The Problem of Pride – James 4

Read the Passage: James 4

Pride and Self (4:1–10)

Of all of the topics that James could have addressed in his letter, the first two practical subjects that he brings to his readers’ attention are the related issues of the tongue (3:1–16) and human pride (4:1–17). James likely addresses these topics, for they are a common problem among all Christians. James begins his teaching on pride with two rhetorical questions, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” (Jas. 4:1). Then, as a means of illustration, James writes, “You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (Jas. 4:2a). These indicting statements show that pride automatically causes us to break four of the Ten Commandments—the sixth (“you fight”), seventh (“you lust”), eighth (“you cannot obtain”), and tenth commandments (“you covet”).

James 4:2–6 contains an often-misapplied verse in Scripture. Here James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask” (Jas. 4:2b). While it is true that the Lord desires for His children to bring their petitions to Him (cf. Ps. 50:15; Matt. 7:7–11), contextually, Jas. 4:2b is given to chastise the church for petitioning God in an incorrect manner—that is, with prideful intent. This is why in Jas. 4:3a James writes, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss.” In Jas. 4:4–5 James details how his readers were getting their asking (i.e., praying) wrong—namely, they were petitioning God with the goal of gratifying their own sinful pleasures (cf. Jas. 4:3b–4:4a) and of fulfilling worldly desires (cf. Jas. 4:4b–5). Yet, not wanting his readers to spiral into a tailspin of depression and self-pity on account of their sin, James writes, “But God gives more grace” (Jas. 4:6) and he quotes Prov. 3:34.

In rapid-fire succession in Jas. 4:7–10 James gives ten imperatives that demonstrate the power of humility and give a solution to believers who become aware of their own prideful condition. James writes: first, submit to God; second, resist the devil; third, draw near to God; fourth, cleanse your hands; fifth, purify your hearts; sixth, lament, mourn, and weep; seventh, turn laughter into mourning; eighth, turn joy into gloom; ninth, humble yourselves; and tenth, in turn, God will lift you up. The picture here is one of true repentance and turning toward God. Other Christian analogies of humility and/or repentance include: die in order to live, decrease in order to increase, be buried in order to rise, be last in order to be first, be powerless in order to be powerful, be submissive in order to be free, be weak in order to be strong, be poor in order to be rich, among others.

Pride and Others (4:11–12)

One of the marks of spiritual maturity is the practice of loving one’s neighbor as oneself (cf. Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39), which includes “not speak[ing] evil of one another” (Jas. 4:11). Indeed, to speak evil of another is to act in a prideful manner, exhibiting both a desire to tear down a brother and an inaccurate view of one’s own spiritual condition. Moreover, since the purpose of the law is to reveal sin (cf. Rom. 3:19–20) and to instruct in righteousness (cf. Ps. 119:105), to judge a brother is to misuse and to “judge the law” (Jas. 4:11) as being inadequate (cf. Matt. 7:1; John 7:24). To place oneself in authority over and to pridefully misuse the law makes one “not a doer of the law but a judge” (Jas. 4:11). This prompted James to write and to ask the rhetorical question, “There is one lawgiver who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” (Jas. 4:12).

Pride and Tomorrow (4:13–17)

After addressing the dynamics of the relationship between pride and self, as well as pride and others, in Jas. 4:13–17 James turns to another context in which pride can impact the lives of believers—that is, future planning. In this passage James does not teach that it is wrong to make wise choices today in light of future probabilities. Rather, he speaks against what could be called presumptuous folly—that is, making future plans without consideration of the contingency of man and the sovereignty of God. As was the case in Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (cf. Luke 12:16–21, 41–48), so here in this passage James uses an illustration related to finances and to business. Of course, James is not speaking against financial planning or making wise business decisions; rather, he is urging his readers to live their lives in light of and marked by a purposeful dependence upon God.

Application Questions:

  1. How would you define pride? Is pride always sinful or can pride be acceptable? Do you believe that pride is a problem for most believers?
  2. How important is unity within the Body of Christ (cf. John 17:20–21)? Why is so much emphasis placed upon love and unity in Scripture (cf. John 13:35)?
  3. While God’s grace is available to the repentant, how can we tell when our prayers and petitions to God are not correct? What is the proof of true repentance?
  4. How can we best maintain a mindset of humility, especially in contexts where pride is considered acceptable or even meritorious?
  5. Given the prideful nature of the human heart, how can we best confront sin in others—including the sin of pride—while avoiding the error of judging them?