We would all like to be thought “wise and understanding”, but the mark of true wisdom is not clever words but godly lives. In the Bible wisdom is the way we make sense of the world such that it shapes how we live. James distinguishes two kinds of wisdom – each with a very different source, different characteristics, and different results. World wisdom encourages self-promotion and rivalry, which leads to disorder and sin. True wisdom encourages humility (could be translated “meekness”), which leads to harmonious relationships and a good life.
Having outlined these two profoundly contrasting kinds of wisdom, in vv.1-3 James makes it clear which kind of wisdom characterises his readers. Their “fights and quarrels” stem from their(frustrated) self-focussed desires. Verse 2 is better understood by dividing the sentences slightly differently. They want, but don’t get, so they kill. They covet, but can’t have, so they quarrel and fight. (I take it they don’t literally murder each other – James is more pastorally astute than to deal with genuine murder in the church in one line! – but he is showing the seriousness of the ruptures). Theirselfish ambition either leads them not to pray, because God is scarcely in the picture, or if they do pray then such prayers are unanswered because they “ask with wrong motives”, being purely to satisfy their selfish desires.
Verses 4 and 5 give James’ diagnosis of their condition: spiritual adultery. They are cheating on God, two-timing him; they love God and they love the world (cf. the double-mindedness mentioned in 1:8 and 4:8) but that is really to hate God. Verse 5 is tricky, but I think the sense is that the Spirit jealously longs for his people’s faithfulness and love. God here is the jilted lover, they are the cheating adulteresses. Wonderfully though, while his jealousy might justly cause him to disown his adulterous wife, instead he offers grace and mercy (v.6) to those will humble themselves in repentance.
The next paragraph is an impassioned plea for such a repentance. James spells oput what humbling ourselves will involve: (i) submitting ourselves to God, ie recognizing his Lordship and committing ourselves to obey him and live to please him; (ii)resisting the devil, recognizing him as the source of this worldly wisdom (3:15) and deliberating determining to stand against him and his agenda; and then(iii) coming near to God, with a heartfelt sorrow for our sin and a desire to know again his forgiveness, for as we do so he will surely draw near to us, cleansing and forgiving us and lifting us up.
The final two verses are something of an epilogue. John Dickson suggests in his little commentary that if vv.7-10 emphasise the God-ward nature of repentance, vv.11-12 draw out some of the human-ward implications. Slandering and condemning others was no doubt a feature of their “fights and quarrels”, driven by their “selfish ambition and envy”, and such behaviour needs to stop. It is to speak against “the law”, which I think may refer particularly to the “royal law” mentioned in 2:8 – “Love your neighbour as yourself”. To slander and condemn our brother or sister is disregard that command to love.