The Pressure of Conflict

The Point:  Overcome the pressure of conflict by humbly submitting to Christ. 

Worldliness verses Godliness:  James 4:1-5.

[1]  What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? [2]  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. [3]  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. [4]  You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. [5]  Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, "He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"?  [ESV]

[1-5]  To put the matter bluntly, it is all very well to tell us that there are two wisdoms and to describe them in terms which makes us long to reject the one and to embrace the other. But long ago Job asked the key question: But where shall wisdom be found? [Job 28:12]. This is, in fact, the relationship between the end of James 3 and the first ten verses of James 4. James is dealing with the same situation. In 3:14 and 16 he wrote of bitter jealousy (a strong emotion of self-interest) and selfish ambition (the positive promotion of self-interest), disorder (unrest) and every vile practice (every sort of mean, unworthy deed). Now in chapter 4 he speaks of quarrels … passions … desire … covet … friendship with the world … enmity with God. The opening question in verse 1, What causes declares his purpose to trace unrest, bad feeling, hostile relationships and the rest, to their root, and then to tell us what to do about it. Verses 4:1-5 look in two directions: verse 1 speaks of fights among you and verse 4 speaks of enmity with God. Up to the middle of verse 2 James is speaking about the ill relationships that exist between Christians. Then he turns from that with the words you do not have, because you do not ask. Something makes even prayer ineffectual. The channels of communication with God and of supply from God have become blocked. In each section the same word pinpoints the trouble. Verse 1 points out that the cause of the quarrels and … fights is your passions; verse 3 says that requests remain unanswered because whatever God gave in response would be spent on your passions. There is, then, the outward symptom of really bad relationships among believers. This has its inner side in a flawed relationship with God, and the root of all the trouble is passions. Having reached this point by the end of verse 4, James rounds his teaching off by an appeal to Scripture in verse 5. So James begins this section by discussing the relationships of Christians with each other. The words he uses are frighteningly strong: quarrels, fights, at war, murder, covet, fight and quarrel. We know, of course, that James does not mean actual killings. He is using the language of war metaphorically, as do other New Testament writers. James chooses the vocabulary of war to express controversies and quarrels, animosities and bad feeling among Christians, not because there is no other way of saying it, but because there is no other way of expressing the horror of it. He is seeing the relationships of the church through the eye of God. He speaks of a fact [1a], a condition [1b] and a practice [2a]. The fact is that believers are quarreling and fighting among themselves. James does not necessarily mean that this is happening all the time, but he does indicate that the peace of the churches is by no means unbroken. Behind this behavior, as its cause, lies a condition existing in each individual. Our condition is one of self-willed determination, summed up as passions. All our desires and passions are like an armed camp within us, ready at a moment’s notice to declare war against anyone who stands in the way of some personal gratification on which we have set our hearts. This condition becomes a practice. James’ language sounds so extravagant, so exaggerated in our ears, that we feel we must positively refuse to see our small-time disagreements and occasional squabbles as meriting such a description. But if we take this line we only show how imperfectly our thoughts have been brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. When the Lord Jesus undertook to explore the length and depth of the sixth commandment, He spoke of anger, derogatory, dismissive remarks, name-calling. Was the Lord Jesus exaggerating when He brought it all under the heading of murder? Or was John extravagant when he said that anyone who failed to love his brother was like Cain [1 John 3:11-12]? James now moves the area of his inquiry from our relationship with other believers to our relationship with God [2b-3]. Here, all is far from well. First, prayer would be a solution, but in practice prayer goes unanswered because of the hindrance interposed by our passions. The symptom is different but the diagnosis is the same. We find that the unfettered flow of prayer upwards, and of response downwards, is no longer operating; we are somehow out of sorts with God. The passions are at work again. We want it all for self. Prayer is defiled by the insistently self-centered heart so that we do not receive what we pray for. It is to this very need for cleansing of the heart that James is leading us [6-10]; this is the beginning of wisdom which he wants to share with us. But before he does he must face us with what passions really do to our relationship with God [4], and what Scripture has to say about it [5]. We ought to notice that James does not set out lists of forbidden passions, or enter into a discussion of allowable and illicit desires. Rather he emphasizes that none of us can side-step the accusation of self-pleasing in our desires. Coming to James 4:4, we have reached a watershed in his treatment of the last of his three chosen topics, the unspotted life. The whole movement of James’ thought from 3:13 to 4:3, is to reveal that public problems (a disrupted fellowship) have private causes (the self-pleasing heart), and that if the highest (the good life) is to be achieved in the harvest of righteousness there is need of a deep, penetrative work of transformation to be wrought upon the individual heart. Beginning in 4:4 James puts the entire problem into a different context. For with his cry You adulterous people, his concern is not that we have played false with each other, but that we have played false with God, and that in befriending our own interests we have become friends of the world and the Lord’s enemies. Our problem is, in fact, a spiritual one: how to get right with God and how to stay right with Him. Verse 4 brings us two distinct pictures of our relationship with God: marriage and friendship. Adulterous people refers to those who have betrayed their marriage vows. Here James takes up a theme very dear to the whole Bible. When the Lord chose a people for Himself, He was like an ardent young man pursuing and claiming His bride. On the Lord’s side, the Bible does not shun taking the metaphor seriously with its implications of loving choice and passionate intimacy. This loving choice brings to effect His determination that we should be ‘in Christ’, that is to say, ‘in’ the fullest, richest and most intimate union and communion with Himself. With his second picture, James challenges us with the sharp contrast of the words friendship and enmity. There is the reality of the two irreconcilables, friendship … enmity. There is the choice we make: whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. We must not, in other words, deceive ourselves into thinking that we can live in intimate fellowship with Him when the set of our hearts (whoever wishes) is towards the world. When the pleasures, desires, wants, wishes of our hearts takes us into the world, we enter the arena in which Christ’s Lordship is not recognized. James seeks in verse 5 to drive his point home by an appeal to Scripture. But a difficulty arises because the words after the Scripture says cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. Most commentators hold that James is using the formula the Scripture says to refer to what is in fact not a direct quotation but a concise summary of the mind of Scripture on this point. Jealousy, properly considered, is a necessary ingredient of all true love. It is, on the one hand, a ceaseless longing for the loved one’s welfare and, on the other, a desire for a responsive love as intense and as loyal as the love bestowed. In this sense the Bible insists on the jealous love of God over and for His people. The reference to the spirit that he has made to dwell in us is much more likely to be a reference to the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit than a reference to the human spirit resident in us. The point that James understands Scripture making is that God’s people are indwelt by God’s Spirit and there is no way in which the living presence of that Spirit is compatible with those sinful yearnings and promptings to self-interest which are destructive of the peace of the church.

Overcoming Worldliness:  James 4:6-10.

[6]  But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." [7]  Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. [8]  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. [9]  Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. [10]  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.  [ESV]

[6-10]  In these verses James underlines that our sinful impulses remain and may even predominate, notwithstanding that the Holy Spirit now indwells us. Therefore we must look to God for fresh and greater aid. This is the promised more grace of verse 6. What comfort there is in this verse! It tells us that God is tirelessly on our side. He never falters in respect of our needs, He always has more grace at hand for us. He is never less than sufficient. Whatever we may forfeit when we put self first, we cannot forfeit our salvation, for there is always more grace. His resources are never at an end, His patience is never exhausted, His initiative never stops, His generosity knows no limit: he gives more grace. But grace in God has a correlative in man. James, having pointed to God’s sufficiency, points on to our responsibility. In verses 7-10 there are no less than ten commands to obey. James does not see the indwelling Spirit as a means of instant and effortless sanctification. Rather, the Holy One may dwell within even while we pursue the pathway of sinful self-seeking. In the same way James does not see the inexhaustible supply of grace as sweeping us along to an effortless holiness. He knows of no such easy victory. The benefits of grace and more grace are ours along the road of obedience and more obedience. The God who says ‘Here is my grace to receive’ says in the same breath, ‘Here are my commands to obey’. James forges the link between the experience of grace and the life of obedience by means of two “therefores” [6b, 7a]. First, because more grace is available by God’s gift, therefore Scripture makes clear by whom this grace may be enjoyed: God gives His grace to the humble. But this still leaves unanswered the vital question how we may take our place within this favored category. Therefore we are given a series of commands to obey which spell out the terms of a humble walk with God, commands whose effect is summarized in verse 10 as humbling ourselves before God, with the promised result that He will lift us up. In other words, the Bible, as so often, not only tells us what is true but also how to respond to what is true. The truth is a superabundant supply of grace [6]; the response is an obedient walk with God, itemized in verses 7-9. James begins his description of the humble walk with God by commanding active allegiance [7]. Christians must have no doubt in their minds whose side they are on; and by their lives they must leave no doubt in the minds of others that they are God’s enlisted subordinates and the devil’s unyielding opponents. The Greek verb translated submit speaks of a subordinate’s readiness to await commands and to do the will of the superior. Resist describes one who is manning the defenses, knowing that enemy pressure is ceaseless and that he is constantly under fire. We do well to notice that it is those who have subordinated themselves to God who are commanded to stand firm against the devil. James knows of no act of consecration to God which takes us out of the conflict. On the contrary, it is the very act of decisive enlistment as his underlings which brings us into the firing-line and calls the devil’s attention to us as objects of attack. James continues his description of the humble walk with God by commanding a deliberately cultivated fellowship [8a]. The command is Draw near to God, and we find ourselves encouraged to obey it by the promise which goes along with it, and he will draw near to you. We shall, of course, find a tendency in ourselves to want to reverse this order. How easy it would be to keep a daily time with God if only we had, to begin with, a more vivid sense of His presence – in other words, we want the promise to come before the command! God enriches with the grace of His presence those who obey His command to seek His presence. James is not snatching haphazard commands out of the air. He is setting out for us an ordered program of obedience. The first element in the conflict is this central battle to live near God, the battle for regularity and discipline in Bible reading, prayer, private and public worship, feasting at the Lord’s Table, devoting ourselves to Christian fellowship, cultivating every appointed avenue whereby we can draw near to Him. Fellowship with God – and its consequent blessing of His fellowship with us – does not just happen; we cannot drift into it any more than we drift into holiness. It is our first obedience. Thirdly, we are commanded to put in hand a thoroughgoing purification of our lives [8b], to clean up the outer life of the hands and the inner life of our hearts. It touches our specific acts of wrong-doing, for the designation sinners points to individual sins; it touches too the inner disloyalty of the double-minded. Here James uses the same word as at 1:8: the sin of being two-faced with God, of wavering inconsistency. We must keep this command at its proper place in the sequence. Logic might suggest that we must clean up our lives and then draw near to God. James’ logic is otherwise, for it is when we know the reality of His presence and come under its holy influence that we are at last in a position to face the demands of holiness, and find ourselves motivated by the desire to be like our God. In this way, fourthly and finally, we are prepared for the command to lament our sin and to repent of it [9]. Such an awareness of our wretchedness is, of course, beyond us. But then, equally so is every command in the sequence! It is in fact grace alone which makes it possible for us to obey any of God’ commands. Our position is one of perpetual supplication for grace to obey in order that we may experience the more grace which God gives to the obedient. Nevertheless, the purpose of God is to lead us down into the lowest place of self-awareness and lamentation [9]. This is the goal of the program: the decisive taking of sides [7] leads into the practice of the presence of God [8a]. This in turn prompts the longing [8b] to be like Him in holiness. As always, the more we pursue His likeness, the more deeply and sorrowfully our sinfulness and shortcomings are exposed [9]. But the Lord sets the downward path before us because there is no other way up [10]. To humble yourselves before the Lord means to recognize our own spiritual poverty, to acknowledge consequently our desperate need of God’s help, and to submit to His commanding will for our lives. This reminds us that we gain spiritual vitality and victory not through our own strength or effort but through giving ourselves completely to the Lord. When we try to exalt ourselves by relying on our own abilities, status, or money, we meet with inevitable failure and even condemnation.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In 4:1-5, James speaks of a fact [1a], a condition [1b], and a practice [2a] that are causing problems in relationships within the church. Then he writes about our relationship with God [2b-3]. What is the one thing that is causing the problems in both relationships? Note in 4:4 what these sinful desires do to our relationship with God. Think and pray about how your sinful desires are disrupting your relationships with other believers and with God.

2.         In 4:7-10, James gives us ten commands to obey which spell out the terms of a humble walk with God. List these ten commands and think and pray about how you can make these part of your daily spiritual walk with God.


1.  Submit to God. This is crucial. You must be submissive. We must get through with arranging compromises and start caring about obeying His commands.

2.  Resist the devil. The world’s idea is to do just the opposite of submitting to God and resisting the devil. As we make any strides spiritually, we can be assured that Satan is waiting in the wings to try to nail us. Notice, when God says, “resist,” He gives us the means to resist. He expects us to stand on the basis and power of His holy Word to rebuff Satan.

3.  Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Perhaps the biggest reason people do not draw near to God is because of guilt in their lives. God is waiting to restore you to fellowship, waiting to show you just what He can do when you are obedient. Draw near to him, through the word, through prayer, through meditation. Be still, and know that He is God. 

4 and 5.  Cleanse your hands, sinners; Purify your hearts, double-minded. Confession means thinking and saying the same thing about sin that God thinks and says. We ask him to do the work of creating clean hearts and hands in us (Psalm 51). The key to victory, fellowship, and abundant living is to remain under the control of the Holy Spirit, allowing him to energize the new nature toward Christ-likeness. When the Christian compromises with the world and is double minded, it is a sure sign that his sense of the gravity of sin has become blunted. 

The four imperatives of verse 9 are calls to repentance.

6.  Lament. This means to experience sorrow for sin, to experience a sense of wretchedness and of unworthiness. It indicates a sensitivity to the burden of sin. It means realizing how sin grieves our loving Father when we persist in it.

7.  Mourn. We should mourn deeply the reality of our sin. We should feel the sense of loss; of lost fellowship, failed chances, missed opportunities. 

8.  Weep. We are also to weep because of our sinful condition. Tears signify brokenness. They are a mark of repentance, an evidence of submission, a candid admission of helplessness and need.

9.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning. Displayed in our brokenness is a soft, sweet, submissive spirit. We demonstrate that we care when we begin to hurt and are concerned about our lukewarmness, wayward lifestyles, and lack of vision and effectiveness in the Lord’s service. What James is criticizing is the hollow merriment of the friend of the world. True, spiritual joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit working in a redeemed heart desiring to be obedient to their Lord.

10.  Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up. Closely connected to the first. We submit ourselves to God. Then we humble ourselves before Him and allow Him to do what He wants to do in us. We recognize our own limitations and His limitless ability.


James, Dan McCartney, ECNT, Baker.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity.

James, Don Anderson, Loizeaux Brothers.

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