War is a fact of life, in spite of treaties, world peace organizations, and the threat of atomic bombs. Not only are there wars between nations, but there are wars of one kind or another on almost every level of life—even “interpersonal wars” among those in the church! James discussed this important theme of war and explained there are three wars going on in the world. He also told how these wars could be stopped.
“What causes fights and quarrels among you?” Among Christians! Surely, brethren should live together in love and harmony, yet often they do not. Lot caused a quarrel with his Uncle Abraham (Gen. 13). Absalom created a war for his father David (2 Sam. 13–18). Even the disciples created problems for the Lord when they argued over who was the greatest in the kingdom (Luke 9:46–48).
When you examine some of the early churches, you discover they had their share of disagreements. The members of the Corinthian church were competing with each other in the public meetings and even suing each other in court (1 Cor. 6:1–8; 14:23–40). The Galatian believers were “biting and devouring” one another (Gal. 5:15). Paul had to admonish the Ephesians to cultivate spiritual unity (Eph. 4:1–16); and even his beloved church at Philippi had problems: two women could not get along with each other (Phil. 4:1–3).
James mentioned several different kinds of disagreements among the saints:
Class wars (2:1–9). Here is that age-long rivalry between the rich and the poor. The rich man gets the attention; the poor man is ignored. The rich man is honored; the poor man is disgraced. How tragic it is when local churches get their values confused and cater to the rich while they ignore or even reject the poor. If fellowship in a church depends on such external things as clothing and economic status, then the church is out of the will of God.
Employment wars (5:1–6). Again, it is the rich man who has the power to control and hurt the poor man. Laborers do not get their wages or they do not get their fair wages. In spite of our modern labor movement and federal legislation, there are still many people who cannot get a good job or whose income is less than adequate for the work they are doing.
Church fights (1:19–20; 3:13–18). Apparently, the believers James wrote to 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 his ideas were the only right ideas and his ways the only right ways. Selfish ambition ruled their meetings, not spiritual submission.
Personal wars (4:11–12). The saints were speaking evil of one another and judging one another. Here, again, we see the wrong use of the tongue. Christians are to speak “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15); they 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 he has sinned, we should go to him personally and try to win him back (Matt. 18:15–19; Gal. 6:1–2).
James was not forbidding us to use discrimination or even to evaluate people. Christians need to have discernment (Phil. 1:9–10), but they must not act like God in passing judgment. We must first examine our own lives and then try to help others (Matt. 7:1–5). We 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 him on the basis of 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. He is patient and understanding; His judgments are just and holy; we can leave the matter with Him.
It is unfortunate the saints are at war with each other: leader against leader, church against church, fellowship against fellowship. The world watches these religious wars and says, “Behold, how they hate one another!” No wonder Jesus prayed, “That all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe You have sent Me” (John 17:21).
But, why are we at war with one another? We belong to the same family; we trust the same Savior; we are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit—and yet we fight one another. Why? James answered this question by explaining the second war that is going on.
At War with Ourselves (James 4:1b–3)
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (v. 1) The war in the heart is helping to cause the wars in the church! “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16).
The essence of sin is selfishness. Eve disobeyed God because she wanted to eat of the tree and become wise like God (Gen. 3). Abraham lied about his wife because he selfishly wanted to save his own life (Gen. 12:10–20). Achan caused defeat to Israel because he selfishly took some forbidden loot from the ruins of Jericho (Josh. 7). “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isa. 53:6).
Often, we veil our religious quarrels under the disguise of “spirituality.” We are like Miriam and Aaron who complained about Moses’ wife, but who really were envious of Moses’ authority (Num. 12). Or we imitate James and John who asked for special thrones in the kingdom, when what we really want is recognition today (Mark 10:35–45). In both of these instances the result of selfish desire was chastening and division among God’s people. Miriam’s sin halted the progress of Israel for a whole week!
Selfish desires are dangerous things. They lead to wrong actions (“you kill, fight, and war,” v. 2) and they even lead to wrong praying (“When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives that you may spend what you get on your pleasures,” James 4:3). When our praying is wrong, our whole Christian life is wrong. It has well been said that the purpose of prayer is not to get man’s will done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth.
“Thou shalt not covet” is the last of God’s Ten Commandments, but its violation can make us break all of the other nine! Covetousness can make a person murder, tell lies, dishonor his parents, commit adultery, and in one way or another violate all of God’s moral law. Selfish living and selfish praying always lead to war. If there is war on the inside, there will ultimately be war on the outside.
People who are at war with themselves because of selfish desires are always unhappy people. They never enjoy life. Instead of being thankful for the blessings they do have, they complain about the blessings they do not have. They cannot get along with other people because they are always envying others for what they have and do. They are always looking for that “magic something” that will change their lives when the real problem is within their own hearts.
Sometimes, we use prayer as a cloak to hide our true desires. “But I prayed about it!” can be one of the biggest excuses a Christian can use. Instead of seeking God’s will, we tell God what He is supposed to do and we get angry at Him if He does not obey. This anger at God eventually spills over and we get angry at God’s people. More than one church split has been caused by saints who take out their frustrations with God on the members of the church. Many church or family problems would be solved if people would only look into their own hearts and see the battles raging there.
In my next article, we will discover the primary reason we are at war with ourselves and, consequently, with each other: we are at war with God.