Adultery is a sin so grievous that the Lord uses it as a metaphor for what happens when His people love other gods in His place (Ex. 20:14; Hos. 1). We may be tempted to think that we are not guilty of breaking this commandment and having affairs with other deities as long as we do not commit crass idolatry. But the new covenant development of this theme tells us that if we are not careful, it is possible to betray Christ our husband, despite thinking that we are following Him.
James 4:4 shows us that we can commit spiritual adultery, even if we are not deliberately following other gods. In today’s passage, the apostle labels his original audience as an adulterous people, despite there being no indication in the epistle that sexual sin was a significant problem for his Jewish-Christian addressees. This indicates that spiritual adultery is what James has in view. At the same time, however, there is no hint that James’ original readers were guilty of some kind of crass, pagan idolatry. No, the lover the audience pursued was something more subtle than outright idolatry and was therefore more dangerous.
“Friendship with the world” describes the problem for the original readers, “the world” being the one with whom James’ audience was committing adultery. “The world” in this context is being used much as it is throughout the Johannine literature of the New Testament, that is, as a designation for that system whose values, loves, and deeds are wholly at odds with what pleases our Creator (1 John 2:15–17). In the case of the first readers of the epistle of James, the audience was betraying Christ and following after the world by embracing the worldly way of treating people according to socioeconomic distinctions, favoring rich believers and ignoring the plight of poor believers in the church (James 2:1–7). An embrace of ungodly speech, jealousy, and selfish ambition also demonstrated how many in the audience loved the world and not the Savior (chap. 3).
In this fallen world, we are all affected in some way by these vices. We must guard ourselves against those ungodly values of the world that can readily become patterns for our thoughts and deeds. If we embrace this system, we are no better than those who cheat on the Lord with more obvious “gods.”
David Brainerd, missionary to Native Americans, comments, “Worldly pleasures, such as flow from greatness, riches, honors, and sensual gratifications, are infinitely worse than none” (The Life and Diary of David Brainerd). The pleasures this world has to offer, while not necessarily evil in themselves, can be tempting and insidious, beckoning us to take up with another husband. May we take care lest they seduce us.