You Can’t Have it Both Ways

Earlier this term, we were preaching through the book of James at the Cornhill Training Course (where I’m studying). James is writing to a church that seems to be in a real mess: there’s infighting and jealousy, the rich are given preferential treatment and people seem to be arrogantly going about their business with no reference to God. In diagnosing their situation, one of the phrases James comes back to a couple of times is “double-mindedness“. These are Christians who are trying to live with a foot in two camps: they claim to be those who follow God and want to go his way, yet they’re also often living by the world’s standards, playing by the world’s rules and judging things from the world’s perspective. It’s fair to say that James doesn’t mince his words in response – he lets them know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of their two-timing ways:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 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. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:1-8)

How often we fall into this trap! We wonder why we’re so discontent, while all the while we’re being torn between two competing desires – trying to please God whilst secretly also trying keep all our idols happy at the same time. I make a priority of going to Bible study and then grumble that I have no time left over for my hobbies. I make a commitment to financially support my church, and then grumble that I don’t have enough money to buy the latest gadgets. I make a decision to tell all my colleagues I’m a Christian and then feel frustrated that everybody thinks I’m an idiot. I feel guilty about persistent sin in my life, but ultimately I love indulging it too much to give it up. The list goes on and on – there are so many different situations where I’m trying to be friends with the world whilst also trying to please God.

But James says you just can’t have it both ways. To be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. Trying to keep them both happy is like expecting your wife to be supportive of your adulterous relationship with another woman – James says we’re cheating on God if we’re double-minded and God won’t stand for it. He calls us to repent, and then holds out the amazing hope of grace: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” How merciful God is for not giving up on us, with our foolish ways!

So I’ve been really challenged this term to take a long hard look at my life and stop trying to have it both ways. To follow God means to forsake the ways of the world – to make a deliberate choice to reject its values and its priorities, essentially to become an exile and a fugitive. But there remains a better home to look forward to, a new creation for which I wait with baited breath.