James 4:8b-10 “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
The first time I ever read these words in James I felt that maybe the apostle’s expressions were a little over the top. Maybe this was a bit much. But let’s take a closer look at what he has to say, and see if he isn’t right on the mark.
First, James gets that sin is more than bad behavior, but it isn’t less. It is a defect on the inside and the outside. It is a matter of actions and the heart. Sometimes we may be tempted to give ourselves a pass if we stop ourselves from doing what we were thinking. We congratulate ourselves if we don’t let our anger, lust, or envy boil over into doing something we are going to regret later. I’m not saying we should just let it go, but there is already plenty to repent and confess when our hearts are wrong. Isn’t it finally the heart that God wants? Do we feel warm and fuzzy about people who hate us but don’t hit us? Hands and hearts both need to be washed and purified.
Second, James gets how our sins should make us feel. “Grieve, mourn, and wail.” Yes, sin is this bad! It ruins everything! It hurts the people around us. It drives wedges into our relationships. It robs us personally of health, contentment, and peace. In the end it deprives every person on the planet of life and consigns many of them to hell. Has there ever been another catastrophe in history that wreaked such havoc on us? Nothing we experience is as sad as our own sin.
Third, James knows that often our reaction to sin is the opposite of what it should be. “Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” His point is not that laughter should be missing from the Christian life. Jesus promises that those who weep now will laugh. Psalm 126 celebrates the laughter of those Jews who came home from their exile in Babylon. God wants laughter to mark our lives, not be absent from them.
But you know that sometimes people find joy and laughter in their sin. That isn’t right. Drunk people laugh and carouse. The couple having an illicit affair may laugh over the thrill and danger of their trysts. The school bully may laugh at bloodying someone’s nose. Have we ever laughed when someone we considered our enemy–in politics, at work, in the neighborhood–suffered some of misfortune?
None of these things is defensible. Don’t celebrate sin. Mourning is the appropriate response to the damage it does to our lives.
Then the Lord lifts us up. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Have you ever noticed that this is a theme that runs through the whole Bible? We could even say that it is the theme of the Bible. God doesn’t lift up the high and mighty. He lifts up the low. He heals those who have tried every remedy and have nowhere else to turn. He feeds the hungry. He gives victory to those on the brink of defeat. He makes kings out of sheep farmers. Find a character in the Bible who is at the absolute end of all help, and you have a person in the perfect position for God to come and lift him up.
So it is when we are crushed by our guilt. That is the perfect position for us, because then God can come and cleanse us in his grace. Then we are just the kind of people he claims as his own children, the kind of people he describes in 1 Peter 2, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”
That is not because we have such impressive qualifications. It’s because God gives grace to the humble. He lifts up the lowly people who are not too proud to repent.