Question: "What does it mean that friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4)?"
Answer: After observing rampant worldliness in the lives of his readers, James launches into a warning (James 4:1–17) with this harsh assessment: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4, ESV). Enmity is animosity, the state of being actively opposed to someone.
A common biblical metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness in our relationship with God is adultery (e.g., Jeremiah 3:20; Ezekiel 16). Nowhere is this imagery more evident than in the book of Hosea (Hosea 2:1–23). While God showed unfailing love to Israel, they responded with faithlessness, immorality, and idolatry.
Scripture depicts God as the husband of His people (Isaiah 54:5; 2 Corinthians 11:2) and believers as His bride (Jeremiah 2:2; 2; Ephesians 5:22–33; Revelation 21:7, 9). So, when James calls his readers “adulterers and adulteresses” (James 4:4, NKJV), the implication is clear. To the God who has loved His people unsparingly and relentlessly, what could be more painful than their heartless betrayal?
James calls out a challenge to people who have turned their hearts away from God and fallen in love with the world. When he speaks of “the world,” he means the world system or world order, consisting of people whose beliefs, values, and morals are in opposition and rebellion to God’s. The goals and objectives of “the world” are in direct contrast to God’s commands. To cling to the world is to choose enmity with God.
James warns believers not to cultivate a lifestyle that resembles “friendship with the world.” We must never pursue the ideals, morals, goals, or purposes of the world but instead “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
Through repetition, James emphasizes that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” and “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” With the same Greek word translated “enmity” in James 4:4, Paul denounces the worldly mindset: “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8).
We must be careful not to deceive ourselves into thinking that we can live in close fellowship with God and, at the same time, set our hearts on the things of this world. We must “remember what happened to Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:32, NLT). The apostle Paul teaches Christians to cultivate a singular focus: “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1–3, NLT).
What does friendship with the world look like? How can we be sure we’re not setting ourselves up to be enemies of God?
One clear indication that we have made friends with the world is our behavior. Are we acting like the people of the world? Do we quarrel, covet, and fight (James 4:1–2)? Do we “harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition” in our hearts? Do we “boast” and “deny the truth?” Do we “find disorder and every evil practice” in our lives? Or instead, do we display “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom?” Are we “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:13–18)? Friendship with the world rubs off on our character.
If anything or anyone takes a more important place in our lives than our relationship with God and Jesus Christ, we have probably entered into friendship with the world and enmity with God. One commentator writes, “Love for God and love for the world are mutually exclusive” (Dibelius, M., & Greeven, H., James: A Commentary on the Epistle of James, Fortress Press, 1976, p. 220). Jesus confirmed, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).
Pursuing friendship with the world puts us at odds with God and in danger of forfeiting our souls (Mark 8:36). On the other hand, if we seek intimate fellowship with Jesus by giving up our own way, taking up our cross and following Him, we gain everything we need in this life and in the one to come. If we try to hang on to the old worldly way of life, Jesus said we will end up losing everything. But if we give up our lives to cultivate friendship with Christ for the sake of the gospel, then we gain salvation and everlasting life with Him (Mark 8:35).