When Christians Quarrel

James 4:1-10

Rev. Bryn MacPhaill

The title of this morning's sermon, "When Christians Quarrel", makes a judgment. The word "when" implies a certain inevitability to quarrels between Christians. And I think we all know this to be true. Has anyone here ever heard of a church that has never quarreled? . . . Neither have I.

A quick read of the first 10 verses in James chapter 4, and you might think James is jumping from subject to subject--from quarrels to prayer to worldliness to spiritual warfare to repentance .

I can tell you that James is NOT jumping between unrelated topics, but rather, he is giving us a systematic approach to diagnosing and resolving quarrels--quarrels between fellow Christians and between the individual Christian and God.

You might have already guessed that there was quarreling in the churches James was writing to since he devotes nearly all of chapter 3 to controlling our "tongue".

And since James' opening question is a rhetorical one, we understand that there is indeed a problem of quarreling. James asks, "What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?"(4:1).

If we were to look inwardly, at our own church, we may say "there are no quarrels here". But just before you are tempted to think this sermon may not address our situation, picture this: Someone suggests that we should change the time of our Sunday service . A group of people come forward and propose that we drastically change our approach to music . Another group wants to rearrange the sanctuary --move the pulpit, the communion table, etc. Another group lobbies that certain budget items be cut in half --beginning with Sunday school.

Is anyone's blood boiling yet? It doesn't take much to produce a quarrel--in a church or elsewhere. Well, James cuts to the chase. He doesn't mention any subject matter--the issues are secondary to James. The reason we fight, James tells us, is because our "pleasures" are waging "war in (our) members"(4:2).

He goes on to say, "You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel"(4:2).

What might have caught your attention there is the apparent accusation that there are murderers among James' readers. Some scholars have worked hard to entertain this possibility, but the evidence is thin.

What is likely is that James points to "murder" as the extreme end result of frustrated desire. James is warning them of the path they are on when they persist in quarreling. It is unlikely that James was fearful of actual murders resulting, rather he borrows the logic of Jesus that equates anger and hatred with murder(Mt.5:21, 22).

The best way then, to summarize the first 2 verses is to say that James is stating the problem and its cause . The problem is quarreling . And the cause of quarreling is selfishness . The cause is not "the budget". The cause is not "the choice of music". The cause is our sinful, self-serving desires. It is a difficult thing face our self-centredness, but that is exactly where James points to.

Now after saying all that, I realize that there is such a thing as a necessary quarrel . There are truths, namely the Gospel, that should be vigourously defended. But even when we have a "righteous cause", we must still heed James' warning and avoid a self-centred pursuit of this cause.

After addressing the problem of quarrels and how they are caused by selfishness, James moves to the topic of prayer.

We don't get what we want, so we should pray. We may even pray keeping in mind the promise of Jesus, "Ask, and it will be given to you"(Mt.7:7). But not even prayer guarantees results. Jesus qualifies His promises by telling us to pray for the Father's will(Mt.6:10), and to pray in His name(Jn.16:23). That is to say, when our prayers reflect God's agenda, and not our own, only then can we expect an answer.

James points out this very truth for us, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures"(4:3). In other words, when prayer just becomes another way of getting what we want, don't expect that prayer to be answered.

James goes on to rebuke his audience, calling them "adulteresses", asking "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"(4:4).

The use of the word "adulteress" is a common Old Testament metaphor. Being a faithful Jew, James uses the word to describe his readers unfaithfulness to God. When one chooses the ways or ideals of the world over God's ideals, 'spiritual adultery' is being committed.

And it is not as if James' readers, or you and I for that matter, consciously betray God and follow the world. We often don't intend any unfaithfulness to God, but as one commentator has pointed out, "when the Christian behaves in a way characteristic of the world, he demonstrates that, at that point, his allegiance is to the world rather than to God"(Douglas Moo, James , 144).

When we believe what daytime television says over what the Bible says, we demonstrate our unfaithfulness. When sports and leisure time greatly exceeds time given to the church, we need to ask the question, "Who do we have our allegiance to?".

And what is wrong with allegiance to worldly things? Our allegiance to things of a worldly nature are almost always self-serving. They are pursued to fulfill our desires. James cites selfishness as the source of our quarrels and this selfishness is perpetuated when we align ourselves with the world rather than with God. Selfishness not only sets Christian against Christian, selfishness sets the Christian against God.

James tells us how the Spirit of God "jealously desires us"(4:5). That is to say, God desires allegiance to Him . Our selfishness, however, stands in the way. But as Augustine has said, "God gives what He demands". Verse 4 makes it clear that God demands our undivided allegiance, but verse 6 encourages us by telling us that God equips us to be faithful to Him. James says that God "gives a greater grace"(4:6). Who does He give the grace to? "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble"(4:6).

As we move through this passage, we should begin to see an equation emerge. The equation begins with a problem . The problem is quarrels and disagreements .

The problem has a cause . The cause is selfishness and worldly desires . The result of all this--the result of our worldly desires, the result of our quarrels--is separation from God . Even as Christians, we experience broken fellowship with God when we pursue our worldly desires over His righteous will.

What is the remedy? Our quarrels, our self-centredness, separates us from God--What are we to do? Verse 7, "Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you"(4:7).

In some churches, ministers are reluctant to speak about the devil. And while I'm not comfortable focusing on the devil, I am compelled to preach about him when he occurs in the text I'm preaching on. The devil is not some fictional character. He is not some metaphor for the evil in the world. Jesus, the Son of God engaged the devil in a conversation--the devil is a personal being.

But before you become alarmed--before you think you might need to learn some sort of exorcism technique--listen again to the good news of verse 7, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you".

Now part of the problem is that we are often unaware of his presence. While some Christians are guilty of looking for the devil around every corner, Presbyterians are often guilty of pretending he isn't there.

The solution is straightforward: "resist". How do we resist the devil? Verse 8, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you". Resisting doesn't mean yelling and screaming at the devil, it means drawing close to God. Haven't you ever wondered why the devil would "flee" from you when you "resist"? Why doesn't he put up a fight?

The devil flees because our resisting means God is drawing near to us--and the devil cannot fellowship with God. The key then to spiritual warfare is not the elaborate binding of demons, but walking with God. Entering the presence of God is our remedy .

You may ask the question again, "How?". How do I enter the presence of God? How do I "draw near to God"?

James gives us the answer to this using distinctly Jewish terminology: "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 into gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord"(4:8-10).

The one word that summarizes everything I just said is the word "repentance". Repentance is the first step in drawing near to God(cf. Ps.32). Repentance is much more than saying you are sorry--it is a change of direction.

James' reference to cleansing one's hands means to change one's deeds. His reference to purifying one's heart means reversing one's disposition. To be "miserable", to "mourn", and to "weep" means to hate one's sin and sinful desires. James is not asking for Christians to be a group a depressed people, but he does want us characterized as a people who detest our own sin.

In many ways, the prayers of "confession" said at the beginning of the service is the most important time of our service. For we "draw near to God" by "humbling (ourselves) in the presence of the Lord". And the way we humble ourselves in the presence of the Lord is looking deep inside ourselves and confessing the sin within which God already sees.

Too often, we spend our time trying to exalt ourselves. We try to impress at work. We try to impress our peers. We even try to impress at church. We come here giving the appearance that everything is perfect. The Lord wants the opposite. He wants transparency--He wants humility. And when we do this, James promises that the Lord "will exalt you"(4:10).

The message of James is clear. If we persist in being led by our self-serving agendas, conflict with each other becomes inevitable as does broken fellowship with God.

Putting aside our self-serving agendas is not easy. The message the world gives is "look out for #1". And with everyone looking out for themselves, it is no wonder our society is in chaos.

And it's not as if the Lord wants us to neglect ourselves, He wants us simply to seek Him and promises fulfillment therein(Mt.6:33). "Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord and He will exalt you"(4:10).

As we approach the Lord's table and as we approach life, may we always desire the Lord's will, and not our own. Amen.