Unless you’ve discovered the Fountain of Youth, you are familiar with a medical diagnosis. Odds are, you’ve undergone one a number of times. It is the process physicians use to determine the condition that might explain a patient’s symptoms. After an external and internal examination for underlying systems of disorder, the doctor points to a particular source of the problem.
James 4:1-3 reads like a doctor’s visit. He identifies the external symptoms of conflict, uncovers the internal systems of disorder, and gets to the spiritual source of the problem. He is exposing worldliness in the heart. The main idea can be easily found in the phrase, “friendship with the world,” found immediately after the diagnosis (Ja. 4:4). By this, James isn’t referring to Facebook buddies, Instagram companions, or Snapchat flings. He has in mind an affectionate attachment to the world that manifests in relentless loyalty.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 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. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Ja. 4:1–3)
There are a few things worth mentioning about the passage as a whole and how it relates to its greater context. First, consider the two obvious themes: conflict and desire. James uses words like quarrels, fights, war, and murder to denote conflict. He undergirds those with words of strong affections like passions, desire, covet, and receive. This alone says so much. Conflict and desire are inextricably linked. What does passion have to do with war?
Second, the mood of the text helps us crystallize the meaning of the text. Notice how the tone is elevated. In the prior chapter, James describes hellish wisdom as “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Ja. 3:14). It contains “jealousy and selfish ambition” and results in “disorder” (Ja. 3:16). However, heavenly wisdom is “peaceable” (Ja. 3:17). Wherever heavenly wisdom goes a harvest of “peace” is sown because it characterizes “those who make peace” (Ja. 3:18). In other words, those who have God’s wisdom are peacemakers. Then, he asks a rather punctual question: “So, where is all your conflict coming from?”
Finally, notice James’ abundant use of the word “you.” Dripping with indignation, he confronts his readers about their passionate conflict that is characteristically norm for worldly people and makes it personal. You can count at least 12 uses of the word “you” in the ESV translation. How many more when you consider the implied uses? James is getting personal. I can imagine him closing the door behind him and pointing his finger at me as he speaks. You would do well to imagine the same.
Passionate conflict requires urgent attention. Are you experiencing quarrels and fights? Are your affections challenged by continuous disappointments and frustrations? It’s time for an examination by the great physician. Can you hear your name being called? The doctor will see you now.
The External Symptoms of Conflict
Examining the external symptoms is where the doctor starts. So does James. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” (Ja. 4:1). We are not entirely sure what conflicts James is referring to in this passage. His readers were Jewish believers scattered throughout the known world (Ja. 1:1). On two occasions, before and after this passage, James addresses the mistreatment of the poor. In both instances, there are demonstrations of conflict and unrighteous judgement (Ja. 2:6; 5:6). This might be what he had in mind.
While we cannot be dogmatic about the conflict itself, we can appreciate the level of intensity it contains. The word “quarrels” is a word we’ve carried into our English language as polemics. In the Greek language, it refers to prolonged states of conflict often involving lasting resentment. It suggests deep sentiments of bitterness and hatred that fester in the heart. The word “fights” pertains to individual squabbles—both verbal and physical. James is wondering about their big wars and small battles. Where do they come from?
God’s design for His people is to “dwell in unity,” as the psalmist says (Ps. 133:1). In His high priestly prayer, Jesus intercedes for His disciples throughout all time, saying, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (Jn. 17:20-21). Earlier in the same gospel, Jesus teaches this design to His followers. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). In both instances, He mentions that peacefulness among us demonstrates to the watching world that Jesus is Savior and Lord. Conflict should not exist among those who follow Christ.
“So, from where are your conflicts coming?” Scholars describe James’ use of rhetorical questions as a teaching technique characteristically found in diatribes. He’s not asking. He’s making a thought-provoking point. And, he answers it with yet another. “It is not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (Ja. 4:1). The word “passions” conveys a strong devotion to fulfilling your desires. In English, it is the word hedonism, which is nearly a transliteration. Hedonists believe pleasures are the main goal in life. Therefore, the pursuit of pleasure is a noble and natural principle.
Scripture never uses this word in a good sense. In fact, it is often used in relation to the unregenerate. For example, Paul says that God gives the unrepentant over to their hedonism, which is what they worship (Rom. 1:24-25). In Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, he describes those “who do not know God” as having “the passion of lust” (1 Thess. 4:5). In other words, the unsaved are slaves to self-satisfaction.
James says that your external conflict is due to your internal conflict. There is conflict “among you” because there is conflict “within you” (Ja. 4:1). Do your passions war inside you? Are you longing for things you don’t have so that your longing brings about friction in your relationships?
The Internal Systems of Conflict
Your external symptoms are usually signs pointing to an internal system of disorder. So, physicians usually continue their examination on the inside, looking for a pattern of abnormal activity. James says, “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (Ja. 4:2).
What great bedside manners! A poetic pattern of language to point to a precarious pattern of conflict. It’s a subtle sting to the heart. The words “desire” and “covet” are synonyms referring to uncontrolled lusts. The words “do not have” and “cannot obtain” are also synonyms. They refer to unfulfilled lusts. Finally, the words “murder” and “fight and quarrel” relate the conflict that uncontrolled and unfulfilled lusts cause. In other words, not getting what you strongly want causes internal war that brings about external war.
The word James uses for “desire” refers to an unrelenting fix on something you want. It is a longing that consumes you and regulates your decision making. It operates as your chief counsel firmly fastened to the steering wheel of your life. Wherever it turns, you go—even if it results in death.
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (Ja. 1:14–15)
Death in this case, might be the murder of someone else. A recent news report described a rather bizarre story of desire. A woman brutally murdered her best friend who recently gave birth. Why? Because she wanted a baby and couldn’t have one of her own. “You desire and do not have, so you murder,” says James (Ja. 4:2). He likely had killing in mind. But, it certainly doesn’t rule out the kind of murder that Jesus spoke about:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matt. 5:21–22)
Murder begins in the heart and is expressed through the mouth long before it kills. Desires bring us to do things we would not otherwise do. We can be like hungry dogs fighting over a slice of meat, like children quarrelling over a little toy, like athletes arguing over calls, and like employees squabing for a position. If we want something bad enough, we will destroy anything and anyone who gets in our way.
What length will you go to obtain what you want? The internal system of passionate conflict causes the external symptoms of relational conflict. Do you love your stuff more than you do others? Do your desires serve as your supreme form of counsel? Are your affections for God secondary to your affections for earthly things?
The Spiritual Source of Conflict
In most cases, the physician finds the cause of the disorderly patterns within you. This is certainly true of James. “You do not have because you do not ask,” he says (Ja. 4:2). The implication is that you don’t ask for the right thing. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your own passions” (Ja. 4:2-3). The source of the conflict is spiritual disloyalty.
Author, Greg Morse, asked this staggering question in an article on prayer: “What business does an adulterer have to ask her husband for a gift she means to pass along to another lover?” Tim Keller suggested, “If we are living lives in which God does not have our highest allegiance, then we will use prayer instrumentally, selfishly, simply to try to get the things that may be already ruining our lives.” The idea that God would foster our carnality is absurd. “If love us,” Greg continues, “he will not fund our adulterous romances.”
“You’ve got a heart problem,” says the doctor. “It belongs to the world.”
Sometimes, a doctor’s diagnosis hurts to hear. But, there is no hope of heaven if we shut our ears to the reality of our hellish destination. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15).