Why Can’t We All Get Along?

James 4:1-5

September 15, 2017 | Ray Pritchard

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It’s the question of the ages.
It’s a question as old as Cain and Abel.
It’s Rodney King’s question.

During the Los Angeles riots, Rodney King appealed for peace, saying, “Can we all get along?” That statement was often paraphrased as, “Can’t we all just get along?”

A question as old as Cain and Abel.

 Either way the answer seems to be no. Nothing has changed since Mr. King uttered those words 25 years ago. Recent events in America have reminded us that we are a nation divided by race, by culture, by religion, and most certainly by politics. We don’t agree with each other, often we don’t like each other, and sometimes we hate each other. The headlines are not reassuring:

“Two brothers charged in fatal stabbing.”
“One dead in school shooting.”
“Heated Argument Turns Deadly.”

“Heated Argument Turns Deadly”

But the problem is not confined to America. Every day brings news of a new conflict somewhere on this blood-soaked planet. Today it might be North Korea or Iran. Tomorrow it might be a border conflict between India and China. Who would be surprised to hear of another terrorist bombing in Paris or Berlin or London? Just now I saw this headline: “World War 3 Fears Rise.”

That makes the question of our text even more relevant:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” (James 4:1).

There are any number of hot spots where massive war might break out today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. But that’s only one part of the problem. Much closer to home, we see violent crime, muggings, drive-by shootings, child abuse, marital conflict, and lawlessness in the streets. It feels like the national blood pressure has gone up 100 points in the last year, and it shows no signs of coming down.

The national blood pressure has gone up 100 points.

Add to that the reality of conflict inside the Christian community. Too often we adopt the ways of the world inside the body of Christ. When the world watches believers bite and devour one another on Facebook and Twitter, it’s no wonder they want no part of our Christianity.

So where does all the strife and conflict come from? James wants us to think about three different battles that go on all the time. The first is the battle within, the second is the battle without, and the final and most important is the battle above.

Battle # 1: The War Within

“Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?(v. 1b).

James begins by revealing the true source of all conflict. In the words of the comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Why are we so unhappy? Why do we fight with others? Why do we keep getting in trouble? The answer is not “out there” but rather “in here,” on the inside, in the heart, where the real decisions of life are made. Put simply, we are messed up on the outside because we are messed up on the inside.

We are messed up on the inside

The word “passions” translates a Greek word from which we get the English word “hedonism,” the pursuit of pleasure at all cost. We want what we want when we want it, and we won’t be happy until we get what we want. Those “passions” are at war within us, making us continually miserable. It might be the desire for more money or a new house or a new spouse or an illicit sexual encounter. It could be a desire for dominance that makes us angry, hostile and ruthless. So we fight to get what we want.

One day a man saw Abraham Lincoln walking down the street with his two sons by his side. The boys were loudly fighting about something. When the man asked Mr. Lincoln what the problem was, he replied, “Just what’s the matter with the whole world. I’ve got three walnuts, and each boy wants two.”

Nothing has changed

Nothing has changed, has it?

Note what these passions do. They fight within us, making us miserable, frustrated and irritable because they whisper in our ear, “You deserve better. You’re being mistreated. Stop playing nice and go get what you want.” Those inner voices can be very seductive because they speak to us in moments of weakness, when we are tired or out of sorts or alone or feeling sorry for ourselves.

It’s a constant battle to stay on the right path and not to give in to the passions that cry out for a quick shortcut to happiness. Thus with the same mouth we curse and we bless. We love and we hate. We serve and then we steal. We proclaim Christ and then we lie to our friends. We read the Bible and then we watch dirty movies. We sing in the choir and then we have an affair. The manifestations differ, but all of us feel the struggle in one way or the other.

Battle # 2: The War Without

 “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (v 2a).

We need to take the word “murder” literally. Why do we kill each other? I kill you because I want what you have, and you kill me because you want what I have. It’s as simple as that. Jesus expanded the meaning in the Sermon on the Mount when he said that to hate your brother is to commit murder in your heart (Matthew 5:21-22).

 We murder with our words

We murder with our words.
We murder with our rumors.
We murder with our insults.
We murder with our lies.

Unsatisfied desire leads to deep resentment. The word translated “covet” means to boil with envy. This is particularly the sin of moderately successful people. Because we can’t stand to see others do better than us, we fight and quarrel and call names. Here are some symptoms:

When we secretly think we would have done better if we had gotten the right breaks.
When we temper our compliments with the word “but”.
When we gloat when someone gets caught because “they had it coming to them.”
When we can’t bear to hear our friends complimented in our presence.
When we are quicker to criticize than to praise.

It’s hard to see our own envy

Envy is a deadly sin precisely because it’s easy to see in others but hard to see in ourselves. David wanted Bathsheba, so he had Uriah murdered on the battlefield to cover up his evil desire. We think of David as having committed adultery and murder, which is true, but beneath it was uncontrolled desire that led to envy that resulted in terrible crimes.

Battle # 3: The War Above

“You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 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” (v. 2b-4)

There is a natural progression in these verses, but it is downward, not upward: First, there is self-reliance. “You do not have, because you do not ask.” This man doesn’t pray because he doesn’t have time, or he doesn’t think it makes a difference, or he feels like he can handle life on his own.

God is not a Celestial Bellhop

Second, there is selfish prayer. Here James is thinking about those times when we treat God as if he were a Celestial Bellhop who brings us coffee whenever we ring the bell. Have you ever thought about writing out your prayer requests? If we did that, we might discover most of our prayers are not worth praying.

Third, there is spiritual adultery. At first glance, we might think James is being extreme. Our text reads “You adulterous people!” but that’s not exactly what the Greek text says. It’s a feminine noun, meaning it should be translated “You adulteresses!” Jewish readers in the first century would instantly recognize this from the Old Testament. God repeatedly compared his unfaithful people to adulterous women who went chasing after pagan men. Judges 2:17 uses very strong language to describe the nation of Israel:

“Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them.”

It’s easy to see what spiritual adultery means when you talk about Israel going after the gods of the Canaanites. We all agree it’s spiritual adultery if you pledge your devotion to God and then start worshiping Baal. But that’s not exactly what happened in the Old Testament. The children of Israel went “a whoring” after other gods by adding those gods to the one true God of the Bible. That is, they worshiped Jehovah God and built Asherah poles. They worshiped the God of the Bible and erected “high places” in honor of Moloch and Baal. That’s the true spiritual adultery of the Old Testament. It was tricky because the people could say, “Us? Adulteresses? No way! We still worship you, O Lord.” They could even say, “You’re our #1 God. We just hang out with Baal on the side.” That’s like a wife who says to her husband, “Sure, I’ve got lovers, but you’ll always be #1 in my book.”

We like to think our anger doesn’t matter

We don’t think like that, which is why this verse sounds discordant to us. We like to think our anger doesn’t matter. Oh sure, we may harbor some bitterness, but who doesn’t? No one’s perfect. We still go to church, give our money, and sing the songs. Why get our feathers ruffled because we don’t play nice with others? We can talk all we want, but God sees right through our flimsy excuses.

When James speaks of “loving the world,” he’s not referring to the literal ball of dirt called the earth. He’s thinking of the “world system” that leaves God out. That “world” is selfish to the core. It operates on the level of pure human desire. That “world” has no use for God. That “world” is opposed to God and is destined for utter destruction (1 John 2:17).

How exactly does a physical affair happen? First, there is distance in the relationship. Then there is someone who comes along who pays attention to us. So we start spending more and more time with that person. We make an emotional connection that gratifies our needs. We start finding ways to meet that person clandestinely. Finally, there is the culminating act of adultery.

No Christian husband wakes up and says, “I think I’ll commit adultery today.” It happens so subtly that your unhappiness leads to estrangement that creates loneliness that opens the door to another person. One thing leads to another, and suddenly your marriage is in ruins.

It’s the same way in the spiritual realm. We never set out to be unfaithful to God. Far from it. But our God is a jealous lover. He wants our allegiance—body, soul and spirit. Spiritual adultery happens because we get our feelings hurt, someone betrays us, a friend mistreats us, and little by little, anger gets a foothold in the heart. From that “base camp” of sin, Satan can now attack in any direction he wants.

You can go to church and be God’s “enemy”

Meanwhile we have become the “enemy” of God even while attending church and going through all the motions. Our lust for pleasure has hardened into spiritual adultery. We are unfaithful to God even while singing his praises on Sunday morning.

Our Jealous God

What is the answer? How can we find our way back to God? How can an adulterous believer come back to the Lord? Verse 5 gives us the answer:

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”? 

Commentators call this the most difficult verse to translate in James. I believe it is a reference to the jealousy of the Lord for his people. When God gave the warning against idolatry in the Second Commandment, he enforced it with this truth:

“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).

We’re accustomed to thinking of jealousy as entirely negative, but there is such a thing as godly jealousy. It’s right for my wife to want my total faithfulness to her. It’s right for me to want the same thing in return. What would we think of a husband who said to his wife, “Go ahead and have an affair. It won’t bother me”? We would think he didn’t love his wife. A man who doesn’t care if his wife is faithful is a man who doesn’t really want to be married.

If the love is right, the jealousy is right

True love is jealous. If the love is right, then the jealousy is right. So what is it that God is jealous for? Our undivided attention, our exclusive focus on him.

Because God loves us, he wants our wholehearted devotion.
Because God redeemed us, he wants our grateful obedience.
Because God brought us into his family, he wants our loyal love.

Let’s come now to the bottom line. If the goal of your life is pleasure apart from God, you can have pleasure, but your life will be filled with conflict. Your emotions will rule your decisions, your anger will lead you to arguments, and you may end up actually killing someone. Don’t say it couldn’t happen. It can happen, and it does, all the time.

God yearns for our loyal love

How many of us have gotten in trouble because our anger led us to do something stupid? That’s exactly what James is talking about. I wonder how many marriages have been broken, how many friendships have ended, how many jobs have been lost because we lost our temper and said things we later regretted.

To our sorrow we have all proved the truth of this passage. Our uncontrolled desires lead us into conflict, our conflict hardens into anger, and our anger draws us away from God. In the end we become spiritual adulterers without even knowing it.

Fire in the Heart

Passion is fire in the heart. We need passion to keep us motivated. Passion gives us our drive. Passion gets us out of bed in the morning. By itself, passion is neither good nor bad. But fiery passion can bring warmth or it can burn the whole house down.

Passion is neither good nor bad

Fire in the fireplace—good!
Fire in the living room—bad!

Let me end by going back to a little phrase in verse 1 that I didn’t mention earlier. James speaks of passions that are at war “within you.”  Literally, it reads “in your members,” meaning in your body. Romans 6:13 tells us to “yield . . . our members to God as instruments of righteousness.” Spiritual victory will never be real for you until you make it definite regarding the parts of your body. Let’s talk about your eyes. Have you been looking at things this week that you shouldn’t be looking at? Let’s talk about your ears. Have you been listening to gossip, slander, filthy talk and coarse humor? Let’s talk about your lips. Have you used your lips this week for swearing, for anger, for bitterness? Are your lips yielded to God? What about your hands? Are your hands yielded to God or do you use your hands to grasp more of this world’s goods? What about your feet? Are your feet yielded to God or are they taking you where you shouldn’t go? What about the most intimate parts of your body? Are those parts yielded to God or are you using them for evil?

Yield your members to the Lord!

When your lips become his, your eyes become his, your ears, your hands, your feet, all become his, you know what’s going to happen? You’ll be his. You’ll be his wherever you go, and you will know spiritual victory.

One final question remains. If God requires this sort of devotion, how will we meet that standard? Most of us identify with these lines:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.

If the gospel means anything, it means God will take you just as you are right now, filled with passion, tempted by the world, having stumbled and fallen again and again. He yearns for your love, he calls you by his Spirit, and he will not let you rest until you find rest in him.

He gives more grace!

Aren’t you glad Jesus doesn’t leave us alone in our sin?
Aren’t you glad Jesus came for us?
Aren’t you glad he yearns for our devotion?

If you need one more piece of encouragement, here it is. James 4:6 says, “He gives more grace.” What a wonderful thought that is.

More grace when we are weary.
More grace when we are scared.
More grace when we feel trapped.
More grace when we have doubts.
More grace when we have messed up.

If you think you deserve grace, you can never have it.
If you admit you don’t deserve it, you can have as much as you need.

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love”

Let’s end by going back to Rodney King’s plaintive question: “Can we all get along?” The world says no because the world has no power to change the human heart. Only Jesus can do that. Christians ought to lead the way in bringing peace to this broken world. But we can’t do that until we repent of our own worldliness. When that happens the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi will be fulfilled: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

Lord, do whatever it takes to bring our passions into full submission before you. Send your Spirit to cleanse us from the inside out. Root out our love of the world and replace with a fervent, fresh love for Jesus Christ. We ask it in his name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?