“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? 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. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us’? But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:1-10).
Ever watch children in a nursery? Those precious little embodiments of human innocence and disarming cuteness toddle about the room exploring, wondering, and discovering new treasures and experiences. Then, one charming little bundle snatches something away from another sweet darling and suddenly, screaming ensues. The same thing happens in high school halls and city streets, often with grimmer results. No parent has ever had to teach a child to lie, cheat, or steal.
James described a great part of the human condition with two words: “quarrels and conflicts” (NASB), or “wars and fightings” (KJV). The first word, from which derives the English term, “polemic,” has to do with controversy. A polemist is skilled or engages often in debate. The second word sounds distantly like the English term, “machination,” which conjures the idea of a plot or scheme, usually with a negative connotation.
The apostle asked rhetorically, “What’s the source of these polemics and machinations?” From where do they come? Then, he supplied his own answer, “Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” The word, “pleasures,” is also rendered as passions or lusts. The term is related to the English word, “hedonism,” which is the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. His discussion agrees with the apostle Paul: “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:21-23).
Many of the most famous preachers today have built their celebrity on advocating the lusts of the flesh. They tell us that God just wants us to be happy, whatever it takes. To hear many of them, God must like us better today than He did that first generation of Christians. He let them suffer for the name of Jesus, but God wants us to have green lights all the way.
Yet, James brought up an important principle: “friendship with the world is hostility toward God.” In other words, wanting the treasures this world offers puts us at odds with God. We hate because we lust. We fight because we covet. Our prayers go unanswered because we seek our own greed and not God’s glory.
For Christians, a war rages within us. The desires of the flesh rebel against the resident Holy Spirit. We crave this world’s delights and struggle against the Spirit. There are many hardships and tribulations in this life, but none wound so deeply as the remaining sin in a believer’s heart. The unregenerate is content with his lusts and justified in his passions. The one who desires Christ, however, engages in a constant battle to overcome the flesh.
What’s the Christian to do? Thanks be to God who gives His people the grace to seek Him and the joy to follow Him.
James counsels us to submit ourselves to God, to yield to His grace. We resist the devil by drawing near to God. We cleanse our hands and purify our hearts through repentance and contrition before God. As we seek Him and His righteousness, He encourages us by His grace. As we humble ourselves before Him, He lifts us up.
As long as we believe the world’s promises that happiness derives from having new things and new relationships, we’ll remain bound by sin’s misery. When we learn that real joy only exists in the Person of Jesus Christ, we’ll be set free from the bondage of sin.
God grant His people the grace to divorce the desires of the flesh and to cling to Christ as Lord.