by Mike Ratliff
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. 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. (James 4:1-4 ESV)
The Church since its inception in the 1st Century AD has been plagued by quarrels, disagreements, feuds, splits, et cetera. According to God, the problem is not with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ or His doctrines, but with the fact that people in the Church are not submitted properly to Him or to each other. Pride is behind most disagreements just as it is behind those who break away from the truth to lead their followers with false doctrines and a focus that is on self rather than on God and His glory. Instead, those who cause these problems are in love with self and, therefore, in love with the world, its ways, and the things of the world.
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? (James 4:1 ESV)
The Greek word used here translated as quarrels is μαχαι or machē. In this context, James is referring to conflicts that have escalated to a form of battle. He used the word ηδονων to describe the root cause of these conflicts. It is where we get our word “hedonism.” It is translated as “lusts” or “passions.” This word describes self-centered desires. If we carefully examine our own walks and are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that our actions that lead us into conflicts of all shapes and sizes are centered in our self-centeredness which expresses itself through selfish actions and words. Conflicts born from these self-centered desires drive us not only from each other, but puts a wedge between us and God in our relationships with Him. It deprives us of intimacy with our Saviour.
James describes how these self-centered desires operate within our hearts and causes us to walk out our lives wrongly.
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. (James 4:2-3 ESV)
James used a different word here that is translated “desire” and “lusts” in the KJV. It is επιθυμειτε. It is best translated as “covet.” James use of “murder” here refers to things we say and do to harm others from the basis of our jealousy because we “covet” what they have, whether that be possessions, money, position, or status, et cetera. When we cannot obtain what others have that we “covet” we fight and quarrel. This is the pressure that hedonism places on us and all of our relationships. The word “covet” in v2 in which James says, “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” is the Greek word ζηλουτε. This word describes a heating up of the “passion” to obtain what others have. This is an escalation in the focus of our minds on the “object” we desire.
James tells us that the reason we do not already have what we have our hearts set on like this is that we have not asked God. Believers should ask God for what they seek rather then fighting each other. Prayerlessness results in failure to receive many of God’s blessings. Also, if we are diligent in our praying through these things then God works a miracle in our hearts, changing what we desire to what He desires for us. He lines up our wills with His. If we pray for what God desires for us then He will give us what we seek. However, if we are praying selfishly then He will not give us what we are seeking only to spend it on our own passions.
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. Or 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”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:4-6 ESV)
James is correct. If we are all about getting “stuff” then we are in love with the world and its ways. We have friendship with the world, but this very thing is enmity with God. The word “enmity” here is the Greek word εχθρος. This word describes a hostility that is expressed in opposition and hatred. Therefore, when Christians are in love with and pursue the things and ways of the world then they are expressing hatred and their enmity toward God. They have rejected His ways and are all wrapped up in self-centered desires. This is an expression of hatred my brethren. This is a rejection of self-denial, taking up ones cross, and following Jesus as a way of life. This is a refusal to submit to God and His commands. Why? It is because we love ourselves more than we love God. We are actually expressing hatred of God and His ways when we become consumed with worldliness, which is hedonism.
In v5 we have a difficult verse. Here it is, ‘Or 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”?’ The word spirit here is not referring to the Holy Spirit, but to the spirit that each person has. This is that part of us that worships God. However, when we are all wrapped up in lusting with passion after the world and its ways then our spirits are actually worshipping idols. God yearns jealously over our spirits that we would direct our worship and service to Him. If we do not do this then we are guilty of idolatry. Those who are in this idolatry are walking in pride. Who truly worships God by His grace? It is the humble. The humble are those Christians who have denied self, taken up their crosses and are following their Lord. They have rejected hedonism, which is idolatry and self-worship. Those who are living the crucified life are able to do so by His grace. Those who are not humble cannot turn, worship God in spirit and truth because they are proud and are opposed by God.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:7-10 ESV)
Submitting ourselves to God is accomplished by the grace of God as we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ. The enemy will taunt us, attack us, and tempt us, however, as we walk in submission to God, we are able to resist him. This is not accomplished by our puny will power. No, we must have God’s grace in order to do this. Through this, our enemy will flee from us. We must draw near unto God and then He will draw near unto us. The only ones who can do this are the humble because He opposes the proud. Therefore, we see that James is telling us that the way to not be worldly and ate up with hedonism is to humble ourselves before God and draw near unto Him. We worship Him in spirit and in truth and reject the ways and stuff of the world. We learn to pray according to His will instead of after the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life.
When James tell us to cleanse our hands, purify our hearts, be wretched, morn, and weep, and let our laughter be turned to mourning and our joy to gloom—he is describing what our attitude must be toward sin in our life. We must learn to deny ourselves and walk in repentance. Those who claim to be Christians, but who are consumed by their flesh are not doing this. They are not taking their sin seriously. We must repent of this my brethren. We must humble ourselves before the Lord, and then He will exalt us. If we try to exalt ourselves, God will not exalt us. Remember, coveting can also include wanting to be exalted in the Church.
My brethren, we must learn to deny ourselves that we may break the bonds that our flesh has put us in. I lived for many years as a Christian who was enslaved to his flesh. It was miserable. I did not know that I was supposed to mortify my sins, to deny my flesh, to walk in humility before the Lord instead of pursuing what my flesh wanted. If we do not learn this then there is no way to walk in repentance.
Soli Deo Gloria!