19th Sunday of Pentecost September 18, 2016
44, 404, CW 484 (alt. TLH 412), 52
For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You 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. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
On July 11, 1804 two men ended a long-standing feud. Bitter personal and political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met outside of Weekawken, NJ where Burr, the vice president of the United States, shot Hamilton to death in a duel…. And who doesn’t know about that quarrel between the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky? The families were at war with one another for a decade over a stolen pig. More than 10 family members died as a result of the feuding…. When Jesus and His disciples arrived at the city of Capernaum the Lord said to them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” They were slow to answer, for the fact was that Christ’s closest followers had been fighting amongst themselves over which one of them was the greatest.
Fights and quarrels have gone on since sin entered the world. People argue and raise their voices at one another. What is sad is that this behavior is also common to Christians—even Christians who know how much love and compassion their Savior has shown toward them. Yet instead of pursuing the wisdom that comes from heaven which is “pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere,” they carry on in just the opposite way. They embrace arguments. They are inconsiderate. They push their points unnecessarily rather than yielding to one another, showing a lack of mercy, and things like that.
The letter of James was written to the Jewish Christians living outside Judea who had been scattered beyond Jerusalem. As James wrote, he chastised these believers for their quarreling which apparently was somewhat pronounced among them. With sharp words he pointed out to them how their fighting was causing “disorder” and “every evil practice.” It had to stop. Rather than sowing seeds of peace which would lead to righteous and good behavior, they were sowing seeds of discontent and anger which would bring about a harvest of sorrow and trouble.
The situation which James was addressing here is also in the Bible for our learning. For it is easy enough to see and understand that this problem of fighting and arguing was not confined to the early Christian church, but can be found wherever there are sinners to be found. Time and distance has not separated us from these problems because we too carry around with us our sinful natures.
There are times in each of our lives when we behave just like those to whom James was writing. Each of us have been involved in arguments and perhaps have even carried those arguments from one day to the next. Such arguments simmer and then become full-blown fights and quarrels and lead to other evils. They touch various aspects of our lives. Some of the more obvious fault-lines for fighting and quarreling lie in several areas:
Marriage, for one. Here in this special institution of God which was created for our benefit and blessing we find some of the worst fighting and arguing, don’t we? We raise our tempers the highest, getting into wars of words and sometimes worse. And this, against the people to whom we are closest! How many millions of hours marriage counselors have spent sorting out and calming down such stormy tensions?
Between friends. How many friendships which began good and healthy turned sour and have even been destroyed because of some difference which could not be reconciled? They are destroyed because of some argument that became more than it ever should have become.
Among family members. “Blood is thicker than water” it is said, but sometimes that blood boils. Because we know more about our relatives than about strangers, more about their sins and weaknesses, arguments in this category can go on for a long time and be very bitter.
One could add to this quarrels among our neighbors, our bosses and our co-workers, even among those who are brothers and sisters in the faith. Suddenly, we see that when James speaks of the infighting that Christians can become involved in, he may as well be talking to us today.
In urging the brethren to put away their “fight,” James goes right to the heart of the problem. He hits it head on when he says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.”
There are times when the Bible lays out a situation so clearly that we can’t help but nod our heads in agreement. Look at how the Scripture breaks down a fight or quarrel to its simplest component. God shows us that our wars with one another are rooted in selfishness and evil desire. No matter how complex an argument may seem or how many “sides” there appear to be, it really all comes down to a person (or more than one person) simply wanting his own way.
Two children are playing in the back yard. Suddenly, one of them is screaming. Then both of them are screaming. Mom comes out to see what is the matter. One cries, “I want to play together in the sandbox.” The other says, “No! I want to play with the bat and ball.” The argument has begun.
When it comes to adults, it might not be the sandbox or the bat and ball, but it will be something else. Perhaps an argument between husband and wife about whether or not to move the family to another city. The husband wants a different job in a different place and the wife says a move would be too much upheaval for the family. Maybe it’s a quarrel between neighbors about where a fence line should be.
If you think about different quarrels and arguments that you have had, you will no doubt find that the Bible “hits the nail on the head” when it addresses the cause of fights between people. Doesn’t it always come down to what James says right here? “You want something but don’t get it…you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.”
An argument is a battle of wills. It is one against another or both trying to get what each wants. It can be one trying to convince another to agree to his wants and desires. Sometimes people seem to argue only for the sake of arguing. The thing they are quarreling about may be completely insignificant, but neither will “give in” because both want to come out on top, both want to win. Whether the fight is over something small or great, petty or not, all an argument is, is a battle of wills. In fact, without this battle of wills, you cannot have an argument or quarrel! Fights and quarrels are expressions of selfishness and an evil desire to have everything go your way or no way.
James doesn’t tell us exactly what the nature of the quarrels were among the people to whom he was writing, but he doesn’t need to tell us every detail. We get the idea! We even see that the people’s arguments were leading to problems not just with each other, but with the Lord. For their very prayers were being affected by their fighting with one another. Just as they were selfishly trying to get their way over against their neighbors, they were also selfishly trying to get their way with God, asking Him for things that would ultimately serve their evil desires. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Naturally, God would not grant such requests.
Our quarrels can affect the way we look to God as well. When we are angry with others, we tend to get angry with Him too, maybe even doing as those in James’ day did and praying for things with wrong motives in our hearts.
What is the answer to all this? If arguments arise because we demand that our own wants and desires be met, then it is our wants and desires that need to be controlled. But how can we be led to say, “I don’t need to get my way all the time?” What moves a heart to decide that it does not have to win every argument?
It is God who moves our hearts in such a way. You see, God shows us that our security in life does not depend on whether or not we get everything we want or desire. It depends rather on His loving care for us and the many blessings He has already given us and continues to give to us. “He gives us more grace.” Day after day, He gives us more gifts. He even promises forgiveness for our fighting—a clearing of the record which stands against us—by placing this very guilt of ours on His own Son at the cross, so that our ugliest quarrels need not keep us from eternal life.
When we know that God has us securely in His gracious hand, then why is there any need for us to demand that our will be done in every single circumstance? Since God cares for me and looks out for me, do I really need to fight for everything I want? (Maybe the Lord has something better in mind for me if I would just be quiet!) Since God has given me everything I need, I am already secure. I do not have to be consumed with those wants and desires which will lead to quarrel and strife among my spouse or my neighbors or my relatives.
He even gave you His own Son into death on the cross, giving you the ultimate security. Jesus’ death offered as the sacrifice for your guilt means that all the things you fight for in this life are only temporary. The things you think you want and need and fight over here on earth are not worth being compared to the glories that will come. Your hope and joy is in heaven with Christ.
Yes, there are times when we cannot back down. Martin Luther, for example, could not back down when fighting for the truth of God’s word, but that’s not the kind of quarreling James talks about here with us. When our bitterness and strife is a result of wanting something for ourselves, such as a better life, increased standing in the eyes of others, or whatever the thing might be, when we find ourselves demanding to have our way to the point that we become embroiled in argument, then we can remember how God promises to meet our needs. We can back away from fights and quarrels knowing that whether we get what we want or not, He who did not spare His own Son will surely care for us according to His gracious will. We can count on that and be content! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.