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“Conflict Starts in the Heart”

James 4:1-3, and other verses
Bob DeGray
June 12, 2005

Key Sentence

Look inward for the source of conflict and upward for the solution.


I. Conflict comes from selfish desires (James 4:1-2a)
        a. Selfish desires come from the heart (Mark 7:20-23)
        b. Inward desires lead to open sin. (James 1:13-15)
II. There is a way to deal with selfish desires (James 4:2a-3)
        a. Live in dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 6:16-17)
        b. Desire the Spirit’s fruit (Galatians 6:22-26)


        Did I ever tell you about the time I fractured this bone in my hand? As we got ready to graduate from seminary in Illinois we were trying to sell the house we owned in Clear Lake; we didn’t expect to move back. So Gail came down and did a lot of fix ups, and eventually we got an offer, though not one that would allow us to make a profit, even after owning the house twelve years. Then the inspections came through and we needed a new air conditioner, further increasing our losses. Then we got a call saying the FHA was going to make us put on a new roof. So I’m standing in the kitchen in Illinois, on the phone with our realtor, getting totally frustrated, and when the conversation ended I exploded. I wasn’t yelling at anybody in particular, but I was enraged over the loss of money I’d counted on. In that anger, I finally reared back and whammed my fist against the kitchen cabinet.

        The stabbing pain shooting up my arm gave me my first clue that this had not been a good idea. I had apparently done something to myself right here. I refused to have it treated - in fact I barely admitted it hurt. And it can’t have been too serious, because it did heal itself eventually. It turns out this particular injury is so common it has a name, ‘Boxer’s fracture’ or ‘Brawler’s fracture’. It is almost always the result of anger. One medical reference I read said “It is usually caused by punching something harder than the hand, such as a wall or another person's head.” Another said “The key to preventing boxer's fractures is to avoid situations in which the injury can occur. Boxer's fractures most commonly occur during fist fights and when someone punches a hard object in anger or frustration. Avoiding these situations can reduce significantly the risk of sustaining a boxer's fracture.”

        In other words, this particular injury to the hand starts in the heart. And in fact all conflict, and all it’s damage, starts in the heart. Today is the second message in our series, and these first two weeks are focusing on the causes of the conflict we all experience. Last week we talked about selfishness and bitterness. Today we want to focus more narrowly on how the desires of the heart lead to conflict. We’re going to look at James 4:1-3 and several other related Scriptures and we’ll see that we need to look inward for the source of conflict and look upward for solutions.

I. Conflict comes from selfish desires (James 4:1-2a)

        Let’s begin by reading the main text, James 4:1-3, and focusing our attention on the first verse, where we learn that conflict comes from the selfish desires of our hearts. James 4:1-3 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

        Verse 1 is the question we’re trying to answer in these first few weeks: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” What is the source of conflict? ‘Fights and quarrels' is literally ‘wars and battles.' The Christians to whom James wrote were engaged in such battles with each other. Maybe it was in their homes, maybe it was in their churches or communities. And such conflict, quarrels and fights, wars and battles, still goes on today - in our homes, our relationships, our churches. The sad truth is that each one of us has created and contributed to conflict on some level.

        And James knows the source: are not these quarrels and battles due to your desires that battle within you? ‘Desires’ or ‘passions' translates the word ‘hedone', from which we get ‘hedonism'– the belief that pleasure is the chief good in life. Titus 3:3 says people are ‘enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.' R Kent Hughes says "these conflicting desires make the inner life a battleground. The old nature with its focus on personal pleasure battles against the new nature. Christians who have succumbed to these pleasures are walking civil wars, whose desires bring fighting and war to their families, their church, and even the world.”

        Verse 2 adds two more words that amplify this truth. The New American Standard says "you lust and do not have so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel." The word ‘lust’ is often translated ‘desire’ or ‘evil desire’. The word ‘envious’ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew for coveting - wanting what someone else has. And again, these desires, James says ‘battle within you’ or ‘wage war in your members’. The responsibility for conflict does not lie with outside circumstances - it lies within each quarreling, fighting individual. In lies in their submission to their own evil desires and their commitment to their own pleasures and wants. It lies in the heart. Jesus focused on the heart in the Gospels. Mark 7:20-23 He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' 21For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "

        Jesus was debating with the Pharisees, who were focused on external obedience to the law, but their hearts were a mess. So he teaches that all of the sins that separate us from God come from within ourselves. So out of your heart or mine might come: evil thoughts; sexual immorality; even theft or murder; certainly greed and malice - the kinds of things James has already identified. And envy and slander and arrogance. And when those selfish, self serving sins are expressed, there will be conflict. A person who gives vent to these things is like a drunk shouting insults in a packed bar - he will find a fight. Look at that list for a moment, and look into your own heart, and see if you don’t see the potential for each of those sins inside you. They may not all be fully expressed ever, but don’t you agree the potential is within you?

        This is the consistent teaching of Scripture. Listen to these verses: Romans 13:14 Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Ephes. 4:22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires. 2 Tim. 2:22 Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. 1 Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

        How are these desires expressed? James says in verse 2: "you lust and do not have so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel." First comes the desire, then frustration of that desire, and then the sin that expresses the frustration. It’s a clear pattern. In fact James has already described it. James 1:13-15 When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

        Bruce Wilkinson analyzes these verses in “Personal Holiness in Times of Temptation.” He reminds us, first of all, that the source of temptation is inside of you, it is your own evil desire. And James says that these desires are like bait, a word derived from hunting and fishing. Your desires are the worm on the fishhook of sin, the worm that hides the bare hook of consequences and lures you into being caught. I’ve always said that sin makes you stupid. But it’s really not the sin that makes you stupid. It’s the temptation to sin, and that temptation grows out of your own desires. They set out the bait that blinds you to the consequences of sin and draws you away, entices you. And when you take the bait and bite that hook, that’s when your desires give birth to sin. And sin has consequences: natural consequences, moral consequences, relational consequences. James says it leads to death, but for our purposes this morning it’s also clear it leads to conflict. All the sins that come from within are the things that alienate those around you, that cause you to hurt them and them to hurt you. No sin you’ve ever done has been limited to just you and God.

        So what have we said so far? Conflict comes from selfish desires. What causes quarrels and fights? The desires that war within you. We learned from Jesus that the desires and the sin that express these desires come from the heart. And James showed us the pattern: Your desires dangle the bait, and your will takes the bait. Your inward desires lead to open sin, and those sins lead in turn to the quarrels and fights.

        Let me give you one more way of thinking about this, a series of statements used in the current editions of The Peacemaker. “I Desire; I Demand; I Judge; I Punish”. Ken Sande writes that “conflict always begins with some kind of desire. Some desires are inherently wrong, such as vengeance, lust, or greed. But many desires are not wrong in and of themselves.

        For example, there is nothing innately wrong about desiring things like peace and quiet, a clean home, a new computer, professional success, an intimate relationship with your spouse, or respectful children. If a good desire, such as wanting an intimate relationship with your spouse, is not being met, it is perfectly legitimate to talk about it with your spouse. As you talk, you may discover ways that both of you can help to fulfill each other in mutually beneficial ways. But what if your spouse persistently fails to meet a particular desire and is unwilling to discuss it? This is where you stand at a crossroad. On the one hand, you can trust God and seek your fulfillment in Him. You can ask Him to help you to grow and mature no matter what your spouse does. And you can continue to love your spouse and pray for God's sanctifying work in his or her life. If you follow this course, God promises to bless you and use your difficult situation to conform you to the likeness of Christ.

        On the other hand, you can dwell on your disappointment and allow it to control your life. Unmet desires work themselves deeper and deeper into our hearts, especially when we come to see a desire as something we need or deserve, and therefore must have in order to be happy. There are many ways to justify a desire. "I work hard all week. Don't I deserve a little peace and quiet when I come home?" "I worked two jobs to put you through school; I deserve your respect." "The Bible says we should save up to cover unexpected problems; we need to tighten our budget and put more into savings." "I only want what God commands: children who have learned to respect their parents and use their God-given gifts to the fullest."

        The trouble is that if our desire is not met, these attitudes can create a vicious cycle. The more we want something, the more we think it is something we need and deserve. And the more we think we are entitled to it, the more convinced we are that we cannot be happy and secure without it. When we see our desire as being essential to our fulfillment and well-being, it moves from being a desire to a demand. "I wish I could have this" evolves into "I must have this!" Even if the initial desire was not inherently wrong, it has grown so strong that it controls our thoughts and behavior.

        How can you discern when a desire might be turning into a sinful demand? You can begin by asking yourself "X-ray" questions that reveal the condition of your heart. “What am I preoccupied with? What is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing at night?” “What do I want to preserve or avoid?” “Where do I put my trust?”“What desires have not been met at those times when I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger or depression?” “Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it?” The next sign that desires are controlling you is the inclination to judge other people. When they fail to satisfy our desires and live up to our expectations, we criticize and condemn in our hearts if not with our words. This is not to say that it is inherently wrong to evaluate others. Scripture teaches that we should observe and even judge others' behavior so that we can respond and minister to them in appropriate ways.

        We cross the line, however, when we begin to sinfully judge others from an attitude of superiority, indignation, condemnation, or bitterness. And the closer we are to others, the more likely we are to judge them when they fail to meet our expectations. For example, we may look at our spouse and think, "If you really love me, you will help meet this need." Toward our children we think "After all I've done for you, you owe this to me." And when those expectations are not met, we condemn them inwardly and then openly. This is the conflict stage - punishing people. Often we do it through anger - with hurtful words to inflict pain. But some will even use physical violence or sexual abuse to punish. In another case, children may use pouting, stomping, or dirty looks to hurt us for not meeting their desires. Adults may impose guilt or shame on others through words and attitudes. And withdrawal from a relationship is common. It may be a subtle coolness toward the other person, withholding affection or physical contact, being sad or gloomy, refusing to look someone in the eye, or even abandoning the relationship altogether.

II. There is a way to deal with selfish desires (James 4:2a-3)

        If we examine ourselves honestly, we’re likely to find these kind of behaviors - or at least the desire for them in our hearts. But there is a way to deal with selfish desires. I want to reread our main text for a hint of what that way is, and then spend a little time in Galatians to expand on James’ answer. So, James 4:1-3 again. What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

        James recognizes the existence of legitimate desires: he says ‘you do not have because you do not ask God.’ There are desires that, if brought before the Lord in prayer, will be fulfilled. Jesus recognized this when he said ‘pray in my name’ and he modeled in prayer to the Father ‘not my will but your will be done’. So when our desires are aligned with God’s will, and we pray for those things in imitation of Jesus, those prayers will be granted. When we want right - when our hearts and God’s heart are aligned - and when we pray right - praying God’s will through his Son, we won’t be seeking our own selfish pleasures. These prayers and desires will not lead to sin.
        But James tells us that we don’t want right and we don’t pray right. He says ‘you don’t get what you ask for because you are asking according to your selfish desires’ You are asking for stuff that will further your pleasure, or at least keep you in your comfort zone. Is God going to answer those prayers? James says no. God will not answer prayers to reinforce our sinful desires, because he wants what’s really good for us. So James is teaching that while we must look inward, to our own desires, for the source of conflict, we ought to look upward, to God’s desires, for the resolution to conflict. He might almost have said ‘what prevents fights and quarrels among you - is it not God’s desires ruling over your inner man.’

        But he doesn’t elaborate on this. I want us to turn to Galatians to do so. Galatians 6:16-21 Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. 19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

        Paul says ‘live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.’ If you look within you will find those desires, and you know they lead to conflict. But if you’re a believer, and you look within, you’ll also find God’s Spirit. When you look to him, and live the way he wants you to live, conflict will be minimized or resolved. Selfish desires and acts come from our sinful nature and lead to conflict. Godly desires and actions come from God’s Holy Spirit living within us.

        By the way, how does he get there? Let me remind you that the Holy Spirit is a gift given to believers. None of this can be yours unless you have, first, recognized that your selfish desires don’t just lead to conflict they lead to sin, and sin is rebellion against God. It requires his judgment, and nothing you can do will balance the scales - no amount of good works can offset the sins you’ve already done, and if you try to do good works you’ll find that your selfish desires infiltrate them. But God showed his love by sending Jesus to take your judgment and die your death. He paid the price for your sins in death on the cross and rose to victory. As a result of that victory, God now offers you the free gift of forgiveness and renewal. He not only cleanses you from sin, but he sends His Holy Spirit to live within you and transform you, over time, into the image of His Son. Paul is talking to people who by faith have believed that what Jesus did was their only answer, who have trusted him alone to rescue from sin. Have you taken this crucial first step toward resolving conflict?

        If you have, you have a new conflict: you have the Holy Spirit working in you, and you have the old nature still trying to drag you into sin. Verse 17 says “They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” Paul expands on this in Romans 7: “I know what I ought to do, but I don’t do it.” I keep doing and saying stupid things, sinful things that lead to conflict. But in Romans 8 Paul gives the same answer he gives in Galatians. “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” Conflict is resolved when we fix our eyes and our wills on what the Spirit desires, when we live by the Spirit, and don’t live in response to our selfish desires.

        In Galatians 6 Paul lists the acts of the sinful nature, the same kind of things that Jesus listed. But then Paul goes on to list the kind of things that come from the Spirit. Galatians 6:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

        The fruit of the Spirit opposes the acts of the sinful nature, and leads to godly resolution of conflict, to relationships that minimize conflict. Don’t you want relationships in your home, your church, your work and with your neighbors characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control? Conflict can’t survive when dealt with in love, with joy at the opportunity to serve God, with a peaceful heart, with great patience toward others, with overwhelming kindness, with true goodness that seeks the good of others and not self, with faithfulness toward God and others, with gentleness in words and deeds, with God given self control. Almost any one of these will abort conflict, and if all of them are at work conflict will never be conceived at all.

        This is where your hope lies - not in yourself, but in God’s Spirit. Paul says “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” The pattern of sinful desires that draw you to sin doesn’t have to continue, and conflict does not have to result. Paul says “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” Do you see it? Walking with the Spirit, living by the Spirit is the antidote for the selfishness that causes us to provoke and envy.

        So the solution to conflict, as to so many other issues, comes down to the choice between taking direction from your sinful nature or depending on the Holy Spirit. There are several illustrations in common use to depict this choice. Campus Crusade has for years been asking believers ‘who is on the throne of your life?’ Is Jesus on the throne or is self? When Jesus is on the throne conflicts will be reduced or resolved, because you will make choices in accordance with the fruit of the Spirit. When self is on the throne conflict will abound. Another way of illustrating the same thing is to ask ‘who is in the driver’s seat?’ Are you trying to maintain control of the car, or have you given that control over to the Holy Spirit? A third illustration, one that appeals to me as a mechanical engineer, is the one I showed the kids. Is your valve turned so that self flows - pretty yucky - or is your valve turned so that Spirit flows - pure and cleansing. I think two verses we’ve mentioned today say it all. If you don’t remember anything else remember these two verses. James 4:1 ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?’ And Galatians 5:16 ‘Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.’