There are things we need, and things we merely want. The former are few and simple. We have physical needs that concern our survival: food, shelter, sleep, and so on. We have emotional needs that concern our well-being: to be loved, to belong, to be safe. But the latter category, our wants and desires, can be very broad and growing broader by the minute.
You’ve probably had the experience of seeing something in an advertisement or in a store, and thinking, “You know, I could use one of those.” You begin to convince yourself of how you need it. Never mind that you didn’t need it just two seconds ago, before you saw it… Truth is, we want things. We know we’re not supposed to want things, or at least too many or unimportant things. So we convert them to needs, which makes it more acceptable. Even children pick up on this early; when they really want something they don’t think they’re going to get, they whine, “But I need it!”
Hmm. I wonder where they got that from?
And to make it even more complicated, some of our desires do stem from unfulfilled needs. The lack of love and acceptance, of a foundational sense that we matter, may drive us to seek satisfaction in things that can never fill that aching void. Status, success, wealth, attractiveness, prestige: the list goes on. We fight to climb another rung on some social ladder, only to find eventually that the ladder goes on forever and doesn’t lead where we had hoped…
In previous posts, we’ve seen how James tackles the way the status-seeking behavior of his readers is leading to conflict. True wisdom and the health of our Christian community demands that we reevaluate our desires and priorities. When we’re in conflict with someone else, what is it we really want? Wisdom? Truth? Unity? A spirit of humility and compassion?
Or do we just want to win, to prove we were right?
Once we’ve begun to explore with all honesty what we want, we need to begin asking will all humility what God wants. And James gives us a clue, albeit a somewhat cryptic one:
Or do you suppose that the scripture speaks to no purpose? Does the spirit that God caused to dwell in us desire envy? (James 4:5, NRSVUE)
This is one of those places where comparing translations helps you know that there are some ambiguities in the text. Translators disagree on how to take the second phrase. The New International Version, for example, reads:
Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? (James 4:5, NIV)
Note that this translation implies that James has a particular passage of Scripture in mind, even if nobody knows for certain what it is. Meanwhile, the Common English Bible says:
Or do you suppose that scripture is meaningless? Doesn’t God long for our faithfulness in the life he has given to us? (James 4:5, CEB)
The first two translations take the word “spirit” to refer to the human spirit, not the Holy Spirit; for clarity, then, the CEB goes further and translates the word as “life.” But even given these differences, what might we infer from James’ teaching?
In the first translation, that troublesome second phrase reads like a rhetorical question, one that expects the reader to say, “Well, no, of course not.” In that case, what God wants is for us to turn away from envy.
In the third translation, what God wants is for us to live a faithful life. Here, we have to remember that the context is one in which James has already called his readers “adulterers” (4:4). Faithfulness, in other words, is a relational term; we are called to be true and faithful to our covenant relationship with God. The second translation brings this home: what God wants, what God longs for, is the “spirit he has caused to dwell in us.”
Put differently: what God wants is us, for us to be in a covenant relationship with him.
. . .
Needs, wants, desires: we all have them, and we can easily get them confused. We may carry around a fundamental sense of inadequacy which drives us to pursue things that can only dull the need for a moment, a season at best. Bringing that sense of shame to our reading of James, we have a choice. We can read it as a scolding: Get your act, together, losers! You call yourselves Christians? And it’s true: James is indeed scolding his readers and not mincing words.
But inside that scolding is an invitation and a word of hope. Beloved, don’t understand? Your identity is not in things. Your value — and the value of your sisters and brothers — is not in your social standing or what you own. Your identity and value are in the fact that you belong to a covenant God who loves you.
What does God want?
Better and more loving behavior? Yes, of course.
But more importantly: God wants you. Everything else follows from there.