James 4:1-10 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 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. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?
6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
How many of you have ever experienced conflict within the Church? Sadly, I already know the answer. Therefore, a more significant question is this: Why does it happen or what causes it? In Jesus, we are brothers and sisters. We’ve been forgiven and freed from sin. We have a common commission to disciple the world and a common command to do so in Trinity-like unity. Our God-given love for one another is a significant way in which God has chosen to reveal the power of the gospel to the world. And the Holy Spirit dwells in us to make us holy. Given all of these truths of the Christian faith, it doesn’t make any sense that there would be conflict in our ranks, does it? And yet, as we all know, there is—all too often and all too painfully, there is.
So let’s come back to the second question I asked you: If conflicts within the Church are opposed to God’s nature, plan, and commands, as well as the Church’s nature, mission, and power, what is their source? Where do they come from? And equally importantly, what are we to do about them? How can we avoid them, resolve them when they do show up, and heal from them afterwards?
Tragically, this is not a new issue and these are not new questions within the Church. Evidently, James was dealing with this exact same stuff two thousand years ago, for he asked His readers the exact same question, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?”. There was quarreling and fighting among the Christians James pastored and, for all the reasons I listed above, he wanted to put an end to it. James 4:1-10 was his attempt to do so.
Within these verses, and to those ends, James revealed that both He and his readers had identified a problem, its source, and a solution to that problem. Over the next two weeks we’ll consider each of those things. Today, in vs.1-5, we’ll see the problem, its source, and its solution from the perspective of James’s readers, as well as the true problem and its true source from James’s (that is, the Holy Spirit’s) perspective. Then next week, in vs.6-10, we’ll see James’s solution.
Grace, before I pray, let’s settle on the fact that all of these things are truly precious gifts from God. In them we get a glimpse into the conflict-producing lies we often believe, the truth about them, and a path to recognizing those lies before they can take root and the solution if they do. Let’s pray that we’d see all of that clearly in James, in order that learn how to glorify God by living together in peace, unity, and healing.
THE PROBLEM, ITS CAUSE, AND ITS SOLUTION ACCORDING TO JAMES’S READERS
Once again, our passage begins with James asking, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?”. Everything that follows in vs.1-5 lets us know that James wasn’t asking because he didn’t know. We know this because in the very same verse (1) as he asked the question, he gave the answer (which we’ll come back to at the end), and in the rest of the verses he emphatically and unflinchingly exposed the ungodly answer of his readers. James knew both the answer his readers would give and the real answer. His question was simply meant to introduce the topic.
And again, as a means of helping his readers end their conflict and walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord, James revealed to them their false understanding of their problem, its cause, and its solution.
The Problem According to James’s Readers
How, then, did James’s readers understand the nature of their problem? Very simply, for them, the problem was that they weren’t getting what they wanted. James expressed this in four different ways in vs.2 and 3.
v.2, “You desire and do not have.”
v.2, “You covet and cannot obtain.”
v.2, “You do not have.”
v.3, “You ask and do not receive.”
There really is nothing complicated about this. James’s readers had run into the problem of really wanting certain things they were unable to obtain. We don’t know what those things were (or even if the things were good or bad), only that they desperately wanted them, but couldn’t get their hands on them. We all know how frustrating that can be. No one likes to want something that is out of our reach.
One of the most vivid memories I have of this was back when I was in late Jr. High or early high school. There are very few things in life I remember wanting more than to go skiing for a week over Christmas break with a friend. It really is difficult to express how much I wanted to go. It was all I could think about. I was legitimately willing to trade almost anything for it. And I couldn’t imagine anything more painful than not getting it. As you can imagine, when I found out I couldn’t go, it was crushing. I still remember going back and forth between intense sadness and anger for some time.
The problem, as far as James’s readers were concerned, was that there were things they wanted but could not get.
The Cause According to James’s Readers
The next question, of course, is why couldn’t James’s readers have what they wanted. The answer is only implied in the text, but it is clear nevertheless. James’s readers were somehow keeping one another from getting what they wanted. James noticed conflict among his readers. He asked them, “What’s causing all of this?” Their answer was that other people within the church were keeping them from getting what they really wanted. Other Christians were the cause of the conflict. We don’t know why or how they were preventing one another from getting what they wanted, only that they were doing so.
It would have been one thing if I had not been able to go on the ski trip because the weather was too bad or the resort was closed or the car broke down. That would have been hard to handle, it still would have been a frustrating problem, but obviously there isn’t much you can do about any of those things. The situation was very different, however, in that it was my parents who said no; and as far as I was concerned, for no good reason. The problem was that I couldn’t go skiing even though I desperately wanted to and the cause of that problem (from my perspective) was my parents.
The problem James’s readers believed they faced was not getting what they wanted. The cause, they believed, was others within their churches.
The Solution According to James’s Readers
Finally, then, what did James’s readers believe the solution to be? Their solution, James tells us, was quarreling, fighting, and murdering with each other.
2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.
Quarreling and fighting don’t need a lot of explanation. They probably mean what you think they mean. Both come from words most commonly used in the context of military conflict. Quarreling typically refers to ongoing combat, while fighting usually points to a more specific battle. But both basically indicate significant fighting between two opposing sides.
To be clear, the quarreling and fighting that James was addressing was not simple, healthy disagreement. He was not even referring to spirited, but good-natured debates about serious topics. He was talking about adversarial, you-must-lose-so-I-can-win, animus-driven fighting.
What James meant by “murder” on the other hand, isn’t quite as clear. The two main possibilities are that he either had Jesus’ teaching in mind that having hatred for someone in your heart is to murder them (Matthew 5:21-22) or that their conflict was getting so bad that if they didn’t get things in check, it might escalate all the way to actual murder. Either way, it’s very unlikely that those within James churches were actually murdering one another. The main point is that things were contentious enough that their solution was murderous.
Believing my parents to be the cause of my most significant and immediate problem, I did my best to make their lives as miserable as I believed they were making mine. Guilt, anger, shame, tears, silence, harsh words, and general obnoxiousness constituted my solution.
James’s readers saw their problem as not getting what they wanted, the cause as those in their churches, and the solution as fighting with one another to get what they wanted.
What a tragic scene. James is about to help us see how tragic it really is. As I said in the beginning, there are no ways in which this ought to describe the people of God. As we turn our attention now to James’s reframing and redefining each of these things, I want to call all of us to lean way into what James says and to pray earnestly that this may never mark our church. I’d also like to remind you of something else that I mentioned at the beginning: it is a remarkable gift of God to pull back the curtain on this to help us avoid it, put a stop to it wherever we find it, and heal from it if ever we fall into it.
With that, let’s consider now, the real problem and cause according to James, on our way to his solution next week.
THE REAL PROBLEM AND ITS CAUSE ACCORDING TO JAMES
James categorically rejected his readers’ understanding of the problem, cause, and solution. Indeed, he was so adamant about it that he didn’t simply correct their error, but harshly rebuked them for it.
The Real Problem According to James
So what was the real problem his readers were facing? The real problem, according to James, was the was fighting, quarreling, and murderous thoughts among them. Each of those things was exactly contrary to God’s calling on their lives and their very nature as brothers and sisters in Christ. They were called to be faithful, but James called them “adulterous” (4). They were called to be friends of God, but their actions were more in line with unbelievers who are at “enmity with God” as “enemies of God” (4). Previously, James had referred to his readers as “brothers” and “beloved brothers.” Here, however, he addresses them as “You adulterous people!”
What a remarkably significant thing it is to realize that what James’s readers thought of as the solution to their problem, was actually the problem itself. How many times, Grace, has that been the case in our lives (perhaps without us even knowing it)?
2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.
There’s no indication that James’s readers had any idea that their fighting was misguided. More than likely, they believed they were fighting for a some virtuous and just cause. Again, let this realization humble you whenever you find yourself in a conflict where you believe yourself to have the upper moral hand. In fact, and I hope we all really hear this Grace, James is about to help us see that every single time we find ourselves engaged in the kind of quarreling and fighting his readers were engaged in, we are mistaken to believe the problem is outside of ourselves.
Again, the problem was not that those in James’s churches were not getting what they wanted (as they imagined). The problem was that they were fighting with one another to get what they wanted from one another and therein acting in ways that were out of keeping with the nature and purpose of God’s people.
What, then, was the actual cause of their conflict?
The Real Cause According to James
To find the real cause of their fighting, we need to go back to the beginning of the passage. Before we go there, however, let me put the question before you. Before hearing this text, what would you have said was the main cause of Church conflict? We just saw one answer from James’s readers, but what is your answer?
I imagine that some would say something like COVID, racial tensions, the polarizing political climate or some other situational answer. Others might name some sort of ministry preference surrounding kids programming, women’s ministry, or outreach styles. Still other might name theological tensions surrounding the nature of God’s Word, salvation, the roles of men and women, God’s sovereignty, or the like. My guess is that the bulk of the answers would center around the sins of other people (somewhat in keeping with the answer James’s readers gave); the leaders are too heavy handed, she has such a sharp tongue, he never does what he says, they’re not bold enough in following Jesus, no one is recognizing my gifts, etc.
Certainly, there has been Church conflict around each of those categories and everyone of those examples. But James says that none of those are the root issue. As real and common as some of those are, they are not the main source of conflict within the Church.
So where, then, does that kind of quarreling and fighting come from? It comes, James says, not from situation, ministry differences, theological technicalities, or the sins of others. Conflict within the Church comes ultimately from our own sinful desires.
1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?
As we saw last week, the world, our flesh, and the devils are continually working to draw us away from obedience to God. They are constantly working to create and stir up selfish passions within us and cause them to war against us. Simply, as Christians, on this side of heaven, we still have sinful desires that well up and war against our consciences. Church conflict—of the variety James has in mind—comes when our sinful passions win out over our godly passions in relation to someone else in our church.
Peter addressed the same basic situation with a command in 1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
Paul described what this feels like in his own life in remarkable detail in Romans 7:15-23.
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Simply, conflicts among God’s people are caused by our own passions (pleasures; hedonism) rising above love for other Christians—every time. What’s more, this kind of conflict requires both people to allow that to happen within themselves. If even one of allows the gospel to rule, this kind of conflict cannot happen. Again, then, whenever you find yourself in the kind of conflict James’s readers were in, it is always because your sinful passions are waging war within you…and are winning.
In the next several verses James described three ways that our passions war within us in such a way as to cause conflict in the church.
Our warring passions cause conflict when they cause us to want something in a way we shouldn’t. In v.2, James wrote, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” The issue here is not necessarily what James’s readers wanted. Perhaps what they wanted was even good, like wanting to be a teacher of God’s people or to possess helpful wisdom. The issue is that they wanted whatever they wanted badly enough to fight for it. They wanted what they wanted in a way they shouldn’t have. The old adage is, “A good thing becomes a bad thing, when it becomes a ruling thing.” Where Christians ought to be willing to be defrauded (1 Corinthians 6:7), to be willing to sacrifice whatever good we have, James’s readers wanted what they wanted so badly that they were willing to sacrifice others (and the reputation of Jesus) for it.
Think about that, Grace. Where in your life do you want something so badly (even, perhaps, a good thing), that you are willing to fight (verbally, emotionally, or even physically) to get it? James calls this adulterous.
Our warring passions cause conflict when they cause us to seek to have them fulfilled in places that cannot deliver. This is a negative rendition of what James said at the end of v.2, “You do not have because you do not ask.” James’s point is that his readers should have asked God for the things they needed since, as he already said, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (1:17). By demanding that someone else (the other Christians they were fighting with) fulfill their desires, it either meant that it wasn’t a good desire or that the person would not be able to meet it.
Consider that for a moment, Grace. How many fights have you been in because you demanded something from someone who could not give it? This has significant and countless applications.
Kids, how many of you have gotten mad at your brother or sister for keeping you from having the kind of fun you wanted. Your siblings can’t give you satisfaction, God alone can (Psalm 107:9).
Friends, how many of you have given the cold shoulder because you were hurt by being left out of something? Your friends can’t provide for you true community and acceptance, only God ultimately can ().
Husbands, how many of you have spoken harshly with your wife because she didn’t give you the respect you desired (and even the respect God calls her to)? Your wives can’t ultimately give you your identity, God alone can ().
Wives, how many of you have been hurt and angry because your husband didn’t anticipate your (obvious) needs? Your husband will never be able to perfectly live with you in an understanding way or have within him what it takes to satisfy you. Only God can do that ().
Seniors saints, how many of you have been frustrated because the kids of grace were rowdy enough to disturb your peace? Kids can’t give peace, God alone can ().
Members, how many of you have gone home upset because Grace Church doesn’t have what you want in the way of specific ministries? Only God can truly make you holy ().
Elders, how many times have we been frustrated with someone for not maturing in Christ fast enough. God alone sets the timing of spiritual growth ().
Conflict will always come when we demand from someone else what only God can ultimately give.
Finally ,our warring passion cause conflict when they cause us to want something we shouldn’t. That’s the essence of v.3. James readers were seeking their desires in wrong places (from each other rather than God) and, more fundamentally, they desired things that weren’t good, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” How many fights have you been in because you demanded something you shouldn’t have?
Our passions warring within us cause conflict when they cause us to want things in ways we shouldn’t, to want things from places that can’t deliver them, and to want things we shouldn’t want to begin with. And all of this, James wrote, flows out of one particular pathological passion: love for the world.
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. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?
I’ll pick up with this next week before turning to the solution to all of it, but hear here that world-love is at the heart of, at our heart in of almost every conflict
This passage describes a problem, a cause, and a solution from the perspective of James’s readers. Their problem was that they wanted certain things very much, but were unable to get them. They believed that others within their churches were the cause of their lack. And their solution was to quarrel, fight, and murder. James wrote this passage to shed light on the ungodliness of this and to call them to repent. In his rebuke, James framed the problem quite a bit differently. Rather than a failure to get what they wanted, James said their problem was that their in-fighting was contrary to their nature and calling. And the cause of their problem was their own sin of love for the world. Next week, in 6-10, we’ll see James reframe the solution as well. Rather than fighting, James said the solution was repentance flowing from the grace of God.
Let’s take this week to really consider whatever conflict we might be involved in and then remember the cross. Let us remember that Jesus did not call down legions of angels to save him from the devil’s temptation, the mockery of the religious leaders, or even the cross on which he died. He took the conflict upon Himself that we might have peace.