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In James chapter 4, the author is rebuking the letter's recipients for their current behaviour. As the text progresses, he gradually strengthens his language about this until he's telling them to mourn and weep, to change their laughter and joy for mourning and gloom.

James 4:6-9

...but he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

All of this seems more extreme than attitudes to repentance I'm aware of elsewhere in the New Testament - is the author's instruction intended to be taken literally by its audience, or are these phrases meant to be interpreted figuratively?

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James is really only echoing, I think, what Christ teaches in the Gospels:

But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:24-25)

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34).

And, perhaps most importantly:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24).

Basil the Great alluded to this particular passage in James and other teachings of the New Testament in writing on how a Christian ought to behave:

The Christian ought to be so minded as becomes his heavenly calling, [cf. Hebrews 3] and his life and conversation ought to be worthy of the Gospel of Christ. [cf. Philemon 1:27] The Christian ought not to be of doubtful mind, [cf. Luke 12:29] nor by anything drawn away from the recollection of God and of His purposes and judgments. The Christian ought in all things to become superior to the righteousness existing under the law, and neither swear nor lie. [cf. Matthew 5:20] He ought not to speak evil; [Titus 3:2] to do violence; [1 Timothy 2:13] to fight; [2 Timothy 2:24] to avenge himself; [Romans 12:19] to return evil for evil; [Romans 12:17] to be angry. [Matthew 5:22] The Christian ought to be patient, [James 5:8] whatever he have to suffer, and to convict the wrong-doer in season, [Titus 2:15] not with the desire of his own vindication, but of his brother’s reformation, [Matthew 15:18] according to the commandment of the Lord. The Christian ought not to say anything behind his brother’s back with the object of calumniating him, for this is slander, even if what is said is true. [cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20; 1 Peter 2:1] He ought to turn away from the brother who speaks evil against him; [cf. 1 Peter 3:16-17; James 4:11] he ought not to indulge in jesting, [Ephesians 5:4] he ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh makers. [cf. Luke 6:21,25; James 4:9] He must not talk idly, saying things which are of no service to the hearers nor to such usage as is necessary and permitted us by God [Ephesians 5:4]

Letter XXII

The lack of asceticism in modern Christianity is something that Russian (Orthodox) cleric Averky Taushev laments in his book, The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society (Holy Trinity Publications, 2014):

What is "asceticism"? What is an "ascetic"? Many secular people among the ranks of modern Christians know the words "ascetic" and "asceticism" by hearsay, but very few have a correct understanding of what these words mean and express. These words ordinarily bring about a kind of superstitious horror in modern people who consider themselves Christians but who live far from the spirit of the Church and who are alien to the Church and the spiritual life, being wholly given over to a secular life of distraction.

"Asceticism" in modern secular society is normally perceived as being something extraordinarily gloomy, almost sinister, forever removed form "normal" human life. Many understand asceticism to be a kind of fanatical monstrosity or self-torture, akin to walking barefoot over burning coals or to hanging oneself up by one's ribs - as is done, for example, by Indian yogis and fakirs, to general amazement.

Such a distorted and prejudiced attitude towards the notion of asceticism in modern society demonstrates how far modern Christians have departed from a correct understanding of evangelical doctrine, how far they have "grown worldly," and how alien their understanding has becom to the authentic spiritual life to which our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, called not certain selected, exceptional persons, but all Christians in general.

pp. ix-x

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Ezekiel says:

And your tires shall be upon your heads, and your shoes upon your feet: ye shall not mourn nor weep; but ye shall pine away for your iniquities, and mourn one toward another.
-- Ezekiel 24:23 (KJV)

The house of Israel did not mourn or weep for their sins, but they will mourn and weep for the condition that not mourning-and-weeping-for-their-sins is about to bring upon them.

Jesus says:

Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.
-- Luke 6:25 (KJV)

Same deal. Israel still refused to mourn and weep for their sins, so they would mourn and weep for their condition -- into perpetuity this time though, since the Temple was about to disappear.

Of course, James then adds his two cents:

9 Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
-- James 4:9-10 (KJV)

Everyone will mourn and weep, but one can be a proactive mourner and weeper, or a reactive mourner and weeper. James is clearly encouraging the former, because it then enables God to lift you up.

This, of course, was the point Jesus was making when he said:

8 When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honorable man than thou be bidden of him; 9 And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. 10 But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. 11 For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
-- Luke 14:8-11 (KJV)

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  • Thanks @enegue - I'm curious as to your exegesis of Ezekiel 24:23, where YHWH is describing the fall of Jerusalem and the House of YHWH. It would be good to see more detail describing how you've arrived at your conclusion there - what exactly are you saying that this verse means in its original context? – Steve Taylor Dec 21 '16 at 8:32
  • @SteveTaylor I would have thought it was obvious. How did the House of Israel come to be in a state that so displeased the LORD, he had to inconvenience Ezekiel is such a grievous way? – enegue Dec 21 '16 at 9:29
  • That's the problem - there's a lot of ambiguity in your explanation. You think things are obvious from the context you've got in your mind when you write the words, but if you don't explain that context then it can become easy to misunderstand you. Are you making the point that Israel never mourns or weep for sins, but rather for the condition sin creates? Or are you making the point that for Ezekiel's hearers, there was a specific event where they had failed to mourn for their sins and therefore only had the option for mourning for the condition their punishment would bring them to? – Steve Taylor Dec 21 '16 at 11:04
  • @SteveTaylor "The house of Israel DID NOT not mourn or weep for their sins" and THEY SHALL pine away for their iniquities, and mourn one toward another. Okay, I think I can see what the problem might be. I will edit. – enegue Dec 21 '16 at 11:40
  • ^ yes, so is that a DID NOT/THEY SHALL a general rule for all of the OT, or is that specific to the one Ezekiel event? That's the main point of confusion that paragraph presently creates for me. – Steve Taylor Dec 21 '16 at 12:55
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James 4:6-9 - Why are the recipients to be wretched, mourn and weep?

James 4:6-9

...but he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Evidence of Repentance.

James tells his readers to “grieve and mourn and weep.” If they did manifest godly sadness, it would be evidence of repentance.

2 Corinthians 7:10-11 (NET Bible)

Paul's Letter to the Corinthians that causes sadness.

10 "For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death. 11 For see what this very thing, this sadness as God intended, has produced in you: what eagerness, what defense of yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what deep concern, what punishment! In everything you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter."

Today, some who say that they have faith are seeking friendship with the world.[verse 4] If anyone is pursuing such a course, should he not mourn over his weak spiritual state and take immediate steps to correct matters? Humbling yourself before God and making needed adjustments and receiving God’s forgiveness will produce a feeling of exultation because of a clean conscience and the joyful prospect of everlasting life.

1 John 2:15-17 (NET Bible)

15 "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, 16 because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions)[a] is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever."

God desires a humble spirit: Psalm 51:10-17

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