“Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (James 4:5, AV)
I do not know how many times I was in line at the store, when a mother struggled with her child. The struggle went something like this. “Mommy, I want candy!” the mother trying to reason with the child comes up with some rational explanations as to why she will not buy the candy. “We have candy at home.” “Too much candy will make you sick.” “It will spoil your appetite.” “Candy will give you cavities and make you a diabetic.” Have you ever tried to reason with a two-year-old? It just does not work.
So, things escalate. The child moves from a request to a full-blown tantrum. The mother is embarrassed. She just wants to keep the child quiet. She dared not to do to her child what my mother would do with me. My mother would have taken me out into the parking lot for a public spanking. Of course, that was a different era. Today, the mother would lose her child and end up in remedial training in parenting, probably with community service. So, the mother caves and purchases the child the candy.
What has happened in this transaction between the mother and the child? Well, the child lusted for the candy and the mother lusted for peace and not to be publicly embarrassed. So, the mother by her actions has just taught the child that following his or her fleshly passions will be rewarded. The mother has learned that catering to one’s fleshly passions will bring peace. Thus, we are raising a generation of fleshly driven spoiled people who have learned that the best way to live is to please the flesh. The problem lies in the human spirit, which has not been tamed.
I believe that this is what James spoke of in this verse. This is a complicated verse and it has been translated in a variety of ways by different translators. After spending quite some time working through the translation, it seems to me that the AV (Authorized King James Version) hits the point more accurately. For, I see “spirit” as the subject of the phrase and “envy” as the direct object. (You can disagree with me if you wish and I will not be offended.) The word “lusteth” refers to a longing so that the thought here is that the human spirit in us longs to envy. This also seems to fit with the context of the entire section, dealing with worldliness and man’s fleshly longing for the things the world system affords. The example of the mother and child in the checkout-line at the store is a prime example of this.
Now, just to be balanced, another way this verse has been translated also presents a valid and connected truth. This one focuses on the nature of God. The ESV and others translate the verse this way. “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” (James 4:5, ESV). Here the thought is that God is a jealous God. That He created man and placed the spirit in us for a glorious purpose and man, because of his fallen nature, has corrupted that which God intended for good. The illustration of the mother and child at the store is also appropriate to demonstrate this truth.
While I believe the translation in the AV is preferred here, both these thoughts are correct. Yes, the fallen nature of man prompts him to long for the things of the world system, and God, being a jealous God, is grieved over man’s corrupted pursuits. The two truths go hand in hand.
For true believers, there are a few actions. First, resist the subtle lure of the world system that seeks to get us off track in our Christian walk. Second, have some compassion towards the unbelieving and witness to them. The only way they will find victory over their longing for the things of the world is the power of the gospel.