What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.James 4:1-12 NIV
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
James’ warnings about faulty wisdom in 4:1-5 apply to his two questions, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” and “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” Overall, James’ letter addresses three sources of troubles and temptations:
▪ Fights and quarrels come from the flesh (4:1-3); they are unspiritual (3:15).
▪ Friendship with the world and its wisdom means enmity with God (4:4); they are earthly (3:15).
▪ Others arise from demons and the devil (4:7-10); they are demonic (3:15).
Troubles and Temptations
James points out sins, also called ways of the world. Believers commonly struggle with old habits of sin. They must be abandoned by applying true wisdom to produce new works by faith.
Discontentment: James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask God … you ask with wrong motives.” He addresses the sin first seen in Adam and Eve (1). Discontent tempts us when we are not given what we decide we want or think we deserve. Discontentment claims God owes us or does not know what is best. Unchecked, it leads to taking as our own something forbidden to us or not yet offered to us. Any grumbling and complaining signals the presence of this sin.
Anger: The “killing” James condemns here and in chapter 5 reinforces Jesus’ teaching called the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus equates anger toward a fellow believer with murder (2). Elsewhere in the Bible, John calls out hatred as murder occurring in the heart (3). Prejudices, gossip, grudges and threats of revenge stoke anger’s flames. Hateful and angry words can, in fact, lead to physical violence, suicides and murders, causing disasters among families and communities.
Adultery: James echoes Old Testament imagery when he speaks of “adulterous people.” These people have spiritually gone outside God’s covenant to find contentment in lies, sin or idolatry (4). James’ charge against “friendship with the world” does not refer to friendships with unbelievers. The phrase refers to active pursuit and enjoyment of sin. In other words, embracing sin means loving the ways of sin, the ways of the world. Such ongoing devotion to our “former ways” denies the gospel’s power to transform.
Those James calls “enemies of God” deny His rule over their personal speech and deeds. Their hostility toward God is incompatible with the words they speak to profess salvation. If we freely embrace the ways of the world, we betray what James in 1:27 calls, “the religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless.”
To recap, James cites several examples of sin to prove that troubles among Christians are evidence of our lingering sinful natures. After identifying our problem, James provides our solution. We need to humbly examine ourselves. When we do, God often shows us that we – not others – are the ones who act as the main obstacle to resolution.
The Solution to our Troubles and Temptations
How do believers overcome troubles and temptations? James gives three commands in verses 6 through 10. These words are for believers who have gone astray.
Submit yourselves to God – God loves His people. He longs for each of His children to fully enjoy fellowship with Him in new life. The resurrected Lord and Savior Jesus Christ first revealed the new humanity (5). God promises believers will become like Jesus (6). All believers will someday fully glorify God. We will live apart from the presence of sin. Until then, believers experience the best of human dignity and purpose by living in submission to God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Resist the devil – The devil is a created being under God’s sovereign control. He is not omnipresent; he cannot be every place at once. He extends temptation through demons, but they cannot be everywhere either. Jesus Christ gave the best example of how to resist the devil. Before Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, He spent 40 days fasting and in prayer (7). He submitted Himself to the Father and sought to do His will. When the devil came to Him, Jesus depended fully on God’s Word, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to resist temptation to sin. He did not rely on worldly wisdom, His physical senses, His emotions or the needs of His flesh.
Draw near to God – God welcomes repentance. We submit our lives in voluntary devotion to the holy, pure, loyal, loving and good God. Our salvation includes God’s promise to draw near His children in full fellowship. How do we draw near to God? We draw near at the cross, where God has already drawn near to us. Here, God greets humbled sinners, and we experience His love, grace and mercy. Are you drawing closer to God or drawing closer to sin? Do you depend on God’s Word and faithful friends to help you resist temptation?
Resolving Troubles requires Wholesome Speech about Others
These commands about right relationship with God are matched with commands about right relationships with other people in verses 11 and 12. Specifically, James brings up another speech issue: slander. Slander is “against the law” because it is “false testimony” (8). By definition, slander is a false word about another person intended to damage their reputation.
Slander says false things to bring about a judgment on someone, a judgment we decide that they deserve. We recognize the power of slanderous tongues whether in words spoken privately or through global news and social media. We may try to impose our will over other people’s identities and destinies; however, God alone is the “Lawgiver and Judge.”
Q1. What does James pinpoint as the root cause of fights and quarrels, and what is the solution he offers?
INSIGHTS: Answers will vary, but relate to our ongoing struggle with our old sin nature (the flesh), the world and evil. The root cause of sin struggle is pride: believing our way is better, believing we are better than others. James says the solution is to humble and submit ourselves to God, come near to Him and repent by His grace through faith.
Q2. Which of the sins addressed in verses 1-5 tempt you or have hindered your relationships?
Q3. How might applying the truths here about humility and submission change your interactions with God or others?
1 The fall: Genesis 3
2 Anger: Matthew 5:21-22
3 Hatred: 1 John 3:15
4 Spiritual adultery: Exodus 34:15-16; Isaiah 54:5
5 Resurrection: Romans 8:19, 28-30; 1 John 3:2
6 Holy Spirit’s work: 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 3:20-21
7 Christ’s Wilderness temptations: Matthew 4:1-11