The Heart of Conflict & The Hope of Grace
Passage: James 4:1–4:6
Sermon from James 4:1-6 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on July 10, 2016
We look today at the heart of conflict and the hope of God’s grace. Let’s read verses 1-6 and then pray together.
1What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2You 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. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4You 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. 5Or 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”? 6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Conflict is something we all face. There is constructive conflict. Love often calls us to face problems in our relationships, to confront injustice in our society, and then work toward peaceful solutions that build up others. That’s not the sort of conflict James is addressing here. James is addressing destructive conflict—conflict that tears down others, knee-jerk reactions that threaten peace, daily fights for our own self-interests, divisive attitudes and various kinds of abuse. We all face destructive conflict as well.
The World of Conflict
We live in a world of destructive conflict. We experience conflict in our homes, in our friendships, sometimes in our churches. Conflict affects the people we work with. Conflict is present in marriages and politics. Conflict happens on the streets of Baton Rouge, in a car in Minneapolis, and on the streets of Dallas. Conflict comes with prejudice and insensitive remarks and Facebook rants and violent retaliation.
The Bible’s assessment is that conflict is a universal problem, a world-wide dilemma, because of our sin. Titus 3:3 says, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” That’s the natural state of humanity. And not even the church is immune to destructive conflict. We’ve already observed some conflict in the letter of James—the rich are looking down on the poor, others are getting angry.
Whether we’re in the middle of conflict or know of conflict or see a conflict coming, James’ words are very relevant and very important and I think that you’ll find them very helpful for your relationships—for your marriage and your parenting and your coworkers, and, most importantly, your relationship with God.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, James gives us God’s perspective on our conflicts. He tells us exactly what God sees when he looks at our conflicts. He takes the two sinners in conflict, and he sits them down and exposes what lies beneath their conflict. Hebrews says the word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword. James takes the word of God and cuts us open to the very core. If you want to know why you fought with your wife the other day and why your kids argue over toys and why you can’t get along with an employee and why shootings like the one in Dallas happen—God reveals it right here. He exposes conflict for what it is…
The Wayward Passions beneath Conflict
Verses 1-3 tell us why our conflicts exist. Verses 1-3 explain the wayward passions beneath our conflicts. He asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” What is their source, in other words? “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Notice what James doesn’t say.
He doesn’t say that you fight because the other person is just a pain. He doesn’t say that you fight because your hormones are raging. He doesn’t say that you fight because your father was the same way, or “You’re just like your mother.” He doesn’t say that you fight because you just had a bad day at work and you’re tired. He doesn’t say that you fight because your felt needs aren’t being met. He doesn’t say that you fight because others are stepping on your rights.
He says we fight because our passions are at war within us. “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet [in here!] and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” Here’s the answer—this is the root of our conflict problems: we fight because we don’t get what we want. Our desire for something so rules us that we sin in order to have it—we will step on people to have it, we get angry if they get in the way of it. This is what played out on the streets of Dallas and this is what plays out in our lives. As Dan McCartney put it, “Animosity escalates when desire is frustrated.”[i]
And what makes us even more vulnerable is that some of the things we desire can be good. We can actually justify our desires for good things. For instance, isn’t it good that a wife might want her husband to show her affection? Isn’t it good for someone to want a little rest after a long day at work? Isn’t it good to want obedience from your children? Isn’t it good for a child to want a friend to share his toys? Isn’t it good to want a coworker to do his job rightly? Yes, these are good desires.
The problem is that we often want even good things too much. We want them to the degree that we will sin in order to get them. We want them to the degree that we stop trusting that God is truly enough. We want them to the degree that we believe we can handle the situation better than the Creator. We want them to the degree that “I’ll take you out before laying my life down for you.” Wayward passions are the root of all destructive conflict; they fight for the kingdom of self over the kingdom of God.
They disrupt our fellowship with others
Our wayward passions disrupt our fellowship with others. Look at the picture James paints. The word behind “quarrels” is used repeatedly throughout Scripture for military conflict, all-out war between nations (e.g., Matt 24:6). He also doesn’t hold back from calling it murder. James seems to be following the pattern of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus taught that anger was essentially murderous in principle (Matt 5:21-22).[ii] First John 3:11-12 even brings up the evil jealousy of Cain that led to the murder of Abel; so is anybody who chooses not to love his brother.
We can often dismiss our sinful conflicts as not that big a deal. But from God’s perspective, they’re nothing less than a declaration of war. We have our own kingdom to defend, and we will kill to keep it. Think of it like this. When you turn on the news and see God’s image-bearers getting shot or shooting, or read of the death toll rising to 281 after a bombing in Baghdad, when you watch civil war continue in Colombia—do you just shrug your shoulders and say, “O well!”
Of course not: the corruption is horrific, the blood is gory, the orphaned children are too much to respond with such cavalier dismissal. No: we hurt; we groan; we’re sickened by it all; we want to get out and do something to bring these people peace.
We should feel the same way toward sinful, destructive conflict. We should be just as grieved by our wayward passions causing disruption in our fellowship with others. It’s not just a skirmish with your wife. It’s not just a harsh reaction to your child. It’s not just another argument at work. When our inner cravings rule us instead of the Prince of Peace ruling us, the result is war. It’s the unraveling of the way God created humanity to live together in wholeness. Get your nose in the Bible and see your sinful conflict for the horror that it is.
They disrupt fellowship with God
Our wayward passions also disrupt our fellowship with God. This becomes especially evident in our prayer life. He says first that, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” He already said, “You desire and cannot have…you covet and cannot obtain.” Desire isn’t lacking in these folks; but the patient dependence on God to fulfill those desires is lacking. Prayer is lacking.
Prayer is expressing our dependence on God, knowing that he is generous to give. James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach…” (cf. Jas 1:17). In some sense, they don’t believe that God is generous enough. So they try to obtain with human means what can only be given by divine means—“Instead of praying for it, I’ll fight for it, I’ll kill for it.”
And even when they do ask God for something, they don’t receive it from him. It’s not that he doesn’t hear them. He certainly does; but he knows why they want it. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Prayer malfunctions when what we want contradicts God’s kingdom and its values. When our desires are far from God’s priorities and purposes, he refuses the requests. Prayer is humbling yourself before a King with universal authority, ready to obey his will and not our own.
One writer asked, “Why would God want to answer the prayer of a believer who wants to live like an enemy of Christ?”[iii] So on the one hand, prayerlessness exposes that we don’t think God is generous enough. And on the other hand, it’s possible that our desires aren’t really for God at all in our praying. We just want his stuff. Our wayward passions warp our communion with God in prayer.
Check yourself, here. Are their good things you want, that you just never ask for? How many times have I gone on and on about something I want to see changed in myself, in my home, in the church, in the community; and Rachel stops me mid-sentence and asks, “Have you prayed for it?” “Guess I should do that, huh?” Praise God, brothers, for wives who are willing to point out our lack of dependence on God!
And then also, is what you’re asking for in agreement with God’s will in Scripture and do you want it for the right reasons? For example, it’s possible to want to know how to teach the Bible, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s possible to want to make more money, but for all the wrong reasons. God wants a changed heart that trusts his goodness and that is content to live for his kingdom and its priorities no matter what.
The Warning of Adultery with the World
So, the world is a place of conflict. The source of all that conflict is our wayward passions, which disrupt fellowship with God and others. James now takes us to the warning of adultery with the world. Verse 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.”
How would you respond if I got up here and said, “You adulteress people!” Talk about a punch in the gut. Now, let me ask this: what if God was saying it? That’s who’s saying it here. Now, it’s also true that James has affectionately called them “brothers [and sisters]” nine times before he says this. But still, it’s quite a wallop.
It would help us, though, to understand where this language comes from. It comes from the Old Testament. The Bible uses several analogies to describe God’s relationship with his people—one of those is a Husband with his wife. To be God’s people was to be in a covenant union with him that was much like marriage. Marriage partners are to be faithful to one another.
Ezekiel 16, for instance, tells a bit of a Cinderella story of God coming to Israel and finding her in a desperate state, dirty and bloody and without hope. And in his mercy, he cleans her up and prepares her to be his bride. Listen to some of this…
8When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you…and you became mine. 9Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 10I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. 11And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. 14And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you…
What an awesome portrait of our God in his love and grace! What an amazing covenant husband he is to so beautify his people for himself. Who, in their right mind, would want to run around with another?! He’s incomparable in his love. But that’s exactly what Israel did. They chased after the idols of other nations. The people cheated on their faithful Husband with other gods. “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby…” (Ezek 16:15). She was like a serial adulteress, a whore, a slut. Their idolatry is comparable to adultery—cheating on God with idols.
When James says, “You adulterous people!” he’s describing what our wayward passions are really like. They turn us into an unfaithful bride giving herself over to everybody else except her true Husband. The absolute disgust[iv] you feel about prostitution and pornography should be the disgust you feel about your own sin; it’s a picture of it. Friendship with the world is not beautiful.
It’s actually deadly. If you become friends with the world, God is your enemy. He sets himself against you. Let’s be careful: there are many, many good things in this world that God made specifically for you to enjoy. The “world” we can’t be friends with is the fallen world, the system of evil and rebellion against God. Wayward passions rise when we’re more in love with this world’s values than we are with God. And if that’s true of us, God becomes our enemy, not our friend.
And how could he be our friend? He is holy and righteous and good, and his purpose is for his holy and righteous and good kingdom to cover the earth. If what we want is leading us to live for our kingdom instead of his, how could he be our friend? Our passions don’t just declare war against each other, they declare war against God.
There is a great warning in this. To be God’s enemy is to be the object of his wrath forever. He will come in judgment, James tells us, and his judgment will be without mercy to the one who shows no mercy. This is the bad news.
The Wonder of God’s Grace
The good news, however, is that God’s grace is greater than all our sin. In verse 5, James points us to the wonder of God’s grace. Before he does, though, he points us to God’s jealousy. Verse 5, “Or do you suppose it’s to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?
Some translations capitalize the word “spirit” to make it refer to the Holy Spirit. That’s certainly possible. But it’s also possible to leave it as the ESV has it, as referring to the human spirit. James used it this way already in 2:26—“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead…” The point seems to be that God has breathed life into his image-bearers, and he is jealous for their exclusive allegiance, jealous for their exclusive loyalty, jealous for their exclusive worship.
That’s even truer for those of us who’ve experience the new birth in Christ.[v] God has put in us a new spirit, and he is jealous for our total obedience (Jas 1:18; cf. Ezek 36:26; John 3:6). You can be jealous when you’re God, the only supremely worthy One in the universe and the only Redeemer.
I think this jealousy also fits the analogy of verse 4 where God is the husband of his covenant people. He is jealous for his wife’s intimacy. He doesn’t want her running around on him. He wants her exclusively for himself, because he is her true husband. He has chosen her. That heightens the sense of our need, because it shows what God demands. He demands exclusive loyalty. Like any good husband—he is outraged at our adultery.[vi] He doesn’t want us flirting with the world and it’s values.
But then James goes on to explain, “but he gives more grace.” We’ll talk more about this in two weeks, but James is basically giving his own commentary on Proverbs 3:34. He’s giving us the general sense of Proverbs 3:34 before he quotes it in verse 6—“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Why does God oppose the proud? Because he is jealous for our loyal worship. But for those who humble themselves before him, he is happy to give more grace to get us there.
To say it differently, God’s grace provides for us what his jealousy demands from us. How does he do this? What is the grace he provides? It’s the grace we find in the message of the gospel, the good news. God is so jealous for your worship that he made a way for you to enjoy his worship and uphold his honor in your forgiveness. This is what the cross of Jesus Christ is about—it’s where God’s jealousy for his people’s worship and his grace in forgiving them meet. He’s a jealous Husband who’s full of compassion and he will do all that’s necessary to have his bride.
The Lord’s jealousy for our worship necessitates atonement for our sin if he is not to consume us in jealousy (cf. Num 25:10-13). And he offered up Jesus Christ as that atonement—all of your sins wiped away; all the judgment you deserved for your wayward passions satisfied; all of Christ’s righteousness given to you—all so that your life will forever reflect God’s honor and glory and praise rightly.
The Lord’s jealousy for our worship not only demands atonement; it also demands a heart set upon Christ, a heart that loves Christ. His grace provides that for us too through the new birth. Chapter 1:18 again, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” If you’re going to control your wayward passions, you need new passions—passions for holiness and truth and Jesus. Those new passions are gifts of God’s grace, when he converts us.
The Lord’s jealousy also demands that we love our neighbor. When we love our neighbor as he commands us, he is glorified. His word is honored. His purpose for our humanity is made right. God’s grace provides for this too by putting his love in us. We love because he first loved us. We didn’t do anything to deserve it. It’s all grace. It’s all free. It’s all unmerited favor for you to receive.
And it’s our only hope for resolving conflict. So many times the world tries to fix conflict by changing the circumstances or by finding a more peaceful way of just giving people what they want anyway. But in doing so they always suppress the reality of what really needs to change—our relationship with God. And what really needs to change only grace can change—our heart, our inner passions.
The grace of God in our Lord Jesus is the world’s only solution to conflict. It’s our only hope for reconciliation with God, and our only hope for reconciliation with one another. Once we’re reconciled with God, he comes to dwell in here and rule over our desires. Apart from God, the world can’t control their desires. Only the believer who gets the Holy Spirit has the ability to bring their desires into submission to God’s will.
And when we submit to God’s will, peace and order are then possible in our relationships. God’s grace in Jesus takes warring sinners and unites them first to himself, and then to one another as they draw from their reconciliation with God. God’s grace in Jesus then continues to make peace in our relationships through sanctification. The passions that were once wayward now gradually move more and more toward Christ. And one day, God’s grace in Christ will bring us into a kingdom where no conflict exists, and only peace reigns. Church, you are the new humanity where God has won the battle over our destructive conflict. His grace is greater than all our sin; and your relationships must be a compelling witness to the world that that’s true.
Identifying Idols & Running to the Throne of Grace
Two weeks from now, we’ll look at a few steps that James says we can take toward peace, toward order in our relationships. He will deal first with our vertical relationship with God: “submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” and so on. And then he will deal with our horizontal relationships with each other: “do not speak evil against one another,” and so on. So the practical steps for today’s theology are coming.
But let me close today with just a couple ways you might apply this theology to your conflicts at home and to the conflicts you see in the world. First of all, when you encounter conflict—in the kitchen, in the backyard, in the car, on vacation, wherever—step back and ask yourself questions like this: What do I want? What am I seeking? What do I think I need? These kinds of questions help us get to the root of our conflicts.
Take a couple of kids playing in their rooms. Both of them see a toy that they really want to play with, but there’s only one of them. And they get in a spat over who had the toy first, or who made the first move toward the toy, or who came in the room first, or who was born first…you get the idea. And each of them wants the toy bad enough that they start hurting each other to get it.
This is really no different than what adults face. It may not be toys that we want. But it could be a comfortable chair and a quiet evening after a long day at work. It could be that you don’t want anybody demanding your time. It could be that you want uninterrupted focus on a particular task. It could be that you wished people didn’t talk so much. It could be that you want a little TLC. It could be that you want someone to do more for you or wished you had more financial security.
The list could go on. But adults have conflicts over all kinds of things that are no different than what children experience. This passage sits both people down and gets straight to the heart. We talk about shepherding a child’s heart. Here it is. James is shepherding our hearts. What do you want? What are you seeking? What do you think you need? What is it that makes you declare war on other people? What is it that you want more than God in all of his goodness and grace? What is so necessary to your happiness that you must play God to have it?
Ask these questions in moments of conflict and answer them for yourself. And you will discover that what’s motivating your anger and your divisiveness and your quarreling is some form of idolatry. Some form of spiritual adultery. In some way, I’m not believing that God is truly enough; I’m not believing that God is generous to give me all that I need; I’m not believing that God’s provision is good enough.
Or, I’m wanting my own kingdom. I’m praying for him to change everybody else, and all my circumstances, but not to change me, because after all, they’re the ones making me angry. Wrong: your own wayward passions are making you angry. Your own passions are causing the conflict.
And once you’re there, humble yourself before God’s throne of grace and cry out for more grace. More grace to forgive your sins. More grace to sever you from your idols. More grace to change your heart. More grace to reconcile you with others. More grace to make you a peaceful person. And God will give it. Verse 6 says that he opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Let’s go to him now and ask for more grace.
[i]Dan G. McCartney, James, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 208.
[ii]D. A. Carson, Matthew, EBC 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 181.
[iii]Dan Doriani, James, REC (Philipsburg: P&R, 2007), 134.
[iv]After I preached this sermon, a brother came to me, privately seeking further clarity for his wife on this sentence. The issue is that I could’ve been understood to be saying that we should feel disgust toward prostitutes. My answer: no, absolutely not. We should feel great compassion for the prostitute, holding out the hope of the gospel for all involved in this enslaving industry and doing what we can to rescue them all from the corruption. What we should feel disgust over is what prostitution and pornography do to women (and men) created precious, in God’s image.
[v]However, if read in light of the new birth in James 1:18, I could also see that the “spirit” in mind is what God has birthed by the Holy Spirit in regenerating his people. In John 3:6, Jesus explains the new birth like so: “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the [Holy] Spirit is spirit.” The background for this seems to be Ezekiel 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” Could the “spirit” that James has in mind be the “new spirit” wrought in us through the new birth, the new supernatural, spiritual life that God puts in our hearts? If so, then verse 5 seems to be saying that God jealously longs for that spirit.
[vi]D. A. Carson, “James,” in Commentary on the NT Use of the OT, eds. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 1006. See also Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 188-90.
The most recent upgrades to the HTMLG online editor are the tag manager and the attribute filter. Try it for free and purchase a subscription if you like it!
More in James: Living the Implanted Word
October 9, 2016Gospel Truth & the Church's Role in the Saint's Perseverance
October 2, 2016A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
August 28, 2016The Need for Patient Endurance