Quarrels, Conflicts, and Submission to God
Sunday School Lesson for August 24, 2003
Background Passage: James 4:1-17
Focal Teaching Passage: James 4:1-10
Conflict and Its Causes (4:1-5)
Throughout the course of James’ epistle, it has become quite evident that the congregations to whom he wrote were far from perfect. The first century church faced many serious difficulties. In chapter four we find more evidence of such problems as James confronted the presence of "quarrels and conflicts" that existed in the fellowship. The serious nature of the situation found expression in the dramatic terminology James employed. "Quarrels" was a term used in ancient times to describe an actual armed conflict or war, while "conflicts" spoke of intense disputations and strife. At any rate, the believers addressed by James were experiencing hostilities and fractures in the fellowship that threatened their mission and witness.
At the outset James confronted the source of their difficulties with a pointed rhetorical question: "Is not the source your pleasures. . . . ?" Basically, the cause of their problems was the sin of idolatry, manifested here as the reckless pursuit of personal pleasure and selfish satisfaction. According to James, the desires for selfish gratification continually "wage war" in the hearts of the believers themselves, and in the larger community of faith as well. As Tasker observes, these sinful tendencies "are permanently on active service" and there is "no part of the human frame which does not afford them a battleground" .
We should also note that the fact that they were not right with each other was symptomatic of the greater reality that they were not right with God. In other words, James used the presence of fractured relationships as "evidence of their conflict with God" [Richardson, 173].
In these verses James described the downward spiral of sin that had led to fractures within the body of Christ. His choice of words was strong and dramatic. By employing such explosive terminology he hoped to motivate his readers to repentance before God. He made three pointed charges:
In this verse James explicitly connected fractured relationships among Christians with a basic hostility toward God. Lust, envy, fights, and quarrels are distinguishing characteristics of those who are the enemies of God. Such people, even though claiming to be believers, really love the world and are opposed to the things of God and His Spirit. To attempt to be servant of God while remaining "a friend of the world" is to practice spiritual adultery (cf. Jer. 31:32; Hos. 3:1; Ezek. 23:45). In this light, James appropriately referred to them as "adulteresses."
To intensify what he claimed above, James reminded his readers that God has a holy claim upon His people as their Redeemer and Covenant Lord. As a mark of ownership, He has placed His very "Spirit" within them whom He "jealously desires." This is somewhat the same argument employed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Therefore, God cannot tolerate the presence of any "rival spirit such as the spirit of the world" within the hearts of His children [Tasker, 91].
Conflict and Its Cure (4:6-10)
The good news in the battle with sin is found here in the principle that God provides "greater grace" to those who humbly depend upon Him. Much like Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:20 concerning the abundant grace of God even in the face of great sin, James encouraged his readers with the fact that "God maintains a favorable disposition toward believing sinners" [Richardson, 181]. Basing his argument upon the words of Proverbs 3:34, James challenged his readers to stand humbly before God in total dependence upon His merciful and abundant love for His children. No matter how deep the strain of their sin, God bestows immeasurable grace upon those who are "meek and contrite of spirit" [Tasker, 92].
With such overflowing grace in view, the believer is now summoned and empowered to:
Here, James continued his description of the actions indicative of a humble and repentant heart—the true antidote to conflict within the fellowship of believers. The list of actions below represents specific "exercises for repentance, which is threatened by self-sufficiency and self-deception" [Richardson, 190].
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: Getting to the root of church disputes—Note once again how James linked friction in the church with personal sin and rebellion against God. This seems to indicate that conflicts among brothers and sisters in Christ provide clear evidence of idolatry in their hearts (see 4:2-3). In light of this reality, what are we to assume about a member (or members) of the church who is constantly stirring up trouble in the fellowship? How are we to respond?
Two: Being in but not of the world—Look carefully at the sobering words of 4:4. In what specific ways have you become the "friend of the world"? What changes must take place in your life in order for this friendship to be broken?
Three: Cultivating a life-style of repentance—While the Christian life is full of joy, freedom, and even laughter, it is also marked by seasons of profound sorrow and pain over personal sin against God. We might say, then, that a true Christian never gets through repenting. How does one balance such divergent emotions as joy, on the one hand, and mourning on the other? How does one avoid the extremes of laughing one’s way through life, and being paralyzed by guilt?