What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?
In this series of articles on the book of James, we’ve already seen hints that his readers argued with each other. Why else would God inspire James to tell them to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (1:19)? Why else would he have just finished promoting wisdom from above which is “peaceable…gentle…reasonable…” and teaching that “righteousness” is found within “those who make peace” (3:13-18)? Now he goes so far as to command them to not “speak against one another” and “judge (their) neighbor” so that they avoid “speak(ing) against…(and) judg(ing) the law” by disobeying it and putting themselves in the place of the “one Lawgiver and Judge” (4:11-12).
It is impossible for anyone to overcome sin in their lives if they do not give serious thought as to why they commit that sin in the first place. Thus, God gives us the reason we fight amongst ourselves. The “source of quarrels and conflicts among you” is “your pleasures that wage war in your members” (4:1). We want things that please US, which give US pleasure, which make US happy. SELF is our highest priority. When we care most about SELF, what happens?
“You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4:2-3). Selfishness leads to more sins, sins like murder (possibly literal murder is meant here, but more likely what is meant is the hatred of brethren which God equivocates with murder – 1 John 3:15), fighting and arguing. Even our prayer lives will be affected by this, in that we won’t think to ask God to bless us; even if we do, God won’t answer our prayers because we are praying out of selfishness rather than out of a desire to please Him.
There are underlying reasons for our selfishness. Consider that James calls the churches to whom he is writing “adulteresses” and “double-minded” for a reason (4:4a, 8b). As the bride of Christ (Rom. 7:1-4; cf. Rev. 21:2ff), the church is supposed to be solely devoted to Him. Yet James indicts his readers as having “friendship with the world,” which is “hostility toward God” and makes one God’s “enemy” (4:4b). He wonders if they “think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us’” (4:5). In other words, James wonders if his Christian readers have forgotten the reason behind all the times the Scriptures say that God wants our spirit to be completely devoted to Him. Their selfishness obviously showed their lack of complete loyalty to God. (A couple of sidenotes: First, while the NASB capitalizes “Spirit” [pneuma] to indicate the Holy Spirit which the New Testament says dwells in the Christian [Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:19], I personally believe the human “spirit” [pneuma] better fits the context and the message of the verse. Second, there is no specific passage of Scripture which says verbatim what is quoted here; however, the principle of God jealously wanting our complete devotion is found throughout the Bible [Matt. 22:37; Ex. 20:4-5; et al.]).
Yet all is not lost. James reminds us that God “gives a…grace” which is “greater” than our sinful selfishness and divided loyalty before quoting Proverbs 3:34’s teaching that “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). To access God’s grace and receive mercy and thus “cleanse (our) hands” from these sins and “purify (our) hearts” (4:8b), we must “humble (ourselves)…and He will exalt (us)” (4:10). If we “resist the devil,” he will “flee from (us)” (4:7b). We must “be miserable and mourn and weep; let (our) laughter be turned into mourning and (our) joy to gloom” (4:9), which means that we must have godly sorrow which leads to repentance (2 Cor. 7:9-11; cf. Matt. 5:4). The only way that will happen is if we “submit therefore to God” (4:7a), deciding to “draw near” to Him with the assurance that He will likewise “draw near” to us (4:8a).