“Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” ~ James 4:9
Explanation of the Text: This verse is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, in which He says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The verse is directed towards the grief that one should have over their own sin. Being miserable (wretched) describes “the sense of wretchedness and misery that sinning should produce in the lives of those who have been redeemed.” As our sin breaks the heart of the Father, it should also break our heart because of the impact it has on Him and our relationship with Him. Every believer should be broken over their sin, and mourn over it with godly grief, leading one to repentance. The mourning over sin should be characterized with repentance. This repentance is meant to be a genuine repentance, and is different than regretting an action because one got caught, which is not remorse over the action that was perpetrated. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, one finds the following: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
As part of the process of being wretched (or miserable) James describes it has mourning and weeping. While these two words may seem repetitive, they actually work together to bring together a complete picture of sorrow over sin. The word ‘mourn’ refers to the idea of grieving. It is the inward emotion that one has, similar to that at the death of a close person. ‘Weep’ on the other hand refers to the outward expression of grief, such as weeping with tears. Therefore, grieving over sin involves every part of our being.
As a way of extolling the thought further, James gives a picture of grief in that one’s laughter should be turned to mourning and joy turned to gloom. The word for laughter is reference to one who is being flippant towards God, and instead concerns himself with the ways of the world. This person has no regard for God or His call on one’s life, instead choosing to fulfill the desires of the heart. Instead though, James says these people should come to repentance over their foolishness, recognizing their own sin and its affect.
Daniel Doriani sums up James 4:9 in this way:
The desire for a pure heart leads logically to sorrow for sin. When sin is manifest, the righteous grieve…….Like Jesus, James say we can laugh now, at sin, and mourn later, over judgment. Or we can mourn now, over sin, and laugh later, at God’s grace (Luke 6:25). All too often, the world laughs about the wrong things. There is fleeting joy for those who indulge in sin and fleeting sorrow for those who break with it, but it is far better to mourn now for a season and rejoice forever.
Examination & Application of the Text: The best response and application of this text is to mourn over sin and repent of it. Repentance must be true and genuine, forcing an acknowledgement of it before God and a willingness to turn from it. In acknowledging it before God, one must confess their sins. The Greek word for confession refers to saying the same thing about sin that God does. Therefore, it is to look at sin the same way as God. However, mourning over sin should not just force one to recognize and acknowledge it, but also to turn away from that sin. Because of its destructive and hurtful nature, as evidenced by the mourning over it, there should be no desire to continue in it. No longer as slaves to sin, lives as slaves to righteousness (Romans 8:34).
Mourning over sin also does not negate the idea that believers are to be joyous and live victoriously. 1 Thessalonians 5:16 says to rejoice always. Indeed, believers are to live victoriously because victory can be found through Jesus Christ! So while we are to mourn over sin, we should also recognize the victory we have by God’s grace!
 Homer A. Kent Jr., Faith That Works: Studies in the Epistle of James, (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 2005), 145.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible-English Standard Versions (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 1882.
 Daniel M. Doriani, James, Reformed Exposition Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 150.