Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Cause of Fights and Quarrels (James 4:1-6)

The death of Andres Bonifacio at the hands not of foreign enemies but of fellow revolutionaries remind us that even in an organization which is supposed to be working towards a common goal, serious internal disputes may arise.

There are conflicts in the home.
There are conflicts in the workplace.
There are conflicts in the classroom.
There are conflicts in the Senate.
There are conflicts baranggays.
There are conflicts in sports teams.

There are conflicts in a band.
There are conflicts business partnerships.

If the Overseas Workers' Association of Luzon (OWAL) will be organized abroad this year, don't be surprised if in the following year there will be a splinter group to be called Overseas Workers' Association of Pangasinan (OWAP). Out of the smaller group, an even smaller group may form the Overseas Workers' Association of Central Pangasinan (OWACenPang), and out OWACenPang, no one could stop a member from forming OWAM- the Overseas Workers' Association of Malasiqui.

Fights and quarrels are everywhere; from the the smallest organizations to the gigantic ones. This is consistent with the Scripture's testimony: before regeneration, "We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." (Titus 3:3b)

How about the church? Ideally, she should be different compared to other earthly communities. After all, when the church was newly born, the believers were described as having “one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). She received a direct command from her Lord that her members should love one another (John 13:34-35) Yet the church is a work in progress; her members are still far from the ideal of perfect love towards each other. We have had witnessed several church splits. We know about Christians who are not in good terms with each other. We will to go James 4:1-61 that we may further understand this problem and what we can do about it.

If we think this is the problem of the modern church only, our text indicates that this was a problem in the early church as well. James was addressing the problem of fights and quarrels within the assembly of believers. In James 4:1-2, James identifies the immediate cause of fights and quarrels and expands to the broader cause in verses 3-6

Ask Ernie what started the fight between him and Bert. He tells you, “It's Bert's fault! He took away my loaf of bread.” 

Turning to Bert, he counters “It's Ernie's fault! The loaf of bread was too large for him yet he didn't want to share some to a starving man.”

We however must dig deeper to identify the cause of the strife. In the Scripture before us, James started by asking a rhetorical question expecting his readers to agree with his analysis.

James 4:1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 

The word translated as “desire” in the NIV is hedone in the original Greek. It means that which produces enjoyment”. It's what makes you feel good.2 

We enjoy ice cream; we enjoy music; we enjoy nature; we enjoy humor. But it is more than those. The verse further says “it battles within you”. John MacArthur describes this as "… the war of the unbeliever’s flesh with his soul and conscience, which, despite the corruption of the Fall, has enough awareness of God and His truth to be disturbed when he sins.”3 

I'll point out where I agree with MacArthur and where I disagree. I agree that when men are so committed to their desires, they suppress their awareness of God's standard just to fulfill their desires. I disagree with MacArthur when he limits this propensity to unbelievers. Conflicts within the church may be at times caused by unregenerate men and women infiltrating the body. Yet conflicts may also be caused by genuine born again believers. There are times when true yet imperfect Christians may suppress the truth in the name of gratifying fleshly desires.

These desires not only suppress internal restraints like consience and knowledge of truth. They also suppress outward restraints. It is committed to remove all the barriers to his happiness, even it means resorting to the most drastic measure of all, namely murder. 

James 4:2a-- You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.

Donald Burdick comments: 
"James pictures these pleasures as residing within his readers, there carrying on a bitter campaign to gain satisfaction. Pleasure is the overriding desire of their lives. Nothing will be allowed to stand in the way of its realization."4 

By God's common grace, crime investigators know this very well. In identifying suspects, they always look for the possible motives behind the crime.
  • It could be a political rivalry: A politician's burning desire is to be the mayor of a city, yet the polls show that his rival will win by a wide margin. So he resorts to hiring an assassin to get rid of that man who is the hindrance to his happiness.
  • It could be a love triangle: One's burning desire is for a certain woman to reciprocate his affections. Yet the woman chooses a 3rd party (karibal sa pag-ibig). So the suspect repeatedly hammered the victim's head because he was an obstacle to his happiness.
Murders or attempted murders recorded in the Bible follow the same pattern

  • Saul's thoughts of killing David started when he realized that the young man is more popular that him, thus a threat to his throne (1 Samuel 18:6-11).
  • David himself was guilty of murder when he planned for the death of Uriah. The cause? Because he wants to avoid the explosion of the scandal between him and Bathsheba, Uriah's wife (2 Samuel 11).
  • King Ahab badly wants Naboth's piece of land so much that he offers to buy it or exchange it in a barter for a better vineyard. Yet Naboth refused because he inherited it from his ancestors. So Jezebel, Ahab's queen plotted the murder (1 Kings 21:1-16)
They are all the same. Someone is a hindrance to your happiness, so he must vanish. “This life in my womb shall ruin my career plans,” says a young woman. “I must go to an abortion clinic.” 

Remember also that murder is not just taking out the life of a person; it also includes bitter anger against him (Matthew 5:21-22). A son says in his heart “I want to inherit that lot near the road,” yet the parents gave him the lot behind it and gave his desired lot to a younger sibling. So he resolves, “I'm gonna hate my brother with all my heart for all the days of our lives.”. He did not shed the blood of his brother as Cain did, but in his heart, he murders his brother daily.

There is a righteous way by which we may obtain the things we desire. That is through prayer-- expressing our desires before God without hating anyone. Yet oftentimes we don't pray. 

James 4:2c “You do not have, because you do not ask God. 

Prayer springs from the conviction that we are powerless to acquire lasting happiness for ourselves and that only God is able to satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. If you don't have that conviction, of course, you will not pray.

In verse 6 of Hebrews 11, a chapter about men of faith, we find that
  1. Men of faith come to God
  2. Men of faith believe that the God of the Bible exists
  3. Men of faith believe God rewards those who earnestly seek him
Without these, it is “impossible to please God”, and a conclusive manifestation that you are indeed a man of faith is that you pray and submit your desires before God. A man of faith takes God at his word when he reads from his Bible. Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

A man of uncontrollable evil desires has no interest in submitting himself to God. What's on his mind is “I want this. I will get it. And I will do it my way.” 

The Broader Cause Identified: WORLDLINESS (4:3-6) 

James 4:3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” 

Some do pray yet still don't receive. The reason is because they pray a wordly man's prayer. The chief end of these prayers is not the glory of God but the glory of the self. “Hallowed by thy name” may proceed from their mouths but in reality, the exaltation of God is far from their hearts.

In an older post titled “The Love That Must be Stopped”, I wrote a three-point guide to diagnose if you are falling into worldliness:
You might be a world-lover if...
  1. You want to fulfill your desires outside of God's revealed will
  2. Visual delights arouse your desire for sinful acts
  3. You measure the worth of yourself and the worth of others by possessions and accomplishments
If your prayer is driven by any of these three elements, then God will not honor your prayers. Why? Simon Kistemaker explains:

“Greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5) and that is an abomination in the sight of God. God does not listen to prayers that come from a heart filled with selfish motives. Covetousness and selfishness are insults to God.”5 

James 4:4 “You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. “ 

In verse 4, there are two things about worldliness that make it dangerous to our souls
  1. It is spiritual adultery. It is no different from the Old Testament's depiction of Israel's unfaitfulness as harlotry (see the book of Hosea and his relationship with Gomer). But there is hope (See this older post titled “In Cash and in Kind”)
  2. It is enmity with God. Worldliness is opposed to God. You can love God and hate the world. Or love the world and hate God. But you cannot love both. There is no middle ground. If you love the world, you remain at enmity with God 

    The Holy Spirit Demands Total Allegiance
James 4:5 “Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?”

We have a little problem with regards to verse 5. Bible translators don't agree on how to translate it. Translators don't agree on how to translate it. I may sound authoritative if I preach as if I am certain about it, and may even impress some. But I would feel like an arrogant man if I'll do. I'll just present two plausible options and indicate my preference.

1st, The “spirit” the human spirit. When it says, “The spirit yearns jealousy”, it refers to the sinful human nature's uncontrollable lust, which is connected to verse 1.

2nd, The spirit is not human spirit but the Holy Spirit yearning jealousy when we engage in worldliness, when we engage in spiritual adultery.
This 2nd option is my preference. It calls to mind Exodus 34:14, Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” He is the God who demands total allegiance; if we are into worldliness, then we are no longer true to our calling to be wholly dedicated to God.

Such is the high standard God sets for those who would serve him: total allegiance. Who is sufficient for all these things. I know I don't have that level of commitment. I know I have my selfish desires and I am powerless to subdue them. 

The God Who Gives Grace 
 At this point, verse 6 offers comfort: But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: 
"God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble." 
Though he has set a high standard for us to follow him (total allegiance), he did not leave us on our own to fulfill his requirements. We are too poor spiritually for that.

God has set a high standard for wholehearted love and devotion on the part of his people, but he gives grace that is greater than the rigorous demand he has made.”6 

God's grace is sufficient to enable us to serve him in an undivided way. And in times we fail, his grace is sufficient to forgive and cover our sins. But he requires one thing for you to be receive that grace: Humility. James then quotes a God-inspired proverb: “ God opposes the proud, But gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34)

You can stay in your pride devising schemes on how to get want you want, even at the expense of hating people whom you perceive as hindrances to your dreams. Sure you can persist in that way. But remember, God's favor is not with you. The proverb says God is against you; he opposes you; he resists you.

Why not go the other way. Choose the path of humility. Humbling your self before him. Bowing down the knee to his sovereign control. Entrusting your desires in the hand of the Lord through prayer.

You may ask, “How about my desires? How about my dreams? How about my happiness?” Well, the proverb says, that if you will humble yourself before the Lord, there is grace-- more grace reserved for you. Draw near to God in prayer and believe that he rewards those who diligently seek him.

1. Unless otherwise indicated, scripture quotations are from the NIV 1984
2.  J. P. Louw & Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Societies, 1999)
3. John Macarthur, James (MNTC series; Moody Publishers 1998)
4. Donald Burdick (Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1st edition, Volume 12; Zondervan 1982)
5. Simon Kistemaker, Exposition of James (New Testament Commentary; Baker Books, 1986)
6. Donald Burdick (EBC)