You should recall that at our previous joint worship service earlier this summer, the emphasis was on two kinds of unity. The first is a unity that we are given by grace, and are called to preserve (Eph. 4:1–3), and the second is a unity that we are called to establish or build (Eph. 4:11–13). We preserve the existing unity by dealing with sin properly—resisting temptation, seeking forgiveness, and extending forgiveness. The second kind of unity is the maturity that the Holy Spirit is in the process of bestowing on us as He grows us up into the perfect man. We are not supposed to have that kind of “perfect unity” yet—it is the goal we are working toward.
In the message today, we need to drill down into some of the issues surrounding that first kind of unity, and that means we have to talk about sin. But I want to focus on a particular kind of sin, the kind that consistently thinks of itself as always somehow in the right. You know, the kind of sins that are common in church. This sort of sin actually causes a lot of havoc in conservative churches—far more havoc than, say, selling cocaine does, or running a brothel, or robbing banks.
“From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:1–6).
Summary of the Text
As our community continues to grow, and is growing rapidly, we are likely to find ourselves with increased conflicts with unbelievers in the town, whether we want them or not. One crucial thing to avoid, therefore, would be unnecessary conflicts with one another.
So when Christians collide with one another, what is going on? You would think that when Christians ask that question, we would immediate think of James 4, which actually asks and answers it. Where do battles and fights among you come from (v. 1)? You have certain desires down in your members, and these desires are waging war (v. 1). You want, and don’t have. You kill, and still want, and still don’t have (v. 2). The reason you don’t have is because you don’t ask God for what you want (v. 2). And when you do get around to asking God, He doesn’t give it to you because you are asking for it all wrong, in order that you might consume it on your lusts, on your desires (v. 3). “You adulterers and adulteresses,” James says. Don’t you know that friendship with the world and friendship with God are mutually exclusive (v. 4)? You cannot have both, so choose and choose wisely. And now for v. 5, I am following the AV, taking it as “the spirit within us veers toward envy” (v. 5), but God gives more grace (v. 6). God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. But if you take v. 5 in the way other translations do (“the Spirit within us yearns jealously”), it doesn’t really affect the broader flow of the argument—we still arrive in the same place.
Two Kinds of Desire
James tells us that the central villain here is our “desires.” And that means we have to take a moment to understand those desires in the context of this passage.
There is one kind of desire that everyone here has, and there is nothing wrong with it. Let us call it creational desire. You have a desire to breathe, for example, or to drink when you are thirsty, or to eat when you are hungry. This kind of desire can function without anybody else being present. It is not socially rooted. If you are thirsty out in the desert, the nature of that thirst will not be affected by the presence or absence of other people. You have these desires simply because you are a creature with a nature. You have lungs, and muscles, and nerve endings, all of which God gave to you.
But there is another kind of desire, and it is the kind of desire being addressed in our text. And do not be thrown by the use of the word lust. In modern English, the word has a strong sexual connotation, but that is not required here (although it would certainly be included). Take it as simply a strong desire, desire for anything. But in this context, in this passage, it is desire for things that are socially situated. It is mimetic desire, imitative desire. James is asking why fights arise among you (v. 1). He says that we covet (what someone else has) (v. 2). We fight (with somebody else) (v. 2). Then he locates the root problem—the problem is friendship with the world (v. 4). It is friendship with the world, along with all of its lies, blandishments, advertisements, fashions, fads, and entertainment stampedes. You could be quite godly if it were not for all those other people out there.
Collisions Result from Convergence
But it is not just other people. It is the other people we know, the people who are up close to us—in your neighborhood, in your school, or in this sanctuary together with you.
The secularists, when trying to give an account of human fractiousness, have a quaint myth that they love to appeal to. They believe that we collide with one another because of our perceived differences, and if we could only come to see how many similarities we share, then the fluffy clouds would suddenly appear, and attractive woodland creatures would start capering in the meadow. And so it is that they sponsor international student exchange programs, and food fairs where we sample one another’s exotic foods, and they love to solve tangled geopolitical problems with diplomacy. Let’s hug it out.
But what if conflict is caused, not by dissimilarity, but rather by similarity? You bonk heads with someone precisely because you were both reaching for the same thing. And you were reaching for the same thing because your tastes were so similar.
If you will allow me, a few autobiographical illustrations might help. I have been in the education business for some forty-odd years now. During that time, guess how many scrapes or collisions I may have had with advocates of the Montessori approach to education? Why, zero. And how may tangles have I had with classical, Christian, Latin-loving, logic-teaching, Trivium-applauding, Sayers-appreciating educators? No idea. Too many to keep track of.
How about theology? How many battles have I waged with ministers from the Assemblies of God? Again, zero. And how many head bumps with Reformed, postmillennial, presuppositional, paedobaptistic, and Presbyterian brethren? Heh.
You have collisions with your roommate because of the things you share. And that would include the things he borrows without asking.
Similar views, similar tastes, similar opinions, similar doctrines cause people to converge. And when they converge, conflict is hard to avoid. I also cannot tell you how many times I have counseled a young man who is interested in a young lady, and he wants to know if he should contact her father, and I am trying to figure out what to do with the fact that I had a very similar conversation just the previous week with this fellow’s roommate, and about the same girl. This kind of thing does not happen because everybody is so dissimilar.
Remember the Earlier Warning
In the world of education, we now have a cornucopia of options—Logos School, Logos Online, Kepler, New St. Andrews, White Horse, Jubilee, individual homeschools, and I am sure some others. Do you think that any James 4 elbows might get thrown? Why, yes. And remember what I said about those distributing “the biblical worldview” by various other means (publishing, video, etc.)—we have Canon Press, CCM, Huguenot Heritage, Gorilla Poet, Roman Roads, CrossPolitic, Having Two Legs, New St. Andrews, Blog and Mablog, and there will soon enough be even more points of friction. And also remember what I said about all the restaurants, realty companies, medical practices, software companies, light manufacturing, contractors, and so on. And don’t leave out Christ Church, Trinity Reformed, CCD, and so on. You cannot have this type of cloud form without it wanting to become a crackling thunderhead. A charge will develop.
Bring It to the Cross
In ungodly societies, and in ungodly times, the electrical charge that builds up like this in all human societies is dealt with by means of catharsis. Sometimes it is an artificial catharsis—plays, movies, grand sporting events. So let’s cancel all those, and put cardboard cutouts in the stands. And other times it is real time catharsis—riots, executions, wars. Of necessity, apart from Christ, there will be an endless cycle of it.
But the last verse of our text says that God “gives more grace.” And so how does He do that? The ultimate and final cathartic event was the crucifixion of Jesus. Even Pilate was keen enough to understand that Jesus was turned over to him because the Jewish leaders were envious of Him (Matt. 27:18). And in that ultimate death, we see—by faith alone we see—the death of death. But there is no death of death apart from the death of sin, and there is no death of sin apart from the death of envy and striving.
So in the death of Jesus, every form of envy died. In His resurrection, we have God’s assurance that it need never come back.