The first half of James 4:8 is likely to be on cross-stitched pillows and wall hangings: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” It is both an invitation and a promise, one that reminds us of God’s desire to be with His people in an intimate way. The second half of the verse, though, is less known and less cross-stitched: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” The following verse further encourages the reader to “lament and mourn and weep!” (v. 9). Why are these parts of verses 8 and 9 less known?

When these harsher-sounding sentences are taken out of context, they can be misconstrued to mean some unbiblical things: We must cleanse our own hearts and minds before coming to God; He does not like joy in His presence; laughter is disrespectful; godly Christians should be full of mourning and gloom. Though silly to some, these are real conclusions that others have drawn from verses like these.

Instead of lifting them from the page, they’re better understood in context. What is James talking about? Submitting to God, resisting the devil, and drawing near to God. While here—in surrender to God and in nearness to Him—a sense of personal sinfulness is inescapable. Ellen White writes that “the closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature. This is evidence that Satan’s delusions have lost their power; that the vivifying influence of the Spirit of God is arousing you.”[i] How should one respond to this? In humility, in doing one’s part in being cleansed (putting away certain habits and experiences, asking God to change one’s heart), in lamenting and mourning one’s sinful condition (putting away laughter and joy that does not stem from godly pleasures). Lamenting, mourning, and weeping are common experiences throughout the Bible that are connected with a recognition of one’s dismal situation, deep repentance, and a desire to turn back to God (Jer. 49:3; 4:28; Ezek. 7:27; Isa. 22:4; and the book of Lamentations). Throughout the Old Testament, prophets would encourage the people to lament, mourn, and weep, because this would be the first step in seeing reality and then being reconciled to God. Out of context, these verses can seem discouraging; but this experience is irrefutable evidence that the delusions of sin are fading and giving way to clear sight and a deeper surrender to Christ.