Our sins leave scars. First, they not only wound others but hurt us, damage us. Then, by His grace, and by His scars, they are healed. They are forgotten by the One who knows all things, the beginning from the end, but not by us. Because we are healed, our past sins cannot hurt us. However, because we are scarred, we do not forget.
David rightly bewailed that his sins were ever before him. How much more so must James’ sins have ever been before him? We, as James tells us, have His Word as a mirror, telling us who and what we are. James, the whole time he was growing up, had the mirror beside him at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every moment of his youth, there was his elder brother, not merely preferred, not merely more accomplished, but the One who literally never sinned. Not once. The comparison could not have been more stark.
James responded just as I would have, not by admiring his elder brother, not by aspiring to be like Him, but by rejecting Him, despising Him, by raging against his own exposure. Like his first elder brother, Cain, James, seeing how his brother pleased His heavenly Father, was filled with envy. And James murdered Him in his heart.
The Scripture tells us nothing of James’ rebirth. We know that on the cross, Jesus placed His blessed mother under the care of the Apostle John rather than her natural son, James, suggesting that James was brought to faith sometime after the resurrection, though this is merely conjecture. We cannot help, however, but imagine that his conversion must have been a dramatic one. To have known Jesus for so long, to have rejected Him for so long, to have not just a common life of sin but to be burdened by a seething cauldron of jealousy, only then to be awakened, was likely more unexpected and disorienting than even Saul’s conversion. Which is where the scars come in.
James did not enter the kingdom having thought himself a fine fellow who had a few minor weaknesses for which Jesus had to die. After a lifetime lived before the mirror, he knew his sin, which is why he is such a strident watchman against our own sins. As he carried his scars with him, he was unashamed to name what we are outside of His grace. He did not dance around sin, but named it—and its ugly fount.
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. (James 4:1–2a)
How did James know this about us? Because he first knew it about himself. He did not fail to see his own scars because he looked to the scars of others; rather, he saw the scars of others because he was all too familiar with his own. We want. We hunger. We desire. And when those desires are left unfulfilled, we quarrel, fight, and murder. At this point, it would seem that the solution would be to suppress our desires, to put them to death, to mortify them. If the desires are the root of the problem, we would be fools to merely lop the top off the noxious weeds. That leaves the root still there.
Which is why James gives us the wisdom of God rather than the folly of man. James 4:2 doesn’t end with stoic indifference, counsel on how to reach a point of imperturbability. Instead, he says, “You do not have because you do not ask” (v. 2b). All this hunger that leads us to hate our brother is wrong not because we are hungry, but because we consume what does not satisfy. If we are drinking water from the ocean, we will not slake our thirst by demanding the whole of the ocean for ourselves. Neither will we solve the problem simply by denying our thirst. Rather, the solution is to thirst after the water that satisfies, living water.
James’ envy of his brother, in turn, was not solved either by surpassing or by suppressing Him but by embracing Him. All the guilt that weighed him down, all the envy, they only go away when we become one with Him. The only way to be praised with Him is to be raised with Him, and for that, we have to die.
Jesus put it another way. When He spoke of all that we desire, He didn’t tell us to stop desiring. Rather, He told us to seek first His kingdom, His righteousness, and then all these things would be added to us. Everything we think we want, every petty thing we pursue to satisfy us is but a mirage, choking hot sand that we, in our madness, mistake for water. He, however, is that water by which we will never again thirst. The promise of God in Christ is not that He will take away our thirst—it is that He, and He alone, will satisfy it.
My elder Brother is everything I am not. He is everything, and I am nothing. My scars remind me of my lack. His scars remind me of His provision. My heavenly Father is satisfied. My longing is satisfied. And the miracle of it all is that Jesus is satisfied with James, with you, and with me. For He is beautifying us into His bride. Because the day of the marriage feast is coming, let us be satisfied. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.