There is a reading in daily Mass this week (Tuesday of the 7th Week of the year) in which James masterfully sets forth a fundamental aspect of our struggle against sin. He speaks of our disordered passions and double-minded ways. He assesses our problems and then offers solutions. The text from the Letter of James (James 4:1-10) is presented below in bold italics, while my commentary is shown in normal font.
I. Source – Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.
The text states simply that our problems center on our disordered passions. Notice that it is not the passions per se, but disordered passions, the passions that “wage war” within us.
Of themselves, the passions are good. Without hunger we would forget to eat or find it to be too much effort. Without anger, we would care little for justice and no longer pursue it. Without curiosity (a kind of intellectual passion) we would never ask or solve.
So the problem is the disordered passions, the passions that wage war and summon us to foolish pursuits and conquests. In the moment, our passions are over the top. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccl 1:8).
The text says that we covet but do not possess. Why? Because acquiring, our desire expands and we still feel empty! The promise that one can “have it all” rings hollow, because the meaning of “all” is ever expanding. It is like the mirage of water in the desert: always just ahead, always inviting us, yet never there!
And thus, as the text says, we rage. We acquire unjustly. We conquer, kill, and seize if necessary. But we will have what is “ours,” what we think we need, and even what we merely want. Collectively, we will sacrifice anything in order to acquire: family, children, health, sleep, you name it. We’ll do anything just to have a little more of something we can’t even really enjoy because we have to work so hard to get it. And then when we get it, we need something else.
When do we ever say, “It’s enough”? Greed drives many conflicts, within and without.
II. Supply – You have not because you ask not.
God will give us what we need; He will not necessarily give us what we want. But in the end, an essential solution to our deadly greed is to ask God for what we need and be grateful for what we have.
III. Slip – You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, miss to spend it on your passions. Yes even our prayers are often misdirected, spent on passing things of this world.
We don’t hesitate to ask God for money, for health, or for that promotion. But when do we ever ask for holiness, whatever it takes? When do we ask for the grace to forgive, to love our enemies, to have better-ordered priorities? Too often we don’t. But Lord, would you please do something about my arthritis?
And thus our prayers “slip” or miss the mark. We ask for worldly things and do not seek the things that matter to God. We don’t ask for what He really wants to give us.
IV. Spouse – Adulterers! Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wants to be a lover of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the Spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he bestows a greater grace; therefore, it says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
The Lord places our struggle here in personal and relational terms. Our disordered passions, our lust for this world, are a form of adultery. We prefer these other lovers to our true spouse, who is God. Adulterers!
And boldly, too, the text speaks of a jealous God, who will not so easily give up on us, who will seek to draw us back from our false lovers to His true love. He does this by repulsion and attraction. He resists the proud and seeks to break every form of pride in them, and He bestows grace on the humble.
Given the mess that we are in, given our disordered passions and wandering hearts, what are some remedies? The text presents them in two basic parts: submission and sorrow.
V. Submission – So submit yourselves to God. Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and have purified your hearts, you of two minds.
In the first place, we are to submit to God and draw close to Him. To submit is to be placed under the authority of another. Thus we must let the Lord have increasing authority in our lives as we willingly hear His word and seek to heed it. Paradoxically, it is this very submission that brings us increasing freedom. For the Christian, freedom is the capacity to obey God.
To draw near to God is seek His presence with increasing affection. Prayer is a way of paying attention to God, of being aware of His presence and work in our life. As we open the door to Him, He increasingly enters our life and goes to work repairing our disordered drives.
The text also speaks of resisting the devil. Note the “re” in resist; it indicates a repetitive action. We stand against the devil not just once, but again and again; it is a lifelong battle. But note that the text says that ultimately our resistance will cause the devil to depart.
And thus by this work of God our hands are increasingly cleansed from our sinful practices and our hearts are “purified.” I put purified in quotes because here it means more than just merely clean; it means single-hearted, free of all sorts of admixtures that come from being double-minded. James says elsewhere, The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). The fact is, we want too many conflicting things. This messes with our mind and further divides our heart. It is the source of a lot of our suffering and discontentedness.
God wants to heal this bad condition in us. He wants us to draw close and to submit to His authority and vision for our life.
VI. Sorrow – Begin to lament, to mourn, to weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.
There is a place for holy sorrow over our sins. This is very different from the gnawing guilt that comes from the accuser (who is Satan) or from our flesh and pride. St. Paul speaks of godly sorrow in Corinthians:
I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal … (2 Cor 7:9-11).
Therefore, James advises a healthy lament for our sins. He says that we should cease making light of the sinful world and taking too much joy in this present evil age. Sin should be mourned over, not laughed at or made light of.
Let us come before God humbly and let Him go to work to exalt and perfect us.