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This morning, we’re going to be looking at James 4:1-10. As many of you know, it’s a passage on quarreling and fighting. The elders of your church beseeched me…nah, I’m just kidding! They didn’t say anything to me about this. It probably needs an explanation, though. The reason I want to bring this passage to you is because I’ve recently been thinking about quarreling, fighting, and anger. I’m not a naturally angry person. If there’s a problem, I tend to be silent. But there have been a few episodes over the past months that have captured my attention. Certainly, this is a passage which I know is relevant to many friends, but I would also suggest that it’s important enough that we should refresh ourselves on it every year. You may have heard it preached in the past year, but it’s worth refreshing.
James bundles a number of features of wisdom literature into this passage. He’s talking about the tongue, about anger, about conflicts, and about the fear of the Lord, and he’s bundling all that into what may be Scripture’s longest section on anger and quarrels.
Before we get into the passage, I think it’s important for us to be able to identify anger in our own lives, so that we’re not just thinking about people around us who need this. I guess the easiest way to begin is to ask: has anyone had a fight or quarrel over the last few days? I won’t ask you to raise your hand—okay, if you’re willing to raise your hand, that’s fine! But I don’t think I’m going to raise my hand over that one. Did anyone have a fight or quarrel over the last ten days? This is the reason why I’m thinking about this passage. I don’t often have fights and quarrels with my wife, but I did have one in the last ten days.
If that doesn’t catch you, know this: anger is a peculiar trouble. By its very nature, the person who is angry is blind. The more extreme their anger is, the blinder they become. This means that if you don’t think you have any struggles with quarrels, complaining, and anger, you should at least ask the person closest to you. They’ll know much better than you will.
If you live with angry people—who are yelling, screaming, and doing utterly obnoxious and hateful things, and think that they understand themselves and see what they’re doing, you’re wrong. The nature of anger is that angrier we are, the more certain of our rightness we are. If there’s anyone who’s wrong, it’s the other person. That is the peculiar, tricky, challenging nature of our anger. So, as we move into this passage, please recognize that this is something that hides. We see it in other people, but not in ourselves.
The quarrel that’s relevant to me as I think about this occurred when my wife and I were going on a brief, two day break. We were both really looking forward to it. As we were driving to where we were going, she was talking on the phone with a family member, and someone wasn’t sure which way they were going to turn—so I swerved around them. She was incredibly angry. She had her hands at her side. And I said, “I can’t believe you’re doing this! I knew what I was doing! The person wasn’t going to go in our lane and there was somebody behind me! Why are you doing that?” It makes complete sense, doesn’t it? Then she got off the phone, and this little time away had been ruined—for good reason, of course.
We began to try to talk about it. She said, “Why were you so angry?” And I said, “I wasn’t angry! I was just loud! Loud is different.” The angry person is blind to their own anger. They use all kinds of different euphemisms: “You’re angry.” “No, I’m just a little more demonstrative than usual.” The treacherous feature of anger is that it tends to hide.
The principle by which I was operating in the car was “An eye for an eye.” I assumed that she was making an arrogant statement in judgment of my driving abilities, which is typically one of the arch-enemies of men. So it deserved tit for tat. She was standing in judgment over me, so I was authorized to stand in judgment over her—but double! That’s the principle, and it seemed so right to me in the moment.
Listen to yourself. Do you notice profanity in your own mind? Do you notice silence as you turn away from others? Anger can have all kinds of different versions. Please recognize that you’re dealing with a covert, guerrilla-attacking enemy. When it’s in your heart, it’s hard for you to see.
With that in mind, let’s move into James. The passage is broken into three parts. I’ll try to capture James’ emphases in each. Of course, everything in Scripture is important, but there are times when some things deserve a bit more underlining, and I’ll try to capture that.
The First Emphasis: the Mirror
The first thing he does is hold up a mirror to us, and say, “Let’s look at ourselves. You’re much busier than you think.” One thing he’s not going to do is talk about the person with whom we had the quarrel. We never get to them at all. The mirror is for them, but for our own hearts, which are much more active than we realize.
The passage begins this way: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” This is about you. James recognizes this deceptive nature of anger, and he’s going to work diligently to help you see it. “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
James is telling us that we are people of desire. If you really want to understand who you are, ask yourself: “What do I love?” That is the fundamental way that the human heart is constituted: our affections and desires show us the things and people that are most important to us.
Notice the places in your life where you love comfort, peace, respect, the admiration of other people, appreciation, and being right. I have way too many personal illustrations for this. When my daughters were younger, I would have a fairly brief window for dinner on Monday evenings. I would come home, and then I’d have to go right back to work. When I came home for dinner, and we were starting to sit down, my daughters would be complaining about what we had for dinner. I had one daughter who hated anything that was green. There happened to be something green on her plate, and she was doing her requisite complaining.
On a typical day, I would ignore it. But this particular time—I was the king of my castle. I was the one who earned the bacon. I was the one who would be honored and respected as the patriarch of the home. My dinner table was not serving me the way I wanted to be served. The one thing that’s temporarily very effective is yelling, “Would you shut up?!” And they did.
You can’t do that all the time, because people get accustomed to that kind of language. Then you have to find louder language to do it. But that time, it was very effective. Immediately, the dinner table was silent. After the first bite or so, you realize that there are different types of silence. One silence is when you’re really enjoying your dinner. The other silence is an awkward tension. One daughter doesn’t like to cry in public, so she got out of her seat and went to a bedroom to cry. What could I do? I had to go after her, with James 4 in mind, and say, “Sweetie, please forgive me. What you saw was about me, not about you. It was about my own desires. I wanted things to go my way. Please forgive me. I know what it’s like for you. We both have a bad case of the ‘I wants’. We want something and don’t get it. You want a plate that’s not green, don’t get it, and then quarrel; I want everything to be just right, but don’t get it. Let’s pray that Jesus would help us.”
Where do fights and quarrels come from? It’s so easy to look outside of ourselves, but James is putting up a mirror. He’s talking about our desires, saying that they are murderous.
I have a friend who told me a story recently. As he was tiling his dining room floor, his 12-year-old son came in. He stepped on the tile, and said, “Daddy, what can I do to help?” Some of the tile began to move, after it had been so carefully placed, because the spacers hadn’t been put in quite yet. He erupted on his son: “Why is it that you mess up everything you do?!” You know how these things can go. Before the words even came out of his mouth, he knew they were horrible, murderous words, but they kept coming.
It was as if something had been taken away from his son as he watched—delight in his father, and a family where there is peace. He looked at his son, realizing that he was guilty of an act of murder, and confessed that to him. At the same time, when you murder someone, they don’t simply bounce back and say, “Everything is fine.” There’s a certain longevity to some of those consequences. The father knew that repairing his relationship with his son would take time.
James calls us “Beloved” throughout the book. Here’s what he is saying to his beloved people: “There are fights and quarrels among you.” Fights and quarrels in the Old Testament were one thing, but the Spirit of the living God has been given to us by the ascended Christ. One of the primary things he does is bring a motley group of people together, making them one. Now, fights and quarrels have an especially demonic kind of overtone, and there must be an urgency in the way that we attend to them.
Have you noticed that the Lord and our anger simply don’t co-exist? We don’t pray in the midst of our anger. Instead, we have turned away. Our own desires have become paramount to us.
There are things you want, but don’t ask for. James seems to be anticipating the one or two people who will say, “But I did ask.” He says, “Well, if you did ask, it was because you wanted God to be your errand boy—to somehow exalt your own desires when you weren’t getting your own way.” The Lord is not going to bless our turning away from him and our murderous ways. This is where James begins. It’s very, very important.
The Second Emphasis: Christ
However, it doesn’t seem to be his primary emphasis. Next, he says something very personal. He calls your attention from your own murderous hearts to (essentially) Jesus in the book of James. We’re not looking at the other person, with whom we had the quarrel. We’re asking, “What does this mean for our relationship with Jesus Christ?” This highly personal appeal is what James especially wants you to hear. In a sense, he’s already turned the lights on. Now he wants us to turn back and hear the personal God in Christ, speaking to us and wooing us.
Here’s the second section of the passage: “You adulterous people!” That doesn’t seem very personal, does it? Rather, it seems a bit accusational—but it is highly personal. It’s Jesus himself using the most precious and intimate language to say, “You are mine. You belong to me.” Don’t be mistaken: this is still James helping us to see our own hearts. But we live in this intensely personal world, where everything in life is before our God, whether toward him or against him.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ James 4:4-6
There’s a very helpful rule in Scripture: if you want to see something of your of your own love and affection for Christ, watch the way that you treat people. In fact, better yet, look at your most difficult relationships—the people who just bother you. That’s where you will see the reflection of your relationship with Christ. Don’t rely on catechisms to identify the nature and structure of your own heart.
Anger says, “The other person is the problem. I’m right. What does this have to do with God?” But this passage says something like: “Jesus has said to us, ‘You’re mine.’ As we come to him in faith, he attaches himself to us in the most intense words—these words of affection, love, and unity.” Our response in the midst of quarrels and fighting is to say, “Well, what have you done for me today? I have lots of wants and desires, and I’m not sure that you’re competent to accommodate them all. Is it any wonder that I move to other places and sources to satisfy my desires?” But Jesus is saying to us, “This is adultery.”
Perhaps you know something about adultery. You don’t realize, in the blindness of it, that it’s against another person. It’s just you doing what you want to do—until the lights finally go on, and you realize it was actually betrayal and hatred. This is highly personal. It’s more involved with our relationship with Christ than we realize.
Then he says, “Do you realize that in your arguing, complaining, fights, and quarrels, you have entered into an alliance with the world and the devil—a series of voices that essentially tell you that you’re right? ‘Yeah, absolutely! Look at that! That’s high-handed rebellion and hatred against you. You have to make a stand against it.’” It’s a little frightening that we have accomplices in this process—that the world and the devil are egging us on (as if we need any encouragement to do these things). Jesus is saying, “Spiritually, this is a highly personal event. You have committed adultery by betrothing yourself to your own desires. You have betrothed yourself to the world, the anti-Church. You have temporarily connected yourself even to the devil himself!”
Then James pauses and says, “Listen: in the midst of all this, Jesus is jealous for you.” Our God is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14). Jealousy can be nasty, but there can be something quite nice about it as well. Have you ever had anybody jealous for you? My wife had a boyfriend in high school, and I have never spoken his name. To me, his name is “the Pencil-Neck Geek”. If there’s an old picture that comes up, “There’s the Pencil-Neck Geek!” I’m not necessarily authorized in that, but you can understand why I’m jealous of this old boyfriend. I didn’t know her at the time, but I’m saying, “You’re mine, and no Pencil-Neck Geek is going to be able to have you!” It’s jealousy, but it’s a good kind of jealousy. Whenever I call him the Pencil-Neck Geek, she smiles a bit. It’s another way for me to say, “I really, really love you. I am so amazed that you are mine and I am yours.”
My daughter is a very sensitive soul. When she was 17 years old, there were two young men who were vying for her affection. I remember feeling so bad for her. Here were two guys who were both sort of hurt and jealous for her. I remember saying to her, “Lisa, how are you doing with this?” And she said, “Dad, this is great! I have not just one person, but two people jealous for me!”
This is our God. He even allows you to call him jealous. He’s saying, “Do you think I want to share you with another?” Do you see the intensity of his love in this? If I think another person has backed away from me, I’m simply going to be hurt. But there’s something almost embarrassing—even humiliating!—in pursuing them and saying, “No, come back! You’re mine!”
When I first told my wife that I loved her, I very carefully calculated whether she was going to do it back. It seems to me that there aren’t many things worse than saying to somebody, “I love you”, and hearing them say, “Hey, that’s very nice. Thank you very much.” There’s something humiliating in loving someone more than you have been loved by them. But that humiliation is cast away by Jesus. There is such boundlessness to his love that he is happy to say that he loved you first and loves you more. He loves you with his jealous affection.
This is the very center of James’ thought. Indeed, while he wants you to feel the weight of your murderous hearts, he wants even more for you to be smitten by the fact that someone is jealous for you. That jealousy can leave you in grief as you realize how you’ve betrayed him, but it must still leave a little tiny smile on your face. “Wow, that’s amazing. It’s the coolest thing ever that God himself would somehow be jealous for me in the person of Christ.”
The Third Emphasis: the Response
Then the passage goes on to a third part: now that we’ve witnessed jealousy and come to our senses in some way, he calls us to respond. The response has that wisdom literature rhythm. It’s full of short, pithy types of comments. Please don’t think that I’m laying the law on you. This is how it works. It’s only “the law” in the negative sense if it comes before Christ, where you have to do something. The rhythm is 1/2: first, we know the jealous God and are stunned by him; second, we respond to him. That’s what James is doing in this particular context. He says this:
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:7-10
James borrows from the entire Old Testament, but Proverbs especially. These pithy statements are intended to cause us to reflect. We don’t have enough time this morning to do such a thing, but just pause on them for a moment. When you think of submitting yourself to the Lord (which the entire passage is obviously talking about), what do you think? This passage is saying, “Get lower. Submit yourself. Your anger, quarreling, and waging war is evidence that you have somehow exalted yourself. You want nothing above yourself. Lower yourself.”
God is God. He is the sovereign creator of all things. In him, we live and move and have our being. We can do nothing apart from him. We are dependent on his love and patience, moment by moment. We are not God, so we submit to him. This passage gives you more specifics about that.
Don’t forget that there was a lot of action behind the scenes in these quarrels. Our own passions have run amok, but so have these alliances—these justifications that the world gives us: “Your desires are good. If someone makes a stand against you, make a stand right back.”
In other parts of Scripture, when you read a passage on anger and its family, Satan will be identified fairly quickly. The Apostle Paul does this in Ephesians 4: “Resist the devil.” The picture is one of both temptations and the occasion for our temptations. It may be quite a minor provocation, but someone is provoking you, and the provocation is best understood as a temptation for your heart. Will you throw in your lot with your desires, or will you make a stand with a jealous God?
Going back to some other things that James has said, these desires (which have run amok and seem so right to me) are actually pathways to death itself. We want nothing of them. We resist the devil. He’s another voice saying that your desires are good, and that person’s desires are wrong.
If I could offer one other emphasis in James, it would be here, in the way that James structures this particular discussion. I think he’s trying to get our attention.
Did you hear the word “jealous”? “Here are ways that you submit to the Lord: draw near to him. Come near to him.” You would have anticipated being thrown in the doghouse for a certain amount of time when you were caught in the midst of adulteries, but God says to come near. He is the God who is honored by our confession. He is honored as we turn away from desires and murderous activities and turn to him.
The Apostle Paul would certainly be an example of this. He was an actual murderer. Paul advertises that, because he’s saying, “If I, as an actual murderer, am invited to draw near by the Spirit, you will be too. You murderers, whom God seems to have a particular interest in, come close.” Who would have thought? The picture seems to be that as we come closer, there is this Lord—the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, yet abounding in love and quick to forgive. It’s as if the closer we get, the more glorious and vivid his love for his people, his eagerness to quickly forgive, and his peace and reconciliation become.
Will you draw near? Will you forsake your murderous desires, which will ultimately lead to your own murder? Will you turn to life himself? Will you turn to the one who is jealous for your own soul? Will you draw near? Here’s a place where it seems as though James is being very punchy, going right through this list, but this is a place where he says, “Just settle for just a moment. Draw near.”
There are all kinds of things in Scripture which we can turn to. There’s the son who is with the pigs. He recognizes that his father might take him on as a servant, so he draws near, and the enthusiastic father responds. Our own version of that, having known the gospel of Christ, is that when we move off into the pigs, he doesn’t invite us back as servants, but as his beloved children—or, as Jeremiah says in the ESV translation, as his “darling children”. He draws us back.
From there, knowing the one who forgives sins, we can move to confession of sin. We can move to simply asking forgiveness: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” We must recognize, along with David, that “Against you, you only, have I sinned”. Of course, we will ask forgiveness of humans like ourselves whom we have sinned against, but against God, and God only, have I sinned. It is God who I have turned against and made myself an enemy of. It is against him, the faithful one, to whom I have been a betrayer and an adulteress. You see, when you are close, and you see very clearly the love of Christ, and how forgiveness is so much more enhanced in his death and resurrection, there is comfort in being able to simply speak the truth before him.
Then we do a little wailing and mourning. The picture here seems to be, as you know, that there are different ways in which we deal with our sins. Sometimes, saying “Lord, I’m sorry” is more than appropriate. But there are other kinds of sins whose consequences are a bit more deleterious, and mortification is in order. The difference between mortification and repentance is that mortification extends our repentance.
This indeed, James says to us, is an occasion for mortification. You have been murdering people under the heading of your own rights—under the heading of some kind of vigilante justice. You have been murdering, most likely, the people whom you love the most. As a result, stay with this one. Do some weeping and wailing as you draw near. The weeping and wailing is not outside the temple precincts. It is with the one who has loved you. It is seeing face-to-face the one whom you have betrayed. We can say simply: “Holy Spirit, teach me. Show me my heart. Give me the privilege of seeing it accurately.”
Suppose you find yourself in a position where you’re arguing, complaining, quarreling, and fighting. This might be a place to go and ask forgiveness of the person, and then (a day or two, or even a week, later) ask forgiveness again! It’s not because you don’t believe that you’ve been forgiven. It’s because you’ve seen more of the treachery in your own sin. The other person might not even know what you’re asking forgiveness for, but you’ve hung with it and allowed the hardness of this to settle in just a bit. This is the way to be lifted up—to once again enjoy our closeness with God in a relationship that doesn’t have this turning away enmity to it; to enjoy peace and increased fellowship and communion with him; to begin to enjoy reconciliation with others; and to even be ambassadors of unity to our friends and loved ones, to the church, and to the world.
So, how should you respond? Well, there are all kinds of ways you can respond, but please allow the jealous God making the first move to you and drawing near to be primary within that.
As we continue to grow in these things ourselves, submitting these puffed-up desires before the Lord and casting them off, here’s something else that you might consider: you might be engaged in disarming other angry people—other quarrelers and fighters, whether angry children, angry spouses, or angry friends—because you recognize that there’s something murderous that brings division to your relationship with that person. You don’t want it to be, but the person has turned away from the Lord in their quarrels and their fighting. That’s the last thing you want.
I suspect that most of us are armed and ready to shoot, but we also people need to disarm others. Of course, when you try to disarm another person, raising the issue with love—“Can I speak to you about something? It’s going to be hard, but it’s very important”—you anticipate, “Oh yeah, you can talk! What about you?!” It’s tit-for-tat. But persevere in love. If the person is pointing out issues in your own life, you have nothing to hide. You have drawn near to Christ, and there has been confession of sins. Most likely, you have confessed the things that you’re being accused of, so it’s nothing new. But persist in love. “Could we speak about you now?” If the person is unwilling to hear you, go back again tomorrow and the next day.
How do you disarm angry children? The same way that you disarm yourself. The God who wants you to talk to him and come near, even as you’ve had this wretched case of the “I wants”. Speak to him. Confess to him that all you cared about was you, not about who he is and his love. Then lead your children in confessing that to others. All kinds of different responses are available to us here. This is the word of the Lord to us, and it’s a great gift.
One more story, perhaps, before we stop. There was a young man in our youth group, years ago. He was not a Christian, but his parents came to church. He was the guy with the pink mohawk before anyone else had pink mohawks, but he was very easy to engage. He asked fine questions in youth group, but he clearly was not a Christian and he made it known that he wasn’t. He went away to school, and we lost touch with him. Around 15 years later, I suddenly saw him in our church. “What’s he doing here? He didn’t have to come this time.” So I went invited him over for lunch after church. My question was: what happened? You could see that something had changed. It wasn’t just the pink mohawk. He wanted to come to church. He seemed like he was now a follower of Christ.
The story was ultimately very succinct. His father was a man who would quarrel and fight about pink mohawks and the accouterments surrounding them. But his father humbled himself before the Lord. When you humble yourself before the Lord, it’s easy to be humbled before others. He asked his son’s forgiveness, and committed to mortifying this. He committed to being a man who reconciled rather than making war. His son saw his father change, and he could find no explanation for that other than Christ. That was his story. Isn’t it a curious thing that, even in our murderous ways, the Lord can use us to bring glory to himself? Who would have thought?
Let’s give thanks. Father, who are we that you would allow us to see our own hearts clearly? Who are we that you would, over and over again, identify yourself as the God who is jealous? Father, we draw near. We come to you in the name of Christ. Amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.