So far this month, we have talked about why God allows trials in our lives and the importance of our striving to control the words that we say. We learned together that sometimes we bring trials upon ourselves by making bad decisions and by giving in to sin. We learned that gossip is never good and that controlling the words we say means we always ought to strive to speak in love: never in condemnation. I imagine that, even after these conversations, we have still experienced trial because of our own decisions and maybe even still found it difficult to speak in love rather than condemnation. Perhaps there have been some major conflicts in our lives because of things that we have said or done. Perhaps conflict has come out of someone else’s action or ill-remarks.
We see conflict in our churches when one group disagrees with another or when one group constantly talks badly about another group for any reason. We see conflict in our homes when teenagers rebel or when parents are addicted to work. We see conflict among friends when one friend makes a mistake and the other refuses to forgive. We see conflict in marriages because couples stop pursuing each other. We see conflict in the government because people have different ideologies. We see conflict in religion because different truth claims are made. We see conflict among the nations because every nation is trying to be the greatest.
The conflicts in this world, in our nations, in our communities, in our churches and in our homes don’t begin on the surface level with what we see. They begin deep in the heart and in the soul. If we want to avoid unnecessary conflict and handle necessary conflict well in this life, we have to trace the origin of all conflict. We have to understand where it comes from at the deepest levels. Then, we have to commit to not be the source of any conflict, whatsoever.
Within James’ overall context, “Faith without works is dead,” he points to something else that kills communities, homes, churches, and nations. That is conflict. He asks the same question that we want to ask here: What is the source of conflict?
James 4:1-17 (HCSB)
What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.
Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously?
But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says:
God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.
Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.
Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring — what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.
Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.
Conflict among people
According to James, conflict among people or between people comes about because of our own desires that war within us. We, as people, desire things that we do not have. This leads to murder and it leads us to covet, but we still cannot get our way. So, we fight with one another or wage war. Every conflict in human history; every national conflict, every community conflict, every home conflict, and every conflict within the walls of the church can be traced back to a single cause: human desire.
Parents desire a peaceful atmosphere at home, so they punish out of anger when children are disruptive. One brother desires more attention, so he lashes out at his other brother. Some in the community want the community to be something that it’s not, and so they condemn everyone who disagrees. We desire to keep all of our money, so we sometimes condemn those who don’t have much and need the help. We desire that the church look perfect, so we gossip and condemn those we think are disruptive or imperfect according to our own standards.
It can be so easy for our desires to creep up and create conflict in our church family, at home, and in our community. While our desires are not always evil, they can create conflict when we are primarily concerned with fulfilling our own desires instead of considering the wants and the needs of others in our families, in our communities and especially in our churches.
Since James is addressing the church, we can know that selfishness is not a new thing that has penetrated our walls. He didn’t write this yesterday. This selfishness is dangerous to the church, but it is not new. Because we live in a sinful and selfish world, we must constantly battle against selfishness and it is a battle that will persist through our entire lives on this earth. No one is exempt. James says that we do not have the things that we desire because we do not ask. When we do ask, most of the time it is with motives that are entirely selfish, so that we might gain something for ourselves. We must concern ourselves with ridding ourselves of all selfishness; which in turn will rid us of our gossip and our condemnation of others, and will increase our understanding and our mercy toward others.
As we think about Christmas next week, we remember hearing that it is more important to give than to receive. This is absolutely true in all of life. We can’t look down on others because they don’t provide what we think they ought to provide, act the way we think they ought to act, are in a context that is different than our own, or for any other reason. We must place the desires and the needs of others before our own desires and needs. When we read Proverbs 29:7, we are faced with the reality that if we don’t consider the needs of those less fortunate than us or take the time to understand others in their current life context, then we are actually wicked in God’s eyes.
I find, then, that I am face to face with two options in my life. Either I can consider the needs and wants of others no matter their life context; or I can condemn them, gossip about them, accuse them, look down on them, and even refuse to interact with them. One way is the way of life and love. The other is the way of the wicked, the way of the world.
Conflict with God
Within this context of selfishness, James states that, “…friendship with the world is hostility toward God[.] So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy” (v. 4). To act in selfishness, whatsoever, is to act as God’s enemy.
Here is what this means in our lives: When we complain about anything because we think things ought to be different, we are God’s enemy and we prove not to have placed our faith in Him. To complain is to insinuate that we deserve more or better than what God has given us. If we are all sinners, then what we deserve is death. Every breath is an amazing gift; we don’t deserve that. If we gossip about others and speak condemnation on them, either in person or not, we actually act as an enemy of God. The only reason one might gossip is because he or she assumes that people ought to be just like them, and they assume to have authority to condemn others for not “doing things the right way.” To take part in the selfishness of the world in any way is to act as God’s enemy, because we make ourselves friends to the ways of the world.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we step into a place that is advertised as a church. The people claim to be God’s people and claim to worship God. Yet, we hear gossip as we listen to the congregation. We witness people arguing about what color the carpet should be. We listen as people complain about other groups within the church or the style of music. This group of people has claimed to be the church. It has claimed to love God, but has, according to the very Word that God has given, acted as God’s enemy. I pray desperately that this does not describe anyone within these walls. For, if we act as God’s enemy, why would He ever choose to bless us?
Here is the truth about selfishness in this world. If we are selfish, concerning ourselves with having our own way, focusing on everyone else’s mistakes, complaining about other people or things, or gossiping about other people; our focus is not on Christ. As imperfect people, we can be so good at distracting ourselves from Christ by looking down on others and raising ourselves up. We must strive to be selfless.
If we do not strive to be selfless, then we prove that the faith we claim to have is dead. We must remember that James is writing all of this within the context of a statement he made at the beginning of his letter: “Faith without works is dead.”
James then draws this idea out to make specific application. His challenge for us is to not criticize others. This letter was originally written in Greek. The Greek phrase, “Μη Καταλαλειτε,” (v. 11) is a phrase translated as “Do not criticize,” and literally means “Speak not evil.” We are not talking here about constructive criticism. Sometimes constructive criticism is necessary. We are speaking here specifically of speaking evil about other people. That includes empty criticisms, gossip, and any form of condemnation.
We can know this, then, because it is explicitly stated in the Scriptures that God has inspired: We cannot speak evil of anyone and also say we have faith in God. As soon as we speak evil against someone, we make ourselves God’s enemies. To speak evil against others is the way of the world and this way of speaking should not be a part of the life of God’s people. It is a source of conflict in communities, in families, and in churches. This falls into the category of controlling the tongue like we discussed previously.
Before we talk about anyone, we would do well to be sure that we are speaking in love. This is what honors God because God actually came to this earth to return sinful people to Himself. If His desire is to return sinful people to Himself, then we fail to represent Him when we speak evil of anyone because of what we perceive as imperfect or bad behavior. James tells us that there is only one lawgiver and judge. Who do we think we are if we think we have the right to condemn anyone in any manner? We simply are not God.
James applies this same idea to making plans. The truth is, we do not know what will come tomorrow. We need to strive to honor God rather than ourselves today. We need not be concerned with how we will make profits for ourselves in the future, but with honoring God as we live now. There is a decision to make today. There is an improvement to make today. There is a service to commit to today. There is eternal life waiting for us today. Since we do not boast in our arrogance or in our selfishness, when we see good that needs to be done and don’t do it today, we act as enemies of God.
All of this being said, we know that God gives grace to the humble and opposes the proud. It is because of our selfishness and the fact that we are so quick to condemn others that God yearns jealously for us. He wants to draw us to Himself, yet we act many times as His enemies. It is a good thing that God loves and cares for us and is jealous for us as imperfect people, because this is something we all struggle with every day. Even as I wrote this, I was thinking of people who needed to hear this message. That itself is wrong according to this section in Scripture because I was condemning others in my mind. I had to confess before presenting this message and I have a feeling that I am not the only one who needs to apologize to God. James tells us that if we draw near to God, He will draw near to us. We should weep and mourn at our selfishness, according to James, not rejoice in our sin. When we humble ourselves before God, He will raise us up.
Our desires cause conflict. They cause conflict because they can be fulfilled selfishly. Selfishness misrepresents God and actually makes us enemies of God. This carries over to even the way we talk about and criticize others. We must strive for selflessness in our churches, in our communities and in our homes.