While we are instructed by James (4:8) to “Come near to God and he will come near to you”, this does not mean that God’s presence is not with us otherwise. But rather, as Richard Rohr, puts it, moving towards God causes us to realize that our movement towards nearness is actually a movement towards awareness.
The typical English rendering of James 4:8 ἐγγίσατε τῷ θεῷ, καὶ ἐγγιεῖ ὑμῖν, doesn’t quite capture what James was getting at. Immediately before he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” These two statements have to be joined to understand James’s intent.
“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
The aid of the devil in your own self-destruction is halted when you merely resist him. James doesn’t use “Fight”, “Contend”, “Stand against”, “Overcome” or any other more laborious or rigorous term. We are to simply resist. By the small step of resisting, evil flees. That seems like a bit of over-reaction, because it is. We aren’t expected to overcome evil on our own, but rather to resist it in order for the rescue to sweep in.
James doesn’t let us off the hook for our own destructive choices but he also doesn’t expect us to right our wrongs on our own or rescue ourselves, as if we could do so anyway. Resisting the evil one is actually the same action as “coming near to God“. James isn’t calling for a two part action on our part, i.e. resist, then draw near, but is explaining two sides of the same coin. To resist the devil is to, at the same time, turn to God. God also overreacts and sweeps in to rescue us from our self-destructive sin merely because we have turned to him for help. The two verses are juxtaposed to illustrate two sides of the same coin – the pattern of repentance. In the simple and small act of resisting, we at the same turn and draw near to God. And both the devil and God over-react to our small act. One flees and the other sweeps in for the rescue.
James is imploring us to call for help when we feel like giving in to sin. He is not giving us a formulaic cause and effect strategy to manipulate God into acting on our behalf. He is not saying “God can only come close to use only if we come close to him – as if it was dependent upon us”. Rather, he is talking about the readiness of a parent to rush to the aid of their child, if the child turns and reaches out for help after previously refusing help. James 4:8 is not about intimacy, it is about rescue, a rescue that is not forced but primed and ready when requested. As the Father in Luke 15 eagerly awaited the return of his lost son, then descended his rightful place and rushed to protect and assure his boy of forgiveness and restoration, so the Father eagerly awaits our turning and returning for help and rescue.
God is not waiting to match his response to ours as if grace did not exist, but is rather waiting only for the slightest turn away from sin, for the smallest step away from distortion, or the most subtle longing to surrender our self-guided destruction. It only takes the “turn” for God to sweep in to do the rest. We cannot rescue ourselves, but we can turn. This is what the lost son in Luke 15 experienced and it is what you and I can experience every day for the rest of our lives if we so wish. As Eugene Peterson captures so poignantly in his rendering of James 4:8, we just need to turn.
“Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin.”