Ever get caught in someone’s anger and wonder, “Where did that come from?!”
Ever vent unreasonable anger yourself and wonder the same, “Where did that come from?”
Today’s passage takes a peek under the hood of that very question. In James 4:1-12, Doctor James offers a bit of soul surgery to help us clean out the gunk and begin moving toward greater wisdom. That’s what we left off with last week, what wisdom looks like—it shows up, it’s visible, in the person who does good works with a humble attitude. The biblical emphasis for wisdom is behavioral, that you know it when you see it.
Today builds on that by first exposing what often holds us back from growing in wisdom, then James pulls back the curtain to remind us of the spiritual side of what’s often taking place when we fight. And finally, James offers the cure for the tendency to confuse argumentativeness with wisdom. That’s the broad outline of today’s passage: first the cause of our conflicts. Then the spiritual battle behind many conflicts. And third, the cure for our conflicts. James begins with…
The cause of our conflicts:
He asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” James immediately answers with a twofold answer. The first cause of our conflicts is…
Desires that aren’t met
“Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.” James 4:1-2
We ask, “Where did that come from?” James answers clearly: “From inside.” As quick as we are to blame other people and to blame circumstances, James isn’t having it. It’s about what’s inside of us, desires that aren’t met.
The word translated desires here is hedone, from which we get hedonist, a person who pursues his or her own pleasure. These desires for immediate gratification, for immediate satisfactions, battle within us. The Greek word translated battle here is strateuo, from which we get our word strategy.
Famous historian Will Durant noted that out of all human history that’s been well recorded, there are less than 270 years of known peace. Right now, in 2019, there are four major wars taking place which have resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 deaths this year alone. When you add current wars that have killed up to 10,000 people this year alone, the tally jumps up to eleven wars raging right now.
War is normal; peace is unusual. Yet peace to the best of our ability is what we as Christians are called to pursue, both with one another in the family of God, in our workplaces and schools, and we’re even called to pursue peace with those who actively oppose the message of Jesus. This is what is so radical about true Christianity as opposed to a pseudo-Christianity that just parrots whatever the broader culture does.
James says the root cause of many conflicts isn’t external, isn’t someone else’s fault. There is an internal catalyst: unmet desires within us.
Someone else has likened it to four steps to fall down the stairs from desire down into fights and quarrels. Four “steps” to fall down the stairs:
I desire: some desires are sinful from the get-go (the desire for vengeance, the allure of greed, the pull of lust). A lot of other desires are good, but can spark conflict: wanting to be financially better off; the desire for sexual fulfillment; the desire for close friends; a new smartphone or bigger place to live. The challenge is how you respond when you can’t have what you want right now, and maybe not at all? James picks up on this and points out that what often causes fights and quarrels is that a desire turns into the next step down, which is…
I demand: When you fall for the lie that you can’t be happy unless you have that desire met, you’re on your way down the stairs into a flat-out crash.
For example: “I work hard all week. When I get home, I deserve to take it easy.” That’s a desire that doesn’t work if it becomes a demand. Maybe you need to help with food shopping or cooking or doing the dishes or a load of laundry or paying the bills or vacuuming, or taking the kids to music lessons, etc.
The next step down is…
When someone fails to do what you expect them to do, you judge them as the problem. The problem isn’t my lack of patience. It’s their inability or unwillingness to do what I want, when I want it.
That in turn kicks us down the final step…
Someone has put it this way: Idols always demand sacrifices. When your desires become idols, that is, when you must have your way, you will punish those who don’t give what you want. Maybe you give them the silent treatment. Others get loud.
This plays out a thousand ways, in the classroom and playground, in cubicle farms and board rooms, in living rooms and in international negotiations. Four steps to fall down the stairs into destructive conflicts:
Roger Thompson takes this to the personal level, noting,
“Whenever you are riled up, fit to be tied, fuming, raging—this principle is at work. You should know, you should realize, that at that point you wanted something and you didn’t get it. Whenever you feel that surge of anger rising, whenever you see conflict in your life you should ask yourself, “What is it that I wanted that I didn’t get?” It may be something very surface and foolish. It may be something very deep. James simply says it’s your desires. It’s your desires and they weren’t fulfilled.”
Source: Acting Out Humility
So the first cause of our conflicts is desires that aren’t met. A second cause James points to is…
Desires that are misguided
In verse 3 he adds…
“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:3
The Message paraphrase is jarring. It reads…
“You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.”
Way back in the 1800s, Charles Finney tried to unpack psychologically what James is saying. Here’s how Finney thought it through: “Selfishness is a phenomenon of the will, and consists in committing the will to the gratification of the desires. … Selfishness begins when the will yields to the desire and seeks to obey it in opposition to the law of the intelligence or the law of God. It matters not what kind of desire it is; if it is the desire that governs the will, this is selfishness.”
More recently British Christian leader Alan Redpath brought it home with this: “The secret of every discord in Christian homes and communities and churches is that we seek our own way and our own glory.”
So to the question we wonder, “Where did that come from?!” James says, “Take a long hard look within. There’s the kindling of desires that aren’t met, and the spark of desires that are misguided.” This is where fights begin: within.
Next, James shifts to…
The spiritual battle behind our conflicts: He points out two spiritual aspects to the fights and quarrels we fall into. First is…
Making frenemies with God’s enemy
“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” James 4:4
If you have seen the damage done by adultery, you can feel how shocking is what James says here. Both the Old Testament, especially but not limited to the book of the prophet Hosea, and here in the New Testament, liken God’s commitment to us to the lifelong, faithful commitment of marriage. He always remains faithful to us. The challenge is whether we will remain faithful to him.
The problem is not friendship with the people of the world. The problem is friendship with the skewed values and behaviors of the world. God takes that personally—like a husband or wife who discovers their spouse has been cheating on them.
Elizabeth Edwards, the former wife of vice presidential candidate Senator John Edwards, described the agony she experienced when she learned of her husband’s infidelities. She writes, “After I cried, and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up. And the next day John and I spoke. He wasn’t coy, but it turned out he wasn’t forthright either. I felt that the ground underneath me had been pulled away.
“I spent months learning to live with a single incidence of infidelity. And I would like to say that a single incidence is easy to overcome, but it is not. I am who I am. I am imperfect in a million ways, but I always thought I was the kind of woman, the kind of wife to whom a husband would be faithful. I had asked for fidelity, begged for it, really, when we married. I never need flowers or jewelry. I don’t care about vacations or a nice car. But I need you to be faithful. Leave me, if you must, but be faithful to me if you are with me.”
Source: David Jeremiah, God Loves You (FaithWords, 2012), p. 94
I can add the college student who had just told his roommate, “My Dad is my hero,” when that very week, the man’s wife figured out he was being unfaithful, cheating with another married woman. His son, the college student, was devastated. It shook the church both families belonged to. I can’t describe to you the level of pain etched on their faces as it all exploded.
To fall into bed with the messed-up values and practices of the world as it presently is, is to place yourself in the position of God actively opposing you. We make a grave mistake when we become frenemies with the world’s ways. The second spiritual aspect to the fights and quarrels that mar our relationships, James says, are…
Expecting God’s favor while manifesting what God opposes 5-6
“Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” James 4:5-6
Greek scholars tell us that verse 5 is hard to translate, to say for sure exactly what angle James is emphasizing. Let’s give it a shot. The language of verse 4 comes from covenant relationship, covenant commitment like what marriage is intended to be. Verse 5 continues that, the emphasis being that the Holy Spirit longs for the unfaithful to return. If you have drifted spiritually, if you’ve slipped into the ways of the world in a relationship—giving in to misguided desires or fighting over unmet desires—here’s what God wants you to hear today: “Come back! Turn around!” When you do, if you do, what you will discover is the stunning truth of verse 6, that God shows favor to the humble. God actively opposes those who dig their heels into arrogant pride. But he gives grace to those who humble themselves and turn back from sin. Don’t expect God’s favor while manifesting what God opposes. God is no fool.
In his book titled Is God a Moral Monster?, Paul Copan asks the question, “When can jealousy be a good thing?” Here’s part of his answer: “In God’s case, it’s when we’re rummaging around the garbage piles of life and avoiding the source of satisfaction. It reminds me of a comic strip I once saw of a dog who had been drinking out of a toilet bowl. With water dripping from his snout, Fido looks up to tell us, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this!’ Instead of enjoying fresh spring water, we look for stagnant, crummy substitutes that inevitably fail us.”
Donald Gray Barnhouse, a pastor from an earlier time, looked at this verse and the ministry of Jesus and concluded, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.”
In verses 7-10, James pivots one more time, this time from the cause of our conflicts, and the spiritual battle behind our conflicts, to…
The cure for our conflicts: The cure is twofold. First is…
Drop to your knees and fight like a man.
“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” James 4:7-10
This is Jewish parallelism, saying the same thing in rapid repetition with only slightly different wording between them. It all means the same thing: humble yourself and come back to the Lord who loves you and reigns over you.
Contrast where we started—verse 1, the fights and quarrels that mar our relationships—with verse 10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” The cure for our conflicts—for your part in them—is when you finally say, “Lord, I surrender. I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of letting desire rule me and ruin my relationships. So to the best of my ability, I want to do what you say through James here. I bow before you, and ask that you begin a deep work in me. Draw near to me. Cleanse me. Give me a holy sadness over my sin. And in time, lift me up. Lead me into better ways, Christlike ways, of dealing with (and you fill in the blank: your spouse, a friend from whom you’ve become estranged, a former employer where things ended badly, maybe someone from church where even though they don’t know it, you’ve gotten a bad attitude against them).”
A church leader from the 7th century put it like this: “Whoever can weep over himself for one hour is greater than the one who is able to teach the whole world; whoever recognizes the depth of his own frailty is greater than the one who sees visions of angels.”
The cure to our conflicts begins when we humble ourselves before the Lord.
And then the second cure for our conflicts that James holds out is…
Lay down the gavel and leave judgment to God.
“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” James 4:11-12
Six times in just three verses, James warns of judging. There’s One judge, he says, and you’re not it! So give your brother a break. Give your sister in Christ a break. They don’t answer to you. And God doesn’t answer to you.
One of the greatest mysteries of genuine Christianity is that the more aware you are of your own sin, the more merciful you will be toward the sins of others. [repeat]
That doesn’t mean God excuses sin or turns a blind eye. It’s simply a stark reminder that we are not the Judge.
As Peter Marshall suggested we pray, “Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change. And when we are right, make us easy to live with.”
James emphasizes that how we treat others reveals what we really believe about God. That’s a recurring theme for him. God is the One who will judge. We tend to judge immediately and emotionally. The Lord judges in the right time, and justly. Thank God that judgment is not left to us!
So if you find yourself caught up repeatedly in fights and quarrels, the only conclusion held out here is that you’re not coming under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We’re called to come back to the cross, and remember our Judge…who instead of judging us, has sent us the only Savior.
In Communion, we remember that God’s judgment and justice against sin, meets his mercy and his will that sinners experience his forgiveness. The death and resurrection of Jesus declare that “the only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy,” wants to forgive and save.
He wants us to submit to him and resist the devil when the temptation comes to play judge and jury.
The Lord wants us to come near to Him, and experience Him drawing near to us.