Notes for a house group study on James 4v13-5v6:
v15 “you ought to say “If the Lord wills…”” and v17 “whoever knows the right thing to do…” – this section is aimed at Christians.
v1 “miseries that are coming upon you” and v3 “will eat your flesh like fire” – this section is aimed at non-Christians.
In v11-12 James has been talking to people who think they’re above the law, putting themselves in the place of God the lawgiver. In v13-16, he continues addressing people who are putting themselves in the place of God; this time it’s people who think they’re sovereign over the future.
The passage as a whole is about humbling yourselves before God and being doers of the law. Whoever knows the law and doesn’t do it, for him it is sin. He’s calling them to be more Christian: “come on, Christ died to save you from that. Leave it alone now.”
The problem wasn’t that they wanted to trade and make a profit. The problem was they were boasting in their arrogance. But the fact that he aims this specifically at businesspeople suggests this is an issue that particularly affects them: people who have a hunger for more stuff.
This life is short, you know the right thing to do is humble yourself, be a doer of the law, and draw near to God so that he’ll draw near to you – i.e. prepare for what comes after this life. v3 talks about the rich laying up treasure. Where are we laying up treasure? In Heaven or on Earth?
v17 is about sins of omission. The fact that I haven’t murdered anyone, or committed adultery, or kept back labourers’ wages by fraud, doesn’t mean I’m not a sinner. It’s not just about abstaining from certain bad behaviours. Have I done the things God does command me to do? Have I loved my neighbour as myself?
v1 James doesn’t call these people to repent, he just says they should be weeping and howling. This is about non-Christians. v3 says their riches will not last, and they will count against them in the day of judgment, and in fact the corrosion of their riches will eat their flesh – it will be part of their punishment.
So for Christians listening in to what James has to say about these people, the point is: don’t envy the rich when you consider where they’re heading.
Also, v4 “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord”, so for Christians who are being oppressed by the rich (not sure that really applies to any of us, but), James says know that God hears your cries, and he is going to do something about it.
In v5 he condemns people who’ve lived in luxury, and the word “fattened” seems to point particularly to consumption of food. But considering other parts of scripture where God commands his people to feast, I don’t think we necessarily need to feel guilty about eating a nice dinner rather than just bread and water every day, and the Apostle Paul said we should eat and drink to the glory of God. It’s difficult to look at other people and say “she’s eating and drinking to the glory of God, but he’s just being self-indulgent”; I think we just have to examine our own hearts. Am I glorifying God by enjoying this, or just fattening my heart?
I kind of want to make a rule that if I give x amount to charity and only spend y on myself then I’m ok, but that would be legalism. God doesn’t give us rules like that. However, what James does make clear is if you’re treating other people as if they exist to make your life more comfortable and luxurious, then you’re definitely not pleasing God. I doubt any of us are fraudulently keeping back people’s wages, but there are more subtle ways of using people for our own gain. And the fact that James is addressing non-Christians suggests that if we’re living like that, we haven’t really understood the gospel. If our hearts are transformed by the grace God has shown to us, we’ll want to share that with others, not use people to make our lives more pleasurable.
As someone said: we should love people and use things, rather than loving things and using people.