When Desires of the Heart Lead to Fighting and Division

James reminds us that often our arguments, fights, and divisions are rooted in the sin of selfish desires of the heart. He then tells us the cure for it.

Each one of us has something—or multiple somethings—that we desire. I don’t mean those small things that would be nice to have but don’t impact our lives if we don’t have them. Rather, I mean those things that we long for deep down, those things we are determined to obtain. I’m talking about those objects, goals, or achievements we are convinced we need because they define, fulfill, or complete us. These are the desires of our heart. Sometimes our heart’s desire is honorable and good. Other times, though, it’s not so good and is actually sinful.

How do we know when it’s one or the other? What is the impact of sinful desires of the heart?

In James 4:1-10, we read an analysis of conflict that arose among believers within a local church. James directly tackles the root of the conflict, and he gives his readers clear instructions on how to resolve the problem. In short, he says the problem is sinful desires of the heart. James approaches the issue from five areas: the problem, the cause, the diagnosis, the consequences, and finally the solution.

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The Problem: Fighting Among Christians

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?

James 4:1a

This single question shows that James is quite aware that the Christians were going through a time of conflict. They were fighting, arguing, and creating division within the church. Interestingly, James doesn’t address the specific issues over which the people were quarreling. Rather, he focused on the fact that disunity had arisen because the local body of Christ-followers were too busy attacking one another.

When Christians within a local church fight and argue, it leads to conflict and, too often, staff shakeups and church splits. Despite being commanded to love one another and be unified, Christians in the First and the Twenty-First Centuries find ways to argue, fight, and divide.

The cause of the fighting among James’ original readers is often the same for fighting among Christians today: selfishness.

The Cause: Selfish Desires of the Heart

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 4:1b-3

We learn from these verses that the Christians were at war with each other because each wanted to have their own selfish heart’s desires. They wanted things for help themselves, not to serve the kingdom of God: “You ask . . . to spend it on your passions.”

Despite calling themselves Christians (or, “followers of Christ”), and despite Jesus’ commands to love and serve one another, James’ original readers sought things for themselves to please themselves and to serve themselves. The desire of their hearts wasn’t God’s glory. The desire of their hearts wasn’t to know, show, and share the gospel of Jesus. Rather, their heart’s desire was “me, myself, and I.”

Their selfishness led to tension, which led to fights and division. Sadly, though, this still happens in churches today.

Oftentimes, when tension arises, it’s because we want to be right or we want to have our own selfish desires. Basically, we act out of selfish motives because the desires of our heart are selfish. The root of the problem is simple: sin.

The Diagnosis: Sin

You adulterous people!

James 4:4a

Notice that James calls these believers (and any believer who follows sin rather than the Savior), “adulterous.” As Christians, we are part of the bride of Christ. We are supposed to be loyal to, dedicated to, and given only to Jesus. When we choose sin, we’re cheating on our spouse by committing spiritual adultery.

Medically speaking, the root cause—the diagnosis—is sin. Sin was in the hearts and minds of the Christians. Believers desired the things of the flesh and the world rather than the things of God. Christians lived contrary to the will of God. Christians were carnal. That is why the Christians fought and divided back then, and that’s why Christians today often fight and divide.

The people were being friends with the world by being selfish in their desires, and they were being prideful in what they wanted. The desires of their hearts were not for honoring God or for helping each other; the desires of their heart were to help themselves, and that’s a sin.

God made it clear from the very beginning that sin has very serious consequences. James reminds his readers of this truth.

The Consequence: Being an Enemy of God

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. 5 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 4:4b-5

Notice that James said that by following their sinful desires, the Christians put themselves in “enmity with God” and made themselves “an enemy of God.” This is a very sharp rebuke!

The way James is using it, being an enemy of God does not mean that they lose their salvation, nor does it mean that God will send down lightning bolts and smite them (God isn’t the Greek god Zeus). Rather, in context of James’ letter, to be God’s enemy (or to be at “enmity with God”) means to be in opposition to God, to be outside of or contrary to God’s divine will.

Living in sin is absolutely contrary to God’s divine will. Living in sin is absolutely contrary to God and in opposition to Him. Thus, the Christians James originally wrote to and Christians today who follow their sinful desires of the heart are enemies of God.

There is, however (and to keep the medical metaphor going), a treatment.

The Solution: Repent

But he gives more grace. 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 4:6-10 (emphasis added)

James spends more time with the solution (five verses) than he does with the diagnosis and consequences combined (two verses). In verses 6-10, James tells his readers they need to stop being opposed to God and start being in alignment with God. They need to stop being God’s enemy and start being God’s friend. The way they to do this is through repentance.

Jesus already provided the cure to sin on Calvary. By shedding his blood and giving up his life, he satisfied God’s wrath and paid the penalty for sin. The way we receive the treatment is by repenting of our sin.

Repentance is a fancy word for “turning away from” or “turning around.” Biblically, it conveys the idea of going through a life-reversal in which we stop walking down the road of sin and start walking the path of righteousness.

This begins by submitting to God, that is, putting ourselves under the rule and authority of God. It continues when we confess to God our sins and receive God’s forgiveness through faith in Jesus.

God promised to forgive those who repent. God promised to lift up those who humble themselves and say, “God, I have sinned against You. Forgive me, please.” God says that He will help those who need Him. He will forgive, He will strengthen, and He will enable us to live and have desires that are holy.

Bringing It Home

James’ original audience was a church that was struggling with fights and division. The cause of their arguments was their own selfish desires. They desired to serve themselves rather than each other or God. As a result, they were in sin, and the solution was they needed to repent of that sin and return to God.

You and I, we have desires and things for which we long. Sometimes those desires are honorable; sometimes they are selfish and sinful. When we’re in sin, the solution for us is the same as it was for the congregation James wrote to: we must repent.

To repent of our sins means to submit to God, to confess our sins, and return to Him in faith. Jesus came and died on the cross, shedding His blood to pay for sins. It is through that sacrifice that God is able to forgive sins. If you confess your sins and repent through faith in Jesus, you will be forgiven.

Jesus’ death is not the end of the story, though. On the third day, He physically rose again giving new life to all those who put their faith in Him, and that new life is available to you if you put your faith in Jesus alone.

He will give you a life that will honor God.

He will help you serve the Lord.

He will help you know, show, and share the gospel of Jesus Christ!

That means that God will help you develop a growing relationship with Jesus (i.e., “know”) in which you’re able to serve people (i.e., “show”), and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ (i.e., “share”).

How are you walking with God? As you look at your desires, are your desires holy or sinful? How are you responding to each one of them? If you have sinful desires, please repent of them. How has God lifted you up when you repented of your sins? Comment below and let me know how God has helped you after you repent of your sins.

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