The Cause Of Our Conflicts - James 4:1-3

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Sadly, conflict is often a companion in life.  We may find conflict at home, with our friends, in the workplace, and with neighbors.  Sometimes conflict reaches ridiculous proportions.

Paul Loetz took a bad fall that left him with a punctured lung, broken ribs, and internal bruising. Lying in an emergency room, barely conscious, he probably thought things couldn’t get much worse.

They did.

As he looked up from his hospital bed, the two doctors responsible for his care began arguing over who would get to put a tube into his crushed chest. The argument became a shoving match and one doctor threatened to have the other removed by security police.

“Please, somebody save my life,” Loetz pleaded as doctors fought over him.

The two doctors were arguing over procedure. While they were debating two other physicians assumed responsibility for the patient and saved his life.

Hard to believe isn’t it? Needs ignored while opinions are disputed?

It’s hard to believe that the patients needs were ignored while two doctors argued over who was right.

Sadly, we have too often seen this same kind of conflict enter the church. Things happen, people become upset, people choose sides and eventually the body of Christ is divided yet again.  While this is going one a sick and dying world pleads for someone to show them the way to true life.

Many people have dismissed the message of the gospel because they have been caught in the crossfire of a church conflict.  Others have been so bruised and battered that they refuse to serve in the church and keep everyone at a distance. James saw the seeds of division on the horizon for the infant church.  As we begin James chapter 4 James addresses the issue.

The Cause of Conflict

James begins with a question: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” The question is a diagnostic question: “What is causing the fights and quarrels?  How does such a thing happen among God’s people?”

Our Response: If James were asking us this question we would almost always answer the question the same way. We would say, “So-and-so did Such-and-such”. In other words, we usually see conflict as the other guy’s fault.  In fact, if James were to ask two people on opposite sides of the conflict this question, they would most likely both blame the other person!

There may be times when a conflict was solely the fault of another person.  But that happens far less than we seem to think.  We always feel like the victim (and we often are happy to tell others this very thing, even while we are marshalling their support for battle!).

What God says The Spirit of God speaking through James diagnoses the problem differently,

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.

James places the responsibility squarely at our doorstep.  He says that fights and quarrels (wherever they are) generally come because of the sinful desires of our hearts.  In our book DIFFICULT PEOPLE we contend that the first step in dealing with the difficult people in your life is to start with the difficult person in your mirror!

The word for desires in verse one is the word “hedonon” which is the source of our English word “hedonism”.  Hedonism is the term that describes a mindset and lifestyle that views pleasure as the chief goal of life.  Pleasure becomes the god of these people.  It is what motivates them in life; it is what they live for. This is this Me-first mentality of the wisdom of the world that we saw in chapter 3.

James says conflict comes when we become frustrated in our attempt to obtain the pleasures of the world.  James said this frustration led them to “kill and covet”.  Most likely they were not really murdering each other but they had a murderous or hateful spirit toward each other. (Jesus said, when we hate we are, in a sense, committing murder). Our frustration in life creates an attitude ripe for conflict.

A boy once asked, “Dad, how do wars begin?”

“Well, take the First World War,” said his father. “That got started when Germany invaded Belgium.”

Immediately his wife interrupted him: “Tell the boy the truth. It began because somebody was murdered.” The husband drew himself up with an air of superiority and snapped back, “Are you answering the question, or am I.” Turning her back upon him in a huff, the wife walked out of the room and slammed the door as hard as she could.

When the dishes stopped rattling in the cupboard, an uneasy silence followed, broken at length by the son when he said, “Daddy, you don’t have to tell me any more; I know now.”

Next week we will look at the rebuke James gives for the worldliness of the people of the church.  This morning, however, we want to look at how this selfishness or self-absorption, envy and coveting cause conflict.  They produce conflict because,

We become so obsessed with the desired pleasure that we don’t care who we have to trample to get to our goal.

Every discussion becomes a contest with a “winner” and a “loser”.  In our desire to “win” we may become vicious and trample others.

We strike out at others in our frustration even though the other people have little or nothing to do with our frustration.

We jump to conclusions and strike out before we have all the facts or understand a situation

We feel the need to endlessly correct other people over minor things as our way of showing our superior intellect.

We are unwilling to wait for others to reach the same conclusion we have reached.

We resent (and diminish) the good fortune of others our of jealousy

Do you see any of these things in your life?  Be honest with yourself.  Look back on a recent disagreement or fight and ask: “What was MY responsibility in this conflict?”  If you are honest, you will be surprised and humbled as you look at your emotions and behavior and recognize the fingerprints of selfishness and envy.

The Antidote to a Contentious Spirit

Turn to the Lord James gives us a somewhat surprising antidote to this contentious spirit that resides within us.

You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

James says the antidote to contention is prayer.  Rather than trying to create happiness through worldly means, James tells us we should turn to the Lord. God is the giver of every good and perfect gift.  He is the source of all the blessings we crave.  He created the true pleasures of life.  He created love, satisfaction, contentment, joy, peace, fulfillment, and along gives us a true sense of worth.  When we seek these blessings elsewhere we will inevitably be frustrated.

Consequently, the closer we are to Christ, the more these needs are met. The more we turn to the Lord, the more we will come to trust His providence and timing and as a result we will not feel the need to “make things happen” through our own schemes.

Dr. Reuben A. Torrey, writes, “We do not live in a praying age. We live in an age of hustle and bustle, of man’s efforts and man’s determination, of man’s confidence in himself and in his own power to achieve things, an age of human organization, and human machinery, and human push, and human scheming, and human achievement; which in the things of God means no real achievement at all.“

James tells us that we don’t need some new formula or technique.  We don’t need some new government program. The surprising antidote to conflict is to stop relying on ourselves and put our trust and confidence in God.

Ask Correctly.  James anticipates a response many people would give.  They say, “I prayed once and God didn’t answer my prayers.”  Most likely the people James addressed had prayed for God to meet their financial needs during the time of hardship and persecution. When God did not give them what they asked for they were frustrated.

You may know what that is like. Perhaps you’ve prayed for a loved one who was sick; for a certain job; for a relationship that was broken; or some material need.  You’re your prayer seemed to go unanswered, you gave up on prayer.

James said the reason the prayers of the people were not answered was because they were praying with the wrong motives.  He said they were praying selfishly; for their own benefit.  Whatever they were asking for was something they desired to spend on their pleasures.

Those are weighty words. James says prayer goes unanswered when our motives are wrong. If we are honest we will admit that sometimes we try to use God to get what we selfishly want for ourselves!   Many of our prayers sound like we are placing an order at a fast food restaurant.  “Here’s what I want God . . . can I have it ‘to go’?”

The key to effective prayer is faith. Too often we think of faith as simply positive thinking.  We believe that if we have a positive attitude and great confidence then we will get whatever we want from God!  James wants us to understand that praying in faith is not about our determination but about coming to Him with a humble and submissive heart.  Faithful prayer is that which trusts God’s wisdom, timing, and sufficiency more than our own.

Faithful prayer is not a matter of telling God what to do.  It is an honest sharing of our desires (like Jesus did in the garden . . . He said, “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” In other words, He desired to accomplish God’s purpose without the pain) while at the same time trusting God’s wisdom, goodness, and timing more than our own.  Jesus added to His prayer “yet not my will but yours.”  Submitting to God’s will is not weak resignation; it is a strong declaration of faith.  It is based in the recognition that our desires are corrupt and stained by sin.  It is anchored to our belief that living in the Lord is our greatest blessing.  It is in our relationship in Him that we will find satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment.  Consequently we trust His wisdom and seek His will.

So when we pray for that person who is sick, we do so knowing that God can heal that person.  We come confident that God desires us to be healthy.  But at the same time we trust that the Lord may have a different plan in this case.  He may choose to magnify His grace through the suffering.  This may be the time He chooses to bring a faithful saint home (the ultimate healing). Or God may have some other purpose in delaying healing. Our challenge is to trust His eternal perspective more than our temporal view of things.

When we ask God to provide for a particular need we come to Him confident that He will supply all our needs. . . but He may not do it in the way we expect or in the timing we’d like.  That relationship we think is perfect; may not be.  That job we think is perfect; might be a disaster.  That frustrating circumstance that we believe must be removed from our lives may be just the thing we need to learn a vital lesson that will help us serve greatly in the future.  Faithful prayer trusts the Lord more than we trust ourselves.


As we read this passage there are a couple of things we need to grasp.  First, we need to see conflict as ultimately a spiritual problem.  Conflict generally happens because we have drifted from God.  Instead of trusting God’s timing, His purpose, and His wisdom, we try to force things and “make things happen.”  We usurp God’s role as Judge and Jury and presume to render judgments and dispense punishments toward people and circumstances with the arrogant assumption that we have all the information we need to make an accurate judgment.

God alone is all-knowing.  He is the only one qualified to judge fairly.  When we usurp His place, we engage in an idolatry that is most perverse.  We worship ourselves!

Sadly, we seem energized by conflict. Theologian Frederick Buechner writes,

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back; in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you”

Second, we need to take responsibility for our part in the conflict. When Conflict threatens, we are wise to ask ourselves some questions,

Am I jumping to conclusions?  Is it possible that I have misjudged a situation?  Is there possibly another explanation for what a person is doing or has done?  (Isn’t it possible that that person pulled out in front of you because they didn’t see you?  Isn’t it possible that they are a new driver or even an elderly driver and their depth perception is not very sharp?)  Is it possible that the person who offended you did so because he is troubled, distracted, or overwhelmed by something in life and their action is more a cry for help than a call to war?

Am I being insensitive? Should I give someone a break because they are having a bad day, under a lot of pressure, or battling some kind of sickness?  Should I let an issue go because I am the one having the bad day and everything is distorted in my thinking?

Am I being selfish?  Am I angry simply because other people are not responding the way I think they should respond?  Am I trying to impose my agenda on someone else’s life?

Am I making a judgment that is God’s to make?  Am I judging a person’s motives? Am I declaring a person to be in error simply because they don’t agree with me?  (Are you really the standard of truth?)  Am I guilty of drawing conclusions without sufficient information?

Am I engaging in a “power play”?  Is this conflict caused because of my desire to gain control or influence?  Am I trying to demonstrate my significance by pressuring others?  (Shouldn’t God be the one in control?)  Am I simply being stubborn because I want to “win”?

Am I expecting someone to read my mind?  Am I upset because someone didn’t do something that I wanted them to do . . .even though I never told them of my expectations?  Is it really fair to assume that the other person knows what I want?

Is it possible that I am wrong and the other person isn’t trying to be difficult but is just trying to help me get back on the right path?

As long as we are on this side of Heaven there will be conflict.  Our challenge as believers is to contend for the faith (the truth of the gospel), without fighting over personal offenses.  Usually we turn that around.  We shrug at the perversion of the truth but are ready to go to war if someone takes our parking spot!

When conflict comes into our lives we have a choice: we can allow it to destroy or we can use it to grow deeper in Christ.  We can strike back or we can turn to the Lord in prayer.  We can try to “force things” or we can rest in God’s wisdom.  One way leads to turmoil, the other leads to a peace that passes understanding. One way will push people away in anger; the other will draw them close in love.  One way will push people away from God; the other will draw them close.  James calls us to choose the better way.

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