Heart Disease in the Body of Christ

James 3:14-16

June 29, 2017 | Ray Pritchard

Every church has trouble sooner or later.

Churches sometimes have difficulty getting enough members together to make up a quorum for a business meeting. But there’s one easy way to get far more than a quorum: Announce a moral scandal, a doctrinal controversy, or an impending church split. The sanctuary will be jammed with people.

Conflict always draws a crowd.

Conflict always draws a crowd

Every church has problems, some large, some small, and every church faces a time of crisis sooner or later. You can’t avoid it completely, and you can’t always head it off at the pass. It doesn’t matter whether your church is young or old or what denomination it is or who the pastor is or what sort of church government you have. None of that cancels the reality that Christian people can sometimes act in very unchristian ways.

Your church may have no serious problems at the moment. You may attend a congregation of Spirit-filled believers who love the Lord, love his Word, love each other, and love those outside the church. If that is true of your church, get on your knees and give thanks to God because it is all too rare.

Increasingly one hears stories of churches torn apart because of controversy. News of trouble in a congregation quickly spreads through social media, blogs and anonymous emails. While the technology may be new, church conflict is as old as the New Testament. The early Christians often had a hard time getting along. If the book of James is (as I believe) the earliest New Testament book, it means Christians were having trouble in their local churches from the very beginning.

The early Christians had trouble getting along

James 3:14-16 helps us understand how good churches go bad. By “good” I do not mean famous or large or rich or popular. Any church is a good church when the members love each other, love the Lord, love to worship, love the Word of God, love to serve, and love to share the Good News of Jesus with those who don’t know him. And even a happy, Spirit-filled, Christ-honoring congregation can end up in a bad place. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen.

Worldly wisdom produces heart disease that destroys the body of Christ

Yielding to worldly wisdom produces a kind of spiritual heart disease that destroys unity, kills joy, evaporates prayer, dulls the appetite for God’s Word, deadens worship, and turns the focus from winning the lost to winning the argument. With that in mind, let’s carefully consider this passage because we’re all in danger of harboring wrong attitudes. These three verses reveal the operation, the origin, and the outcome of heart disease in the body of Christ.

Its Operation

“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth” (v. 14).

James begins by warning us against two specific sins: bitter envy and selfish ambition. The first refers to resentful because others have something you don’t. It might be money or a title or popularity or a better job or a happier family. We suffer from envy when . . .

1) We secretly regret our friends have succeeded where we have not.
2) We believe we would have done better if we had gotten the right breaks.
3) We have a hard time believing others have more talent than we do.
4) We temper our compliments with the word “but.”
5) We complain that others do not appreciate us as they should.
6) We walk the other way rather than congratulate a friend on her good fortune.
7) We question the motives of those who show kindness to us.
8) We can’t rejoice with others when they are promoted.
9) We secretly gloat when someone else gets caught because “they had it coming to them.”
10) We are quicker to criticize than to compliment.

But that’s not the end of it. Bitter envy leads on to selfish ambition. The word originally referred to gaining office by dishonest means. It describes someone whose desire to get ahead leads them to abandon all morality, break all the rules, and do whatever it takes to get ahead.

The problem starts on the inside

Now comes the tricky part.

James says the problem starts on the inside. We harbor bitter envy while we sing on the worship team, lead a small group, serve on a task force, and perhaps even when we stand and preach. To “harbor” something means to give it a safe place to stay. Because this is a problem of the heart, it’s hard to spot. Proverbs 4:23 offers a command we need to take seriously:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

Jesus probably had this verse in mind when he said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). This verse cuts both ways. Whatever is on the inside will eventually come out—whether good or bad.

If you think angry thoughts, angry words are sure to follow.
If you fill your mind with sexual fantasies, you will find a way to fulfill those desires.
If you dwell on your problems, they will soon overwhelm you.
If you feel like a victim, soon you will become one.
If you give way to worry, don’t be surprised when you can’t sleep at night.
If you focus on how others misunderstand you, you will soon become angry and bitter.

Whatever is on the inside will come out

What goes in must come out. Sooner or later your thoughts translate into reality. You’re not what you think you are, but what you think, you are.

Its Origin

“Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil” (v. 15).

This is a scary verse.

When you’re in the midst of a battle over a staff hire or a new program or a financial deficit or something the pastor said or music you don’t like, when people are unhappy, voices are being raised, and people are posting things on Facebook and Twitter, when church members are shooting at you, you don’t have time to worry about being nice. You just start firing back.

There’s no fight like a church fight

That’s natural. It’s the way of the world. If you attack me, I attack back. There’s no fight like a church fight. In the house of the Lord, we know how to pray and sing and worship, but we also know how to attack each other.

Church fights turn ugly because so much is at stake. This is God’s work! That’s what we tell ourselves. So we’re ready to fight and die, not just for the Bible or the testimony of Jesus, but in order to keep the “bad guys” from singing some new chorus that doesn’t measure up to “A Mighty Fortress.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the church is the place where our dreams are shattered—and that is a good thing. Everyone comes to church with a certain set of expectations. New believers often enter the church hoping to find a little bit of heaven on earth. We expect our brothers and sisters in Christ to treat us better than the people of the world. Sooner or later we discover the saints are not always saintly, and the people of God are not always godly. They can be cantankerous, mean-spirited, unkind, and sometimes downright cruel.

So what’s the scary part of this verse?

Church is the place where our dreams are shattered

James reminds us that if we aren’t careful, in our determination to win the argument, we will end up doing the devil’s work. Note that the translation puts “wisdom” in quotes. When we are angry and in a fighting mood, we’ll say things and do things that seem wise to us because we’re doing God’s work, or so we think. We gossip and criticize and impute bad motives and threaten to leave if we don’t get our way.

There is a “wisdom” that is earthly, meaning it comes from human reason, not from God. It’s the “my way or the highway” approach that takes no prisoners, crushes the opposition, and then brushes it off by saying, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” That wisdom is also unspiritual, which means it appeals to human reason and human emotions. When you are upset, you say things you would never say otherwise. You justify unkindness by saying, “They made me do it.” No, they didn’t. You did that on your own.

Satan loves a good fight!

But that’s not the worst of it. James says this so-called “wisdom” comes from hell. It is demonic because it comes hissing from the pit. Satan loves a good fight because he can get normally polite people to forget their Christianity and treat others like dirt. As the accuser of the brethren, Satan loves to get the sheep throwing manure at each other. Unfortunately, he often doesn’t have to work very hard at it. William Barclay offers this warning:

“There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever; he has an acute brain and a skillful tongue; but his effect in any committee, in any church, in any group, is to cause trouble, to drive people apart, to foment strife, to make trouble, to disturb personal relationships. It is a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that that man possesses is devilish rather than divine, and that such a man is engaged on Satan’s work and not on God’s work.”

James adds a sobering note when he warns against boasting and being “false to the truth.” The worst lies are the lies you tell yourself. Here is the ultimate narcissist. He cannot be corrected because he will not listen. His arrogance blinds him to his own sin. For such a person there is no solution except to put him out of the church so God can speak to him in his spiritual desolation.

Its Outcome

“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (v. 16).

Christians have never been very good at fighting fair. We let small disagreements become major issues, and we elevate secondary matters to the level of the deity of Christ. Our bitter arguments eventually become more important than Jesus.

They put an end to Christian peace.
They cause the church to turn inward.
They destroy the work of God.
They turn new believers away from the church.
They dishonor the Lord.
They grieve the Holy Spirit.
They stir up sinful tendencies on all sides.

Christians sometimes don’t fight fair

They cause weak Christians to give up the faith in despair.
They force people to take sides on things that are not commanded.
They injure the testimony of the church.
They confirm the criticism of skeptics that the church is full of hypocrites.
They cause the enemies of the gospel to rejoice.
They send the message to the world, “God loves you, but we hate each other.”

In the end, these things destroy the church. Bitter envy and selfish ambition are a kind of “heart disease” that destroys the body of Christ from the inside out. I ran across an article by Douglas Wilson called The Genesis of Church Splits. He points out the basic problem is envy—misdirected desire. We want something we don’t have—power, influence, authority, position, recognition. Unhappy church members want what they don’t have and so they gossip, spread rumors and pick fights, like crazed rats trapped in a maze. Envy, he says, is particularly potent in the realm of religious politic because envy knows how to disguise itself in a cloak of religious piety.

“Envy can readily appear as a zeal for orthodoxy, or righteous indignation, or a concern for the poor, or high musical standards for the choir, or as missional concern. But however it appears, it is quickly and necessarily the source of conflict.”

What happens when envy combines with selfish ambition in the local church? First, you have disorder. Other translations use words like “confusion,” “chaos,” “disharmony” and “insurrection.” We know Satan loves to stir up trouble. So it is no surprise that when these devilish sins are present, the church is in a state of constant turmoil. People fight, they fuss, they fume, they gossip, they disagree disagreeably, they are ready to believe the worst, and the work of God grinds to a halt.

Envy cloaks itself in religious piety

Second, you have every evil practice. Because the church is a body, when any part gets sick, the whole body suffers. Trouble in the choir leads to trouble in the women’s ministry leads to trouble in the Awana program leads to trouble on the elder board. Just as disease makes the whole person sick, very soon the whole church body is ill.

If we stand back and look at these three verses, we can see a clear progression:

What starts with wrong heart attitudes (verse 14),
Leads to actions that are earthly, unspiritual and devilish (verse 15),
Which plunges the church into disorder and widespread spiritual sickness (verse 16).

Our hearts are not filled with Christ

These things happen because our hearts are not filled with Christ but with our own sinful desires. That much is obviously true. But we can go further than that. These things must happen in order to purge the church. Sometimes we have to get sick in order to get better. 1 Corinthians 11:19 informs us church strife happens so God can show which side he is on. Even though God loves all his children, he does not bless everything they do. Church conflict exposes evil attitudes that must be confronted and dealt with through confession and repentance.

When the conflict rages inside any church, it can be hard to remember Jesus is still the Lord of this fractious, fractured, unhappy body of believers. But it is precisely at that moment – when tempers flare and foolish things are said – that we must reaffirm our faith that Jesus is still leading us.

Good theology can save your life

Good theology can save your life.
It can also save your church.

In those moments of conflict, we must do the right thing in the right spirit. We must not fear what others say or do. If we care about the church, we will “teach, rebuke and correct” (2 Timothy 3:16), always remembering that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). We must at the same time fall on our faces before the Lord and confess our own sin.

We are not guiltless.
We are not free from envy.
We have our secret ambitions.
We harbor resentment.

We’re all messed up!

If we are honest, we must admit we are all messed up to one degree or another. In our best moments, we are still sheep who love to go our own way. That’s why I come back again and again to Luther’s 95 Theses, nailed on the wall of the Castle Church in Wittenberg 500 years ago. Thesis # 1 speaks with clarity across the centuries:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”

We make a huge mistake if we assume repentance is a one-time thing we do when we first trust Christ. Every believer needs daily repentance because we sin every day. We go back to the blood of Christ again and again, claiming the merit of our crucified Savior as the ground of our forgiveness and our only hope of heaven.

When the big guns blaze, we must repent even more

When the big guns blaze, we must repent even more.
When passions rise, repentance must rise higher.
When disorder abounds, God’s people must go to their knees.

Calling All Beggars!

When James warns us about worldly wisdom that destroys Christian unity, he’s not asking us to point the finger at someone else.

First, look in the mirror.
First, consider your own heart.
First, take the log out of your own eye.

We are all beggars

Thirty years after Luther posted his 95 Theses, he scribbled his final words on a scrap of paper:

“We are beggars. It is true.”

This is bad news for the proud but good news for the humble. We could heal almost any church split if the beggars would meet at the foot of the cross. The call is always individual and personal. When beggars come in repentance, they are healed by the blood of Jesus.

Great churches lose their way when Christians lose sight of the Head of the Church. Disconnected from our Lord, we are capable of all sorts of evil. Without the wisdom of Christ, envy and selfish ambition quickly take over.

We need Jesus more than we know

Jesus revealed the problem and the solution when he said, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We will never be the right kind of men and women without his help. It is more than just following his example. We must come to him, bow before him, and cry out to him for mercy and forgiveness and the strength we need.

 Without Jesus, we will fight and bite and destroy each other. That’s what James is telling us. I invite you to join me in praying this prayer as a response:

 O God,

Baptize my lips.
Cleanse my heart.

 Deliver me from envy and selfish ambition.
Make me like Jesus, whatever it costs, whatever it takes.
Do it, Lord. Begin right here, right now, in my heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?