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Manipulate God
- Or Submit to God?

(Sermon on James 4:1-12)1

By Gary F. Zeolla

1) Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?
2) You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.
3) You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.
4) Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
5) Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously"?
6) But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
7) Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
8) Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
9) Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.
10) Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
11) Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.
12) There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? (NKJV)2


"Name it and claim it. Just confess it and you'll possess it. Blab it and grab it!"

Many readers have probably heard these or similar sounding phrases. They are the trademarks of the "positive confession" movement. When I was first became a Christian, I came across this type of "gospel." I heard the first two of the above phrases quite often. The third, of course, is a disparaging way to refer to this movement.

As I read the Bible for myself, I began to realize that this type of "gospel" was not the true Biblical Gospel. Numerous passages seemed to indicate the Christian life was not one of trying to manipulate God into giving you what you want. I came to believe this is exactly what "positive confession" is - trying to manipulate God.

One of the major passages that helped me to come to this realization is the one before us - James chapter 4:1-12. In studying this passage, I realized James is doing anything but telling his readers to positively confess their desires to God. In fact, he is telling them and us the exact opposite - we need to submit our desires to God and not try to manipulate Him into fulfilling them.

Fallacy of Positive Confession

The main verse in this passage that caught my attention in this regard was verse three, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures."

In this verse, we are told there is a condition on whether God answers our prayers or not - are our desires godly? This point the "faith" preachers seem to miss. God is not someone who has to jump every time we ask something of Him. He has the right to say no. He is a personal agent who can decide whether what we ask is for our good or not.

The "positive confession" people seem to think God is some kind of impersonal agent we can manipulate at will - sort of like electricity. If I want to turn a light on, I do not have to ask the electricity's permission to use it. "Light, may I turn you on?" I just turn it on at will. These faith preachers seem to think God is like this. But He is not. He is a personal being.

If I wanted to borrow a car from a Christian friend, I would have to ask his permission first. If I did, he would probably ask me what I need it for. If I told him I had a hot date and wanted his car because it had a big back seat, I doubt very much he would say yes. However, if I said a child had just swallowed some poison and his car was the only one available to rush the child to the hospital, I am sure his answer would be different.

In other words, it is the motives behind a person's request which determine whether their request is a godly one and thus one God, as a personal agent, will choose to answer. But as we turn to this passage in James, we see that his reader's desires were not godly; they were worldly. In verse four he states, "Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?"

Here is one main reason why your prayer request may not be granted - what you are asking for you plan on using for worldly, not godly purposes, or your motives are wrong when asking.

Say, for instance, you are planning on going into Christian ministry. So you have been praying for a position at a church; but are you doing so because you believe you will bring glory to God working at this church or are you secretly desiring this position because it is a prestigious one that will impress people and bring glory to yourself?

The point is, not just what we ask for but the reason we are asking for it needs to be submitted to God. In the first part of verse seven, James writes, "Therefore submit to God."

In the flow of the passage this injunction would refer to not just what we ask for, but why we are asking for it. Have you submitted your desires to God? If not, this area is the place to begin if your prayers are not being answered. Why are you asking? Some soul searching needs to be done to answer this question.

In the second phrase in this verse, James brings in an interesting twist to this problem. He tells his readers to, "Resist the devil." Why does James mention the devil here? Could it be that not only are his readers desires worldly, but they are actually demonic? This probably means that what we desire or the reason we desire something could actually be inspired by Satan.

Now this is not the place to discuss the whole topic of spiritual warfare and what Satan can and cannot do. Suffice it to say here, when we present our request before God, we need to first stop and decide what is the source of this desire: is it to attain worldly ambitions; is it something that would please Satan; or is it a godly desire? This is the soul searching that must occur when God is not answering our requests.

Results of not Submitting to God

James begins this chapter with a couple of pointed questions, "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?" James then writes, "You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war."

By not evaluating the motives of our desires, we can not only be left trying to manipulate God, but it can cause a disruption within our Christian communities.

What we have here is a development of behaviors that can occur. "desires for pleasures" here in the NKJV is a translation of the Greek word hedonon (from which we get the word "hedonist"3). The Greek word can carry a negative connotation. So in this context it probably refers to illicit types of desires.4

When a person has unfulfilled desires boiling within him or her, it can lead the person to do all types of ungodly actions. Murder in verse two is probably not to be taken literally but in a figurative sense. It the same word Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount when he equates anger with murder. James uses the word in 5:6 to refer to the improper behaviors the rich have towards the poor. Basically, James is saying that to have illicit desires can lead one to act in ungodly manners towards others.

Of course, what comes to mind most easily in this regard is sexual desires. If someone is being driven by lust, the fact that a women is married is not going to stop another man from trying to get her for himself.

Unfortunately, I have seen a similar type of behavior occurring in "Christian" single's group. One person "steals" another's boyfriend or girlfriend. Needless to say, with this type of behavior going on, there is not going to be much peace, let alone Christian togetherness occurring in the single's group.

What makes matters even worse, is it is very doubtful that the one who "stole" the person probably did so because he or she thought that person was the one God wanted him or her to have. The person was probably just bolstering his or her ego by the action.

Sexual issues are just one instance where disruption of peace in a church can occur because the members are not submitting their desires to God but are acting out of worldly motives. A desire for another's business success, ministry, or any other situation where someone else has something you want could cause this type of back stabbing.

But not only can unfulfilled, ungodly desires lead to a break in relationships within the Church; but they can lead to a break with one's relationship with God. Notice the last half of verse two, "You do not have because you do not ask God."

The reason why those James was writing to were probably not asking God was because they somehow "knew" their prayers would not be answered. In the above example about the singles group, it is pretty hard to see how someone could honestly ask God to give them someone else's girlfriend knowing the hurt it would cause the jilted brother, especially if the person knew the only reason he wanted her would be to impress people with how he was able to "steal" someone's else's girl.

If you find it difficult to pray for something, maybe it is because deep down inside you know your motives in the request are not godly. This again, would require you to step back and submit these desires to God before offering them as prayer requests.

Not only can fostering ungodly desires lead to a crumbling of our relation with God and other Christians, but it can lead us to destroy our testimony before the world. This problem occurs when our actions deny what we say we believe. James deals with this problem in verse five.

Now this verse is one of the most difficult verses to translate in the Bible. Some versions render it as a statement followed by a question.5 Others as two questions.6 Some capitalize "spirit" while others do not.7

Since I could not find a version that exactly followed how I think the verse should be rendered, I will go with my own translation, "Or do you think that the Scripture speaks in vain? Does the Spirit who dwells in us lust to envy?" With this rendering I am taking James as asking two rhetorical questions.

In the first rhetorical question, James is referring back to the reader's behavior of friendship with the world mentioned in the previous verse. Numerous verses in the Bible condemn a Christian for following the ways of the world. "Come out from among them and be separate " is a constant theme of the Scriptures.8

If someone claims to believe the Bible and reads these passages the force is clear - Christians should be living lives that are different from the world's. If, however, you continue to live as an unconverted person, then despite your professed beliefs, you really do not believe what the Bible says. You are acting as if what the Scriptures say are "in vain" or meaningless. People in the world will quickly take you to task for this hypocritical behavior.

In the second rhetorical question, by capitalizing Spirit I am taking the word as a reference to the Holy Spirit, the second Person of the Trinity, who indwells all believers.

The Holy Spirit does not "lust to envy." By this, I take it that James is asking rhetorically if his readers think the Spirit has lust for things which belong to others. The readers are lusting for what belongs to others. So they are obviously not being led by the Spirit of God in their actions. Anyone can profess all they want about being born-again and filled with the Spirit; but if they continue to act and behave in an ungodly manner, no one, including non-believers, will believe their profession.9

Repent of Trying to Manipulate God

To summarize the above: James is describing professing Christians who live like they are not converted; who are quarrelling with their Christian brethren; who are not able to present their requests to God because of a nagging feeling something is wrong with their requests; who are desiring what the world and Satan have to offer rather than having godly desires; who are lusting after what belongs to others. If this describes you, the reader, then what should you do? James treats this in verses 6-12.

Verse six reads, "But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: "'God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'" Here James brings out the fact that God is opposed to the proud. Pride is a worldly attitude that needs to be repented of.

But in beginning this repentance, one needs to be reminded of the grace of God. God is willing and ready to forgive if one truly repents. But what does this repentance entail? In the second half of verse eight James commands, "Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded."

This is strong language! By "hands" here, James is referring to a person’s outward actions.10 "Heart" in the Bible is a more comprehensive term than in English. We generally use the term to refer to a person's emotions. However, in the Scriptures it refers to a person intellect, will, and emotions. In other words, a person's whole inner being.11

To repent, one must search their entire inner self, and repent of and ask cleansing for any ungodly thoughts, desires, and emotions they have. Any ungodly behaviors that have occurred as a result of these wrong and inner attitudes also need to be cleansed by repentance.

James continues in verse nine, "Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom." This is no minor "I’m sorry" that is needed. A person's wrong attitudes and behaviors should cause them to be totally broken before God. As the Bible says elsewhere, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart-- these, O God, You will not despise" (Ps 51:17).

If you have been living a hypocritical life, you need to break yourself before God in tears of confession. Being broken before God will also include humbling yourself before Him. The sin of trying to manipulate Him must be repented of. In trying to manipulate God, you have actually been trying to usurp His prerogatives.

This problem James brings out in verses eleven and twelve, "Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?"

In verse twelve, he is condemning a specific action that can occur as a result of ungodly motives: speaking against a brother. You wanted that guy's girlfriend so you started spreading nasty rumors about him to discredit him in her and other people’s eyes. In doing so, you have set yourself up as a judge of other people. Problem is, only God has the right to judge people.

You must remember who God is, He is the Lawgiver and the only One with the right to judge. In speaking against a brother you have again denied your belief in the Scripture with your actions. The law expressly condemns bearing false witness. By bearing false witness you seem to think you can rewrite the ten Commandments.

If this is you; if you have recognized your inappropriate behaviors, motives, and attitudes toward God and others and have truly repented of them, what next? After repenting, you need to believe the promises of God.

Promises of God

In this passage, there are three great promises from God that I have passed over until now. The first is in verse seven. After commanding us to resist the devil, James promises, "he will flee from us." Note, this is not "He may flee" or "He should flee" but a promise, "He will flee."12

Satan knows he is no match for a believer who is submitted to God. Hence, why James uses a word that indicates moving quickly from an area because of a presumed danger or difficulty. Satan runs because a submitted believer is a threat to him. He is a threat because Satan can not deceive the believer to do his bidding anymore. As such, a believer has no right to say "the devil made me do it." We have authority over Satan, and he will flee from us when we submit to God and resist him.

Next James promises in verse eight, "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you." The words "draw near" are used of the priests in the Old Testament when they drew near to God in the Temple.13 Thus, what was reserved for the priest in the old covenant is now promised to all believers in the new - the immediate presence of God. The picture here is that of the returning prodigal in Jesus' parable. God will come to you and surround you with His love when you draw near to Him in repentance.

Lastly, James promises in verse ten, "He will lift you up." The lifting up promised here is being lifted up to a restored fellowship with God. Nothing is greater for the believer than to be in loving fellowship with his Redeemer.


Through this passage we see that the Christian life is not one of "positive confession" which is really trying to manipulate God to fulfill our desires. On the contrary, the Christian life entails submitting our desires to God.

As you go about your Christian life, watch out for the temptations that the world and Satan will try to lay for you. Do some soul-searching: are your prayer request really coming from a heart submitted to God?

Do not think God must jump when you ask Him for something. Be forewarned, this attitude can cause many problems in your life and in your church. If you fall into these kind of attitudes, remember this passage as presenting how to deal with them.

1 This sermon was originally preached as a class assignment at Denver Seminary in 1990. The sermon was based on an "Inductive Bible Study" done on this passage for a class in Intermediate Greek. It was revised and updated for use here.
2 New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982. Used throughout, unless otherwise indicated.
3 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.
4 Edmond D. Hiebert. The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), p.243). The word is translated "lusts" in the KJV, MKJV, and LITV. This book is nto avaiable, but other commentaries by Heibert are, such The Gospel of Mark.
5 The problem with rendering it as a statement introducing a question (as in the NKJV) is it makes it sound like James is quoting an OT Scripture verse. But there is no OT passage close to it. At best, it could be said James summarizing the gist of several different passages.
6 The American Standard Version of 1901 reads, "Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying?"
7 There was no distinction between upper and lower case letters in the original manuscripts. The oldest manuscripts we have are "uncials" which means they were written in all capital letters.
8 2Cor 6:17; compare Exod 33:16; Isa 52:11; 2Cor 7:1; Rev 18:4.
9 The translation and interpretation followed here is basically that of John Calvin’s commentary on this verse. See Calvin's Commentaries. Vol. XXII (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, reprinted 1979), pp. 331-332.
10 Greek, cherios. See Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Vol.1 (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), p. 680.
11 Greek, kardia. T. Sorg, "Heart" in New International Dictionary of NT Theology. Vol.2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency, 1986), pp. 181-182.
12 The Greek word here is a future indicative (pheuxetai), not a subjunctive that "may" or "should" would require.
13 Greek eggizo. A.T. Robertson. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. VI (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1933), p.52.

Manipulate God - Or Submit to God? Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

The above sermon was posted on this website September 13, 1998.

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