The False Life of Selfish Ambition: Abortion and Other Ways of Rejecting God
A sermon on James 3:13 - 4:10 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 1/23/00
13 ∂ Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
1 ∂ What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. 4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: "He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us"? 6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, "GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE." 7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (James 3:13 to 4:10 NASB)
Yesterday was the 27th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that prohibited States from putting almost any restrictions on abortion. Since then, more than 33 million unborn babies have been aborted in this country, very rarely less than 7-8 weeks after conception. At 7-8 weeks, the babyís heart is beating; his hands and feet are formed; he swims through the amniotic fluid.
A couple of weeks ago, our friend Michele gave birth to baby Sean, only six months into her pregnancy. Sean weighed 28 oz; here is his picture. Today, by Godís grace, baby Sean lives. Yet thousands of babies as old and developed as Sean have been aborted in this country, legally, many by a procedure too gruesome for me even to describe.
Indeed, today between one quarter and one third of all babies conceived in the US are aborted, while millions of couples wait years for a baby to adopt.
Why does this happen? Why do mothers kill their own babies? Why do fathers agree to do away with the bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh? Even among those who identify themselves as Christians, why do some favor no limits on abortion, or even have abortions themselves?
The fundamental problem is that we give the wrong answer to the question: Where does one find fulfillment and satisfaction?
Getting this answer right is of central importance, above and beyond the abortion debate. You may give the "right" answer to abortion questions, but still get this answer wrong. If you believe that you will only find fulfillment and satisfaction by success in this world Ė by career, by relationships, by pleasures Ė then in the end you can rationalize almost any action.
Dear friends, the only source of true fulfillment is God Himself. If we are satisfied with God, if we seek Him first, if we truly delight in Him, then we have all good things. And God will use even those things that may appear to be tragedies in our lives for our good.
On the other hand, a heart not satisfied with God, not delighting in Him, a heart which is dead set on trying to get what the world has to offer, frequently will not let anything stand in its way. When our hearts are set on fulfilling our worldly desires, we end up destroying what God has given us for true fulfillment Ė like the children He has given us.
So where is your heart?
We considered similar questions in my last sermon, entitled "Gaining True Life by Losing False Life," on Mark 8:27-9:1. Recall that Jesus startles his disciples by telling them that He, the Messiah, must die. Furthermore, they, His followers, must die also; they must die to self. But Jesus states that you will find your true self through giving up what you think you want to be; by giving up your desires and ambitions in this world, you can become what your Creator intended you to be, and thereby gain true fulfillment. We saw how Ann and Adoniram Judson lived this out almost two hundred years ago.
Today we expand on these ideas, seeing how James gives us additional insights. Next week, we will return to our study of Mark, examining chapter 9.
Our Authority: the Bible
As we all know, there are numerous opinions about the abortion issue. If I were standing up here giving you my opinion, I would hope that all of you would listen and consider what I have to say. But after doing so, whether you accept or reject that opinion would not be especially important.
But in this book, the Bible, we have God's revelation of himself -- and his revelation of his purposes for us. We have here our Creator's blueprint for life. The task we give to our preachers in this church is to study the word, to pray over it, and to present the truths of Scriptures faithfully to the people, applying them to our present circumstances. The Bible calls preachers who do this "stewards of the mysteries of God" -- that is, those given the responsibility of opening up the truths that God has revealed so that all might understand and apply them to their lives.
Therefore, if you don't like what I am saying, you do not have the option of saying, "Oh, that's just Coty's opinion." This is not my opinion. This is my understanding of God's revelation to mankind. So to reject this sermon, you must either reject the Bible as the word of God, or contend that my understanding of Scripture is flawed.
Do you question the reliability of Scripture? Please be honest if you do. We have addressed this issue elsewhere, and don't have time to discuss it this morning, but I ask that you see me later.
Do you question my interpretation? By all means, check me out -- examine the Scriptures to be sure that what I'm saying this morning is consistent with all of God's revelation. And please do feel free to come to me with Scriptural support for another position.
But if the Bible is what it claims to be, it is the authority above all authorities. Peter writes that this is "the prophetic word . . . to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19)." We are certainly in a dark place today. So pay attention!
In the rest of our time together, we will first examine a question specific to the abortion debate: Is an unborn baby human? Then we'll return to James and investigate the central problem, which he identifies as selfish ambition resulting in death. But James also presents the solution to this problem: Humbling oneself, resulting in exaltation.
Is an Unborn Baby Human?
What does Scripture say about unborn babies? Are they human? Let's consider three biblical reasons for answering "yes" to the question, along with biblical support for our actively defending the unborn.
First, the Bible uses the same word to refer to babies before and after birth. Genesis 25:22, referring to Isaac's wife Rebekah when she is pregnant with Jacob and Esau: "The children struggled together within her." The word "children" is the normal Hebrew word. Similarly, Luke 1 records what happens when Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is in the 6th month of her pregnancy with John the Baptist: "When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb." The word "babe" is the same word used in the next chapter to refer to Jesus after his birth: the angel says to the shepherds, "You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
Second, God chooses and works on unborn babies. In Psalm 139:13 David writes, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." David's essence, what makes him David, was put together by God not at birth, but prior to birth, in the womb. Furthermore, the angel says to Zechariah concerning his son, John the Baptist: "For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother' s womb" (Luke 1:15). Can a non-human be filled with the Holy Spirit?
Third, Adam's original sin and humanness are passed on at conception. This point is somewhat more subtle, but I believe it to be the strongest of all. David writes in Psalm 51:5: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me." David is not saying that his mother was particularly sinful. He is saying that from the moment of conception, he was in sin. In Romans 5 Paul states that sin entered the human race through Adam and is passed down to all his descendants. Therefore at the moment of conception, that new creature is both sinful and human, created in the image of God.
So for these three reasons, I believe that the Bible teaches that unborn babies are human. But does it matter? Do we need to be concerned with these babies, particularly before they are viable outside their mother's womb?
God is specially concerned with the weak and powerless. Psalm 82:3-4 reads: "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." Who is weaker and more needy than that little one who will die if separated from his mother?
If the unborn baby is a weak, needy human, and if God is specially concerned with the weak and needy, then abortion is a terrible, common sin.
Let us now turn our attention to the central cause of such sin.
The Problem: Selfish Ambition
Turn to James 3:13 once again, please:
∂ Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.
James asks each one of us: "Do you think you are truly wise and intelligent?" What is the evidence for wisdom or intelligence?
No. James says the evidence of wisdom is your "good behavior," or your "manner of life:" the way you spend your time; the way you relate to people; the way you speak. But note that he says this evidence is not only in outward actions but also in attitude. James says the evidence includes "his deeds in gentleness of wisdom." The word translated as "gentleness" here is translated "meek" in most versions of the Beautitudes: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." I believe this is referring to our yielding to God, our willingness to say, "God, you are the wise one, you have all in control. I submit to you, acknowledging that your ways are far above mine." So I would paraphrase "deeds in the gentleness of wisdom" as "actions characterized by wise yielding to God."
That's the positive side: A wise person displays his wisdom through his manner of life and his inner attitude of yielding to God. Now James contrasts such a person with the false wisdom of the world:
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.
The truly wise person yields to God, acknowledging His goodness, His leading, accepting the position in which God has placed him. The person in verse 14, on the other hand, has "bitter jealousy" and "selfish ambition." The wise person has a focus on God and his goodness; this person is focussed on self, on what he does not have.
The word translated "selfish ambition" is unusual, appearing in earlier literature only in Aristotle, where it refers to the way a politician will try to make himself look good -- frequently through deceitful means -- to attract more support. (Fortunately, we don't have any politicians like that in this country, do we?)
Like such a politician, the unwise man is trying his best to arrange matters so that he gets what he wants; the unwise man tries to get others to admire him, even if he is unworthy of their admiration.
But isn't this the advice that we hear so often today? In books and on the internet, we read how to present ourselves in the best light so that we can advance in our careers; on the magazine racks in the supermarket, we read headlines telling us to buy the magazine so that we can know the secrets of making a 40 year old look like a 20 year old, so that we can find life by catching that attractive, elusive member of the opposite sex. In effect, all this advice is instructing us in the best way to fulfill our selfish ambition.
What is the source of such "wisdom?"
15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.
Clearly, this is not the godly wisdom we read of in verse 13. Instead it is "earthly, natural, demonic." In English translation it appears that there is a contradiction between the last two words. But James' contrast is not between "natural" and "supernatural." Instead, he contrasts the wisdom from God with the natural, pseudo-wisdom of our sinful selves -- the "old man" to use Paul's expression from Ephesians 4. These natural, sinful desires can cause us problems on their own -- but Satan also works through these desires, tempting us away from God.
What is the result of selfish ambition?
The Result of Selfish Ambition: Death
4:1 ∂ What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have; so you commit murder.
James says the result of this selfish ambition is murder, death. A number of commentators suggest that James here is speaking in hyperbole, using murder in a figurative rather than a literal sense. Certainly we can agree that James is not talking exclusively about literally killing another person: If I am filled with selfish ambition, and my wife gets in the way -- then I kill the marriage.
But certainly, this verse is fulfilled literally in abortion: If my baby girl gets in the way of my selfish ambition -- kill the baby before she's born.
Abortion and other forms of killing result from our selfish ambition, our exalting pleasures and fulfillment in this life above the true fulfillment that only God can give.
For in the end, all forms of sin constitute a rejection of God. Indeed, James goes on to say that this rejection of God is the equivalent not only of murder but also of adultery:
You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4 NASB)
James uses the word "adulteresses" here. Does this mean that all of us men are off the hook? Remember, James writes this book to "the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad" (James 1:1), that is, all God's people wherever they are scattered. God's people are the bride of Christ. So if Godís people look for pleasure and fulfillment away from any source other than God himself, that is adultery. Hostility. Becoming Godís enemy.
Therefore, selfish ambition leads us to become murderers and adulterers. We have rejected God. Will he reject us? Will he divorce us? James has just said we have made ourselves into Godís enemy; is there no hope?
The Solution: Humbling Oneself
Let me reread 4:1-10, this time from my paraphrase of the verses. I've tried to bring out the sense of the Greek, expanding on some words and adding some clarifying expressions. Do realize that this is a paraphrase, not a translation. Listen carefully, and pick out James' solution to the problem of selfish ambition:
Why is it that you war and battle each other? Is not the source the strong desires for what you do not have, these desires that battle inside you? You want something badly and don't have it, so you kill; you passionately want something others have, and can't obtain it, so you battle and war with each other.
Fools! God is the source of everything good. You don't have, because you haven't asked Him! Or, you've asked Him, but you're trying to use God as a genie to provide ephemeral pleasures for yourself.
Do you not realize that you are the bride of Christ? If you then love the world, you are nothing but an adulteress! You are acting in hatred toward your true husband, making yourself His enemy! Did God write this in the Scriptures for no reason? "I have made my Spirit to live in you, and thus I have a deep, jealous desire that you be mine alone."
But do not despair; God's grace is greater than all our sin. Therefore he also says in the Scripture, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Therefore, be humble! Submit yourself to God as to a military commander, who has the good of the entire army at heart. Do not give in to Satan's temptations, but resist him -- and by God's grace he will flee from you. Approach God yourself, and he will come to you. Cleanse yourself from outward sins; make your inner thoughts and desires pure, devoted to God, instead of divided between God and the world. Mourn for your sin, and for the sin around you; replace your carefree silliness of enjoying worldly pleasures with gloom and mourning for all that's wrong. In sum, come into God's presence, falling on your face, acknowledging that you deserve nothing from Him, that you have spurned the one who loves you -- and your husband, the source of all true joy, will pick you up, honor you, and give you the true joy and pleasure of knowing Him.
In verses 7-10, James gives 9 commands; in the NASB they are translated as:
Then James sums up all these commands in one: Humble yourself! Be meek! Replace your selfish ambition, your desire to put yourself to the forefront, with true humility, acknowledging and accepting your place in God's plan.
The Result of Humbling Oneself: Exaltation
The irony of all this is that when we truly humble ourselves, when we acknowledge that we are nothing before God, when we quit trying to make ourselves look better than we really are, then God lifts us up! He exalts us! He seats us at the right hand of Christ! Paul writes in Ephesians:
4 ∂ But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:4-7 NASB)
As we found in Mark 8, God tells us that we will find our true selves by abandoning the world's ways of exalting ourselves. When we humble ourselves, we become what God intends us to be; we find all true fulfillment, all true glory, all true happiness, all true joy. For joy and peace are found only in a relationship with our Creator.
John Piper puts it this way:
If we found in God what God really is, if we were not willfully blind and rebellious against him as our all-supplying portion in this life and the next, we would not abort our children. The root cause of abortion is the failure to be satisfied in God as our supreme love. And, for all the great legal work that needs to be done to protect human life, the greatest work that needs to be done is to spread a passion - a satisfaction - for the supremacy of God in all things. That's our calling
Do you find your satisfaction in God? Or in the possessions and relationships of this world?
How often do you give in to the temptations of this world, and seek fulfillment through exaltation of self, killing and destroying all that gets in your way?
What about abortion itself? As we have seen this morning:
How many of us here this morning have committed one of those terrible sins?
How many of us here this morning have committed other terrible sins, of seeking after earthly treasures, loving this world, pursuing ephemeral pleasures?
My friends: I am a terrible sinner. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus died on the cross for terrible sinners such as you and me!
So humble yourself! And He will exalt you! He will seat you at his right hand! As we sang earlier, You will be ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven!
This sermon cannot stop here. Today, I ask every person, youngest to oldest, to set aside time later today. Take a piece of paper, and on that paper write two words: "Condemned" and "Forgiven." Look at those two words, and consider the implications of each one. Then circle the one that is true for you. For there are only two choices. One is true. The other is not.
If you circle "condemned," then I praise God. You've taken the first step toward forgiveness. Humble yourself in God's presence. Please, see me and talk to me.
If you circle "forgiven," then there is no longer any reason for guilt, no matter what you have done, no matter what terrible sin you have committed.
Have you mourned for your sin? Have you wept over it? Do you want to be clean, in your actions and in your heart? Do you long to be rid of this sin that ensnares you? Do you believe in Jesus Christ as Lord? Will you be satisfied in him?
If that is so, by the authority invested in me as a steward of the mysteries of God, I declare this day that you are forgiven. Know it! Delight in Him! Be satisfied in Him alone!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 1/23/00. The John Piper quote is from his sermon on this passage, preached in January of 1998. I highly recommend and profited from reading John Piper's other sermons on abortion also. The idea of choosing between "condemned" and "forgiven" is not original, but I can't locate the source now.
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