What Causes Conflict
Topic: Conflict Scripture: James 4:1–4:10
What Causes Conflict
Rev. Stuart Strachan Jr
Well we are back in the book of James or the letter of James. And James is back at what he does best: offering advice.
And he is continuing this time to give advice about conflict. But not just what to do about conflict, but where conflict comes from in the first place.
So with that said, let’s jump into our text from James chapter 4:1-10
4 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive; because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
4 You adulterous people,[a] don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us[b]? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”[c]
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
James begins this section of his letter with a very pointed question: What causes fights and quarrels among you?
And we’ll get of course, into his answer, but before we do, I want to acknowledge what I believe our author is trying to point out, which is this:
Human beings have a tendency whenever conflict arises, whenever anger, resentment, bitterness creeps into our hearts, to find some one or some thing to blame.
In other words, the reason I am upset, the reason I am angry, is because of something “out there” and not what’s going on in my own heart.
It reminds me of a story about a “lame duck” President who met with his successor in the Oval Office. Near the end of the orientation, he presented the incoming leader three numbered envelopes, with specific instructions to open them, in order, when great difficulties arose.
After the new President completed his “honeymoon” period with the media and the public, the nation experienced an economic downturn. He opened the first envelope.
Inside was a card that read: “Blame me.” So he did, criticizing the former administration. After a while, social upheaval brought about a critical domestic crisis.
The President opened the second envelope. Inside was a card that read: “Blame my party.” He did so, in an overt display of partisan politics.
About a year later, foreign policy resulted in serious problems and the President opened the third envelope. Inside, the card read: “Prepare three envelopes.”
Depending on your political affiliation, presidents are some of our favorite scapegoats.
But of course, that president’s aren’t our only scapegoats, perhaps our favorites, but not our only scapegoats.
In fact, some enterprising business came up with an idea for offering a unique service. The company was called “Rent-A-Scapegoat.” They advertised that they would gladly come to any business and accept blame for whatever happened, admitting to nearly anything.
Now the reason these jokes exist, the reason this company exists, is because we have this tendency, when things are not going our way, to blame everyone “out there”.
But James, being a wise Christian, is perceptive enough to point out, that our problems, for the most part, are not “out there”, but in fact come from inside us.
It reminds me of that somewhat famous trope from Horror movies…The killer is calling from inside the house...
And what James is trying to tell us in this passage in a sense, is that the killer is not “out there”, but is right here…in fact, not to carry this metaphor out too far, but what does he say in verse 2: 2You desire but do not have, so you kill.”
I think I’ve told this story before, but I think it bears repeating because it matches so well with this passage.
Just about a century ago, a newspaper asked the following question: What is wrong with the world?
The British journalist and author G.K. Chesterton wrote a letter to the editor which read, simply:
There’s something powerful about such a statement for at least one reason: most of us would never think of it. We would describe all the world’s problems as being “out there”.
We would quote poverty, lack of education, conservatives, democrats, communists, libertarians, Christians, atheists, but Chesterton uniquely, grasped something that James himself understood over 2,000 years ago.
That each one of us harbors desires inside us that lead to conflict. And the collective sum of those desires is what has lead to the current state of the world.
When I was trying to find this quote I came across someone who asked the question, how would we answer that same question today, and this is what he came up with:
To Whom It May Concern:
Now what about James. How would he answer this question?
Well I would argue he does something very close in verse. 1: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?
In other words, what causes the problems in the world? The answer: Don’t they come from your own desires that battle within you?”
James goes on in verse 2: “You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight”
What is James saying, we are filled with these desires, and when those desires go unchecked, we will fight for them. Now sometimes, that’s a good thing.
When we were a colonial power and England was extracting large taxes from us, and not giving us a chance to represent ourselves, that was something to fight for.
When black people in our country were beaten and turned away from voting booths in the 50s and 60s, they had something to fight for. But that’s fighting for justice.
What we are talking about are desires and unmet expectations that we have no God-ordained right to, but we simply want them, and we are willing to fight for them.
John Calvin, as many of you know is really the father or grandfather of our Reformed tradition, listen to what he said about this:
“The heart of sinful man (and woman by the way) (are you ready for this?) “Is an idol factory.”
The human heart is constantly being barraged by desire for what it does not have. Desires pop up just like a factory popping out products, minute after minute, hour after hour, year after year.
And if the human heart is unchecked, it is capable of going to whatever means necessary to get what it sets its sights on.
And of course, this can relate to pretty much all facets of life, but perhaps it hits us the hardest when it comes to material possessions.
We live in a world where everything can be turned into an advertisement. And the thing that advertisers know is that we are human idol factories.
And if they can appeal to our sense of desire, if they can get us to want something really badly, then we will do whatever it takes to get it.
It’s why you hear stories of kids killing other kids for a pair of shoes. They don’t have the money, but they want those sneakers so badly they are willing to take a life for it.
Yes, that’s an extreme, but we all know what its like to want something so bad you would do anything to get it, or at least, you would beg your parents until finally they relented.
I remember as a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money but we were around a lot kids that did. And there was this jacket that came out when I was in middle school, it was a “Starter Jacket”. Starter had already made a name for itself selling hats with different college and pro sports team’s names and logos on it.
But they went to the next level when they starting making entire jackets with team logos. Everyone had to have one. Guys, could you throw up a couple pictures of these starter jackets?
First we have a couple Penn State Jackets…aren’t those gorgeous. Don’t you wish you could put that on yesterday Rhett Jr when Penn State dominated Akron?
Then we’ve got a Steelers Starter…that one’s not that bad actually.
But, I think we need to remember, I didn’t grow up in Pittsburgh, I grew up in New York, so I got this beauty…guys can you pull up the Knicks jersey.
Yeah, that is about as beautiful a jacket as the actual Knicks win-loss record last year. And that was the jacket I just had to have.
But whatever your Starter jacket is, the truth is, we find ourselves in these situations where we just have to have it. We have this envy deep inside us.
And while perhaps the intensity drops off a bit after we enter adulthood, we still find ourselves wanting some toy.
Whether it’s a car, or the latest smart phone, and while the desire for these things isn’t all bad, we have to remind ourselves that while they may bring some joy initially, that eventually that joy will fade, and we’ll be on to the next thing that we just have to have.
And so James is trying to tell us this in our scripture passage this morning.
That the conflict we find ourselves in is not because of what is “out there”, but what is in our own hearts.
And while I’m sure there was such a thing as retail envy back in the ancient world… “Oh those sandals are just so chic…I hear Jesus of Nazareth even had a pair, “what the messiah wore those…I have to have them!”…okay I’m pretty sure that never happened.
In fact my guess is that the envy that James is speaking of, is probably a bit different, that it was pointed towards something else.
It probably had to do with fights and quarrels in the church where this person or group wanting to do things this way, while another group wanted to do things another way.
That never happens with us though, right?
And while each group probably spent their time trying to scapegoat the other, to blame the other for their problems, what James is pointing at is that it is their own selfish desires that are causing the problems in the first place.
Look at what he says in verses 2 and 3:
You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive; because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
In other words, you aren’t getting what you want not because God isn’t kind to you, but because you have bad motives. And while God wants to give to His children, he’s not going to give us what isn’t good for us in the first place.
And this brings us to the third and final section of this sermon. And it has to do with this question:
What is James’ advice? What does James want to teach this group of people that think that all their problems are “out there” when in fact, they are really battling inside them, and they have done evil in God’s eyes because they have not gotten what they truly desire.
Well let’s look back at the text starting in verse 7:
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts.
In other words, repent, flee temptation, and finally purify your hearts. We talked about purity last week, but I’d like to end our time coming back to this once again, because I do think there is more for us here to consider.
Purity, remember is the ability to take your entire life and boil it down to one goal.
Not two goals, not three goals, but just one goal. I love how the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it: to purify ourselves is to “will the one thing”. It is to place the one thing: following God above everything else.
It is, to quote Jesus, and Deuteronomy before him: To “love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself”. Now some of you are saying that’s two things…but not really, because if you love God with all your heart soul strength and mind what you will end up doing is loving your neighbor as yourself because that is what Loving God ought to lead to.
And I want to close this section by describing a spiritual exercise that is about 500 years old by a man named Ignatius of Loyola. Interestingly enough, I mentioned John Calvin earlier as our spiritual grandfather right…
well, Calvin and Ignatius actually studied at the very same time at the University of Paris in the 1500 hundreds. We don’t know if they knew each other, but, they both would become spiritual giants, quoted, might I add, in the same sermon, almost 500 years after their ministries took place.
But Ignatius developed exercises that were intended to help Christians to discern what God’s will is…to will the one thing as Kierkegaard described.
And one part of the exercises was something called the release of attachments.
You see, we all have attachments, things that we hold on to for sentimental reasons. And while these “things” so to speak are not bad in and of themselves, they can get in the way of us following God’s will.
And so I’ll give you an example of how this works. So, at my prior church in Washington State, we went through a long process of discernment, like Tower did, about leaving the PC USA, our denomination and potentially joining ECO.
And we really wanted to seek God’s will, and not make it simply about where we aligned theologically, because, we thought, maybe God might be calling us to stay in the PCUSA as a light in a dark place.
So, we decided to do this spiritual exercise, and we were encouraged to write down anything that made us want to stay in the denomination that might be an attachment. And so for example, one of our staff members was very reluctant because she had always been in the PCUSA. Her grandparents and parents had always been PCUSA.
Her grandfather had been a PCUSA pastor and she really valued that history. But during the discernment process, she realized that while she valued her family and their history, that that couldn’t be the reason to stay in a denomination that no longer as believed as we did.
And so that discernment enabled her to “will the one thing”, to put aside things, really good things in and of themselves, that were not helping but hindering her from the decision that we all believed God was moving us toward.
So my encouragement to you, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel pulled in all different directions, and you begin asking yourself, where is God calling me to follow him? Then I encourage you to lay aside your attachments and pursue the one thing, the one goal that each of us has been given as followers of Jesus Christ.
So as we close our time together this morning, I want to encourage you to become introspective when it comes to the fights, the quarrels that you find yourself in.
To realize that the problem is not all “out there” but that much of it rages inside you. And so your calling as a follower of Jesus is not to blame others, to see the problems coming from out there, but to ask God to heal your heart, and to pursue the one goal, to will the one goal that we have, to worship God with a purity of heart.
Will you pray with me?