“Idolatry” is not too strong a word to describe what occurs in our hearts when strong, self-serving desires reign within and create conflicts with others. It is our natural tendency to pursue the fulfillment of these pleasures independently of God—“You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). As Hiebert writes in his commentary, “Instead of turning to God as the Giver of every good and perfect gift (1:7), they [and us] attempt to satisfy their gnawing wants through their own efforts. Their approach is self-centered and worldly. Instead of wrestling with God in prayer, they wrangle bitterly with men.”
Because not all desires are evil, it is legitimate for us to pray to God regarding them. However, good desires easily become evil when we satisfy them ourselves in a fleshly manner apart from seeking God’s will. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4:2-3). Consequently, growing in holiness requires an increasing awareness of the hidden lusts of our hearts that motivate us to do what we do. As we become aware of these self-glorifying motives we must repent of them and yield to the Spirit’s ability to completely renovate our desires by replacing them with an all-consuming desire to please God. Like Paul, we need to make this our highest ambition: “Whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor. 5:9).
Employing the razor-sharp scalpel
One of our tasks in counseling is to help one another look beneath our conflicts to identify the self-serving motives that seek preeminence within us and then work themselves out in multitudinous attempts to exalt ourselves above others. There will be no lasting growth in godliness if we fail to expose the sinful longings of our heart (what truly motivates us) and thus identify what it is that we crave so badly that we are willing to displease God (and murder others in our heart) in order to get what we want. However, since our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9) only the scalpel of the Word of God can do this necessary heart surgery (Heb. 4:12). Once the Spirit uses the Word to point His convicting finger on our sin—thoughts, actions, and desires—we must immediately repent of them and make pleasing God our chief pursuit.
Our life in Jesus is now our only life
We do this as Christians—please God—not to be accepted by God, but because we are already accepted by God in Christ (Ephesians 1:6). God is already pleased with His Son, Jesus, who is now our life, our life is now hidden in Him (Colossians 3:1-3). We have no life outside of Him. And the grace that saves us continues to sanctify us, “instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires [put off] and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age [put on]” (Titus 2:12). However, this sanctification will not take place without us “applying all diligence” in the putting on of Christlike character and virtue (2 Peter 1:5-8).