James 4:1-13 “What causes fights and quarrels among you ? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you ? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
We are living in the most violent century in the history of the world, and that violence is earthed in a crisis in the moral and religious underpinnings of our civilization which are crumbling before our eyes. For example, the wholehearted conviction that it is wrong to violate another human being is one of the foundation stones of an enduring culture: “Thou shalt not kill.” We now live in a climate of violence. What we are experiencing is not the end of the era of British reserve and the stiff upper lip which is being replaced by physical embraces of touch and feeling in personal relationships. We are meeting an assault on our whole understanding of what we are as human beings, and very different attitudes to the nature of the unborn child, to marriage, to recreation, to the terminally ill. We are witnessing a crusade that aims at, and has largely accomplished, sweeping changes across the entire landscape of western civilization. Large chunks of the moral life of the nation have disappeared altogether, and more are in the process of extinction. These are being replaced, or have already been replaced, by new modes of conduct, ways of thought and standards of morality that are unwelcome to every true Christian. For some men and women, doing violence to a fox is more serious than doing violence to an unborn child, and homosexual relations are considered to be on a par with the marriage of a husband and wife.
When men refer to the catalogue of violence they are thinking about such things as terrorism, the car-bomb, assassinations on our streets, prisons that are overcrowded because of the increase in crimes of violence and rape, soccer hooliganism, muggings, road rage and the need for mobile phones for safety for those who travel, cruelty to animals, security cameras in town centres and in every kind of shop, wife battering, child abuse, vigilantes, private security, the increasing areas of cities which are off-limits for people even before dark, Crimewatch-type programmes on TV. I am thinking of the link between violence and drugs, violence and entertainment (e.g. rap music), violence and sex, violence and race, violence and education. All this is found in wealthy Britain of 1998, the Britain of compulsory education until you are 16, and the welfare state. It is little different in any other society in the world, but there are also the civil wars, dictatorships, torture chambers, secret police, gulags and concentration camps, slave labor, the arms race, the spread of nuclear weapons, and chemical and germ warfare. This is what citizens of the world are taking into the new millennium.
Why ? How has this state of affairs arisen ? The Marxist analysis is all to do with economics, the gulf between the rich and the poor, and the class struggle. State ownership was to be the answer. Yet the Marxist countries have been the most violent nations in the world this century with millions killed. The Darwinian analysis is that this is simply man, the naked ape, struggling for his territory and mating rights, driving away any aggressors for the fittest to survive. “This is how life is,” is the fatalistic evolutionary answer. Islam’s answer is the Koran and the rigid application of its laws and punishments. Modern psychiatry will have a myriad answers, all contradicting one another. For example, Abraham Maslow calls these warring desires of men their ‘needs’ and so violent behaviour can be interpreted as those men meeting certain needs. Men may then indulge themselves in all manner of practices because different personalities have different needs. The psychiatric answer to violence is understanding and treatment. What does Christianity say ? Surely it would have some opinions about so great a problem as human violence ? This is why this particular passage in the Bible is so fascinating, as it presents to us a Scriptural answer to the question, “What causes fights and quarrels ?”
1 The Source of Our Violence
“Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you ?” James again takes us inside ourselves, and shows us that the origin of our problems is ourselves. He says that there is a civil war going on within. Things are virtually getting out of control unless we act firmly. Our pleasures are busy campaigning in our bodily members. They are fighting for gratification, to get their own way – ambition, jealousy, self-seeking and lust are all seeking expression. That is Christianity’s analysis of the human condition. Its approach is essentially personal and inward. It places on everyone the responsibility for his or her own actions. It does not say, ‘Violence is a disease, and man needs curing, so the answer lies in the bottle of pills, the surgeon’s knife and the psychiatrist’s couch. The expert will pronounce when the patient is cured.’ Christianity says, “What causes fights and quarrels ? Don’t they come from your desires ?” Your very own desires – that is the cause of violence. Not your environment – not your unhappy home, your unloving father, your brutal husband, your violent neighbourhood, your bad companions, the pain you have suffered or your poverty. Those things might have exacerbated “the desires that battle within you” but they are not responsible for your behaviour. You made a free choice. Millions have all those sorts of handicaps, but they have never become men of violence. You did, because you let your sinful desires win, and you are responsible. That is the first great answer Christianity makes in its teaching of human responsibility. My desires are mine, and no one else’s. I cannot blame my upbringing for my behaviour. I cannot point to my own parents’ conduct as the explanation for battering my wife or abusing my children. Neither can I point to my genetic make-up, and plead that I have more virulent genes of fightings and quarrels than other men. People who say that don’t know anything about genetics except some article they read once in a newspaper. For one thing, my genes are mine, and I am not their slave. I am able to overcome their promptings. They are not like my heart-beat or my breathing. I am in control of my passions. It is not that my desires are in control of me. Our genes do not make us puppets. Good news ! Neither does environment justify our violence. So the problem is our desires that battle within us.
It has always been like that. Our first parents had a first born son, and they named him Cain. Eve said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man” (Gen. 4:1) [The name ‘Cain’ sounds like the Hebrew for ‘brought forth’ or ‘acquired’]. What did they tell this little boy as he was growing up ? All their experiences of the Lord in the Garden before the fall ? The gift of his mother to be Adam’s helpmeet ? The authority his father had over the wild animals. The wonder of walking and talking with the Lord. Their own wickedness and stupidity in disobeying the Lord during their time of probation, and how they took the fruit they were told not to take, and how consequently they were driven out of the Garden, and life became thorns and thistles, pain in childbirth, fightings without and within ? Did Adam and Eve tell all these facts to Cain and their other children whom they acquired from the Lord ? How could they have not ? What else was there to reminisce about ?
But what sort of son had Adam and Eve acquired with the Lord’s help ? A man who gave in to the desire to murder ! And who was the person he murdered ? Abel, the second man to be born into the world. It is not very long before we are reading that “Cain was very angry”, and that “Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:5,8). It is all there in Genesis chapter 4, following Genesis chapter 3 which describes man’s rebellion against God and man’s fall into sin. Immediately we see man going into fights and quarrels which emerge from his own desires that battle within him. One of Cain’s descendants was a man called Lamech and he takes two wives. He boasts to them in a poem he writes, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me” (Gen. 4:23). It is so contemporary, the poetry-writing murderer lacking any repentance for what he has done, but these things happened at the dawn of human history. From that time onwards every man born of woman has a force within him that does battle against patience, non-retaliation, mercy, kindness and forgiveness, and often it wins because we let it win. That is what causes fights and quarrels among us. That is fallen human nature, and that is the source of violence.
2. If the Source of Violence is Within Every Single Person Isn’t This the Counsel of Despair ?
It is not the Christian view that is the counsel of despair. The Darwinian view is that violence is how it is and always has been. This is the beast in man. Look at the animal world, it says, nature raw in tooth and claw, and we share with them this propensity to go on fighting. Popular fiction like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and many movies preach the same message – man’s unrelieved depravity. Cast a schoolboy choir onto a desert island and they will begin to kill one another. But Christianity says, “No ! It is fallen human nature that acts like this. It was not always so.” In the beginning it was very good. The world came from the hand of the Creator. God and man were one. There was no death. But man, given free choice, defied God and has fallen into this state of fights and quarrels and these “desires that battle within you.” This proneness to violence is not how it always was. It is a consequence of our fall into sin from the state of innocence. It is the Darwinian diagnosis is the counsel of despair, not the Christian.
Again, the Christian view holds out the hope of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. We can be changed. The sum of all you can hear and see and touch around you is not all that there is. We are not trapped in this locked in system. God has spoken to men in this world by a spirit of revelation and prophecy. God has finally revealed himself in his own dear Son the Lord Jesus Christ. God has given to us the Bible telling us of this good news. God works in our natures, in our minds and hearts, convincing us of the truth of his gospel, convicting us of our sin, revealing to us what Jesus Christ has done in his redeeming love – he has borne our sins and carried our sorrows. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away our blame and shame. God gives us his Holy Spirit and through Him new resources, new strength to fight against our rage and lust for vengeance. He enables us to forgive, and love our enemies, and turn the other cheek. There is hope for the worst men. There was a violent man called Saul of Tarsus. God changed him and he became utterly different, noble, patient, forgiving. The great proof for the truth of Christianity is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The Darwinian has no intervening personal God who subdues men’s rage and turns wild cats into lambs. Only the Christian message has hope.
What of the future ? The Darwinian has nothing to offer, just more of the same. The fights and quarrels until the grave, and as man’s weapons get even more powerful the Darwinian has less hope for the future of mankind. “We all die, and that is it. We are annihilated,” he says. What despair ! Listen to Bertram Russell with this famous quotation, and then tell me that the Christian doctrine of man battling his sins and finding strength to do so by the Holy Spirit is a counsel of despair. These are some of the most famous words of Lord Bertram Russell, the atheist philosopher: “Man is the product of causes which had no provision for the end they were achieving … his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms … no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave … all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” There is no hope at all for mankind, says Russell. The human race will cease to exist in ten million years when the world will be a cold burned-out ruin. That is the future for the Darwinist and the atheist. Now who is bringing the counsels of despair to us ? Not the Christian with his analysis and offer of divine strength.
3. How Violence Develops
Again it begins in the desires. James says, “You want something but don’t get it. You kill” (v.2). It is so simple, we must have something, but we can’t get it. We will kill for it. Some people indulge in murderous hate, imagining all sorts of harmful things happening to their enemies. That is why the proverb says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let your heart be glad when he stumbles” (Prov. 24:17). Others actually kill. You remember in the Old Testament church how a man called Naboth had a vineyard in Jezreel, close to the palace of king Ahab. The king wanted it, but couldn’t get it. It was the inheritance of Naboth’s fathers to be handed down to his children and theirs after them. Naboth refused. “So Ahab went home, sullen and angry … he lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat” (I Kings 21:4). Jezebel his wife saw him like that and said to him, “I’ll get you the vineyard” (I Kings 21:7), and though it cost Naboth his life she got it for the king. “You want something, but don’t get it. You kill.” That is where violence comes from.
Then James says, “You covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight” (v.2). Again it is so elementary, we covet something, but we can’t have it. We will fight for it. You remember in the Old Testament church Amnon the son of King David fell in love with his half sister, Tamar, David’s daughter by another woman. We are told that “Amnon became frustrated to the point of illness on account of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” (2 Samuel 13:2). But another Jezebel-type figure called Jonadab turned up who arranged everything for Amnon, planning the whole nasty scheme, so that the prince fought and overcame Tamar, and he had his way. “You covet, but you cannot have what you want.” You resort to violence. Where does it all come from ? These are the desires that battle within us. The Lord Jesus spoke about the man who looks on a woman to lust after her in his heart. Amnon was picturing Tamar in his imagination, and the frustration of this, day after day, made him actually ill. He was indulging and even delighting in what God forbids. That is why it was wrong, but its end for Amnon was worse than the rape. It all ended in bloody violence as Tamar’s brother Absalom accomplished a terrible revenge in murdering Amnon a year later.
Then James says this, that violence develops because we don’t pray about it: “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (v.2). Why do men give in to their desires ? They don’t pray, says James. They don’t go to God, aware of their own great weakness and danger, asking for strength. What right does anyone have to expect anything from God if he never acknowledges the Lord ? “There are those who question the need to ask. ‘Why should I pray ? God already knows my needs and desires.’ Yes, of course he does, but, nevertheless, He has told you to ask and has made the reception of what you need and want largely dependent on asking. Why ? Perhaps, in part, he requires prayer so you will not take him for granted. Perhaps for your own benefit. It is one way of reminding you of your own utter dependence on him. If all were provided automatically, as a sinner, taking God’s provisions for granted, you’d soon forget the source of your blessings” (Jay Adams, “A Thirst for Wholeness,” p.60). Think of the counsels of the apostle Peter to a husband and wife, how the husband is to be considerate to his wife, and treat her with respect, and how the wife is to obey her husband (I Pet. 3:1-7). Not living like that, says Peter, hinders praying. Attitudes to one another affect intercession. Without the trust that takes you to God, and asks him for help how will you get what you want ? God delights in our asking, so pray about what you want.
“Of course,” you cry, “that’s all I pray about.” But asking is the smallest part of prayer. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (v.3). God does not want selfish hedonistic praying. Don’t pray that you will win the lottery. Don’t pray for success without honest work. When you pray merely, or even first, for your wants, for your own pleasure, God will not answer your prayer. In praying we spread out our requests in the presence of the God we love, who is ‘Too wise to be mistaken; Too good to be unkind.’ He knows what is best in a way that we do not, and may deny our specific requests as to how the needs should be met. A friend had been in love with a Christian girl for a long time, and he asked her parents permission to take her out and begin a friendship, but they refused on good grounds. He accepted their decision humbly. When I tried to give him some words of encouragement he said to me, “It’s quite all right. When we ask God for something he either gives us what we ask for or he gives us something better.” It is out of that trust that prayer comes. You surrender your own expressed preferences to the Father’s wisdom. You submit to the goodness of God, and in everything give thanks.
One of God’s titles is, ‘Wonderful Counselor.’ There are lessons you learn simply talking over things in God’s presence. You come to know that some requests are impossible to make, and you cease asking for them. But this was not the case with these people to whom James was writing. “You do not ask God,” says James, or if you do ask, it is for selfish purposes, “that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (v.3). There are all these desires warring within us. Take them to God ! Then we have to pray sincerely, with reverence and humility, with a sense of privilege and a pure heart. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” “God abhors self-centred prayer. The Lord’s Prayer begins with God, not with man and sets the tone for all that follows. Were God to grant many of your requests (asked from selfish motives) you would waste what he gives. Because you wanted it for yourself, that’s how you would use it. But, you see, God wants to use all you are and all you have for him. This condition vividly teaches that truth. If you pray rightly, there is a greater likelihood that you will use what you get as you should: out of love for God and your neighbour rather than for yourself. In this self-centred age and country, in which self-interest is justified by all sorts of specious arguments – even in the church – the requirement to consider our motives for praying is most helpful. Otherwise, there would be little to keep you from wasting what you receive. As it is, the condition makes you stop and think before praying. Indeed, it provides a restraint on self-interest and a check on avaricious attitudes. It is a very great blessing. It forces you to think and act as a Christian should” (op cit p.61).
4. The Christian Church Too Must Be Aware of the Possibility of Fights and Quarrels.
This letter is written “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”, to those whom James often addresses as “my brothers.” These are the people to whom James is speaking these solemn words of warning. You would think that they might not need them, but they clearly did. There is the matter of remaining sin in the life of every believer. The finest Christian is showing but the beginnings of a new obedience, while religious convictions themselves produce strong passions. There is that famous scene in Acts 23 where Paul is standing on trial before the religiously divided Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Things look unpromising for him, and Paul wants to get away from Jerusalem and this spent force of a religion whose day is over, to present his case in Rome before Caesar. He is doing so as a representative Christian. If the Roman emperor will allow Christians to meet freely in worship in his empire the final battle in Paul’s life is won. So he cries out, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead” (v.6). When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (who said that there was no resurrection). The dispute became a “vigorous argument” with some “arguing furiously” and then “the dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn in pieces by them” (v.10). There is a unique rage about religious fights and quarrels.
It was like that from the beginnings of Christianity. Men think that our theological and denominational differences are a twentieth century scandal. It has ever been so. Paul hears from the church in Corinth that there were “quarrels” in that lively church. But more vivid language is found in the New Testament: Paul urges the Colossian Christians, “you must rid yourselves of all such things as these; anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (3:8). The mood is even more serious in his letter to the Galatian church where he says, “If you keep on biting and devouring each another, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (5:15). He says of the judaizing party who have tried to take over that congregation in Paul’s absence and insist that every Gentile Christian get circumcised, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves” (5:12). Such language as that, given by the Holy Ghost, indicates just how vigorous a business contending for the truth can be. Has not the history of the Christian church amply demonstrated the truth of this ? Where God’s servants have been faithful in preaching the word bold martial language has not been far away. That is how it should be, and that is what our hour demands.
James is writing this letter to these converted Jews, to a congregation consisting of former Pharisees, and former Sadducees, and tax-collectors working for Rome, and zealots working to overthrown Rome – plus the Gentile ‘dogs’ in the congregation who are certainly not going to be ‘judaized’ on top of trusting in Christ They have all brought much of their background and prejudices into the church with their faith in Christ. So you see how James writes, “What causes fights and quarrels among you ? … you kill and covet … you quarrel and fight … you do not ask God … you ask with wrong motives”. This is the New Testament church being spoken to, which we have been taught to put upon a pedestal, and judge as virtually sinless, all sweetness and light. You notice the way it is being counseled here.
Let me turn that fact in this direction. I am weary of hearing some ministers preaching on sin in such terms as women whispering about other women’s hats. I do not find pettiness in New Testament letters. I find a direct robust awareness of the wretched behaviour of people in the church at Corinth and Colossae and Galatia, and their falls are weighed appropriately, addressed and dealt with. The sins to which women are more liable are also addressed in what today is judged to be a politically incorrect manner (I Tim. 5:11-13). These verses of James are an end of all perfectionism, of a type of sermon preaching which is mealy-mouthed pleading for precious patterns of behaviour. I would not want to belong to a church that defines sin in terms of dainty breaches of etiquette. That sort of church would drive away any sinner whose guilt was blood-red. I am not asking for explicit language in the pulpit. That is another sin. But I am asking for more honesty in our own self-awareness, our personal praying, our understanding of what sin is, and the reality of our own struggle with remaining sin. I don’t want to me a member of a bourgeois church, but of a congregation of sinners whom Jesus sought, found, washed, justified and sanctified.
5. The Answer to the Fights that Come From our Battling Desires
“Submit yourselves, then, to God” (v.7). It is all so straightforward. “Too simple,” someone says. We are simple people. We are warring against our own consciences – God’s great monitor that commends us when we do right and rebukes us when we do wrong. End the war. Lay down your weapons of rebellion. Cease to do evil. Learn to do right. Submit yourselves to God !
How does that begin ? God in Christ comes to us and he says, “Come unto me … and I will give you rest.” We come to him. It is the movement of our heart and mind prompted by the Holy Spirit as he has used his word to awaken us to our need, and he confronts us with the Lord Jesus Christ. He enables us to be silent, to end our excuses for being unbelievers, and we present ourselves to him. We put ourselves in his hands. “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to Thee.” We pray, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” We go on praying and trusting in him, asking him to receive and help us until we know that he is indeed our Lord and Saviour. We are no longer rebels, but have submitted to God.
You submit to God. Paul once said such things to a very great king called Felix, but the king said, “I will send for you at a more convenient season”. Felix saw the sense of what Paul was saying to him and relevant it was for his violent life, and that it merited consideration, but at that moment it was so inconvenient. It didn’t fit in with his plans, for that day and for the immediate future and long-term goals. Some of you are like that. Young people say, “This is for the old people.” Well, that is very interesting, but I will tell the youngest children that you have tempers too, and I hear you arguing with your brothers and sisters, and you have said things wrong. Now the Lord Jesus is saying, “Suffer little children, and let them come to me. Forbid them not.” If you children have souls, and if you have sins then Christ says to you, Come to me, and I cannot see how you can say that it’s not very convenient at the moment, and that you want to wait until you are older. Will it be more convenient then to submit to God ? You have no right to keep Christ waiting. I hear my daughters say to their sons, “Come because the food is ready.” They would not be happy if the children said that they would come at their own time when they felt like it. I would take that as very provocative disobedience. So the Lord Jesus Christ says “Come to me violent angry sinners” and we are to submit to him now, not in a few years. No matter how young you are you take Christ as a child and follow him as a child and pray to him as a child and be a servant of God as a child, and make sure that you do not tell him that it is inconvenient and you want the Lord of glory to wait a few more years until you decide you are ready. There are many who want to sow their wild oats and try the rough life, and the fights and pleasures of this world and sample its debauchery. Then they will be able to compete with other fools on the nights when the wine is flowing with tales of wickednesses done. “Submit to God !” says the word.
Then from that time on our lives are those of submission. Who is controlling us, even in our Christian profession ? By what standard are we living ? By what norm, or rule do we live ? Are we still going our own way ? Are still making our own decisions ? Are we still serving our own selves ? Or are we controlled by the words of Christ ? Let me put it in more concrete terms. If I held a great conviction or prejudice, and I discovered that it had no foundation in God’s word, would I let it go ? Just because the Lord said those beliefs are wrong ? Would I change because I am submitting to God ?
Isn’t it a constant peril that my Christian behaviour is merely the rearrangement of my own prejudices ? The old boaster is now boasting for the Lord. The old Mr. Talkative is now Mr. Talkative for Christianity. The old bully now bullies the church meeting. The old egotist is now talking of how much pleasure he gets in his religion. The old aesthete is now a religious aesthete. Nothing has changed except once he did it in the world and now he does it in religious circles. I see in so many Christian congregations scant regard for God’s Word, because that word is critical of the way things are, yet nothing changes. I see the same thing in some Christian families. It makes me enormously saddened and anxious for the cause of Christ. Are we really in submission to the Word of God ? Why are we not doing what the New Testament teaches ?
You remember Oliver Cromwell’s great words to the Church of Scotland Assembly when they were being particularly stubborn, and the alternative was war: “Gentlemen, I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, please consider you may be wrong.” That is what we are saying tonight. There are tensions, fightings and arguments, and it is always the other person who is wrong. Please consider it may be you. Are our lives those of submission to God’s Word ? If that word may contradict my traditions or prejudices, or may contradict my revolt against my background, will I submit to the word ?
This exhortation to submit to God is asking me if God is the Lord of my temper, my emotions, my drives and urges ? The Lord Jesus says, “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment, and whosoever shall say thou fool shall be in danger of hell fire” Do I remember that when I start losing patience with husband, wife, children, people in the congregation, those I work with ? Am I guided then by the Lord’s words ? Do I control my temper ? Do I mortify it by the power of the Holy Spirit ? When I am tempted to retaliate because someone has hurt me, do I remember that Christ said no retaliation, but said rather, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” He says I am to love my enemy and bless them that curse me, and do good to those that hate me, and pray for them. I am not to be thinking, “Yes, but there are times when anger is legitimate and right.” That is correct, but it is rarely legitimate and correct, and I am not to spend energy asking, “Can I be angry now ?” Are my emotions under Christ’s lordship ? This great God is standing before us tonight, and challenging our lives, diagnosing what is wrong, and telling us what has to be done to put things right, and then he says, “Submit.” It is all as simple as that. Do we submit to our God ?
GEOFFREY THOMAS 29 November 1998