James: A Faith That Works – Part 8

James 4:1-10

There was an article in USA Today recently entitled: “Pizza Competitors Try to Top Each Other.”  The manager of a Domino’s Pizza in Terre Haute, Indiana, took out an ad in the local paper offering pizza in exchange for any 30 coupons of a competitor.  Well that really angered Brad Emberton, the manager of Zamora’s Pizza, so he took out an ad in the local college campus newspaper with a block of 30 coupons right in it.  And that night there were 125 people who descended on Domino’s demanding their free pizza.  There were so many that Domino’s had to rescind its ad and 25 people went home empty handed.

Bill Reid, the director of marketing for Domino’s, said, “The pizza wars are intense.  It was unfortunate.  I accept the blame and I hold no grudge.  I understand the logic,” he said.  “I don’t agree with the ethics completely, but I can’t fault them for that because it’s business.”

In today’s message we’re going to talk about controlling our ambitions.  James 4:1 asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”  And when ambition is out of control it creates havoc in nations, families, business, and even in pizzerias.  But when ambition is under control it can be a dynamic force for positive achievement.

A couple of Sunday’s ago we talked about bridling our tongues.  Well this morning I want us to talk about bridling our ambition.  Now I know that I’m speaking to some here today who are very ambitious.  Some of you have been driven to succeed all of your lives.  You are goal oriented, highly motivated, type-A personalities.  Some of you have possibly been so consumed by ambition that you never stop to evaluate what it’s doing to yourself or to others.  It’s just a way of life for you.  But it’s so easy in our success-oriented culture to sacrifice integrity, family, and even health in order to top the competitor.  That’s a danger we all face nearly every day of our lives.

So how can we be ambitious and yet maintain a spiritual balance?  How can we develop the gifts that God has given us to the fullest and yet prevent worldly desires from dominating us and injuring others? 

Well let’s look at this section of James today and hopefully gain some insight about mastering our ambitions.


I think we need to begin by admitting the reality of our inner desire

We all have some ambition for something within.  James calls them “…desires that battle within….”  

Some of us are very ambitious for possessions. 

We have a desire within for a comfortable home, and a nice car, and we’d like to own a boat or a vacation home.  We want to dress nicely and have enough resources that we don’t have to worry.   Some of you have possibly had as a goal that you want to become a millionaire by the time you’re 30, or 40, or 50.

Some of us are ambitious for pleasure. 

We don’t necessarily want to be rich; we just want to be happy and have a good time.  And your goal is, “I’d like to get married.”  Or, “I’d like to have children and a happy family.”  Or, “I’m just satisfied with the simple pleasures of life.  I want the freedom to play a little golf, to go fishing or to play tennis, and to eat out at McDonalds in Hawaii once in a while!”

Some of us are desirous of influence or power. 

We don’t want to be rich, and we’re not necessarily driven by pleasure, but we want to be esteemed.  We want people to respect us because of achievement.  “She owns her own company.”  “He’s the leading scorer in the county.”  “She has her doctorate you know!”  “He preaches at the best church in town.”  “He dates the prettiest girl in school.”

Max Lucado tells of a college basketball coach who was shaving when his wife called upstairs to inform him that Sports Illustrated was on the line.  He was so excited that he nicked himself shaving.  He was so eager for recognition for himself and for his college that he dashed downstairs, tripped and bruised himself up, and then he composed himself and said, “Hello.”  And the voice on the other end of the line said, “Yes sir.  I’m calling to tell you that for just .75 cents per week you can receive a one-year subscription to Sports Illustrated.” 

We’re ambitious for influence and for esteem to the point that we’ll oftentimes do ridiculous things trying to get it.

But it’s important for us to understand that these inner desires are not evil in themselves, they just need to be harnessed.  Years ago, I read a book that had an impact on my thinking.  The book is called Ride the Wild Horses, by J. Wallace Hamilton.  The wild horses he referred to are the untamed impulses of human nature. 

He asks, “What do you do with the wild horses of human instinct, the desires that beat within the heart of every human being?” 

He said that out west, when a cowboy got hold of a wild stallion, he had one of three options.  First, he could shoot the horse and walk.  And some people’s idea of what they’re supposed to do with their ambitions is self-negation, don’t have any desires.  Or the cowboy could just let the horse go wild and not try to tame the horse at all.  And some people’s idea of what to do with the desires within is just self-indulgence—if it feels good, do it.  But the experienced cowboy knows that the solution is to tame the horse and ride it.  And the stronger the horse’s instincts, the more potential that horse has for achievement.

So the Christian life is not self-indulgence, and it’s not self-negation, but the Christian life is self-control.  It’s not necessarily wrong to want possessions.  Instead that instinct motivates us to provide for our families, and to have enough to give some away.  But the desire for possessions has to be harnessed or it can destroy. 

It’s not sinful to desire pleasure.  For instance, the desire for sexual pleasure is one of the primary motivations for getting married.  But you know that that desire has to be controlled or it can consume us. 

It’s not wrong to want to be powerful or influential.  In fact, 1 Timothy 3:1 says, “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.”  If nobody wanted to have influence then there would be no leaders in the church, or in our community.  But that love of power has to be harnessed or, like a wild horse, it can throw us.

You see, those are instincts placed within our hearts by God for our benefit.  But those wild horses have to be tamed or they will eventually destroy. 

A good example of that in the Bible is Saul of Tarsus.  Saul was so ambitious for power.  He wanted to be a rising political star in Judaism.  He was so ambitious for that that he persecuted Christians to the point of death.  And when he ran out of Christians in Jerusalem, he then began to go to other cities to arrest them.  But God broke Paul’s pride.  He blinded him and showed him that he was wrong.  And Paul later wrote in Philippians chapter 3, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ … I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…” (v. 8). 

But Paul’s desires weren’t negated, they were now just channeled.  He became very ambitious as a missionary.  He wanted to win the whole world for Christ.  He described himself as a “fool for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  And in Colossians 3:23 he advises us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.


But we also need to acknowledge the dangers of ambition.

James 4 talks about some of the hazards of inner desires. 

Uncontrolled ambition creates conflict with other people

James says, “Where do wars come from?  Where do quarrels come from?  They come from these desires that battle within you” (v. 1).

Abraham Lincoln’s two sons were once bickering with each other and somebody said, “Abe, what’s wrong with your boys?”  And Lincoln said, “The same thing that’s wrong with the world.  I’ve got three walnuts and both of my boys want two!”

And so many of our ambitions depend on the denial of somebody else.  In order for me to succeed it’s often necessary that somebody else fails.  For one team to win a championship somebody else had to be defeated.  For you to be the owner of the largest insurance agency in the state of Iowa somebody else has to come in second.  For you to be elected to congress somebody has to come home without a job.  And that can really lead to conflict—not only in the world, but also in the church.

I have a preacher friend who preached a revival at a church some time ago, a church that was split right down the middle over an issue.  So an elder, his family and friends, sat in one half of the church and then left through the side door.  Another elder, his family and friends, sat in the other half of the church and then left through the back door so they wouldn’t have to speak to the other group.  And that conflict between those two groups killed the church.  There was absolutely no spirit.  The source of the conflict, you may be wondering?  The elder who coached the church softball team had benched the son of the other elder!

What causes wars and conflicts?  Is it not because of your desire for esteem, even a position on the ball team, that battles within you? 

James says, “You want something but don’t get it.  You…covet, but you cannot have what you want.  [And] you quarrel and fight” (v. 2).

Now these uncontrolled desires not only create conflict with others, but they also create an inner conflict. 

In verse 1 James talks about those things that “battle within” us. 

You see, we know that we’re supposed to love people and so we feel guilty inside when we take advantage of them.  And those desires create a civil war in our own hearts. 

First Peter 2:11 says we are “to abstain from sinful desires, which war against our soul.”

Galatians 5:17 says, “The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.  They are in conflict with each other….” 

So it’s not only the conflict “out there,” but there’s a conflict “in here” (pointing to heart).  Even if you don’t struggle with your conscience uncontrolled ambition can create a lack of peace, because no matter what you achieve it’s not enough.  No matter what you enjoy it’s not enough.

You see, if worldly ambitions are not controlled they often create inner dissatisfaction.  “I’m not content with what I have now, I’ve just got to do more next year.”  “I’ve accumulated some, but I’ve got to have even more by this time next year or I’m a failure.”  “People applauded yesterday, but will they applaud tomorrow?”  And there’s constant insecurity and so much discontent. 

Warren Wiersbe writes: “People at war with themselves are always unhappy people.  They never really enjoy life.  Instead of being thankful for their blessings they’re always complaining about what they don’t have.  They’re always looking for that magic something more that will change their lives.”

What are the dangers of ambition?  Conflict with other people.  Conflict inside.

But the greatest danger of uncontrolled ambition is that it creates conflict with God. 

In verse 2 James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (v. 2b). 

“You’re not praying,” he’s saying.  You get so caught up in the pursuit of worldly desires that your spiritual life gets negated.  And when you do try to pray your requests are completely selfish.

Verse 3: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” 

We pray things like: “Lord, please help me to win the Mega Millions in the lorrery.  And if I do, I’ll give away 90% and just keep a mere million for myself!”  James says that we don’t pray for God’s will to be done in our lives, we pray for God to fulfill our earthly desires.  And then we get angry when He doesn’t respond accordingly.  And he warns us that we can become so friendly with the world that we actually become enemies of God.

“You adulterous people,” he says, “don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?” (v. 4a). 

The Bible speaks of the church as being the bride of Christ.  So when we flirt with the world, or we have a brief affair with the world, we’re being unfaithful to the groom.  And when that happens God is jealous. 

James says in verse 5, “Do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies (or is jealous) intensely?” 

When Angela and I got engaged 38 years ago I gave her a ring.  We went out for a romantic evening and I gave her the ring, and she really liked it.  But what if, at that point, I would say, “Angela, there’s something else I want to show you,” and I bring out an identical ring and show it to her and I say, “I’m going to give this one to Laurie, your roommate.  She’s been a good friend to us, she’s been a real supporter and encourager of our relationship, and I just want to show her how much I appreciate her.”  Now what do you think her reaction would be?!

She would say, “David, you are so thoughtful and sweet!  That’s one of the reasons I love you and want to marry you.”  No way!  She’d say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!  You just find you another girl to marry, buddy!  You’re off your rocker!!”

You see, there is a jealousy that’s normal and healthy.  And if you don’t get jealous of your spouse who is flirting or having an affair with another, then you don’t really love your mate.  And since God loves us intensely, He is jealous and angered when we flirt with the world.  We can’t be friends with the enemy and friends with God at the same time. 

In 2 Timothy chapter 4, verse 10, there’s this tragic reference to a co-worker of Paul named Demas.  It says, “…Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me….” 

That’s why in 1 John 2 we read, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (vv. 15-17).


So the big issue this morning is, how do we develop control of ambitions?

I want you to see from this passage of Scripture in James three suggestions that should help us to ride well the wild horses of human instinct.

First, decide what you really want in life. 

Make a decision about what you really want in life and then don’t look back. 

Verse 4 says, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (v. 4b). 

But you know what?  We don’t immediately choose to become a friend of the world, we kind of gradually choose to be a friend of the world.

Somebody has pointed out that there is first “friendship with the world” (James 4:4), that results from being “polluted by the world” (James 1:27), and then we become “conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2).  And the sad result is being “condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32).

You see, we just nonchalantly get sucked into the value systems of this world, and then we dabble in the church, and we become what James calls, in verse 8, a “double-minded” person.  There’s a part of us that wants to choose for God and a part of us that wants the things of the world, and we’re never really satisfied.  We’re just kind of vacillating between the two. 

Vance Havner spoke of a lukewarm Christian who had “just enough religion to feel miserable at a bar, but not enough to be happy at a prayer meeting.”  And that’s the way a lot of us are—double-minded people.  And I think what we need to do is to make an irrevocable choice of what we really want in life.

Now if you want more than anything else in life the possessions of this world, and the pleasures of this world, and the esteem of this world, then you go get it!  You become a thorough materialist, or a hedonist, or you become a social climber.  But at the same time be honest enough with yourself, and the church, that you kind of drop out of the church and you quit pretending, because you’re making yourself miserable and you’re an embarrassment to the kingdom of God. 

That’s why Jesus said, “I’d rather you be hot or cold.  Don’t be lukewarm because I’ll spew you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).  And I’ll be honest with you this morning, I believe the pagans who make no pretense at being Christian are having a more fulfilling and happier life than somebody who is vacillating and is double-minded all the time.

But there’s a better way!  There’s a better choice.  And that is that you make an irrevocable decision that you want more than anything else to follow Jesus Christ.  And then you don’t look back.  Now it’s not that you’re perfect, but I mean that you make a choice and you never waiver about who you want to be.

Joshua urged the weak-willed Israelites to make a choice of their loyalties, because they’d been dabbling in some of the worship of the pagans because there were sensual practices there.  And in Joshua chapter 24 the prophet said, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (vv. 14-15). 

Many people have that verse on a plaque in their home—“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  And if you’re going to control your ambitions then you’ve got to make an irrevocable choice and say with the song writer, “I have decided to follow Jesus—no turning back.  The cross before me, the world behind me—no turning back.  Though none go with me, still I will follow—no turning back, no turning back.”

So decide what you really want in life.

Secondly, deepen in your spiritual relationships. 

Living in this success-oriented culture, if you’re going to have the Lord’s values then you’ve got to make just a one-time decision, but it has to be a constant deepening process in your life.  We sing that song, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face,” and then “the things of the earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Look through the rest of this passage in James and see how he’s talking about how we deepen in our relationship with God. 

He says in verse 6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (v. 4b). 

Now the world will tell you to be proud of who you are, or to be self-esteemed about what you’ve accomplished.  And God says over and over again, “You be humble about who you are.  You acknowledge who is in charge here.”  Now the reason that God wants us to be humble is not because He’s a tyrant and likes to put us down, it’s because He wants us to be teachable and ready to receive.  He wants us to humble ourselves so that we can deepen in our understanding of Him.

Dr. Bill Colson, an esteemed educator, told of a test that was given to students from six different countries to determine their math skills.  The American and French-Canadian students finished at the bottom.  The Koreans finished at the top.  But here’s the amazing thing.  Only 23% of the Koreans felt they were adequate in math, but 67% of the Americans thought they were wonderful mathematicians.  You see, the Americans were the highest in the category of self-esteem, but they were the lowest in performance.  Now which of the two groups do you think is going to strive to do better?

You see, we don’t need to come before God feeling confident and arrogant.  We need to come before God and say, “Lord, I need help.  I need to be taught.”  That’s why James is saying, “Humble yourself.  God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble.”

And he says in verse 7, “Submit yourselves, then, to God.”  And that word “submit” is simply a military word that means “get into proper rank.”  You are not the General, He is.  You are the private.  Then James goes on to say, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” 

When you’re living in this world Satan is going to come to you to try to make this world’s attractions very appealing to you.  He came to Eve and he said, “Boy, doesn’t that look good!  You need to have some of that!”  He came to Jesus and said, “Look at all those kingdoms.  You need to have those!”  And he will come to you and say, “Just look at this world.  It looks so good!  Those pleasures look good.  That power looks desirable.  And those possessions, well you’ve just got to have them!”  But James says, “Now if you’ll just resist the devil, he will flee from you.”

You know what, I think we sometimes give the devil more credit than he really deserves so that we can excuse ourselves and say, “It’s just impossible to resist.”  C.S. Lewis pointed out that, “The devil is not the antithesis of God, he is the opposite of an angel.  The devil is not omniscient, he is not all-powerful, and in God’s power we can resist him, and he will flee!”                

“…the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world, John said (1 John 4:4b). 

And James says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (v. 7)

And then he says, “Draw near to God…” (v. 8a). 

And the tense of the Greek word James uses for the word draw means to continue to draw near to God, it is to be an ongoing action.  Somebody said, “There are two views that the Christian ought to covet.  One is the devil’s back as he is leaving, and the other is God’s face as he is drawing near.”

Now how do you draw near to God?  Well you do it continuously.  You worship regularly, you have your own private quiet time where you have devotions, you associate with Christian people, all so you can rub off those value systems of the world and “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

And then James says, “Wash your hands, you sinners….”  Your hands are symbolic of your outward activity.  “…and purify your hearts (or your attitudes), you double-minded.”  In other words, be really sorry for your sins.  “Grieve, mourn and wail.  Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (vv. 8b-9).

I heard a couple of Russian women who were being interviewed by the preacher of a Christian Church in Los Vegas recently after attending services at his church.  These women were out of a very formal, lethargic, Russian Orthodox Church.  He asked them what they thought of the worship service and one of the Russian women said, “Can I be frank?”

The preacher said, “Yes, you certainly may.”

And she said, “To tell you the truth, I was shocked!  I never came to church and laughed before.”

I heard that and I thought, “How sad.  No joy?”  The Bible talks a lot about the joy of the Christian.  Jesus said, “May my joy be in you…” (John 15:11).  David said, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1).  Then the disciples were “overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20).  Paul exhorts in Philippians 4 to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (v. 4).

But here James in essence says, “Don’t you dare laugh!  If you’re going to deepen in your relationship with God, you start crying.”  What he’s saying is don’t be frivolous.  Before rejoicing comes repentance.  Before resurrection comes the cross.  And before you have any right to smile and to rejoice as a Christian you’d better repent of sin.  You better say, “I’m sorry, Lord.  I’ve had terrible thoughts about how to gratify my selfish ambitions.  I’ve hurt people.  Please cleanse me of my selfish ways.” 

Jesus said, “Blessed (or happy) are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). 

But before you’re going to be blessed, or before you’re comforted there’s got to be a time of mourning.  And if you’ve allowed the worldly value system to be your system—and you’ve run over people, and you’ve hurt your family, and you’ve just put God on the back burner—then the place to start is to grieve, and mourn, and weep, and say, “Lord, I’ve really messed up.  Help me to get it straight.”

So, decide what you really want in life, and then deepen in your spiritual relationships. 

And then, finally, delight in God’s ultimate approval. 

James closes out by saying, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (v. 10). 

I’m going to tell you something, if you don’t humble yourself then God will humble you.  But don’t wait until he humbles you, because it will hurt!  On your own free will humble yourself, and it says, “…he will lift you up.

Let me ask you what is a simple, but hopefully a thought-provoking question.  And the question is this: Just who are you trying to impress?  Who are you trying to impress right now?  Why are you driving yourself to accumulate more—more status, more wealth, and more headaches?  Are you trying to impress your enemies?  Is it really worth all that just to spite them when they don’t really care about you anyway?  Are you trying to impress people in the world that you don’t even know?  They might find out who you are, but they’ll soon forget you.  Are you trying to impress your close friends and family members?  If they really love you, they’re going to be close to you whether you’re a great success or not.  Are you trying to prove something to yourself?  Are you so insecure that the only esteem you get is by accomplishing more this year than last year, even to the point that you drive yourself unreasonably?

Maybe it’s time that we seriously ask ourselves, “Whose approval really matters?” 

Remember the rich fool?  He said, “I’ve got more crops than I can put in my barns.  I’ll tear down these barns, I’ll build bigger ones, and then I’ll say to myself, ‘Boy, you’ve sure got a lot of things now!  Wine, women and song for you!’”  And what did God say?  He said, “You fool!  Tonight, you’re going to die, and then what?”  (See Luke 12). 

And one day we’re all going to stand before the judgement seat of Christ, and the only opinion that’s going to matter at all is the opinion of Almighty God.  And I don’t think He’s going to be all that impressed with the title that sits on your desk, or the size of your bank account, or the number of people who know you and call you by name.  What’s going to matter is, did you know the Lord Jesus Christ?  Were you humble, were you gentle with people, were you kind and generous, and were you a person of integrity? 

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). 

And the more you deepen in your relationship with God, the more you become sensitive to those things that please God, then that’s what becomes important to you—regardless of how other people feel about it.

Someone once shared this poem with me.  It’s entitled, “Who Will Clap for Me?

I am often dramatic, sometimes ecstatic

in the role I play on the stage of life.

I bow, and smile, and bask in the limelight,

hoarding each moment of thunderous applause.

But when the curtain is pulled for the last time,

and when the crowds have dispersed and the stage is dark,

Who will clap for me then, Lord?  You?

Do you ever think about God applauding you?  The Bible does say that in the end He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21), but do you ever think about God cheering you on?  Max Lucado wrote a book called The Applause of Heaven in which he suggests exactly that—that we ought to be sensitive, not to the applause of men, but the applause of heaven. 

Do you really want to control your ambitions?  Then don’t negate them, don’t let them run wild either, but put them under the subjection of Jesus Christ so that He can use them.  And you make a decision that that’s what you want more than anything else in the world, and then don’t look back.  And then you work at deepening your relationship with Him “until the things of this earth grow strangely dim.”  And you delight in God’s applause, not man’s.

Lucado wrote, “Would you really rather have a few possessions on earth then eternal possessions in heaven?  Would you really choose a life of slavery to passion over a life of freedom?  Would you honestly give up all of your heavenly mansions for a second-rate sleazy motel on earth?”

Well folks, that’s the choice you and I have to make every day of our lives.  Let’s choose wisely and submit ourselves to God!