In a Nutshell
The context suggests that the point of this complex remonstrance by James is to challenge the way his readers understand themselves.
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To what teaching of scripture is James referring?
Or are you suggesting that the scripture says: the spirit that dwells in you yearns in envious rivalry?
Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? (NRSV)
Or do you suppose that it is to no purpose that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? (NRSV)
Surely you don't think scripture is wrong when it says, "…." (Jerusalem Bible).
Do you think that the scripture says in vain: "the spirit that dwells in us, lusteth to envy?" (KJV)
Or do you think that Scripture says without reason …? (NIV)
A deep irony emerges at this juncture. This sentence, when translated, indicates some uncertainty, if not double-mindedness, among translators of our various English-language bibles. Just what does this sentence mean?
The word for "vanity" [KENÉ] is found previously in 2:20 - there I rendered it: "you senseless person". Here our writer connects "vanity" to a senseless appeal to scripture [GRAPHE]. This is the third time the term "scripture" appears in this letter. The other two occasions - [2:8 - a reference to how the law is summed up in "love your neighbour as yourself"; 2:23 - how God's dealings with Abraham aimed to make him friend of God] - are alongside the scriptural references to Rahab (2:25), Job (5:11) and Elijah (5:17). All three are important for telling the story of how the way of wisdom has been preserved and how it is linked to the Lord God's restitution of those now called to rely on the One who carries His image for them. But James is not only referring to scripture as if it speaks for itself; he is giving his readers a way of reading scripture, a framework for understanding the record of how God has safeguarded their lives.
And so he has emphasised how "lying against the truth" is inseparably connected with "bitter envy and ambitious rivalry" (3:14), as two sides of the same thing. Wisdom is needed to both free a person and also to keep the emancipated person free from this bind. Is it possible, then, that an appeal to scripture can confirm the unthinkable, can actually be part of a double-minded "lying against the truth"? Is it actually possible to live in a way shouting loud and clear that one lacks true wisdom even when one is wanting to appeal to the source of wisdom, to what is scripturally endorsed?
Any claim that it is God's spirit within us making our life one of "envious desire" will have to entirely re-wrap the biblical story; but scripture teaches otherwise! So, what we have here is James drawing attention to how an angry, earth-bound wisdom can completely distort the teaching of God's grace, no matter how much it may claim scriptural authority. The sense of this sentence is found in its rhetorical challenge from the writer to his readers. I suggest that James is saying something like:
Are you trying to tell me that scripture is implicated in this vanity? Are you trying to tell me that God Himself, by the words that have come from His own lips, wants us to believe that the breath He breathed into us is what generates the envious lust that arises out of the very fibre of our being?
Friendship with the world (v. 4) goes to great lengths to transform the biblical story of God's grace (v. 6). An earth-bound instinctive spin, feeding off a devilish double-minded separation of faith from works, seeks centre-stage to declare, "This temptation is God's special trial!" (1:13). No, James repeatedly affirms, the Lord God does not deal with us in such an "arm's length" manipulative way.