The Evil of the Flesh: James 3-4

James 3‑4  •  20 min. read  •  grade level: 8
In James 2 the apostle has given us different tests whereby we can prove the reality of those who profess the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In James 3- 4 we are warned against seven different forms of evil which are characteristic of the profession and into which, but for grace, any believer is capable of falling:
1. the unbridled tongue (ch. 3:1-12);
2. envy and strife (ch. 3:13-18);
3. unbridled lust (ch. 4:1-3);
4. the friendship of the world (ch. 4: 4);
5. the pride of the flesh (ch. 4:5-10);
6. speaking evil of one another (ch. 4:11-12);
7. self-will and self-confidence (ch. 4:13-17).
1. The unbridled tongue (ch. 3:1-12)
(Vs. 1). The apostle prefaces his warnings against the unbridled use of the tongue by exhorting us not to be many teachers. The apostle is not speaking of the right use of the gift of teaching (Rom. 12:77Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; (Romans 12:7)), but of the propensity of the flesh to delight in teaching others, and of its eagerness to take part in ministry. This tendency may exist in all, whether gifted or otherwise. Even where the gift of teaching exists, the flesh, if allowed, can easily misuse the gift to feed its own vanity. Apart, however, from the possession of gift, we are all in danger of attempting to teach others that which is right, while forgetting that we ourselves may fail in the very things against which we warn others. One has said, "It is far easier to teach others than to govern ourselves," and again, "Humility in the heart makes a man slow to speak." To teach others and fail ourselves only increases our condemnation.
(Vs. 2). Let us remember that in correcting others we may be offenders ourselves, for we all often offend, even if at times we do so unconsciously. In no way is it so easy to offend as in words. The man that can bridle his tongue will be a full-grown Christian, a perfect man, able to control every other member of his body.
(Vss. 3-5). This leads the apostle to warn us against the unbridled use of the tongue. The bit in the mouth of the horse is a small thing, but by it we can compel the horse to obey. The rudder is a small thing, but with it great ships can be controlled in spite of "fierce winds." The tongue is a little member which, if a man can control, he can govern the whole body. If not bridled, the tongue can become the means of expressing the vanity of our hearts by condemning others and exalting ourselves, for it can boast "great things." It can thus become the source of great mischief for, though "a little member", it resembles a little fire that is capable of destroying an entire forest.
The hand and the foot can become instruments for carrying out the will of the flesh; but no member of the body so readily and easily expresses our will, exposes our weakness, and reveals the true state of our heart, as the tongue. It is easily inflamed by malice in the heart, and inflames others, doing endless mischief by one idle and malicious word.
(Vs. 6). The apostle describes the tongue as a fire that not only kindles trouble but keeps the trouble in existence. It is capable of instigating every form of unrighteousness, and thus becomes a world of iniquity. It can by its evil suggestions lead to every member of the body being defiled, and stir into activity the whole course of fallen nature. The evil spirits of hell find in the tongue a ready instrument for their destructive work, so that it can be said it "is set on fire of hell."
(Vss. 7-8). The tongue is untamable by nature. Every kind of creature has been tamed by mankind, but no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Not only does it defile the body, but it can poison the mind. It has been truly said, "Many according to the flesh would avoid giving a blow, who cannot restrain a passionate or hard word against a neighbor." How easy it is by a thoughtless or an unkind word to poison the mind of a brother against another.
(Vss. 9-12). Moreover, the tongue can be thoroughly inconsistent, for, while capable of blessing God, it can also curse man made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth blessing and cursing can proceed. This is contrary to nature, for no fountain can send forth sweet and bitter water, neither does a fig tree bear olives nor a vine figs. By the ordinance of God, the nature of a thing induces products according to its nature. Christians, as born of God and morally partakers of the divine nature, are in speech and acts to be consistent with God's ways.
The apostle is not speaking of the tongue when used by grace and restrained by the Spirit, but of the tongue used under the influence of the flesh and energized by the devil. Nothing but the power of the Spirit filling the heart with the grace of Christ can restrain the tongue. When the heart is enjoying the grace and love of Christ, the tongue will speak in grace out of the abundance of the heart.
2. Envy and strife (vss. 13-18)
The apostle, having in trenchant terms exposed the evil of an unbridled tongue, now warns against envy and strife. In this connection he draws a striking contrast between the wise man and those who entertain envy and strife in the heart.
(Vs. 13). The wise man, with understanding of the mind of God, shows that he is such, not by boastful words, nor necessarily by any words, but by good conduct and works carried out in meekness which is the outcome of true wisdom. Too often the flesh seeks to display itself in boastful words and ostentatious works. Such is not his way.
(Vss. 14-15). In contrast with the wise man, there are those who allow bitter envy and strife in their hearts. The evil, as ever, commences in the heart; and envy in the heart leads to boasting, and boasting to lying against the truth. How often the envious man will seek to hide his jealousy by protesting that he has no rancor in his heart, but is only resisting evil and standing for the truth. If, under the pretense of exposing some evil and telling a brother the plain truth for his good, we deliberately say things that are offensive, we may be sure that malice in the heart is behind our offensive words. How often have the most malicious words been excused by quoting the scripture, "Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend." How few would be able to quote the words which directly precede, and which would warn us that we should not use this scripture lightly, for they ask the question, "Who is able to stand before envy?" (Prov. 27:4-64Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy? 5Open rebuke is better than secret love. 6Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. (Proverbs 27:4‑6)).
Alas! how easy to deceive ourselves in the effort to excuse ourselves. How easy to indulge our malice under the plea that we are acting in faithfulness. Malice is a weed very common in our hearts; yet how rarely will anyone confess to entertaining a malicious feeling in the heart, or uttering a malicious word with the lips.
Bitter envying and strife are not the outcome of the wisdom from above. They are earthly qualities, not heavenly; they express the feelings of the old man, not the new; they are of the devil, not of God.
Moreover, we do well to remember that envy is always the confession of inferiority. To envy a man with a big income is to own that mine is smaller. In the same way, to be jealous of a man with gift is to confess that mine is an inferior gift.
(Vs. 16). If envy and strife in the heart lead to boastful and lying words in the endeavor to excuse and cover the envy, the boastful and hypocritical words will produce scenes of disorder and confusion, which open the door to "every evil work." Here, then, in plain and searching words we have laid bare the root cause of every scene of disorder that occurs amongst the people of God. Bitter envy and strife in the heart, finding expression in boastful and deceitful words, lead to "disorder and every evil thing" (JND).
Ah me! what hearts have been broken;
What rivers of blood have been stirred
By a word in malice spoken—
By only one bitter word!
(Vss. 17-18). In striking contrast with the activities of the old man marked by envy and strife, the apostle sets before us in the closing verses a beautiful picture of the new man marked by "the wisdom that is from above." We know that Christ is above, seated in the glory, and of God He is "made unto us wisdom." Christ is the Head of the Body, and all the wisdom of the Head is at our disposal. It has been said, "He is just as pleased to be Head to the simplest believer as to the Apostle Paul. He was Head and wisdom to the apostle, but He is ready to be Head and wisdom to the most unintelligent Christian." How true are these words! The very passage that tells us that "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world" immediately adds, "Of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, Who of God is made unto us wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:27,3027But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; (1 Corinthians 1:27)
30But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: (1 Corinthians 1:30)
). Alas! our own fancied wisdom often hinders us from benefiting by the wisdom from above–the wisdom of our Head. Good for us to own our foolishness and cast ourselves upon the wisdom that is in Christ our Head, to find that, however unintelligent naturally, we shall have wisdom given for every detail of our life and service.
If marked by wisdom from above, we shall bear the beautiful character of Christ. "The wisdom from above first is pure, then peaceful, gentle, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, unquestioning, unfeigned" (JND). What is this but a lovely description of Christ as He passed through this world?
The wisdom of the Head first deals with our hearts. It will lead us to judge the secret evil, so that we may be pure in heart. Then, in our relations with others, it will teach us to be peaceable. It will restrain our tongues and the natural love of contention, and thus lead us to seek peace. Seeking peace, we shall express ourselves with gentleness rather than in the violent manner of the flesh. Instead of the aggressiveness of the flesh that ever seeks to assert itself, we shall yield to others, with readiness to hear what they may have to say. Moreover, the wisdom from above is ready to show mercy rather than hasty to condemn. It is "unquestioning" and "unfeigned". It does not seek to make a pretension of great wisdom by raising endless questions. It is marked by simplicity and sincerity. The wisdom from above thus produces the fruit of righteousness, sown in a spirit of peace by those who seek to make peace. The wisdom from the Head will never produce a scene of disorder and strife. The one marked by this wisdom will make peace and, in the peaceful condition that is made, will reap the fruits of righteousness.
What ice-bound griefs have been broken;
What rivers of love have been stirred
By a word in wisdom spoken—
By only a gentle word!
3. Unbridled lust (ch. 4:1-3)
(Vss. 1-3). The apostle has spoken of disorder and strife amongst the professing people of God. Now he asks, "From whence come wars and fightings among you?" He traces the wars amongst the people of God to the lusts of the heart finding expression in the members of the body. To gratify lust, the flesh is prepared to kill and fight. In a literal sense, this is true of the world and its wars. In a moral sense, if we are bent on carrying out our own wills, the flesh will ruthlessly belittle and override everyone that hinders the fulfillment of our desires.
If our desires are legitimate, there is no need to fight amongst ourselves to obtain them; we can ask God. It is true, however, that we may not obtain an answer to our prayers, because we may ask with the wrong motive of gratifying some lust.
4. The friendship of the world (vs. 4)
(Vs. 4). The lust of the flesh leads the apostle to warn us against the friendship of the world, which offers every opportunity to gratify lust. The world is marked by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has manifested its enmity to God by rejecting and crucifying the Son of God. For one professing faith in the Lord Jesus to enter into friendship with the world that has crucified the Son of God is to commit spiritual adultery. "The friendship of the world is enmity with God." Our attitude towards the world plainly declares our attitude towards God. "She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth," states the Apostle Paul (1 Tim. 5:66But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. (1 Timothy 5:6)). Habits of worldly self-indulgence bring death between the soul and God. "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him," writes the Apostle John (1 John 2:1515Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)). "Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God," declares the apostle James (vs. 4).
5. The pride of the flesh (vss. 5-10)
(Vss. 5-6). The apostle proceeds to show that behind the friendship of the world there lies the pride of the flesh. Desirous of being somewhat, the flesh naturally turns to the world, seeking to find in its riches, social position, and honors that which will gratify its craving for distinction. It is not in vain that Scripture warns us against the world, nor will the Spirit that dwells in Christians lead us to lust after the things of the world. On the contrary, He gives grace to resist the world and the flesh, as it is written, "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble." If we are content to be little and nothing in this world, power and grace will be given us to resist the flesh and the world.
(Vs. 7). To meet the pride of the flesh seven exhortations follow. All are so opposed to the natural pride of our hearts that nothing but grace ministered by the Spirit will enable us in any measure to answer to them.
First, the apostle says, "Submit yourselves therefore to God." Grace alone will lead to submission. The sense of the grace and goodness of God will give such confidence in God that the soul will gladly give up its own will and submit to God. Instead of seeking to be somebody and something in the world, the Christian will cheerfully accept the circumstances that God orders. The Lord Jesus is the perfect example of One whose confidence in God led Him to submit perfectly to God. In the presence of the most sorrowful circumstances, when rejected by the cities in which He had wrought His miracles of love, He said, "Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight" (Matt. 11:2626Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight. (Matthew 11:26)).
Secondly, the apostle exhorts, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Submitting to God and being content with such things as we have will enable us to resist the devil's temptations to exalt ourselves by the things of this world. As in the temptations of our Lord, the devil may tempt us by natural needs, by religious advancement, or by worldly possessions. If, however, his temptations are met by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, his wiles will be detected and he will not be able to stand against the grace of the Spirit that dwells in us. The Lord has triumphed over Satan and, in His grace, we can so resist the devil that he has to flee.
(Vs. 8). Thirdly, the apostle says, "Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you." The devil resisted has to flee, leaving the soul free to draw nigh to God, to find that He is very nigh to us. If, like the Lord in His perfect path, we set Him always before us, we shall find, even as He did, that God is at our right hand and, with His being near to us, we shall not be moved (Psa. 16:88I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (Psalm 16:8)). Drawing near to God is the expression of the active confidence in Him and dependence upon Him of a heart moved by grace to find that His throne is a throne of grace.
Fourthly, the apostle says, "Cleanse your hands." If we are to draw nigh to God, we must judge every act unsuited to His holy presence, not putting our hands to anything that defiles.
Fifthly, the exhortation is, "Purify your hearts, ye double-minded." It is not enough to cleanse the hands; we must also judge the evil of our hearts. The Pharisees could make much show of outward purification by washing the hands, but the Lord has to say, "Their heart is far from Me" (Mark 7:3, 63For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. (Mark 7:3)
6He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (Mark 7:6)
). The one who ascends the hill of the Lord and stands in His holy place must have "clean hands, and a pure heart" (Psa. 24:44He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. (Psalm 24:4)). The heart is the seat of the Christian's affections. These need to be purged of every object not compatible with God's will.
(Vs. 9). Sixthly, the apostle exhorts, "Be afflicted, and mourn." If led by the grace of the Spirit of God, we shall feel the solemn condition of the professing people of God, and in their sorrowful condition find no ground for rejoicing. The Christian has indeed his joys which no man can take from him, and can rejoice in the grace of God that works in the midst of the evil of the closing days. Nevertheless, the hollow laughter of the professing religious world, and its false joys by which it deludes itself and seeks some relief from its miseries, will lead the heart that is touched by grace to mourn and weep.
(Vs. 10). Seventhly, the apostle says, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up." We may well be humbled as we think of the condition of the professing people of God, but above all we are to be humbled because of what we find in our own hearts. The humbling is to be in the presence of the Lord. It is an inward work by which the soul is made conscious of its own littleness in the presence of God's greatness. The natural tendency is to seek to exalt ourselves before one another; only grace will lead us to humble ourselves before the Lord. As we so do, in His own time He will lift us up. Attempting to lift ourselves up, we shall be humbled.
It will be noticed that these seven exhortations imply that we are in the midst of a vast profession characterized by the evils against which we are warned. So far from submitting to God and resisting the devil, Christendom is increasingly rebelling against God and submitting to the devil. Careless in its ways and lustful in its affections, it passes on its way with laughter and gaiety instead of affliction and mourning, proud of its achievements instead of being humbled by its condition. Moreover, to answer to these exhortations is only possible in the power and grace of the Spirit that dwells in us (vs. 5). To those led by the Spirit, the condition of the vast profession will rebuke pride, and lead them to humble themselves before God, to find grace in the midst of all the failure, and glory in the day to come, when those who humble themselves now will be lifted up, for "many that are first shall be last; and the last first" (Mark 10:3131But many that are first shall be last; and the last first. (Mark 10:31)).
6. Speaking evil of one another (vss. 11-12)
(Vss. 11-12). The apostle has warned us against the pride of the flesh that seeks to exalt self. He now warns us against the tendency to belittle others by speaking evil of them. To speak evil of others is an indirect attempt to exalt self, and is therefore the outcome of self-importance. Love would not, and could not, speak evil. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” Hence evil-speaking surely indicates that pride and malice, rather than love, have found place in the heart.
Moreover, the one speaking evil of his brother has forgotten the royal law, which exhorts us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Again, the law explicitly states, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." According to the standard of the law, our brother, so far from being disparaged, is to be an object of love, his reputation safe at the lips of his brethren. When it is otherwise, we are not even living according to the standard of the law. Clearly, then, to speak evil against our brother is to speak against the law; instead of being "doers of the law", we act as if we were above the law. We judge the law rather than allowing the law to judge us. Moreover, to transgress the law is to slight the Lawgiver and to usurp His place. If our brother has done wrong, the Lawgiver is able to save or to condemn according to His perfect wisdom. Who are we that we should judge one another?
Are we then to be indifferent to evil in one another? Far from it. Other Scriptures instruct us as to how to deal with evil when the sad necessity arises. This Scripture warns us against speaking evil. The one that speaks evil against his brother, is not dealing with the evil, and has no intention of doing so. He is simply speaking evil in order to disparage his brother. Well for us to remember, when tempted to gratify a little bit of vindictive malice by speaking evil of our brother, that we not only sink below what is proper to a Christian, but we do not even fulfill the righteousness of the law.
7. Self-will and self-confidence (vss. 13-17)
Finally, the apostle warns us of two evils that are often found together: the self-will that leaves God out of our circumstances (vss. 13-14), and the self-confidence that leads to boasting in our own activities (vss. 15-17).
(Vss. 13-14). Without reference to God or our brethren, the flesh can say, "We will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain." Self-will decides where to go, how long to stay, and what shall be done. There is not necessarily anything wrong in these things. The wrong is that God is not in all our thoughts. The life of self-will is a life without God. Life is viewed as if our days were at our disposal. We forget that we know not what may be on the morrow, and that our life is but a vapor.
(Vss. 15-17). On account of the uncertainty of our circumstances and the transitory character of life, our wisdom is to walk in lowly dependence upon the Lord and in all our walk and ways to say, "If the Lord will." Alas! the flesh can not only boast in doing its own will, but rejoice in its boasting. We are therefore warned that, when we know what is good and yet in self-will refuse to do good, it is sin. The apostle does not say to do evil is sin; but not to do good, when we know what is right, is sin.