Sadly, when many of the couples I counsel first enter my office, conflict is frequent and often volatile. Sometimes, the issues couples fight over are so minor that they can’t even remember the cause of the fight by the time they come to counseling. Still, the fighting is constant. They are asking, “Why do we fight and quarrel so much?” Fortunately, God foresaw that this would be a common problem, not just in marriage, but among mankind in general. And so the Holy Spirit inspired James, the brother of our Lord, to pose that very question and answer it.
The Cause: Selfish Desires
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. 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 4:1-3)
The reason we have conflict is because we have desires that are opposed to the desires of others, and these desires are so strong that we are willing to sin to get them or keep them or to punish the other person when we’ve been denied them. This willingness to sin can be expressed in a variety of ways, including speaking angrily, hurtfully or spitefully, isolating or withdrawing, rejecting correction or rebuke, blaming, judging — all with the goal of getting what we want. Such behaviors reveal that our desires have become demands to which we now believe we are entitled. Here are a few questions to help those we counsel see the cause of their conflict:
- What is it that you want so much you would be willing to sin to get it or keep it?
- What makes you angry about the other person?
- How do you handle your anger?
- What do you fear in relationships?
- What do you do to punish, manipulate or “train” others to give you what you want?
- Do you invite feedback from others?
- Would others with whom you are close (spouse, child, friend, etc) say that it is “safe” to speak the truth in love to you?
The Root: Spiritual Adultery Against God
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”? (James 4:4-5)
James takes a hard and somewhat unexpected turn at this point. According to this text, our conflict is actually not horizontal. The horizontal conflict we have with others is rooted in a much deeper vertical reality — we have committed adultery against the holy and righteous God of the universe! Our enemy is not our spouse, our child, our parent, friend, or co-worker. Instead, we have made ourselves God’s enemy! We have fashioned our desires into idols, as evidenced by our willingness to betray God to obtain our selfish cravings, while God yearns for us with a holy jealousy. Ask those you counsel:
- Whose heart are you asking God to change, the other person’s, or your own?
- What might God be asking you to let go of so that you can have more of Him?
- If it is a marital conflict, are you telling God that there is something you can’t stay married without?
- What are you demanding God give to you?
The Hope: The Gospel
But he gives more grace. (James 4:6a)
Into this dark picture of spiritual adultery and cosmic treason against a holy God, hope comes in its typical form: the gospel. Good news. Recognizing our adultery towards him, when we have made Him our enemy, the Lord extends more grace to us. Scandalous. Life-wrecking. Relationship-altering. Grace. Those five words, “But he gives more grace”, are pivotal to understanding this passage and equally pivotal to our response to conflict in our lives. Once we recognize that our conflict is really with God, that our demands scream that He is not enough and His ways are not going to work, He gives more grace. He points us once again to His cross, bangs the gavel, and pronounces, “Pardoned!” As we receive the gospel, applying it to the sin in our own lives, we can then give gospel love to those with whom we are in relationship. The Bible is full of examples:
- We can love, “expecting nothing in return,” because God is “kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6:27-36) The gospel frees us from the prison of unmet expectations in relationships.
- We can hope for reconciliation with those who don’t like us (or whom we don’t like), because Christ reconciled us to Him when we were “still weak”, “ungodly”, “still sinners”, and his “enemies”. (Romans 5:6-10) The gospel is about reconciliation.
- We can love those who can’t return our love. When God pursued us, we were “dead” in sin, unable to respond to Him at all. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead,” made us alive, raised us up with Christ and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 2:1-10) There is no “quid pro quo” in the gospel. In Christ, we can love those who can’t love us back.
- We can keep loving in the face of persecution, hurt, and unfair treatment. 1 Peter 2:22-24 calls us to follow the example of Jesus, who did not lie, revile, or threaten when he was sinned against. Instead, He “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” In the gospel, we can continue to love the other person — and entrust ourselves to a just and loving God.
How do we counsel others to respond to someone who is “difficult” relationally? How does Jesus respond to us? With more grace.
The Cure: Gospel-Fueled, Humble Submission to God and Repentance
Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 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 4:6b-10)
The gospel fuels a response of humble submission towards God, which helps us to make war on our sin, draw near to the Lord, repent of our sin and have an eternal perspective which leads to restored relationships with God and others. As we respond in these ways, God promises: (1) His grace, (2) the enemy’s retreat, (3) His presence with us, and ultimately, (4) our exaltation!
- Be humble. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6b) — I’ve always found this verse to be extremely motivating. Note that God is not indifferent toward the proud, but that He actively opposes them! If we want to receive the grace God desires to give us, we must be willing to take the lowest place by adopting a posture of humility. In our humility, God promises to give us more grace.
- Submit to God. “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” (4:7a) — In our humility, we take a position of submission to God, which means that we do not place desire of our hearts above the desire for Him and His ways. We are no longer willing to sin to get the things that we want. Instead, we are willing to accept what God has for us.
- Fight sin and temptation. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (4:7b) We have an enemy who is out to steal, kill and destroy us and our relationships. We cannot simply avoid him; we must resist (or stand against) him. As we make war on our sin and stand against our enemy, the Lord promises that he will flee from us.
- Press into the Lord. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (4:8a) Not only are we called to make war on our sin and resist our enemy; we are also called to press into Christ. Pray. Read, study and meditate on God’s Word. Walk in deep community with fellow believers. As we draw near to Him, he promises to be near to us!
- Repent. “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.” (4:8b-9) True change only comes through a sober and true appraisal of our sinful condition that results in godly sorrow instead of worldly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10-13).
- Have eternal perspective. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (4:10) Such humility may not yield immediate results. A person may spend a lifetime putting another’s needs and desires before his own. Such constant yielding of ourselves can only happen when we fully entrust ourselves to God’s care and rest in His ultimate control. Humility exalts the power, character and sufficiency of God, and He will eternally reward those who follow the path of the cross.
May the Lord grow each of us, as well as those we counsel, in these truths. May we begin to see our conflicts as opportunities to submit ourselves and our rebellious wills to God. May we apprehend His grace. May we humbly entrust ourselves to God, and receive His promised reward.