Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 9A
The Bible text for this month is James 4:8: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (NIV). I cannot remember when this scripture first gripped me strongly, but it was at least twenty-five years ago. I know this because during the latter 1970’s and early 1980’s I was going through a major re-thinking of my ideas about God and how God interacts with the people of this world. I was searching carefully through the scriptures, with the published help of some wise Christian scholars, studying the issue of divine-human reciprocity: who moves first in the relationship, God or the person, and who or what governs the sequence of action and reaction in our relationships with God?
The Principle of Reciprocity
Being of a mathematical/scientific mind, I came up with a “law [or principle] of reciprocity.” I cannot recall how or where I discovered this principle, but—when combined with an expanding, more biblically-grounded view of God’s grace—it began to answer a number of tough questions for me. I began to see more and more the beauty and mystery of God’s actions toward us and our responses to him, as well as our actions toward God and his responses to us. James 4:8 is just one of many scriptures that expresses the principle of reciprocity. It is also seen in Matthew 13:12: “Whoever has [i.e., responds well to the grace of God already given] will be given more. … Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” We see the law of reciprocity also in Zechariah 1:3: “ ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you’ ” (see also Malachi 3:7).
By “the principle of reciprocity”—operating in the way God intends it to work—I mean that God gives himself (his grace) freely and lavishly to those who call upon him with sincerity (single-mindedness), humility and a submissive spirit, and we receive God’s grace with a grateful and godly spirit, bringing about further gifts of grace. Other terms for reciprocity are mutuality and complementarity. Reciprocal or mutual affection, for example, means that two people give and receive affection between each other. Reciprocal or complementary trust means that each trusts the other. The concept of reciprocity is truly rich, even if it is a bit difficult to understand. It is closely intertwined with another very special word: grace.
The Grace of God
During my early years as a Christian I came to understand grace as God’s “unmerited favor” because of the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. I still see this as the primary meaning of grace according to the Bible. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). When I received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior at the age of 19, I knew this salvation I was receiving was a pure gift of God, a work of his grace through the cross of Christ.
About 15 years later the Spirit showed me from the Bible that there was more to grace than his “unmerited favor.” Grace is also God’s energy, power, and dynamic presence. It is not a substance or essence or something in the material realm like electrical power, but neither is it merely an attitude or favorable disposition. I saw a balance in scripture between these two poles. Grace, in addition to being God’s merciful favor and kindness, is also the force or strength of God himself working in and through his people. I desperately needed then, as I do now, the strength of God within me, to enable me to speak, think, act and love as I should. I will be forever grateful to God for showing me the dynamic, actual reality of his powerful presence.
There are dozens of scripture texts that teach this often-neglected aspect of God’s grace. In the epistle to the Hebrews, for example, the writer urges: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). The latter half of this verse makes much more sense if “grace” is understood as God’s power, strength, and energy and not merely his attitude of favor. Of course, his favor logically precedes his actual help. His power working for us, in us and through us is the result of his incredible love, grace and mercy.
What does the above have to do with James 4:8: “Come near to God and he will come near to you”? The answer is that God comes toward us, and at times moves away from us, in the manner, method, mode or process of his grace. We sometimes speak of a person’s M.O.—his or her modus operandi—one’s mode of operating or doing something. God’s M.O. is by grace, which is another way of speaking of God’s presence—the Holy Spirit himself—working in us or withdrawing from us. We are not to think of God, however, as some kind of material substance or essence, but as the self-sustaining and active being of eternal power, purity and love. This is, of course, beyond our full understanding, but it is not a teaching that we should therefore ignore. It is, rather, vitally important.
As I indicated above, the Bible speaks very often of grace as both divine favor and divine power. Just two verses before this month’s text we read that God “gives us more grace,” and that he “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Grace is something real, just as God is real, just as the Spirit of God is real. In fact, I sometimes substitute the term “Holy Spirit” for “grace” when the biblical context allows for that reading, just to remind myself how close the two are. These are not identical, however. The divine author of scripture led the writers to speak of God’s grace as separate from himself, but very closely related. He is “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10).
I know this essay has not presented James 4:8 with personal application, but I felt I needed first to explain the reciprocal nature of God’s gracious movements in our lives. I encourage you to “Come near to God,” keeping the whole section—James 4:6-10—in view, and I look forward to being with you again soon to consider our text more personally.