Over the past 15 years three godly men have approached me and asked my permission to marry my three daughters. These men have ventured where angels feared to tread. In approaching me about my daughters—and Carolyn and I are very grateful that God gave them the necessary courage to do so—it was our joy to give them our blessing. We derive great joy from observing how they have cared for and led our daughters and our 12 grandchildren. Along the way, Carolyn and I had the privilege of participating in the premarital counseling for each of these couples. It was our responsibility to interrupt their romantic trance and to prepare them for some of the harsh realities of marriage that awaited them.
James 4:1-2 played a critical role in their preparation for marriage in their preparation for relational conflict in the context of marriage. It has served them well since their wedding day. All three couples have returned and communicated their gratefulness for the difference this passage is made in their marriages. Here’s what I discovered over the years: this passage is relevant not simply to those who are engaged to be married or for those who are married.
This passage is relevant to everyone.
It is relevant regardless of age.
It is relevant whether you are male or female.
It is relevant whether you are married or a single parent or a child.
It is relevant because we are all familiar with the harsh reality of relational conflict.
Perhaps you are in the midst of a relational conflict. If so, this passage, when understood and applied, can be a difference-maker in resolving conflict. If you don’t presently find yourself in an unresolved relational conflict, well, there is one awaiting you in your future. And I’m not talking about your distant future, I’m talking about your immediate future. Conflict is coming.
Carolyn and I sought to interrupt the romantic trance of our daughters and their future husbands prior to marriage and prepare them for their inevitable relational conflicts. In James 4:1-2, God himself interrupts our romantic view of life and graciously prepares us for conflicts, identifies the root issue in conflicts, and provides life-transforming wisdom for resolving conflict.
In his commentary on the book of Acts, John Stott wrote of the early church, “It wasn’t all romance and righteousness.” No it wasn’t. In our marriages, in our families, in our churches, in our workplaces: it will not be all romance and righteousness. And in this passage what we have is wisdom from above for the resolving of relational conflict. It’s wisdom from above for the promotion of relational harmony, whether it’s in a marriage or family or local church. So let’s discover the wealth of life-transforming grace and wisdom present in this passage.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” (James 4:1–2, ESV)
This passage is no flattering portrayal of the early church. Serious relational conflicts existed among the original recipients of this letter. Although they were genuinely converted, there was the distinct presence of relational hostility in their midst and the absence of relational harmony. Just note in verse 1: quarrels (plural); fights (plural). The plurals reveal that these quarrels and fights were not occasional, they were common.
James is addressing a chronic condition in their midst. And notice as well that James does not specify the nature of these conflicts. We could speculate as to the nature of these conflicts after reading the entirety of the letter. But James doesn’t identify the specifics of these conflicts. It is not necessary for him to do because the occasion or the circumstances involved are not of primary importance to James. They are not of primary importance to James because they are not the source or the cause of the quarrels and the fights. That’s good news for us, because regardless of the occasion in our life, for regardless of the circumstances in our lives, what’s taking place in the midst of our quarrels and fights and relational conflict, this passage remains relevant for each of us. James 4:1-2 was written not only for them but it was written for us as well. God was speaking not only to the original readers of this letter but God is kindly and authoritatively addressing us as well. In just a few words, James reveals the root issue of their conflict and provides them with a solution to conflicts. So few words! So much wisdom! So, what do we learn about relational conflict in these two verses?
WORSE THAN YOU THINK
First, we learn that relational conflict is normally worse than you think. It is normally more serious than we think it is, because in general, we have a sinful tendency to minimize the seriousness of conflict. In particular, I have a sinful tendency to minimize my role and responsibility. We are quite comfortable describing conflict with non-moral or non-objective generalities:
- We are just temperamentally different.
- Our personalities clash.
- We aren’t wired the same way.
- We have issues.
Somehow we are satisfied that these are insightful explanations for what is taking place. James won’t allow it. James will not allow a superficial assessment of relational conflict. James insists that we examine our quarrels and fights more closely and more carefully. Ultimately he insists that we examine our hearts. James leads us on a theologically-informed examination of our hearts and as we examine our quarrels and fights more closely and carefully, we discover that they are worse than we thought.
Notice in the passage the language of James: what begins as a quarrel at the outset of verse 1 is described as war within at the end of verse 1. What begins as a fight in verse 1 is described as murder and coveting in verse 2. Notice that James’ language doesn’t soften as the verse progresses. No, it strengthens because the verse begins with human observation of a relational conflict and it proceeds to a divine assessment of a relational conflict.
There is a divine perspective of conflict that is revealed in this passage, because quarrels and fights with each other reveal the presence of sin—not simply against one another but ultimately and most seriously against God himself. James is a wise pastor. He turns our attention away from the quarrels and fights, away from the occasions and the circumstances, and he directs our attention to our hearts.
As we contemplate this divine perspective we realized this while it is worse then we originally thought, there is good news in this discovery. There is very good news here because you will never make progress resolving a quarrel or a fight unless you first recognize the severity of a quarrel.
This is, in effect, theologically-informed instant replay for our hearts. If you watch any football game, no doubt at some point a coach will throw a flag onto the field. He is protesting the call of the official. He is arguing that the official did not get the call right. Then they go to the replay and watch the play in slow-mo, from every angle. Often at home we realize that the ref on the field did indeed miss the call. Then the referee returns to the field and overturns the original call.
This passage functions that way: it serves as theologically-informed instant replay of our conflict. So as we examine ourselves in light of what is revealed here in James 4, we throw the flag for instant replay on ourselves and where appropriate, return and say to someone we have sinned against: “upon further theological review, I realize what I said to you and how I’ve acted toward you is more serious than I originally thought.”
So, now we know, informed by James, that relational conflict is worse than we think, which helps us to realize we need God’s grace in the form of forgiveness and empowering for change. When we experience relational conflict it can feel complicated and difficult to figure out why this is happening, but James has another surprise in store for us: it is simpler than we think. More to come.
This post is adapted from a sermon I preached at Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville entitled Cravings and Conflict.