we are above the command to love our brother. We set ourselves up as the lawgiver and judge. Yet, the obvious problem with this is that we are neither one. In fact, James goes on to tell us: There is only one lawgiver and judge and He is the Lord. His final question, namely who are you to judge your neighbor, shows that humility is still the issue. To speak evil against our brother is an act of pride and arrogance.

Before we move on, let me ask an important question concerning this passage: Is James contradicting Paul’s call for us to judge those inside the Church? In 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul is condemning the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife, he writes in verse 12: For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? Paul commands the Church at Corinth to pass judgment on this person for his sinful actions. To further complicate the issue, in the passage we read to start our service, Jesus says: Judge not, that you be not judged (Matthew 7:1ff). So do we judge or do we not? We must realize that different issues are being addressed in these passages. Paul is calling for the Church to deal with a person who is living in open, unrepentant sin, which is exactly what Jesus commanded in Matthew 18. Jesus is dealing with severe and unjust judgment that fails to take into account one’s own sins and struggles. James’ point is closer to that of Christ: we must not unjustly judge one another and speak slander against each other. Yet, none of these passages cancel each other out. There are times when we must judge those in open, unrepentant sin. At the same time, we must avoid speaking evil against a brother and judging unjustly.

Since it is Mother’s Day, let me offer a quick point of application to husbands and children. Men, you must not speak evil of your wives by running her down to others or your children. She will not do everything perfect, but you need to be humble and thankful for what she does. The same thing goes for children. Be humble and appreciative of all that your mom does and avoid ever speaking evil of her, even if you are ‘just joking.’ Let’s humble ourselves in these ways.

Second, we will not presume on what the future holds (v. 13-17).

It appears that some of the original readers were making some big business plans with no regard for the Lord. Look at verse 13. They were going to move to a new city, spend a year there, and make a profit. These are not necessarily sinful activities, but the attitude that feeds the idea that we know what the future holds and are even in control of it, is sinful. If those who speak evil against a brother set themselves up as lawgiver and judge, then those who presume on the future set themselves up as sovereign. ‘We are in control of our lives,’ they reason.

Yet, just as we are not the lawgiver or the judge, so are we not sovereign. Look at verse 14. How can we know if we will even have a ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow,’ much less the next year? And as our current economy is showing us, who knows if we will be able to make a profit on any business venture we take. To make such plans is presumptuous. Our lives are fleeting. We are here today and gone tomorrow. Things change at a rapid pace and we simply do not know what the future holds. We are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. It is our pride and arrogance that leads us away from such truth. Look at how James describes it in verses 16. When we make presumptuous plans, we demonstrate pride and arrogance. We boast that we know what will happen and James calls such boasting evil.

So then, is James telling us in these verses that we should never make plans? No, he is simply telling us that we need to be humble in all of our planning and entrust our lives to the only true Sovereign. Look at verse 15. The only thing that is really different from the two statements is that the statement in verse 15 is conditioned upon the Lord’s will. Both statements involve making plans, but the second statement recognizes that God might have different plans. That can be a difficult condition to put on all of our planning. The older I get the more I realize that my plans just don’t always work out. At times, this has brought me great frustration. Let me illustrate. I just always assumed that I would meet my wife before I was finished with college. Now, in one sense, I did meet my wife before I graduated, but we were not married for another three years. Those were some hard days watching all my friends get married and starting their families. Yet, the Lord had a perfect plan for my life and He gave me Glenna just in time. Of course, after we were married, we figured (like so many newlyweds today) that we would wait a few years and then have some kids. Needless to say, that plan did not work out either. It wasn’t necessarily a bad plan, it just wasn’t the Lord’s plan to give us children exactly when we wanted them. Rather, His plan involved us coming to Missouri, adopting Isaiah, and having this Church support us through it all. What a great plan indeed!

If we are going to entrust our plans to the Lord in this way, then we must humbly believe in His sovereign control and abundant goodness. He is sovereign over everything and He is good to His own in everything (see Romans 8:28). We need to say with Eli who was given terrible news from Samuel about what God was going to do: It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him (1 Samuel 3:18). Or we need to say with Job whose suffering was legendary: The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). May we learn to humble ourselves before God and entrust all our plans to His sovereign goodness.

Yet, if we really want to find the best example of humility in loving others and humility towards the plans of the Father, then we must look to Jesus our Savior. Even though He had committed no sin, they spit in His face, hurled insults at Him, and mocked Him on the cross. And as Isaiah foretold (Isaiah 53:7), He responded with no slander and did not revile in return. Rather, He continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). We know that He submitted to the Father’s will because we have heard His prayer in Gethsemane: …not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:39). And He is not just our best example, He is our only hope. Through His obedience to the Father’s plan, now we can humbly submit as well. He gives us victory over our selfishness and pride. Thus, be humbled by the cross this morning and let that humility lead you to love one another and entrust your lives to the Lord. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 21 May 2009 )

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