Summary: Confronting the normal tendency to promote our own interests,even while surrendering to the reign of God’s Spirit, goes a long way toward promoting unity within the congregation.
WE BELIEVE BETTER THAN WE BEHAVE
“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.”
James wrote one of the most pointed books in all the Bible. We Christians tend to either dismiss his words as not applicable to our own situation, or we are sufficiently disturbed by what he wrote to respond humbly to the Word. Whatever our reaction may be, few Christians are able to remain neutral toward James’ words.
James’ primary concern is that Christians honour God with their lives. Unfortunately, godliness does not just happen because we have trusted Christ. Godliness requires effort, and when godliness is lacking among the people of God, conflict results. James spends a surprising amount of time addressing conflict within the Body of Christ.
James addresses Class Wars within the churches [JAMES 2:1-9]—the case when a church confuses godly values with worldly values. He also addresses Employment Wars tolerated within the churches [JAMES 5:1-6]. These are conflicts that arise in part over the same issues that dictate class wars among Christians, but this has the added factor that power is abused so that the labourer is left at the mercy of bosses who act unrighteously though are part of the Body of Christ.
In JAMES 4:11, 12, we are warned against engaging in Personal Wars. Among the churches to which James wrote, saints were speaking evil of one another and judging one another. Here, we see an example of the wrong use of the tongue. Christians are commanded to speak “the truth in love” [EPHESIANS 4:15]. We are not to speak evil in a spirit of rivalry and criticism. If the truth about a brother is harmful, then we should cover it in love and not repeat it [1 PETER 4:8]. If a brother or sister has sinned, we should go to that one personally and try to win him back [MATTHEW 18:15–19; GALATIANS 6:1, 2].
James also wrote to warn against Church Fights [JAMES 1:19, 20; 3:13–18]. Apparently, the believers to whom James wrote were at war with each other over positions in the church, many of them wanting to be teachers and leaders. When they studied the Word, the result was not edification, but strife and arguments. Each person thought that his ideas were the only right ideas and his ways the only right ways. Selfish ambition ruled their meetings, not spiritual submission.
James is not forbidding us to use discrimination nor even admonishing us to avoid evaluating people. Christians need to be discerning [PHILIPPIANS 1:9, 10], but they must not act like God in passing judgment. We likely will never know all the facts in a case, and we certainly never know the motives that are at work in men’s hearts. To speak evil of a brother and to judge a brother based on partial evidence and (probably) unkind motives is to sin against him and against God. We are not called to be judges; God is the only Judge. His judgments are just and holy; we can leave the matter with Him.
In each of the situations James addressed, one great, grievous result was the loss of spiritual vitality. The Christians caught up in the various conflicts James describes were not walking according to the will of God, and they sacrificed intimacy with God. In the text before us, James points out one other serious deficit resulting from the internecine conflicts among the churches—they no longer received answers to prayer. We believe what James wrote, but we believe better than we behave.
THE TYRANNY OF HUMAN PASSIONS — What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? The English word “passions” translates the Greek term “hēdoné,” from which we obtain our English term “hedonism.” Hedonism is the doctrine that argues that one’s own pleasure or personal happiness is the greatest good. Today, we hear the concept of hedonism trumpeted in the advertising assertion, “If it feels good, do it.” Obviously, the concept has great persuasive power since it is so pervasive throughout modern society.
It is a depressing commentary on church life that even in that early day James could write to a scattered people and make the same general comment about Christians. Remember, the letter James wrote is perhaps the earliest book to have been included in the Canon of the New Testament. James seems to take for granted that the peace of the churches is by no means unbroken. Tragically, hedonism—the pursuit of our own personal desires without considering the impact of our choice on others—frequently marks the lives of Christians as much as it marks the lives of those outside the Faith.