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James seems to argue in James 4:4 that one cannot love God and at the same time, for example, have a career. Is this advocating some type of otherworldly Christianity? Does not the Scripture teach that God loves the world? Should not we also?
The language of this verse is very direct. James literally calls his readers "adulteresses" (a fact obscured by the NIV translation). This does not mean that he is addressing only women, but that he wants us to see that he is borrowing language from the Old Testament. The Old Testament pictures Israel as God's bride, who at the same time wanted to enjoy other "lovers," finding security in other gods and imperial powers (see Is 1:21; Jer 3; Hos 1--3). Given the New Testament bride-of-Christ language (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-24; Rev 19; 21), borrowing this language for the New Testament is quite appropriate. The "other lover" in this case is "the world"; that is, the values and goals of their culture.
The Christians whom James is addressing wanted to be successful and gain status in the world's eyes, while at the same time they were followers of Jesus. This parallels what Israel did in trying to serve both Yahweh and Baal. Israel, and especially the kingdom of Judah, never planned to give up the worship of Yahweh. All of his feasts were duly celebrated, his sacrifices made. The priests were employed to ensure this. But at the same time the people served Baal (and other gods), even erecting their altars in the courts of Yahweh's temple. Likewise these Christians were struggling for worldly status even within the church (Jas 4:1-2; compare Jas 2:2-4).
Jesus pictured a similar situation when he said, "No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and Money" (Mt 6:24). The issue is not how well one can serve this or that master, but that one cannotserve them both. It is impossible. It is impossible first of all because one has only so much emotional energy. If you are deeply invested in the values of your culture, you cannot have enough energy left over to have a similar investment in God and his values. If you are invested in God, you do not at the same time have the energy left to value what the surrounding culture values. We display what we value in our use of time, energy and money. All are in limited supply. All are placed at the disposal of what one is emotionally invested in. If these treasures go to one place, they cannot go to another.
Second, it is impossible to serve two because both are jealous lovers. Throughout the Old Testament, God presents himself as the one who demands exclusive loyalty. He is a husband who will not share his wife with anyone else, even if the sharing only happens when he is off at work! Likewise Baal (or whatever other god) demands more and more. What begins as a both-and arrangement slowly erodes into a Baal-only arrangement as Baal takes so much energy that the worship of Yahweh begins to be neglected. In the New Testament Jesus points to God's exclusive demand when he speaks about taking up one's cross and following him (see Mt 10:38). The person going out to execution on the cross has invested all--wealth, reputation, even life itself--in the cause for which he is dying; there is no future separate from that cause. It is this same total commitment to which Jesus calls all of his followers. For this reason the New Testament does not talk about a tithe--God wants it all (see 2 Cor 8:2-5).
James is doing nothing more than calling his readers to a similar total commitment. In the preceding verses we discover that the readers have been using two means to get what they want. First, they struggle with each other, perhaps including vying for power within the Christian community. Second, they pray. But, adds James, they receive no answers to their prayers. This is because they are trying to use God to gain their own ends. God becomes the "sugar daddy" to fulfill their desires, but it is desire, not God, that they are really serving. Both strategies, that of struggle and that of manipulative prayer, show that they are invested in the world. The one is clearly a direct and open struggle, while the other sounds very pious; the underlying commitments and results are the same. When push comes to shove they are committed to their cultural values, not to God.
Our verse, then, is a warning. They have become God's enemies by their commitment to the world. Is there any hope? The next verse tells us that God is indeed jealous, but then James goes on to point out that God gives grace to the humble. Yes, there is hope if they will humble themselves and repent. God is ready to give them grace.
Can one have a career and serve God? James's answer is no. The career or vocation of every Christian is to serve God. One might serve God within a given career, but the career must not be where one's heart is invested if the person is indeed serving God (and not God's enemy). How can we tell the difference? Watch what happens when there is a conflict of values. (The conflict can come over issues of personal morality, but more often comes over issues of corporate morality and goals or over the issue of commitment to the job, such as whether one will agree to a transfer.) Does the person compromise and do what is expected by the corporate (or academic or professional) culture? Or does the person lose status on the job by refusing to compromise? This decision shows clearly whom they are really serving. Is this, then, an otherworldly lifestyle? James's answer is yes. By this he would not mean that one does not have a very down-to-earth practical effect on this world (especially since caring for the poor is a very important part of his message), but that all of one's life and lifestyle is determined by a commitment to Christ. The only reward that really counts is that which comes from Christ. The values that a person values are Christ's values. For James this is not a special level of Christianity; it is Christianity pure and simple.
This saying in James is hard, but not because it is that difficult to understand. It means just what it says. The problem is that we with our divided hearts find what it means very uncomfortable. Here, however, James is just as uncompromising and just as realistic as his master, Jesus.
Being invested in God does not necessarily mean being busy in church work. It would mean spending enough time in the presence of God to learn from him what priorities he has for one's life. See Joyce Huggett, The Joy of Listening to God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986) and Peter Lord, Hearing God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1988). Church work itself often can be simply more worldly business, a way to gain status or one's personal ends in another sphere.
For further reading, see John White, Magnificent Obsession (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1976, 1990), especially chap. 2.