This morning, in our study through the New Testament, we come to the book of James, and James is filled with so much good stuff that I found it difficult to narrow my lesson down to just one topic. I could easily preach 20 different sermons from the book of James because James is all about putting our faith into practice, not just telling people you believe that Jesus is the Christ, but showing that you believe in him by living like Jesus.
In the end, I decided to spend some time with a passage where James talks about something that I think all of us can relate to because he’s talking about fussing and fighting.
If you grew up with brothers or sisters, my guess is you’ve probably had quite a bit of experience with fights. Our three kids had their fair share of knockdown, drag outs. And whenever that happened, Sueanne and I would often ask them a question – Who started this fight?
And so, I can appreciate the story of the mother who had to break up a fight between two brothers. And the little one was asked by his mother, “Who started this fight?” And he said, “He started it when he hit me back.”
Fights are never a good thing, whether it’s brothers and sisters fighting, or husband and wife fighting, or countries fighting,. But fights are especially painful when they take place among God’s children.
As you read through the book of James, you get the feeling that there was a lot of fussing and fighting going on in this church.
James said in the first chapter to “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:26). In chapter 3, James talked about Christians who praise God with their tongue and curse men with that same tongue.
He talks in chapter 4 about those who “speak evil of a brother” and “judge their brother.” (James 4:11). In chapter 5, he’s going to warn them about “grumbling against one another” (James 5:9).
And, so, you get the impression that this was a church where people had issues. But it’s certainly not the only church that did. The Corinthian church was divided into factions and there was a lot of fighting going on in that church. In the Philippian church, Paul had to call out two women by name who were having trouble getting along with each other. Paul said the Christians in Galatia were “biting and devouring one another” (Galatians 5:15). And my guess is most of you have experienced firsthand what it’s like to be in a church where there’s fussing and fighting going on.
But, before we see what James had to say about how to deal with this conflict in the church, let’s take a look at an overview of the entire book of James and then I’ll be back to take a look at what James has to say on this topic.
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Beginning in chapter 3, verse 13, James says,
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:13-18)
Apparently, there were some Christians in this church who were proud of the fact that they were very wise people. And it also appears that these Christians were troublemakers in the church, determined to have their own way rather than seek the good of the whole body. And so James says, “You may think you’re wise, but if you are, it’s the wrong kind of wisdom.” Because God’s wisdom doesn’t result in bitterness, jealousy or selfish ambition. And God’s wisdom certainly does not create strife; rather it leads to peace.
But James is writing to a group of Christians who are not at peace. In fact, quite the opposite. There was a lot of fighting, a lot of quarreling going on.
And so, James says in chapter 4, “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)
At the end of chapter 3, James says that God’s wisdom is peaceable and gentle. And here in chapter 4, it’s almost as if James is saying, “Now if that’s what godly wisdom looks like, then what in the world is causing all these fights and quarrels in your church? God’s wisdom isn’t responsible, so what is?
Now, whenever we are involved in a conflict with a brother or sister in Christ, it’s very easy for us to see what the problem is – the problem is the other person and his or her stubbornness, ignorance, lack of Christian love, whatever. The issue can be one of any number of things – how we conduct worship, use of church funds, which translation of the Bible to use, or a host of other topics. Unfortunately, we never seem to run out of topics to fight about.
And it’s not the disagreement that’s the problem, it’s the fussing and the fighting and the quarreling. And James says the problem starts right here (inside my heart). James doesn’t allow us to play the victim, something that most people want to do. Back in chapter one James said, “Now when you’re tempted, don’t be blaming God. God doesn’t tempt you. Rather, it is your own lusts and your own desires that are causing the temptation.”
And here, James says, “Whenever you get into a heated argument with somebody else, don’t be blaming them. Because the same thing that causes temptation is the same thing that causes conflict – it’s your own selfish desires.
Now, if you are currently engaged in some sort of conflict, you may be thinking, “That’s a bit simplistic! If you knew the circumstances of the conflict that I’m in, you would see that it’s much more complex than that. Let me explain what my wife did, let me explain what my husband did and you’ll see that this conflict is not my fault.”
When a couple comes to see me because of conflict in their marriage, the most difficult thing to do is to get each of them to stop blaming the other person and to take responsibility for his or her side of the conflict. I’ve listened to couples attack each other. I can stop them and say, “I don’t want to hear any more accusations against each other.” And they may agree, but within minutes, if not seconds, they’re blaming each other again!
James says you are never going to resolve conflict until you correctly identify the source of your conflict. And if all you’re doing is blaming the other person, you haven’t yet identified the problem. I have never yet seen a conflict that is 100 percent one-sided. Never! Even if one party is only 10 percent responsible and the other side 90 percent, the 10 percent side needs to face his or her responsibility.
So James says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1)
That Greek word for “passions” is an interesting word. It’s the Greek word hedone. It’s where we get our English word “hedonism”. And hedonism is the philosophy of life that says that the pursuit of my personal pleasure, the pursuit of my personal interest, is the most important thing in life. So James says the reason we get into fights is because we are so determined to get what we want.
I like how The Message translates verse 1, “Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves.”
Back in 1986 in the Black Sea in Russia, there was a tragic collision of two ships and hundreds of people drowned in the icy waters. Their investigation found that although there was a deep fog, the problem was not the equipment. There was no radar malfunction. Rather, both captains of both ships were quite aware that they were on a collision course. They knew as much as 45 minutes before the collision that if one of them didn’t change course, they were going to ram each other. But both of those men were so full of pride that they kept insisting, “I’m going to go in this direction, and you need to change your course and get out of my way.” And so, because both of them were determined to go their own way, there was this tragic collision that resulted in hundreds of deaths.
James says that’s what causes all of our fights. People are determined to get their own way, even if they have to ram somebody else to do it. Then he says, “You desire and do not have, so you murder.” You may feel like that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, I lose my temper from time to time. Yes, my wife and I get angry at each other, and sometimes we yell at the kids. But I mean, come on, we’re not actually killing anybody. So, this language seems a bit extreme.
But the problem is not that the scriptures are exaggerating the significance of our quarrels. The problem is that we are diminishing the significance of our relationships. What James says here is, “Folks, we have been far too tolerant of conflict.” And God uses the language he does here because God wants us to understand the horror with which he views the way we treat each other.
James is going to mention three things that cause us to fight and quarrel. The first one is this — selfishness. When you get right down to it, conflict is all about selfishness. James says, “You want something, but you cannot have what you want.”
The story is told of two monks who lived in harmony for many years. One day one of the monks got bored with the monotony of their routine, so he said, “Let’s do something different. Let’s do what the world does.”
His fellow monk had been out of the world for so long that he had forgotten, so he asked, “What does the world do?”
“Well, for one thing, the world quarrels.”
His brother monk asked, “How does the world start a quarrel?”
The other one said, “See that stone? Put it between us and then say, ‘The stone is mine!’” Wanting to accommodate his friend, he put the stone between them and he said, “The stone is mine!”
The monk who suggested the quarrel paused for reflection and thought about all their years of friendship. So, he said, “Very well, brother. If the stone is thine, keep it.” And that ended the quarrel. And it always will. But that’s not how things usually go it in our lives, is it? Because we’ve had far too much experience learning from the world.
Every parent knows that kids will fuss and fight to get what they want. Probably the biggest argument for us growing up was who got to sit next the window when we were traveling in the car. Because there were three of us kids and only two window seats, and so the arguments began as soon as we got started.
And if we insist on getting what we want and having things our own way, conflict is bound to occur. Because while I am trying to have things done the way I want them done, you are just as intent in having things done the way you want them done. And just like those two ships on the Black Sea, your way and my way will eventually collide.
There are over seven billion people on this earth, all of them insisting on their own way. And when seven billion people insist on having things done their own way, there’s a good chance we’re going to get in each other’s way every now and then.
You see, if I could just get you all to see things from my viewpoint, we wouldn’t have any problems. If you would just do things the way I want you to do them, we would hardly ever have any quarrels. But if you can only be at peace as long as other people are as committed to doing things your way, you’re going to spend the rest of your life fighting and quarreling. Because fighting is rooted in selfishness.
Now the second reason we spend so much time fighting is because we don’t pray like we should. We fight with our brother instead of asking our Father for what we want.
If there’s something we truly need, it only makes sense to ask God. Because James already said back in chapter 1 that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. So instead of fighting with your brother to get what you want, ask God for what you want. But James says, “You don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it.”
Now, some of you may be thinking, “I’ve tried that praying thing, and it didn’t work.” And so James says, “Let me tell you why it didn’t work. It didn’t work because our Heavenly Father is not moved by temper tantrums any more than you were when your kids were little and they couldn’t have what they wanted. So they pitched a fit and they screamed and acted ugly. And you didn’t give them what they wanted. Because your job as a parent is not to teach your kids how to be more selfish.”
James says in verse 3, “Even when you do ask, you don’t get it because your whole motive is wrong. You only want what will give you pleasure.” The purpose of prayer is not to make us more self-centered. The purpose of prayer is not for me to get my will endorsed in heaven. The purpose of prayer is to get God’s will done here on this earth.
I read an interesting story about a man named Roy DeLamotte. He was a chaplain for a small religious school called Paine College in Georgia. And they were having a lectureship and they assigned him a topic. And Roy preached what was the shortest sermon in the history of that school. In fact, his sermon was shorter than the title of his lesson.
The title of his lesson was this, “What does Christ Answer When We Ask, ‘Lord, What’s in Religion For Me?” And when Roy stood up to deliver his lesson, he spoke only one word – “Nothing.” And he later explained that he was trying to get the attention of people who were caught up in the gimme gimme gospel. But what really intrigued me about this story was that someone asked Roy, probably in a joking way, “So, how long did it take you to prepare that message?” And his response was, “It took twenty years.”
And I understand what he meant by that. Because it takes some of us a long time of walking with Christ before we finally figure out that it’s not about me, it’s about God. And I would suggest that before you go to God in prayer and ask him for anything, you take a moment to first ask yourself this question – “If I get what I’m about to ask for, how will God receive any glory?”
I think about Moses. You remember that the people of Israel sinned by making a golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai. And when Moses came back down and found them, not only was Moses angry, but God was angry. He was ready to wipe them all out for their rebelliousness. And he said to Moses, “Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:10).
And that had to be tempting. I mean, these people had been nothing but trouble to Moses. They complained, they grumbled, they griped. And this was Moses’ chance. This was his chance to take things in a whole new direction that would make life so much easier for him.
But Moses started thinking, “Lord, how will that bring you glory? If you wipe out all these people and make a new nation out of me, all the other nations will say, ‘The God of the Hebrews was weak and he couldn’t deliver on his promise.’ And so I’m asking you not to wipe out these people even though that would make my life a lot easier. Rather, it is my desire that you forgive these people so that your name will be glorified.”
You see, the truth of the matter is there are times in my life I would rather fight with people than pray like that. Because I know deep in my heart that if I ask God to get involved in what I’m upset about, God is going to speak to my heart and say, “My answer is for you to continue to deal with this in humility. And then I will be glorified by your gracious and humble spirit.” And there are times when I don’t want to hear that, so I don’t bother to pray and I just go ahead and fuss and fight with somebody else.
And then James says that the third reason we fight is because our mind is centered on worldly things. In verse 4, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Right after 9/11, our president said to the world, “We’re going to come after our enemies. And we want you to know that even if you didn’t personally attack our country, if you harbor our enemies or are friendly to our enemies, you are also our enemy.” Now, you may or may not you agree with that particular policy. But I’m here to tell you that’s how God operates. If you are going to be friends with God’s enemy, then that make you God’s enemy.
Or to put it another way, how can you expect God to be intimate with you if you have another lover? God wants to be your provider. You have desires, you have things that you want. God either wants to give you what you want, or he wants to teach you that he is sufficient and that you don’t need what you want. And so when he finds you in the arms of the world, he gets angry, and rightfully so. Because what you’re doing is implying that what God offers you isn’t enough.
And it can happen even without us realizing that it’s happening. I listen to the world so much and I am so surrounded by this culture with its music, its language, its values. And I don’t feel like I’m angry with God and I don’t think I’m an enemy of God. But without even knowing it, I can pick up the habits of the world.
James says that’s why you’re fighting. You don’t even realize that you’ve picked up so much of the world. You fight with each other because you’re too closely associated with God’s enemies – things like pride and self-interest and ambition. And if we embrace those enemies, we can’t be close to God.
James closes out this section with a couple of important things to remember. Here’s number one. We need to remember that God is jealous. That’s what James says in verse five: “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”.
I like the way this reads in the New Century Version, “The Spirit that God made to live in us wants us for himself alone.”
The message of the Old Testament that our God is a jealous God. The second commandment he gave the Jews was, “Have no other gods before me, for I am a jealous God.” This is not a sinful jealousy, but a pure and godly jealousy. And any husband here can relate to this. Sueanne and I made a pledge, a promise to be loyal and faithful to each other. I’m jealous for that covenant.
If Sueanne ever came to me and said, “I still love you, still care about you, but I’m just not sure that you can meet all of my needs. There are some things I want that you can’t provide. So if it’s OK with you, I don’t want to totally dissolve the marriage. I’m just saying, five days a week with you and two days with somebody else. Is that OK?”
No, it’s not OK! I am jealous for a completely loyal faithful relationship. There is no one else with whom I am willing to share my wife. God is the same way. God wants your affection. And so instead of fighting with your brother, turn to God and ask him to give you what you need.
And what you need most of all is God’s grace. And James says that “He gives more grace.” God is eager to respond with grace. If we are focused on the desires of the world, it will only result in frustration and conflict. But when we realize that what we really need is more God, we get what we want and what we need. And the great thing about God is that God never minds dispensing grace. He never gets tired of it.
God never says, “I have given out so much grace that I’m just worn out with it. You asked me for grace yesterday and the day before that and the day before and it seems every time I turn around, you’re asking for more grace.” God never says that. He’s happy to provide.
But here’s the great thing when I submit to the grace of God. I can relax. Because there’s nobody that can frustrate God’s ability to give me grace. Remember, that’s why I fight. I fight because you have frustrated my desire to get something I want. But there’s nothing you can do to frustrate the ability of God to give me grace.
This morning, are you ready to stop fussing and fighting in an effort to get your own way, and humble yourself in the presence of God to receive his grace, to be reconciled not only with God but with those around you?