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Acting Out Humility

Today I want to teach you a truth from God's word that I think will change your life. If you grasp this truth and if you apply it, it will transform every working day, with its tensions, its gut-wrenching conflicts, its difficult people. If you come to understand the truth that we're unlocking in the book of James today, it's going to revolutionize your parenting and help you really love your children. It will also help you to stop throwing hand grenades and doing irreparable damage in relationships.

When you don't understand why certain people act the way they do, this truth will help you understand that. This truth we're going to teach today will help you understand the dark sides of yourself, those ugly things that come out of you that are venomous and surprising even to you. You wonder, "Where did that come from? What was the volume behind that? What's inside of me?"

Not only that, when you see and apply this truth then the actions of the family of mankind begin to make sense. When you read the headlines you will understand the real issues behind them. When you read about the Bosnians and the holocaust that is happening there, you'll know why it's happening. This principle gives reasons that are important, because you can apply them every hour of every day in every situation in every place you go. Because we're asking questions like these and we're going to answer them.

These kinds of questions: Why do parents murder their children? How did Jack and Mary end up in the divorce court? Why does the state senator slap his wife? Why do I have thoughts of mayhem and massacre on the highway during commuter traffic? How can a toddler cause me to act like the meanest shrew on all the earth? Why does this happen?

Now these and a host of related questions are tackled in one short sentence in the book of James, starting in chapter 4 verse 1, "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" Everything from personal dislike to international warfare is contained in that question. What causes it? The answer is this, he says, "Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" You see, this is a great opportunity this morning. A great opportunity this morning to understand something that God reveals to us. What he reveals to us is that we are not naturally humble people. Nobody in this room is naturally a humble, submissive, quiet person. But rather, we are all stubborn and demanding at heart.

Here James mates the external, visible behavior with the internal core issues of our hearts and souls. Here's the ugly and uncomfortable truth. The cause of the fights and the quarrels among us, in all of our relationships, is my desires. Now that word desires is the Greek word hedone from which we get the term hedonist, which is a person who pursues his or her own pleasure. That's a hedonist, a pleasure seeker. And it says these desires for pleasures, these immediate pleasures, these immediate satisfactions, battle within us. That word battle is the Greek word, strateuo from which we get the word strategy.

These desires are not dormant. They are in the middle of us and they are strategizing how they can be met. They have a cause and they are battling for that cause. And that, James says, is the reason why we have conflict and tension in every relationship that we can see in the world. Donald Kagan, a Yale historian, wrote a book called On the Origins of War. He says, and I quote, "Statistically, war has been more common than peace, and extended periods of peace have been rare in a world divided into multiple states." Why is that? It's because multiple states in this world have desires that battle within them and they want those desires to be fulfilled.

Will Durant, a famous historian, said that out of the 3,400 years out of human history that's been recorded, there are less than 268 years of known peace. The tensions build, but peace evaporates. War breeds, but peace dies. As Charlie Brown said, "Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate." We know what that's like. James takes the veil away and he says to us, he says to the church, "Let's have no pretending here. Let's have no pretense. No fake remedies. It is as true in the church as it is in the world, unless we know this truth and we take active steps against it in the power of Jesus Christ."

This will bring to us again the truth of why God sent his son. To give us peace at the core. To forgive us and make us at peace with him, so that we can be peacemakers. To help us understand this truth, I want to give you three R's today. Just to give you some hooks to understand this passage. We want to realize, recognize and repent. How do we live humbly with God? How do we combat this truth of our desires in our lives?

Realize the Principle

The first R is this: we need to realize the principle. "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within in you? You want something but you don't get it. You kill and covet but you cannot have what you want." What causes fights and quarrels among you? It's the principle of the blocked goal. I want something and I'm not getting it. Somebody's going to die here. Something is going to die here. If I have to kill a relationship for a moment to get what I want, so be it. That principle can help us understand seemingly senseless things. Absolutely cruel acts.

Last year, about this time the World Cup Soccer matches were concluding. Columbia had sent a team that had gotten there largely by the excellence of one of their defenders, Andres Escobar. In one of the final games of the World Cup, in which they were playing, the opposing team was marching toward the goal when one of their players kicked the ball. Andres Escobar tried to step in front of it and block it, but instead of the block hitting away from the goal he actually and accidentally hit it into the goal, scoring against his own team. When he returned home to Columbia, a week later he was found shot to death six times.

Now, you know why. You don't know the exact particular reasons, but you know why that is. Someone wanted something and they didn't get it. James says, In the principle of the blocked goal is the virulence and the violence of murder. That's why policemen hate going into domestic disputes more than anything else. If there is any place in this world where people have high expectations, where they want and desire something, it's in their family structures. There's no place that holds greater opportunity for disappointment and not getting what you want than the family. Because the desires are so high, and the people are just people. So when a policeman steps in that situation he knows that it is charged for violence.

When you realize this principle, you realize that the blocked goal is powerful enough to produce even murder. You realize this principle whenever you are ticked off. Whenever you are riled up, fit to be tied, fuming, raging—this principle is at work. You should know, you should realize, that at that point you wanted something and you didn't get it. Whenever you feel that surge of anger rising, whenever you see conflict in your life you should ask yourself, "What is it that I wanted that I didn't get?" It may be something very surface and foolish. It may be something very deep. James simply says it's your desires. It's your desires and they weren't fulfilled.

I have a theory. I know it will work in a perfect world. It's a theory about the left turn lane and the green arrow. Everybody should watch the green arrow and then, when the green arrow turns green everybody should count one, two three. And on three everybody should floor it at the same time. We could pour 25 cars through this green arrow. But the problem is, the theory doesn't work. The first guy is on the phone and the second person is applying mascara. And there all these beautiful car lengths of empty space sitting there being wasted when we could be getting through the green arrow. The third person is sending a fax. And so when this happens to me I sit back and I evaluate my theory and I say "We'll let's just sit here through two, three or four more cycles and just watch human nature and see if we can figure this out. It's a really interesting sociological experiment." But that's not what James says I have. James says you don't have a theory. You have a desire.

I have a passion to get through that green arrow. It's not a theory with me. It is a life and death issue. Now you know why this gospel preacher can absolutely lose it and act like a complete idiot at a green arrow. You know why. It's right here. James chapter 4, it's the principle of the blocked goal. We ought to ask ourselves the question, "What is it that I was after and why was it blocked?" Most of the time we're going to find it was an absolutely demeaning, miniscule pleasure—that for some reason, I had strategized that the best way to make my day perfect and hassle-free is to get through this green arrow.

We can reduce our relationships down to who watches what TV station. Who got the biggest piece of cake? Who was late for dinner and how cold was it and whose room was messy? Why do you have fights and quarrels among you? It's not to say that all those desires were wrong, but it is to say that we elevate those desires and we put turbo charge behind those desires. Then we act upon them because we are not by nature humble. We are by nature, demanding. We are stubborn. We will have our way, from Bosnia to the Board Room. That's why we have tension. From the high chair to the high court, from the nuclear family to nuclear war, this principle is the same. Fights and quarrels are because I wanted something and I did not get it.

So the principle is we are wanters, cravers, desirers and we want, with totally irrational energy, things that too often soothe only our fleshly, outward desires. To be comfortable, to have no interruptions, to have things be nice, for us to be appreciated, for our children to be compliant, for our wives to be adoring and our husbands to be above average, all these desires we have and we don't get them. So we get angry and the inferno begins.

Recognize the Consequences.

There's a second R here if we want to live humbly with God. The second R is we need to recognize the consequences. I can't spend much time on this, but let me show you what the consequences are. James does, in verses 4-6: "You adulterous people." This is not just a behavior issue for James. This is not just something you can flick off your sleeve like a mosquito that's landed. This goes right to the core. When I'm a demander, when I allow this desire to run my life and it must go my way, James says, something is wrong at the very core of your commitment. There's an adulterous heart, spiritually. "Don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'"

There are three consequences to having an unsubmitted, non-humble heart. The three consequences, number one you've seen already, its conflict and damaged relationships that we see around us. But the second one is that we become actual enemies with God. This has the ring of what Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 6 verse 4, "But no one can serve two masters. For either you will love the one and hate the other, or you will hate the one and love the other." And James is saying, if what you are doing, if what are pursuing is your own desires, then that is your own level and you're not going after the deeper things that God has promised you in his time. What you are choosing to do is run your life. You've allowed something to become an idol in your life and you've become a positive enemy with God. You dishonor your relationship by buddying up to the world's reward system and pursuing that with all your stubborn insistence.

Thirdly, we grieve the Holy Spirit. There is much debate about what this verse means, but I will tell you what I think it means—I am willing to be corrected by greater scholars than myself. It says in verse 5, "Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?" There's a debate whether that word 'spirit' should be a capital S or a small S. I take it to be a capital S. The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, because it tells us in other passages of Scripture that God is jealous for his children.

When we accepted Jesus Christ into our life and we said, "You are now my Lord and I will walk with you," we received the Spirit which calls to us and teaches us and is jealous over us with a proper kind of protective jealousy. But when we choose to live for our own desires we are saying, "I don't need the Spirit to teach me things that I wouldn't learn otherwise. I know what I need. I mighty well will be sure I will get it. I will do it my way."

That grieves the Holy Spirit. That's why a Christian who habitually lives in sin or a Christian who habitually lives with a hardened heart or a non-humble spirit is a miserable person. Because the Spirit, which God has given us, that wants to connect with him has been squelched. It has been stopped and stunted. And so we grieve the Holy Spirit.

These consequences are dire consequences. Take a good look at what happens to people who want something and apply all their emotional horsepower to get it. What you'll find is conflicted relationships. What you'll find is that they are hardened toward God and they are not hearing the voice of the Spirit that wants to teach them and guide them and provide for them what they most deeply desire.

Repent from the Heart.

Thirdly, and probably the most important issue in this passage is that we need to repent from the heart. Repent deeply from the heart. Here's what James says, here's the remedy for this, "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up."

What James is saying is that this is not going to be solved by changing our behavior. By gritting our teeth and revving up the energy index of our life. What he is saying is: if you see some hints of this conflict in your world, then you need to be aware that you need to be healed and renewed at the very core. God wants to go into my heart and into your heart and he wants to have the doors opened up and he wants to show us just exactly how deceitful, how wrongly motivated, how selfishly depraved our hearts naturally are. So that, in that repentant posture, he can meet us and take away the fear and show us how to live a new life. That radically changes—not only our outlook—but every relationship that we have.

Notice in this passage that it says that we are to wash our hands. We are to stop participating in obviously wrong external behaviors. It also says, purify your hearts. There's a deeper change that is needed. Not just trying harder or shaping up or layering it over with some kind of new behavior. We need to stop the damage that we are causing, or adding to, in our extended relational networks and before God because we are demanding people.

That means we need to look to God and repent deeply. That word means to turn. If you turn to God you'll find he is already waiting. It's the picture of the prodigal. It's the picture of one who says, "I'm at the end of my rope. My strategies have failed. Look what my strategies have done to the people that I say I love. I don't know what to do."

The Lord brings us this blanket and he says, "Wrap yourself up in this repent strategy. Humbly sit at my feet. I am going to touch and cauterize the places that are deepest in your heart and then I'm going to teach you how to love."

James says there will be deep sorrow here. When we see how our desires have wasted time, devalued persons, squandered resources, and fed our selfishness. When the Holy Spirit really reveals to us who we are, it's not a pretty sight. But notice in this passage that this is lovingly surrounded by the assurance that, though God opposes the proud—what a big opposition—he gives grace to the humble, even more grace. And notice it says, if we submit to God and resist the devil, that he will flee from us and if we come near to God he will come near to you. All these assurance in the midst of this sorrow.

This is the kind of repentance of a woman, for instance, who realizes that everything that she has done and every person she has affected in her life has been for the sake of control. Though it looked nice and the house was neat and the family reunion was planned and everybody was taken care of, the horrifying realization is, the Holy Spirit reveals, you did this out of selfish, prideful, demanding control. Nobody can ever pin it on you, but in your heart it's there. You had a strategy and you did it nicely, but it was demanding.

This is the kind of repentance of a man, for instance, who recognizes that his anger and fear has fueled his children's performances. He wants to look good and feel successful. The stuff and the opportunities and the coaching and the travel and all things of life were laced with the toxins of force and rage because the strategy was, "You're here to make me feel secure. My desire is that you will look good so I will look good." And when we see that in our hearts we realize we are not naturally humble people, we are demanding people.

If we are to be the people of God, we will not only see it and realize the principle at work, we will recognize the consequences and we will repent before God because he is our help. At that point we are exposed. Our desires, pursued with our strategies for self-importance and self-gratification, are made known. When they are made known then only God can help us. That's what he wants.

Didn't we once take care of that issue when we received Jesus Christ as Savior? James, as a loving coach inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, is saying, look into your heart, and continue the transformation. I want all your motives to be motives of humility.

Two weeks ago, my stepmother had a stroke. She is in a hospital now in a semi-coma. She can just barely respond to any kind of stimuli. This past week I went out there because I was hurting for my dad and I wanted to be of any kind of help that I could. So I spent a few days out there. The question is, as I go to something like that, "What is my desire? What do I desire for him, for me, for my family, for Louise?" I've become more aware as I've worked on this passage and it's wrestled me up one side and down the other all week. My desire, as I went, was that there would be no pain. My desire was that I would go, find answers, give the answers, smooth things out, come home, and say everything's fine. We trust the Lord. Heaven awaits Louise. We are going to get through this crisis okay.

Now, is there anything wrong with desiring that there be no pain? No, unless it becomes a strategy which I now demand. Because if I demand it, then I can't admit that there are some things that I can't answer. And because I demand that there be no pain and that things go smoothly and that our family looks like it's got it all wired, then I can't admit that there are some tough decision here and we don't have a clue. If my strategy, selfishly, is to have control over this situation and that there be no pain, then I can't enter in, with my dad, to the pain that he is feeling. We'll just keep it on the theological level. We will just not delve into it. We'll just be technical and medical and manlike.

Do you see how selfish that is? Do you see how demanding that is? Do you see why when people have a strategy in pain that they must pursue that they end up being angry with God because he didn't come through? You see, it's not always a simple thing. That's why we need the Spirit of God. We also often need a human counselor to listen to us, and somebody who's a faithful friend to confront us.

This goes deep in my heart. I'm not by nature a humble person. I don't want to be stripped and naked and staggered by my own sin. I resist this repentance. I fear what God will do with me when I get to that point. But that's the point, you see. God has said, "Do you need me? I've given everything for you. When are you going to trust me?"

Notice the difference between verse 1 and verse 10. In verse 1 it's our fights and quarrels and our desires. In verse 10 it says, "Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up." That's when we finally say, "Lord, I repent of my strategies. I want to turn over the fuel I've been burning to get my own way and—in your time, in your way, through your word—I want you to lift me up." That doesn't mean that we are passive blobs. What it does mean is that we seek our true pleasure, our true desire, which is to be at one with God.

Why do we consistently get satisfied and pursue Buck Hill when we could have Switzerland in the majesty of God? Why do we want to spend ten seconds shushing down this molehill when God has Vail waiting for us out there, with his pleasure and his timing? Why would we want to pursue the lust of the flesh, apart from security and community? When God says, "If you'll do it my way, if you'll trust me and follow me, I will give you pleasure upon pleasure, manifold joy upon manifold joy—not segmented little blips of destruction." That's what the Spirit promises us. He will lift you up in due time.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

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Sermon Outline:


How do we live humbly with God and combat our desires in our lives?

I. Realize the Principle

II. Recognize the Consequences.

III. Repent from the Heart.


Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up.