“Why are we fighting so much? We argue all the time, and it’s usually over stuff that’s not very important.”
I’ve seen this question come up with married couples. I’ve seen it also emerge in college faculty groups, church groups, groups of employees, families, and in other settings as well. Conflict is pervasive even when we don’t feel like we’re very conflictual people ourselves. That’s what makes it all the more frustrating; it troubles us because we can’t understand it.
In the Bible, James 4:1 asks the question on a practical level: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” When you’re in conflict the instinct is to respond by pointing the finger: She said this; he did that, etc. But James tells us that we need to start by looking within – each one of us: “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”
The Greek word that he uses is hedonen. In the NIV it’s translated as “desires” (in 4:1) and as “pleasures” (in 4:3). It gives us the root from which the English word “hedonism” derives.
James helps us understand this by pointing to a general truth in 4:5 that is pervasive throughout scripture: “…the spirit [that God] caused to live in us envies intensely.” It’s similar to being told that you have a genetic susceptibility to cancer or diabetes or some other illness. Each of us in some way or another has the dangerous tendency to want things that we don’t need and/or should not have.
And we all need to be aware of this danger because it can get us in real trouble, which James 4:2 describes. It begins with the frustrated sense of wanting/coveting that’s not easily satisfied. James says it can even lead to murder. Really? Murder? Yes! In the Bible we read about King Ahab coveting Naboth’s vineyard (in I Kings 21); when he couldn’t successfully negotiate for it he arranged to kill the owner and take it. And we read (in II Samuel 11) about David wanting the wife of one of his military men. He arranged for her to be brought to him and arranged for her husband to be killed in battle.
And it’s not confined to Bible times. Anyone who’s seen the movie “Murder Ordained” or has read/heard about the Finney Bond scandal will know otherwise. The latter resulted in the suicide of a long-term member of our church in back 1935. So yes – these kinds of things can have dire and even lethal consequences.
Sometimes in church we sing the song “He Giveth More Grace”. The title derives from James 4:6a. God reaches out with His grace to counter the worldly temptations and to point us to something better. And this is the good news: by God’s power, we don’t have to live this way, and we shouldn’t.
Pride is the instinctive response when you’re under attack. It’s in our nature to want to be defensive, but that also obstructs the process of grace. Humility is what facilitates it. This is why James 4:6 quotes Proverbs 3:34 by saying, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
This goes back to the nature and character of Christ, whom James referred to as “our glorious Lord” (in James 2:1). He didn’t exalt Himself over Pilate or any other of His adversaries; rather, He submitted Himself even unto death on the cross. Since we follow in His steps, James 4:8 tells us to “Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
There’s a popular maxim that says, “The secret to happiness is to want what you have, rather than have what you want.” Friendship with God means turning away from the covetous ways of the world (4:4), and discerning between the worldly “wisdom” that is full of envy and selfish ambition (3:14-16) and the real wisdom that is from above and is pure, leading us in the path of peace (3:17-18, cf. Matthew 5:9). And God’s grace is what makes it all possible. As Bryan Chapell put it, “What most Christians do not understand is grace is not merely freedom; it is fuel.”
God bless you,
Andrew McHenry, Pastor
First Congregational Church
The blog of Andrew McHenry, Pastor of First Congregational Church of Emporia, Kansas.