Okay, I’ll admit it: unlike many of my Christian friends, I don’t typically speak of the devil, demons, or Satan. It’s not because I don’t believe in spiritual warfare: you can’t read the Bible openly and honestly without acknowledging the reality of spiritual forces, both good and evil. But I’ve also encountered too many instances in which the language is used too glibly. It’s the flip side of our cultural portrayals of angels, in which these terrifying beings of Scripture are domesticated into Gerber babies with wings.
James takes such things very seriously. The conflicts he sees in the church are not merely psychological matters but spiritual, and that perspective pervades the entire letter. In chapter 1, for example, he linked desire to temptation, sin, and death (vss. 13-15). In 2:19, he poked at the depth and authenticity of his readers’ faith by suggesting that “even the demons believe.” In chapter 3, he called the errant tongue a “fire…set on fire by hell” (vs. 6), and a few verses later, chastised believers for their pursuit of “devilish” wisdom (vs. 15).
Small wonder, then, that he offers these commands:
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:7-8a, NRSVUE)
As James insisted in the previous verse, grace is freely available to those who will humble themselves before God. Therefore, those who want what God wants will submit themselves to his authority and stop chasing the things of the world.
James has also said that those who wish to be friends of the world make themselves enemies of God (4:4). The term “world” is not used in its neutral sense, but in its theological sense of a worldly order opposed to God. Here, he seems to build on that earlier verse. Before, the equation was friend of the world = enemy of God; the revised equation is friend of the world = friend of the Enemy.
And people thought they were just looking to polish up their resumé.
The good news, however, is a continuation on the earlier offer of grace. Believers who resist the devil and his temptations will watch him flee. But this isn’t because believers possess some superpower. It’s because when they draw near to God in humility, God draws near to them in grace.
God comes near; the devil retreats.
We need to keep our understanding of spiritual warfare straight. The problem James is addressing is not that Christians have knowingly given themselves over to Satan worship. Rather, they’ve merely gone with the cultural flow, pursuing and prioritizing social status the way anyone else in the empire might have. Lovingly but firmly, James wants to shock them into the realization that in so doing, they’ve exchanged their birthright for a mess of pottage, succumbing to the wiles of Satan.
But again, the good news is that they don’t need to overpower Satan. That battle has already been won. All they need to do is realize the truth of their misplaced priorities, take steps to resist the temptation, and let God do the rest.
And as James will suggest in the coming verses, it helps if their hearts are in it.