As Karen Carpenter pondered the painful moments of being in and out of love, her mellow voice cried out, “Can’t we stop hurting each other?” Instead of building each other up, our sinful nature often leads to “making each other cry, breaking each other’s heart, tearing each other apart.” Why is that?
James 4:1-3 gives us the reason: What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
The Source of Conflict Is within
James answers his own question about the source of habitual quarrels. They are caused by inward pleasures. The Greek word is the same as that from which we get our word “hedonism,” which “denotes the enjoyment derived from the fulfillment of one’s desires, or, as here, the craving for the pleasure itself…the yearnings of self-love.” [Hiebert] Earlier in his letter, James reveals the origin of sinful temptations as the enticement of our own lust (1:14).
Scripture never allows us to shift the blame for our sin to anyone else. Our sin is always our responsibility. Regrettably, unlike Moses, we often choose “the passing pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25) because self-exalting pleasure is exactly what our heart craves.
These self-centered desires “wage war” in our bodily “members” (cf. Jas. 3:6). They cause great conflict inside of us, which then spills into our relationships with others. Harry Ironside defined these strong desires as, “unrestrained and unlawful desires struggling for fulfillment in our very being.” Hiebert identifies these passions as “conflicting cravings, which throw the individual into inner turmoil, [they] are the expressions of the believer’s old nature seeking self-satisfaction.”
In other words, deep within the human heart are self-loving desires that are so strong and so determined to be satisfied that, when thwarted, lead to conflicts with those who get in the way of their fulfillment. “You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (4:2). These desires then become idols of the heart which, if not repented of, easily produce resentment and bitterness toward fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. “Resentment, bitterness, and self-pity build up inside our hearts and eat away at our spiritual lives like a slowly spreading cancer. All of these sinful inner emotions have in common a focus on self. They put our disappointments, our wounded pride, or our shattered dreams on the thrones of our hearts, where they become idols to us.” [Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness]
Learning to ask the “Why” Questions
Unlike Karen Carpenter, who did know how much we hurt each other, but “without ever knowing why,” the Scriptures expose the why of what we do. Our resident lusts continually beg to be worshipped. And when others refuse to bow down and serve them, and keep us exalted to where we think we belong, our flesh is willing to wage war to get the respect we think we deserve. This is nothing short of idolatry. Until we learn to ask the why questions, we will never get to the root of our sins. Until we begin to see the hidden motives of our hearts, we will fail to see how Christ came to set us free from the “sins of the heart” just as much as our outward, habitual sins. And we will be less helpful than we could be in counseling one another.