Idolatry: Diagnosed, Defined, & Defeated (James 4:1-10)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin

The irritation you have with those around you is usually the result of the idolatry you have within you. But, someone may object: “Wait a minute! It’s not my fault! My fights are because of other people. They mistreat me, they hurt me, and they malign me.” While it is true that other people can be mean, James tells us that the source of our fights is not found in the actions of other people, but in ourselves. Biblically speaking, we have a people problem because we have an idolatry problem. When our desires become demands. Our unmet demands become conflicts. Our unmet demands reveal the idols in our heart. In today’s sermon, we shall discuss the evil of idolatry. Specifically, we shall diagnose it, define it, and defeat it.

  1. Idolatry Diagnosed: Fighting for my Desires (1-3). Conflict is inevitable. A sure sign of Christian maturity is not how well you avoid conflict, but how you respond to it. In order to respond to conflict appropriately, we need to understand what causes it: idolatry. James writes that our conflicts are the result of “your passions that are at war within you.” The “passions” mentioned in this verse indicate sinful passions and/or self-satisfying desires. It is important to remember that James is speaking to Christians. Inside the heart of every Christian is a battle between the desire to be obedient to God and sinful desires of the flesh. This battle results in conflict with those around you and with God above you. With those around you, the war within you causes you to demand, judge, and punish. You demand that your desires be fulfilled by them. If they fail to do so, you judge them and punish them as you deem appropriate. You use people for selfish gain. With God above you, the war within you causes you to either fail to ask or ask selfishly. In both cases, you fail to receive because “you do not ask” or “you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” God will not answer these requests because you attempt to use Him as a means to fulfill your idolatry. God is not a means to an end, He is the end of all things!
  2. Idolatry Defined: Friendship with the World (4-6). What is an idol? Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, wrote, “A counterfeit god is anything that is so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” Counterfeit gods are idols. Idolatry is a violation of the First and Second Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Ex 20:3-5). Christians can stray into idolatry when they seek friendship with the world more than obedience to God. James calls idolatry spiritual adultery. He writes, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

Idolatry is a major theme of the Old Testament Prophets because the children of Israel would violate the First Commandment by worshipping other gods. James says, “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” In Exodus 20:5, the Lord said that He is a jealous God. Like a husband who refuses to share his wife (or vice versa) with another man, so too, God refuses to share His children with idols. The Lord will never share affection and loyalty. Edmond Heibert wrote about verse 5, “The Holy Spirit, imparted to us by God at conversion, yearns enviously for our total loyalty and devotion to Him.” According to James in verse 6, what is God’s response to His children when they stray into idolatry? God “gives more grace.” It is amazing to consider how great God’s love is for us in that He continues to flood His children with grace that humbles them and thereby increases their humility (v. 6b).

  1. Idolatry Defeated: Resistance and Repentance (7-10). Having diagnosed idolatry (e.g., fights & conflicts) and defined idolatry (e.g., someone or something loved more than God), how is idolatry defeated? Submission to God is the only means of defeating idolatry (v. 7). What does submission look like? It is humbling yourself before God (v. 10) by:
    1. Resisting the devil. Submission to God means you serve Him alone. Paul instructed the Romans to “abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9). We must not be indifferent to the devil but we must actively and intentionally resist him. He is a liar (John 8:44). He seeks to devour (1 Peter 5:8). He seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10).  When we resist the devil in the power of Jesus, he will flee. Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
    2. Drawing near to God. As we resist the devil and he flees, we must turn to God. We need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not enough to know about God, we must know God. We have this promise that God will draw near to us when we draw near to Him. If we have been far from God, we will find Him waiting to welcome us just as the father did to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Our primary relationship is with Jesus.
    3. Cleansing your hands. As we draw near to God we become more aware of our own sinfulness. Cleansing your hands symbolizes that we cease to engage in sinful activities. We demonstrate our revulsion of sin by refusing to sin. If we do sin, we confess our sins and “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Because of God’s love for us, we love God and desire to obey Him.
    4. Purifying your hearts. Our hands are guided by our hearts so any lasting change of action must come from a purified heart. James is saying that we must not be double-minded. James previously said that a double-minded man is a man who doubts and is therefore “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). We must not be a double-minded person who is divided between love of God and love of the world. We need a heart change.
    5. Mourning over your sin. James writes: “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (9). This is the attitude of a person who understands the wretchedness of sin and grieves over it. Sadly, too many Christians have become desensitized to sin. A callous heart refuses to mourn over sin because it feels no remorse for sin. In Hebrews we are instructed to “exhort one another every day…that you may not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).

While we would like to think that all our conflict is someone else’s fault, it isn’t. Too often the conflict we have is little more than a selfish fight over our respective idols. How do you know if an idol has taken over your life? Would you sin to get it or sin to keep it? Does it have a considerable influence on your mood? These are just a few questions to help us root out idols so that we may have whole-hearted devotion to Jesus Christ.

Published by First Baptist Church of Scott City, MO

Bringing the love of Christ to a hurting world.

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