What’s Your Problem? (James 4:1-6)

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“I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion—namely love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men—should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criteria of their faith.” These are the words of seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza.

Sadly, this is often all too true. Christians often find themselves in conflict—serious conflict. Even though we are called to be peacemakers we are often war-makers. This happens in various contexts. There is often war in Christian homes, with husband and wife bickering or parents and children at each other’s throat. There is often tension in Christian friendships. Church splits are all too common in the world in which we live. The bottom line is, our lives are often filled with conflict for all the wrong reasons.

But why is this? Why does so much conflict exist in our lives? In this study, we will seek to get to the heart of the matter as we study James 4:1-6. James has hinted at conflict between his readers already, and he will do so some more as he progresses through the epistle. But the heart of the matter is right here in the verses before us.

As we study this text, it is vital that we see the serious nature of such conflict and be committed to dealing radically with it. It is quite a fair question for Spinoza to ask, “Church, what’s your problem?” And we should be able to humbly give the biblical answer. But just as important, we should take hold of the solution which James introduces here in our passage: “more grace.”

Before proceeding it will be helpful to reflect on the context of this passage. In 3:1-12 James dealt with the problem of words. The issue there was the tongue, and the apostle showed quite clearly that the conflict we often face is connected with our words. It is far harder to have a fight with your wife when only one of you is speaking than it is when both are speaking. And so, clearly, if we learn to control our tongue the potential for conflict is greatly minimised.

Having dealt with the problem of words, James then moves to a new, though related, subject: the priority of wisdom (3:13-18). He speaks of the worldly wisdom to which we often fall prey, and tells us that there is a better way: God’s way; the wisdom from above. And this is a beautiful way. It is a peace-loving and thus peacemaking way. Those with godly wisdom will guard their tongues and be careful with their words.

Now James begins to speak of the propensity to war (4:1-12). And just as the issue of wisdom was closely connected to the issue of words, so too is the issue of war. In short, failure with words leads easily to war.

It is with this third issue that we begin to deal in this study. We will consider only the opening half of this section (vv. 1-6), and will do so under four headings.

The Peace We Forfeit

The passage opens with the clanging of weapons. And let us remember that it is dealing with events in the local congregation (“among you”). Those who were strangers in the diaspora, and who should therefore have been sticking together were in fact at each other’s throats. And so, although the principles with which he deals certainly apply to “wars and fightings” in the world, he is dealing here specifically with wars and fightings in the church.

From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war.

(James 4:1-2)

As we have noted above, this section comes in the context of peace (3:13-18). Thus it appears that the possibility of peace, the harvest of peace, had been forfeited by James’ readers.

Let us not miss the significance of the imagery that James chooses to use. He does not speak of “quarrels” or “bickering,” but of “wars and fightings.” Clearly, he is addressing some very serious conflict in the church. Alec Motyer has summed it up well: “James chooses the vocabulary of war to express controversies and quarrels, animosities and bad feelings among Christians, not because there is no other way of saying it, but because there is no other way of expressing the horror of it. He is seeing the relationship of the church through the eye of God.”

“Wars” represents a continuing state of hostility, and “fightings” a specific outburst of active antagonism, enduring feuds with recurring quarrels flaring up. Both words have the idea of verbal animosity. Evidently, there was some verbal nastiness that existed between church members, and James writes to deal decisively with the issue.

Let us then get into our minds the picture of war. Think of the images that you see on the TV screen and in magazines of events in the Middle East. War is horrific, and James uses precisely that imagery to portray conflict in the church. It is a horrific thing when believers fight amongst themselves. We tend to take it far too lightly, but James understood the true nature of it.

Clearly, then, it is not uncommon to see conflict and strife in a local church. It was present in the days of the apostles and it should not surprise us to see this in our own day. But what precisely is the problem? Why does conflict so abound in our churches? James suggests several reasons.

The Wisdom We Lack

Note again the immediate context. James has just dealt with earthly and heavenly wisdom (3:13-18). There is a clear link: if heavenly wisdom is not our disposition then 4:1-2 will be. And that means that we are guilty of living according to the wisdom of this world. Our “wisdom” is earthly, sensual (unspiritual) and demonic. The need then is for biblical wisdom.

Biblical wisdom is living in such a way that our relationship with both God and man is right. It is, in the words of Derek Tidball “the ability to apply knowledge and information in a way which is beneficial and constructive both for oneself and for the wider community.” Sadly, though James would have loved to commend this church for biblical wisdom, he was unable to do so, for conflict in their midst testified clearly to the fact that they were controlled by earthly wisdom.

The point is simply this: If our lives are filled with conflict, with tumultuous relationship wars, then there is a huge lack of wisdom. Remember that 3:13-16 highlighted the problem of selfish ambition as characterizing the wisdom of the world. If we don’t turn away from that and embrace God’s wisdom then 4:1 will be our lot.

The Will We Love

Clearly, this church lacked wisdom, but what was the cause of this lack? James reveals the cause as the “lusts” that warred within them. The word “lusts” speaks of “passions.” It has the idea of a strong self-centredness. It suggests a lack of emotional control and the yearning for personal satisfaction. And it is because of this type of “lust” that James’ readers lacked heavenly wisdom.

We often tend to think of the term “lust” exclusively in sexual terms, but that is not James’ intention here. He is speaking, instead, of the propensity in us to set our own will as supreme. Think of the last fight you had at home with your wife, children or parents. What was it about? At its core, was it not a battle of the wills? Did you not want your will to reign supreme? This propensity is seen in children from the youngest age, and it remains with us throughout our life on earth.

“The arguments and conflicts that were disrupting Christian fellowship could not be ascribed to righteous passion or justifiable zeal,” writes Douglas Moo; “it was selfish, indulgent desire that was responsible.” Sadly, the trouble that began within the hearts of these believers soon showed on the outside. Doriani correctly observes, “Whenever envy and selfish ambition create battles within us, they disrupt relations outside us. Quarrels and fights break out in the church and the family.” Or as Motyer says:

The whole movement of James’ thought, therefore, from 3:13 to 4:3, is to reveal that public problems (a disrupted fellowship) have private causes (the self-pleasing heart), and that if the highest (the good life) is to be achieved in the harvest of righteousness there is need of a deep penetrative work of transformation to be wrought upon the individual heart.

James just cannot make his point any stronger. Conflict in the church exists because there is conflict in our hearts.

But the apostle continues. “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain” (v. 2). The word “lust” here is different from the word in v. 1. Here it speaks of setting the heart of something, of longing for something. The ESV captures the thrust of the verse nicely: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”

The use of the word “so” in the ESV is strategic. It is because we desire and do not have that we murder; it is because we covet and cannot obtain that we fight and quarrel. Because our inner desires are not met, we tend to take our rage out on those around us.

James speaks here of “murder.” We should not necessarily imagine that physical murder was being committed in the church. Jesus identified unjustified anger as murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Reputations were being murdered in the church because church members could not get their own way. Because church members could not be number one, they made sure that others could not be.

I have followed the recent presidential election in the United States with some interest. It has been sad to see that the candidates reply heavily on criticising and slandering their opponents. Someone has rightly observed that if a person cannot be selected as president on their own merits (rather than the ill merits of another) then they don’t actually deserve the position. Unfortunately, the candidates themselves do not seem to understand that. Sadly, their attitude is often mirrored in the church, where members slander one another in order to make themselves look better.

And so Motyer offers this summary: “All our desires and passions are like an armed camp within us, ready at a moment’s notice to declare war against anyone who stands in the way of some personal gratification on which we have set our hearts. Our condition is one of self-willed determination.”

The War We Live

James sums up his teaching by bringing us back to the issue of warfare: “Ye fight and war.” Perhaps it is time to ask, are you experiencing the wisdom from above? Or is your life marked by conflict after conflict? I have recently spent several months reading through Philip Schaff’s church history, and have read of godly men and women throughout history who have been surrounded by conflict without being the cause thereof. Certainly those who live godly lives will face some unavoidable conflict, but we ought never to be the cause of sinful conflict.

If we cannot maintain relationships, if our friendships are consistently being broken, if we are consistently in conflict at the workplace, then we need to be honest to God and admit that we have forfeited the peace that is our birthright. We must recognise that the problem is within, and look to God’s Word for counsel to overcome the problem.

The Prayer We Forsake

Those who forfeit the peace that is their birthright often end up forsaking prayer: “Ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (4:2-3). I must admit that, for a long time, I could not understand how the issue of prayer fit into the context of James’ words. For many years, in fact, I tried to explain this as not referring to prayer, but speaking of us asking others (rather than God) for things. But, in fact, it fits the context perfectly.

Essentially, James is saying that when we begin warring and fighting amongst ourselves in the church, our prayers are futile. That is, when we allow our love of our own will to become the driving factor in our lives then we will forsake the prayer closet. We either will not ask (will not pray) or we will pray wrongly. (The word translated “amiss” is kakos in the Greek, and it speaks of that which is “bad” or “evil.”) Either way, prayer is forsaken and with it the power that might be ours is forfeited.

First, James argues that sinful warring results in a lack of prayer “ye ask not.” Surely we have all found that it is difficult to pray when we are the source of conflict. It may be easy enough to go through the motions, but there is no heartfelt prayer to God for biblical wisdom, because we have forsaken the wisdom that is our birthright by choosing conflict instead.

Second, James observes that even when we do ask we do so in a wrong way, with wrong motives: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” The word “consume” means “to spend” or “to squander.” Again, it comes back to the issue of wanting to be numero uno, of wanting to be the most important in all things. John Blanchard offers an apt illustration of this, citing a prayer of John Ward, a British Member of Parliament from a past era:

O Lord, thou knowest that I have mine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased an estate in the county of Essex. I beseech thee to preserve the two counties of Middlesex and Essex from fire and earthquake; and as I have a mortgage at Hertfordshire, I beg of thee likewise to have an eye of compassion on that county. As for the rest of the counties, thou mayest deal with them as thou art pleased.

Obviously, this man prayed selfishly. James argues that that is what happens when we lack wisdom: Because we love our will and are living in wars, our prayers to God just don’t fly.

Many commentators have noticed the close parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, and the parallels are certainly there. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pronounced a blessing upon peacemakers, and that is essentially what James is urging us toward here. We should be peacemakers because of the gospel. We have been reconciled to God by His grace and since we have peace with Him we should, as far as possible, be at peace with one another. Thus, the prayer for harmony in our fellowship must be one that is always on our lips.

The encouragement from James is that we can have that which we are missing. The peace that we lack, the wisdom that we have forfeited; these things can be ours if we align our will with God’s will, for “if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 John 5:14). Of course, the problem is that we all too often do not pray according to God’s will, but according to our own.

You see, prayer is not about us getting what we want but about God getting what He wants. Yes, it is right and proper to ask for our daily bread, but we must always be sure to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-14). Sadly, when we refuse to live according to heavenly wisdom the result is a forsaking of our prayer life.

So, what is your passion? Is your passion to have your will done? Or is it to see God’s will done? That is a question that must be asked between you and God. We know what the answer should be, and we often deceive ourselves into giving the “right” answer even though it may not be true. Far too often we live life according to our own desires and give God very little thought until things go awry. But if we want our lives to so shine before men that they might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven then our heart’s desire must be to see God’s will done. The man-centredness of the church today creates an atmosphere for conflict, but if we have a passion for God, His name’s sake and the extension of His kingdom, conflict will be minimised in our midst.

The Person We Fight

Conflict, on the surface, exists between the two persons involved. But James tells us that it actually goes much deeper than that. “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (v. 4).

This is a sobering verse. It accuses those who are living as war-makers, particularly within the church, of being guilty of spiritual infidelity. The ESV speaks of “adulterous people,” but in this case the KJV’s translation is preferable. He is speaking both to men and women in the church, but he is also no doubt seeking to bring to the mind of his readers the constant theme in the Old Testament of Israel as an adulterous bride. The testimony of Scripture is consistent: The church is the bride of Christ, and thus unfaithfulness is nothing short of spiritual infidelity. Consider some texts which speak of the marital relationship between God and the church.

  • Isaiah 54:5—“For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth.”
  • Jeremiah 3:14—“‘Return, O backsliding children,’ says the LORD; ‘for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.’”
  • Romans 7:4—“Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.”
  • 2 Corinthians 11:2—“For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”
  • Ephesians 5:24-27—“Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.”

James speaks of “the friendship of the world” which he identifies as “enmity with God.” In this context, “friendship with the world” speaks of selfish living. To be a friend of the world is to forsake heavenly wisdom in favour of earthly wisdom, which we have seen results in conflict in the church. When we take on the world’s value system and thus make ourselves the centre of all things, we necessarily set ourselves against God. We commit spiritual adultery.

Pause then to consider how serious a matter it is to be the cause of conflict in the church. Not only are you setting yourself against your brother, but you are setting yourself against God! In fact, so serious a matter it is that to be a war-maker rather than a peacemaker is to put yourself in a pre-converted state. Before you were saved you were the enemy of God; and to be a war-maker as a believer is, according to James, to be the enemy of God!

Are you bitter toward your husband, your wife, your parents, your children, your pastor? If so, let me suggest to you, based on James 4, that you are actually bitter toward God! To fight against others is to fight against God, for it is when we are controlled by earthly wisdom (which is sensual and demonic) that we become the source of conflict.

The Principles We Forget

I am sure you will agree that the problem is rather serious. Surely no professing believer wants to be known as the enemy of God, yet that is precisely our lot if we are conflict-causers. But all hope is not lost, and James now draws our attention to two principles, which we tend to forget, which, when remembered, help us to overcome the problem he has just addressed.

Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.

(James 4:5-6)

In these two verses we begin to head towards a solution to the problem that has been exposed. If we will remember and practice these scriptural principles then we will be well on our way towards a harvest of peace rather than the horrors of war.

The Persistence of Self

Verse 5 is one of the most difficult phrases in Scripture to translate. It is rendered variously in different translations of the Bible. The NIV reads, “The spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.” The ESV renders it, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” The NASB says, “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us.” The NKJV opts for this translation: “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’?” And the NIV offers an alternate translation: “The Spirit he caused to live in us longs jealously.” The KJV, of course, reads, “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy.”

Now, this is not a direct translation from anywhere in the Old Testament. James, it seems, is saying that the consistent testimony of Scripture agrees that “the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy.” It is a general principle taught throughout Scripture. But what precisely is he referring to? That is, should the S be capitalised in “spirit”? Is this our spirit or the Holy Spirit?

With all due respect to the NASB and the NKJV, I think they have it completely wrong. I cannot see how James can be speaking here of the Holy Spirit. He has spoken throughout this text of the problem that dwells within us, and thus, whatever precisely he means, it seems that he is talking about our spirit, not God’s Spirit.

Literally, the phrase reads, “To envy yearns the spirit which has dwelt in us.” In this instance, I think that the NIV gets the translation the best: “The spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.” In other words, our spirit, the “animating principle” which dwells within us, is a problem in that it is desirous to promote self. This, argues James, is the consistent testimony of Scripture throughout. It may not state it explicitly in any one text, but that is the general teaching of the Bible. God gave Adam and Eve a perfect, righteous spirit, but at the fall it became corrupt. And the Bible shows clearly, over and over, that the human spirit has never gotten any better. Thus, we might paraphrase James in this way: “Do you think the Bible is wrong when it tells us over and over again that we are the problem?” Our spirit is jealous. It wants to be number one and consistently yearns for that. There is a sinful propensity to promote self.

We should not be caught by surprise. Sinfulness lurks within our hearts and thus we had better be on guard. Therefore, let us think before we speak. Why am I feeling this tension? Why am I angry? Why am I offended? Why am I desirous to throw away another relationship? Why am I unhappy in this church, this marriage, this friendship? Let us admit our persistent desire to promote self, for only as we do so do we have any hope of being delivered from enmity with God.

The Power to Save

It is not enough to know ourselves. There is one more important principle to keep in mind as we seek to overcome enmity with God: “But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (v. 6).

What a promise of hope! As prevalent and as powerful as sinful self is; God is far more powerful. The problem is big but God is bigger. The guilt is huge; grace is a hulk!

In the original language, the first word of the sentence is “more.” There is a big problem (v. 5), but there is even bigger grace (v. 6). We can therefore go before God, humbling ourselves and begging for His grace to save us from our sins. God resists those who stand against Him, stubborn in their pride, but He gives grace to change to those who are humble enough to ask for it.

James is citing Proverbs 3:34, where we are told that God “scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly.” If you scorn God’s Word and His will, He will scorn you. But if you cry to Him for grace He opens wide the floodgates.

There is no excuse in Christian homes for long standing conflict, because He gives more grace. There is no excuse in local churches for persistent conflict, because God gives more grace. Remember that you are a sinner, as is your spouse. Remember that your church is filled with sinners; forgiven sinners, to be sure, but sinners nonetheless. Conflict will thus always be a reality. But let us also remember that God’s grace is available to sinners who humble themselves and ask for it.

Writes Daniel Doriani, “So, James says, we must choose between two ways of life. There is the way of ambition, grasping, and pride, and the way of repentance and humility, which leads to peace with God, then with mankind.” And Motyer summarises it beautifully:

What comfort there is in this verse! It tells us that God is tirelessly on our side. He never falters in respect of our needs, he always has more grace at hand for us. He is never less than sufficient, he always has more and yet more to give. Whatever we may forfeit when we put self first, we cannot forfeit our salvation, for there is always more grace. No matter what we do to him, he is never beaten. We may play false to the grace of election, contradict the grace of reconciliation, overlook the grace of indwelling—but he gives more grace. Even if we were to turn to him and say, “What I have received so far is much less than enough,” he would reply, “Well, you may have more.” His resources are never at an end, his patience is never exhausted, his initiative never stops, his generosity knows no limit: he gives more grace.

By God’s grace may we humble ourselves under His mighty hands and be lifted up to be peacemakers.