It doesn’t matter where you live, what you do for a living, or how you spend your free time, you have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience the wreckage of broken relationships. Infidelity, divorce, misunderstanding, fragmented workplaces, even death…these things touch us all, even in the “safe haven” of church. Broken relationships are everywhere.
But what breaks them? And how can they be restored? This is the question taken up by James in the fourth chapter of his epistle. James is a “horizontal” book, in that it is primarily concerned with the love that people ought to have and show for each other. Of course, as I’ve said before, the horizontal hinges on the vertical: where there is no faith, there can be no love.
Listen to what James says: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:1-4).
I can almost guarantee that you do not believe this. Not for one minute.
In November of 2012, The New York Times published an article by Lori Gottleib entitled “What Brand is Your Therapist?” In the article, Gottleib discusses something that she learned from Casey Truffo, a branding consultant:
This is something Truffo discovered in her own former private practice of 18 years, during which she saw a shift from people who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves better to people who would come in “because they wanted someone else or something else to change,” she said. “I’d see fewer and fewer people coming in and saying, ‘I want to change.’ ”
From a branding perspective, the fix was simple. At professional-networking events or in newsletters, her pitch went from “I treat people with depression and anxiety” to “Are you having trouble with the difficult people in your life?”
Like Truffo’s patients, we all desperately desire to locate our problems outside ourselves. You know what I mean: it’s not you, it’s him. It’s her. It’s this. It’s that. That’s why we disbelieve James. When Babu Bhatt tells Jerry Seinfeld that he’s a “very bad man,” Seinfeld is stunned. “Was my mother wrong?” he wonders. We’ve all been told our whole lives that we can do and be anything we want — in short, that we’re wonderful — and that we just have to overcome those external obstacles in our lives. If we can just fix those people (or remove them altogether from our lives), alter our circumstances, elect a different President, get a new job, and so on and so forth, then — and only then — will we be free and happy. James’ words — thatwe’re the problem — are horrifying.
James hits us hard by showing that the principle cause for relational breakdown has nothing to do with anything outside of us — it has everything to do with what’s going on inside of us. When we don’t have what we want, we’ll kill for it. When I’m not getting from you what I think I need, quarreling and fighting ensue. Once James puts it into words, it couldn’t be more obvious: our main problem in life is us. Walt Kelly put it most lyrically: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This puts us on a collision course with our culture. The culture tells us that our greatest problem, the thing that gets in the way of our happiness and freedom is something outside of us and that the only solution to this problem is inside of us: do more, try harder, figure out a creative way to manipulate your circumstances and get rid of the people who are getting in your way. But James turns this upside down. He shows that our greatest problem is inside of us and that the only solution is outside.
So, what is this outside solution that alone can restore relationships? James says that the solution is to “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:7-10). Humility then, is the answer.
C.S. Lewis said that you know you’ve met a truly humble man, “Not because he speaks low of himself, but because he doesn’t speak of himself at all.” This is a great distinction. Humility is not self-criticism; it’s the lack of self-concern.
But how do we become humble? What is it that God says to us when we submit ourselves to him, when we draw near to him? We can’t just say, “I have to submit myself and draw near to God…so I need to read my Bible.” We have to ask ourselves the next question: What does God say there?
The Bible is God’s single story of great sinners in need of, and being met by, a great Savior. We draw near to God through prayer and Bible reading, for example, because it is in those places where God reminds us again and again that things between He and us are forever fixed. They are the rendezvous points where God declares to us concretely that the debt has been paid, the ledger put away, and that everything we need, in Christ we already possess. This re-convincing produces humility, because we realize that our needs are fulfilled. We don’t have to worry about ourselves anymore. This in turn frees us to stop looking out for what we think we need and liberates us to love our neighbor by looking out for what they need. The vertical relationship is secure, freeing us to think about the horizontal ones—about others.
Once we are convinced again that we have everything we need in Christ and that his saving work is finished, our faith is stoked once more, and love – concern for others that overshadows a concern for ourselves – blossoms.
The Gospel stokes faith, faith produces humility (selflessness), and humility restores relationships.