What does James chapter 4 mean?
What is the result of living by the wisdom of the world, rather than the wisdom of God? What should Christians do when they realize that's the path they've been on? James answers those questions in chapter 4. This passage continues to build on the end of chapter 3. Previously, James described the so-called wisdom of the world: figure out what you really want out of life (bitter envy) and plan to get it for yourself at any cost (selfish ambition). He described this earthly, unspiritual, demonic philosophy as the source of disorder and all sorts of evil in the world (James 3:15–16).
James has been writing to Jewish Christians of the first century (James 1:1). Here, in chapter 4, James says to these very readers that a worldly, unspiritual road is the very one they have been following. This is what causes fights and quarrels among them. When people follow this road, they try to get what they want for themselves, frustrated by the people standing in their way. So, they fight, quarrel, even kill. Instead of trusting that they have a loving heavenly Father to provide in His perfect timing, worldly-minded people insist on fighting to get what they want.
James elevates our awareness of how serious this problem is by putting a sharp label on it: adultery. Are you following the wisdom of the world, while claiming to be a Christian believer? If so, you're cheating on God with this world system of serving yourself first and at all costs. You can't do both. If you make yourself a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God (James 4:1–5).
James writes that if in your pride you stay on that path, God will oppose you, but He will not reject you. Repentance is always possible. He gives more grace (James 4:6).
So, James's plea to those caught up in the wisdom of the world is simple: turn around. Submit to God. Resist the devil. Move closer to God. He will move closer to you. What grace! Cleanse yourself of sin, and be truly sad about it. Humble yourself by quitting your life's work of getting what you want, and trust God to exalt you far above anything you could have done for yourself (James 4:7–10).
God is the only judge. He wrote the Law. Don't make it your business to judge other people as if you are either the judge or lawgiver. That's God's job (James 4:11–12).
In true humility, Christians understand that their lives are fragile and short. Unless God allows it, they can accomplish nothing. Don't be so arrogant as to declare what you will do to gather good for yourself. That's just empty, arrogant, evil, foolish boasting. Instead, make your plans with the humble awareness that God may change them at any time (James 4:13–16).
The chapter also presents a unique aspect of Christian ethics. Rather than simply not harming others, the Bible actually obligates us to actively do what is right. As James says, it is sin to know the right thing to do, and choose not to do it (James 4:17).