James 4A – Getting to the Heart of Conflict

This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on November 18th, 2012.  To listen to the audio, just click on this link – James 4A.

The Heart is a Garden: A Biblical Way of Thinking About Spirituality.

Two Contrasting Views of the Human Heart:  I want to begin talking about this passage by talking about an often used metaphor in Scripture – “The Heart”.   Of course, when Scripture talks about the heart it is not referring to the organ that pumps blood through the body.  The heart, in Scripture, is a metaphor for our desires, motivations and personalities.  The heart describes what we want – the makeup of our desires.   And the heart is what Scripture always calls us to deal with (even in this passage – purify your hearts, you double-minded).  Consequently, our view of spiritual growth and maturity is tied to our view of the heart.  But there is more than one way (or model) of looking at the heart.

~ The Linear View:  This view of the heart thinks about maturity or growth as a ladder.  You climb the ladder and, as you do, you leave behind sins and difficulties that you had earlier.  The higher you get, the more spiritual you become.  Eventually, according to this metaphor, you won’t need as much grace and help from God as you do now.  Many people assume that this is what the spiritual life is like.

~ The Garden View:  This view of the heart thinks about maturity or growth as cultivation and management.   The heart is like a garden with both beautiful things and poisonous weeds in it.  In this model spiritual growth is about creating beauty, cultivation of what is good and healthful, and rooting out what is destructive.  This view of spirituality seems, to me, to be more in line with the reality of what our hearts are like.   So why is this important?  Because it affects the way we understand what James is saying in this passage.

A Description of Conflict in the Garden:  What is at the heart of Quarrels?

Our Desires at War Within Us:   1 What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?  Is not the source your desires that wage war in your members?

James begins by asking and answering this question.  The conflict of the early church, says James, stems from their desires.  There is some question as to whether James is talking about the desires of individuals warring against the desires of other individuals – or whether he means the internal struggle of the desires within individuals – both of these are probably what he has in mind.  The point is that their conflicting desires have become the source of their conflict.

A helpful way to think of these desires is to imagine a wisteria plant or a trumpet vine in the middle of a garden.  Desires in themselves are not evil – they are good – they can be beautiful.  However, left untended a wisteria or a trumpet vine can grow up and wrap around a tree and pull it down – doing damage to the garden.  And our desires can be like this.  They pull our souls out of shape

Our desires can tend to affect our relationships:   2 You covet and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.  Our desires can turn  even people we love into obstacles to what we want.

Our desires can push us away from God:  So,for instance, in this case it seems like these early church leaders were not asking God for wisdom about who should lead because they each wanted to lead and teach – and they did not want to submit to the possibility that someone else might be given leadership.   You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your desires.

Our Desires Can Lead Us into Worldliness/ Spiritual Adultery:  4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.   5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?

James turns to the metaphor of adultery / worldliness.   He imagines their pursuit of these out of control desires as a married man or woman, flirting with someone else of the opposite sex.  Such flirting, says James, is dangerous and foolish.   God’s Spirit within us is jealous for our faithfulness.  God desires, with intensity, those who belong to him.

Worldliness is sometimes hard to define – but in this instance James is saying that these believers are worldly because…

  1.  They are allowing their desires for leadership to become what they serve and love.
  2.  Their service of these desires is causing them to treat people – other believers with whom they disagree – with contempt and hatred – and to disregard what God might want.

Dealing with the Heart of Conflict and Quarrels: Tending The Garden.

The Wisteria at the Center of Our Hearts:  The desires at the core of our hearts can, and do, grow out of control – like an untended wisteria plant.  And it can feel impossible to say no to them.  This is where the linear view of our hearts is most unhelpful.  The promise that some claim, that we can outgrow the tendency to struggle with our desires and quarrels, is simply untrue.  How, then, are we to deal with out of control desires?

Believe: God’s Grace is Greater Than Our Desires and Unfaithfulness:  6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’

There is only hope if God’s forgiveness and God’s help for us is greater than our failures and our messes.   If the linear view is right and we are meant to outgrow our desires and get to the plade where we need less of God’s forgiveness and grace – then only people who are good enough will stand before God in the day of judgment.  But God justifies the ungodly and the sinner.

So, James says, humble yourself and confess that your desires have taken you over – have led you into sin.   Confess yourself a spiritual failure and receive grace.

Draw Near to God and He Will Draw Near to You:  7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  This all can sound so mystical, but what James is actually getting at is this:  when our desires rage out of control, we don’t tend to talk to God about them – about our needs.   Instead we tend to become focused on what we want and how to get it.

James’s wisdom here is not secret or mysterious.  Drawing near to God means that come to God in prayer – with our desires – You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your desires.   He does not say – “do not desire”.  There is nothing wrong with a desire for leadership – or for peace and quiet – or for security – but our desires need to be cultivated.  We need to come to understand what is good about our desires and how we are to pursue them.

But drawing near to God also means that we are to repent – apologize and forgive and make right where we have spoken poisonously – where we have taken advantage and lied and falsely accused.   Conflict escalates because, we allow our desires to dictate our behavior and words.   When I allow my desires to dictate my behavior without regard to what is right – that’s sin.

Mourn Over Sin and God Will Raise You Up:  9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.    James is calling these leaders to publicly mourn over the distortion they have caused in the church.   He is calling them to public repentance over public sin.

We need to see how our desires in excess have stretched who we were meant to be out of all proportion.   We need to acknowledge the ways in which we have wrongly pursued our desires and the ways in which we have allowed them to lead us into sin.

As we mourn and reject the distorting, sinful desires of our lives, God raises up in us new desires that lead us to freedom rather than excess and ruin. (see Psalm 37:4)

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