Given an option, few people would choose a valley in life; most would prefer a mountaintop, or at least level ground that doesn’t slope right into the pit!
Our preference for being lifted up is illustrated in fan attitudes toward sports teams. Every fan claims that his team is “No. 1!”, whether actually superior because it just defeated all other competitors in the tournament, or as the sentimental favorite of devoted fans who believe their team is best no matter how poor the season or how resounding the most recent defeat.
There’s a reason that those foam hands raise just the index finger. They wouldn’t sell many that encouraged fans to give the more honest message “We’re No. 5!”
So most fans must claim No. 1 status for other reasons. This means that they compromise or ignore legitimate standards in order to feel lifted up. They may claim superiority for sentimental reasons: You’re No. 1 in our hearts. Or on moral grounds: We know who the better people were today. Or on the grounds of appearance: Our jerseys look better on television.
We do the same things spiritually, seeking elevation in things other than what God has proscribed.
James characterizes this tendency as an example of dead faith (James 2:17; 20; 26). James says:
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
(James 4:6-7, 10, ESV). This tells us that there is a connection between God’s provision of grace and his his elevating the believer, just as there is a connection between submitting ourselves to God and humbling ourselves. Submitting to God includes yielding to his authority, power, and rule over us, which yielding looks very similar to humility.
Pride doesn’t submit, yield, or humble, which is why James reinforces for us that God opposes the proud. Pride, then, according to James, is a great impediment to being elevating (exalted) by God. Whatever this elevating is, James doesn’t appear very concerned to explain, perhaps because we should all know intuitively that it is much better than whatever elevation I can attain for myself. I am, after all, prone to claim “We’re No. 1!” no matter our real ranking.
James is much more concerned about pride, so he explains what killing pride looks like. To kill pride, submit, and humble self, the believer must:
Resist (the Devil). Satan is the picture of pride. He is characterized by deceit, destruction, and condemnation. The believer who wants God’s elevation must resist the devil and all he represents. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).
Return to God. The one who is trying to exalt himself has turned away from God. But there is hope to recover, and the one who repents of sin, especially that of self-exaltation, and seeks God’s forgiveness in Jesus will be restored. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you (James 4:8).
Refine Self. James says that once we have re-oriented ourselves, turning away from the devil and turning back to God, we need to address our hands and hearts. These represent our actions and the inner desires that drive them. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:8).
Rue Sin. Passions that once drove us to quarrels and conflicts, even murder, figuratively and literally (James 4:1-3) should now be directed toward God, and especially in our attitude toward sin. We cannot be flippant or passive or indifferent to sin and its effects upon our hands and hearts. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom (James 4:9).
Rest in God. Then, and only then, is the believer in a position to rest in God, to trust God, to receive whatever grace and exaltation he may provide, whenever he chooses to provide it. Humble yourselves before God, and he will exalt you (James 4:10).
We exalt ourselves by refusing to honestly address sin. The non-Christian does this by denying that there is sin, denying that God is there, by denying that Jesus Christ is the only remedy for that sin. This may be you, proclaiming boldly “I’m No. 1!” but knowing that you can only make such a claim by ignoring the standards God has established.
The Christian does this, not surprisingly, by also ignoring sin. You may search in vain for the joy of salvation, or perhaps you’ve given up the search for such joy, thinking that God has moved away. In reality, you might be exalting yourself, leaving no room for the grace of God and for his elevation. You need fresh passion to lament sin, so that forgiveness evokes godly passion.
We might conclude that we would need great grace to humble ourselves this way. And we would be right. But James has a word for that, too: But he gives more grace (James 4:6).