The Bible tells us, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8a)
This promise is both heartening and encouraging. It also reminds us of the responsibility we have in our relationship to God.
The phrase, “draw near,” means, very simply, to approach or get close to a thing. To draw near to God, means then, to get close to God. If you get close to God, James is saying, God Himself will come to be close to you.
That seems a bit redundant at first. If you get closer to someone or something, of course they are going to naturally be closer to you as well, but James is describing a spiritual relationship, not a physical proximity.
We might think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son and of the son’s resolve in that parable to reunite with his father. Leaving the far distant country he had sought to make a home in, he returns to the house of his father. As he gets closer to the house, his father see’s him from a long way off, and rather than waiting for the son to close the full distance, the father runs from his place to greet the son and embrace him (cf. Luke 15:11-32). The son sought to draw near to his father, and the father in turn drew near to Him.
This is God’s desire.
He wants us to come to Him. But as we begin that journey, we should not be imagining God waiting at the end of the road, toe tapping impatiently to see us get where we need to be. Rather, God is, metaphorically speaking, rushing to meet those who are sincerely drawing near to Him.
Which raises the question: what does it mean to draw near to God? How do we do such a thing in practice? What is the practical application of the metaphor?
We sometimes speak of drawing near to God in worship, in prayer, in song, or in His word. The Bible does tell us to approach the throne of God with boldness, and the context and meaning of the statement does seem to indicate prayer and worship ( cf Hebrews 4:16). We approach the throne of God to petition Him and to praise Him.
But there are reasons to think that James may have something different in mind when he tells us to draw near to God in James 4:8. For one thing there is the broader context of the statement.
The fuller passage tells us, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8; ESV) James also says, “Submit yourselves, therefore to God,” and, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you.” (James 4:7a, 10)
Again, James’ instruction is reminiscent of the aforementioned parable taught by Jesus. The prodigal son had wandered far from where he should have been. He was reduced and destitute, envying pigs and longing for a better state. Jesus says concerning this young man, “he came to himself.” (Luke 15:17) He recognized the folly of his situation, and resolved to change it. He turned himself around and set off for home, humble, penitent, and recognizing his error.
James is telling us that if we want to draw near to God, this is what we too need to be doing. We need to desire clean hands and a clean heart. We have to seek for purity in our lives. We must humble ourselves before God. In short, we need to repent.
Without repentance, there is no salvation (cf. Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38). If we cannot admit our own sins, shortcomings and errors, and having admitted them, to resolve to leave them behind, casting them away (cf. Hebrews 12:1), we cannot draw near to God. It is sin that separates us from God (cf. Isaiah 59:2). If we want to be close to God, and have that relationship with God, then we have to get rid of the very thing that is putting distance between us.
But we should never think that God is disinterested in our attempts, requiring us to make the journey alone. If we have a penitent heart, God is rushing to meet us, to forgive us, and to welcome us home. He is the father of the Parable, moved with emotion, love, sorrow, and joy to close the gap between himself and the penitent, humbled son. He has shown this to us through the sacrifice of Jesus: His willingness to do what it takes to forgive us.
All it takes on our part is a step. A humble step in the right direction, a willingness to ask, “what must I do,” and then the resolve to obey (cf. Acts 2:37-38).
If you wish draw near to God, the church of Christ invites you to study God’s word with us, and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions, including subjects you might like to see addressed, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.