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New Testament Study - James 4:1-10

Strife Among Christians


4:1What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.


James begins this section with a provocative question: "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" James does not postulate that there might possibly be strife among Christians; he states as a fact that there are "fights and quarrels" among us. There is quite a contrast between the end of the last section, speaking of peacemaking, and the beginning of this one. This section suggests that James' audience has much progress to make in order to attain the ideal that James described in the last section. And, alas, we do.

Unfortunately, there is and always has been strife among Christians. Even in the apostolic age, there apparently was much strife in the young churches. For example, Paul was worried that, when he came to visit the church at Corinth, there would be "quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder" (II Cor. 12:20). Even in the commendable church at Philippi, there were quarrels, for Paul pleads with two women there "to agree with each other" (Phil. 4:2).

James here attempts to find a remedy to the "quarrels and fights" among Christians by exploring "what causes" them. To successfully find a remedy, one must find the true cause. James postulates that the cause of the quarrels is the "desires that battle within [us]." We often try to place the blame for our strife on external circumstances and pressures, but the true origin is our internal lusts. Think about it. Bring to mind any quarrel that you have had in your life (with your spouse, with your friends, with your parents, etc.). Was not the reason that you were quarreling due to some worldly desire of yours that was in jeopardy of being fulfilled?

These worldly desires "battle within you". As Paul points out: "For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want" (Gal. 5:17). There is an on-going battle between the Spirit of God in us and our sinful nature. One of the fruits of this battle is the strife that we have with others.

Almost without exception, all quarrels and fights can be traced to the fact that, as James says, "You want something but don't get it." This unfulfilled desire leads you to "kill and covet". Now you may think that James is exaggerating a bit on this point. You say, "I have never killed due to a desire that I have had!" However, you forget that, in the Kingdom of Heaven, anger is tantamount to murder. Remember that Christ said: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (Matt. 5:21,22).

And so, we "kill and covet", and we "quarrel and fight", but we still "cannot have what we want". Evil means never arrive at full satisfaction. We may even, through our "killing, covetting, quarreling and fighting", attain the desire for which we originally fought so hard. However, a goal attained in such a way is never fulfilling. We get, but we do not get enough. We get, but we want more. Wealth begets desire for more wealth; power begets desire for more power.

For true satisfaction, we must seek what we desire through correct means, which is, as James points out, through prayer: "You do not have, because you do not ask God." Prayer, not quarreling and fighting, is the correct, lawful means to get what you want. By asking God, we are forced to reflect on the motives for our desires. "Prayer is not for God's information, but the creature's submission."[Footnote #3] We should take no actions that we would be hesitant, or worse, ashamed to bring before God. God, through Isaiah, warned those who pursued their desires without presenting them before God: "Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, `Who sees us? Who will know?'" (Isa. 29:15).

Yet, when we ask God, sinful as we are, at times we "ask with wrong motives". This is why, as James points out, that when we ask God, at times we "do not receive". We may even have convinced ourselves that our petition is for God's glory. We may have convinced ourselves that the lottery winnings for which we are praying will do much to advance the cause of God. We pray and pray and pray and we still do not receive. We despair and cry out, "God, why don't you answer my prayers?!"

When we ask, and yet do not receive, we must examine our petitions. "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." God will never be a servant to our lusts. Our primary motivation in life should be to please God and carry out His will, and so, our petitions to God should reflect this. We should examine our petitions and ask ourselves: "How does what I am praying advance God's work? Am I prepared to receive what I am praying for, or will I stumble from the temptations and testings that it will bring? Have I sought God's direction in this matter, or have I just presented Him with my plan, ignoring His direction?"

To pray with the correct motives is difficult for us, as sinners. Therefore, we need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even in what we ask for. "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express...[T]he Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will" (Rom. 8:26,27). And then, when we seek the guidance of the Spirit of God and pray according to God's will, we are promised that our prayers will be answered: "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us--whatever we asked--we know that we have what we asked of Him" (I John 5:14-15). There is no greater feeling than seeing your own will line up with God's will and experiencing the answered prayers that result. "God's glory is the end of prayer, and the beginning of hope."

Friendship with the World


4You 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. 5Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? 6But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."


Having established that worldly desires cause strife between man and man, James now points out that worldly desires also cause strife between man and God. Speaking to those who "ask with wrong motives", James addresses them as "adulterous people". The relationship between God and his people is depicted as a marriage relationship in the Bible. For example, God tells Israel through Isaiah: "For your Maker is your husband--the LORD Almighty is His name--the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer" (Isa. 54:5). Israel is portrayed as the wife of God throughout the Old Testament. When Israel is unfaithful, they are charged by God with being adulterous. For instance, when God tells Hosea to take an adulterous wife so that his marriage can be a model of God's relationship to Israel, He says: "Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD" (Hos. 1:2).

Similarly, the Church in the New Testament is depicted as the bride of Christ. For instance, when Paul gives instruction concerning marriage, he says: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25). Then later, when Paul summarizes his exhortations about the roles of husbands and wives, he says that he is "talking about Christ and the church" (Eph. 5:32). Paul also tells the church at Corinth: "I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him" (II Cor. 11:2).

Therefore, when we are unfaithful to God, when we turn our back on Him and become wedded to the world, we are adulterers. We are pledged to Christ; we must be careful that we may be presented to Him as a "pure virgin" at the wedding supper of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 19:7). He bought us, so we are to be only His. The fact that we are the bride of Christ must be taken very seriously. In the law of God, adultery is a very serious crime, punishable by death (see Lev. 20:10). Also, do not forget, there are varying degrees of adultery. Although one may not consummate his worldly desire, God still considers those who lust after the things of the world to be adulterers (see Matt. 5:27-28).

We must come to realize that, as James says, "friendship with the world is hatred toward God". God and the world are at odds. As James continues: "Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." This is a difficult concept for many people to grasp, our ties to the world being so strong. The teaching in the Bible, however, is uncompromising on this point. We are not, as Christians, to desire the world and the things of the world, as John says: "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world" (I John 2:15,16). We must distance ourselves from the world and remain separated to God, for the world is under the control of Satan. Satan is referred to in the Bible as "the god of this age" (II Cor. 4:4) and "the prince of this world" (John 14:30). "We know that we are the children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one" (I John 5:19). However, those of us in Christ can be set free from the control of the world and its leader, for Christ "gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age" (Gal. 1:4). And so, to free yourself from your ties to the world, "set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Col. 3:1,2).

James solidifies his argument that friends of the world are enemies of God by reminding us that "Scripture says...the Spirit He caused to live in us envies intensely". The Scripture to which, I believe, James is referring is Deut. 5:9, when God says: "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God." God does not want to share us with any other gods. He is to be the focus of our life, not man-made idols. It is so easy to let our hobbies and worldly pursuits to take precedence over God and the things of God. The worldly pursuits the focus of our life. Unfortunately, we are all apt to fall into friendship with the world, to let our desires be for the things of the world. God realizes how easy it is for this to happen, so, although He "envies intensely", He also "gives us more grace". God lures us, not by force or wrath, but by grace back to Him.

God not only tells us that He gives us grace, but He tells how we may receive this grace, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James is citing Prov. 3:34). By citing Scripture in this passage, James is trying to get us to realize that no Scripture is, as he says, "without reason". God never speaks vain words. We not only have promises in Scripture, but also directions: you cannot receive the promises without following the directions. If you claim the promises of God without following His directions, you are ignoring part of the Word of God and thus, making vain the passages that give the directions.

So, as James tells us here, the Bible says that God's grace is obtained through humility. The proud do not believe that they need God. They believe that they can make it on their own. They believe that they can achieve satisfaction and enlightenment by pursuing their worldly goals and ambitions. Thus, the proud are drawn into friendship with the world, and hatred toward God. The proud shun God because they do not want Him to interfere with their worldly ambitions. On the other hand, the humble are drawn toward God. They realize that they are nothing except what God has made them to be. They realize that whatever gifts and talents they have are given to them by the grace of God; and so, rather than using these gifts and talents to pursue worldly ambitions, they desire to use them for the glory of God. In humility, they come to God and receive His grace.

There are many examples in the Bible of God casting down the proud: Pharoah proudly said, "Who is the LORD that I should obey him?" (Ex. 5:2), but was brought to the place where he not only obeyed the Lord, but asked for the Lord's blessing (Ex. 12:31); David in pride wanted to number his people, so God sent a plague among the people to humble him (see I Chron. 21); Uzziah the king exalted himself and thought that he could serve as priest also, but God struck him with leprosy (see II Chron. 26:16-21); Nebuchadnezzar exalted himself, but was made to eat grass like a cow (see Dan. 4); Peter, in pride, said that he would never deny Jesus, yet denied Him the very same evening (see Matt. 26); Herod accepted the praise of the people who said, "This is the voice of god!", and so was struck with worms (see Acts 12); etc. Pride caused the downfall of Satan when he said, "I will make myself like the Most High" (Isa. 14:14). Pride also had a part in causing the fall of man, when he was tempted to "be like God" (see Gen. 3:5). God hates pride, and opposes it where it is found.


Submission to God


7Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.


The first step in turning from the world and demonstrating humility is to "submit yourselves to God". Eventually, whether they acknowledge it or not, all will submit to God, either by choice or by force. God states unequivocally: "By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear." (Isa. 45:23). Forced submission after this life will be much more painful than voluntary submission beginning in this life. Indeed, submission to God is for our good, anyway: just ask all those who are submitted to Him. Is He a hard taskmaster? By no means! Rather, a loving Father. The benefits to submission are many: joy, peace, and eternal life (to name a few).

We must examine ourselves: are we truly submitted to God? Are we willing to commit everything, all that we do, to Him? In all things can we say, "May God's will be done"? Do we submit willingly or grudgingly? Does our submission come from a sense of honor or solely from a sense of duty? We should feel honored to submit to the Lord of the universe, but so many, on the contrary, resist God, while submitting to the devil.

Now, submission to God will bring opposition from the devil. Satan desires to draw you into the pride of the world and the things of the world. Therefore, James exhorts: "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Indeed, those who are most submitted to God will face the greatest opposition from the devil. "The best are exercised with the sorest conflicts. When the thief breaketh into the house, it is not to take away coals, but jewels."[Footnote #5] Satan takes pride in using those who follow God, or claim to follow God, for his purposes: John tells us that the devil "prompted Judas Iscariot...to betray Jesus" (John 13:2); in the book of Acts, Satan filled the heart of Ananias to lie to Peter concerning a gift he was bringing (Acts 5:3); even Peter was used by Satan to tempt Jesus to avoid the cross, so that Christ rebuked Peter, saying: "Get behind me, Satan!" (Matt. 16:23). So, we must not be surprised that we are tempted and tormented by the devil. As Peter says: "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings." (I Peter 5:9).

Yes, we must resist the devil, or be taken captive by him; there is no middle ground. How do we resist him? We should resist him through prayer; through watchfulness and preparedness; through acknowledgement and confession of sin to God; through remembrance of the sweetness of victory and bitterness of failure; through fixing our thoughts and eyes on Jesus; through the remembrance that Jesus' eyes are fixed upon us. The benefit of resistance is that, as James points out, the devil will flee from you for a time. Oh, what times of peace are those when the devil has fled for a time, when we can serve the Lord unhindered!

We are to resist the devil, so that we may "come near to God". Sin drives us away from God, as Isaiah declares: "Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear" (Isa. 59:1,2). However, through resistance of the devil, through confession of sin to God and through the blood of Christ, we can "come near to God". Paul reminds us: "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ" (Eph. 2:13).

James further exhorts us: "Come near to God and He will come near to you." To do this, though, you must: "Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." He says "wash your hands" to represent the cleansing of our outward actions, the external manifestations of our worldliness and impurity. He says "purify your hearts" to represent the cleansing of our inward thoughts and attitudes, the internal sources of our worldliness and impurity. God requires that we be clean inside and out. This is required for us to draw near to a holy God, as David says: "Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart" (Psalm 24:3,4).

Furthermore, we are to "grieve, mourn and wail" over our sin and double-mindedness in trying to be a friend of the world and a friend of God at the same time. Christ told us: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matt. 5:4). We should cry out, as Paul, "What a wretched man I am!" (Rom. 7:24). James goes on and tells us: "Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom." We have a tendency at times to take our sin lightly. We must not smirk or giggle over our sin, but "change our laughter to mourning". We are not to have joy in pursuing worldly desires, as we formerly did; but we are to change our "joy to gloom". "It is a good exchange to put away carnal joy for godly sorrow."[Footnote #6]

But your gloom will not last, for if you "humble yourselves before the Lord...He will lift you up." Let your joy come from the Lord, as He lifts you up. Unlike the joy that comes from the world, His joy is pure, His joy is complete, His joy is everlasting.


Closing Prayer


And so Father, we come to You in humility, submitting ourselves to Your will in our lives. Draw near to us. Lift us up, as You have promised in Your Word through James, and give us Your joy. Guide us, by Your Spirit, to turn away from the world and to seek only Your will and way. We praise You that, as we humble ourselves, You will come near to us. In Jesus' name we pray these things, Amen.


(Our study in James will continue in the next issue with the conclusion of James 4)



3. Manton, A Commentary on James, pg. 338.

4. Ibid., pg. 341.

5. Ibid., pg. 360.

6. Ibid., pg. 376.


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