Pastor Chris Tweitmann
It’s a question that goes as far back as Cain and Abel.
It’s a question that needed to be asked
before ancient Israel began divided by a civil war.
It’s a question all of us ask at some time in our lives.
And yet, it’s a question that no matter how many times it is asked,
seems to be a resounding “No.”
And the question is, “Can’t we all just get along?”
If we’ve been alive long enough to remember, most of us
probably associate the asking of this question with a man named Rodney King.
Rodney King, a person of color, who had been accosted
by four Los Angeles police officers, as recorded on video,
asked this question as a plea for peace
after Los Angeles exploded into horrible violence and riots in 1992
because the police officers involved in his assault were acquitted.
And as this week’s news regarding
the tragic and wrongful death of Breonna Taylor reveals,
not much has changed since Mr. King
uttered those words more than 25 years ago.
Recent events in our nation continue to remind us
that we are a nation divided by race, by politics,
and even by our point of view regarding this global pandemic.
While we clearly don’t agree with each other,
increasingly it appears we don’t really like each other
— sometimes even hating each other to the point of confrontation and violence.
But the problem is not confined to America.
Every day brings news headlines from around the globe
of some new conflict somewhere on this blood-soaked planet.
“Can’t we all just get along?”
In a way, that’s the question James is asking us today.
But he won’t just be asking why we continue to feud with each other.
James also is going to tell us how we stop fighting
and actually, can get along with each other.
The invitation and the challenge for us today
will be to acknowledge and observe the prescription he offers to us.
Let’s hear from James, chapter 4, verses 1 – 10.
Why do we fight? Why are we often at odds with each other?
What causes us sometimes to go to war with another person?
This is the question James poses to us.
But notice, he doesn’t wait for our answer.
James answers his query with a rhetorical question.
Meaning, James already knows the answer.
All that he is about to share in the verses that follow
is to help us recognize the cause of much of our conflicts.
And what is James’ answer?
Fights and quarrels among us are caused by “our desires that battle within us.”
In order to get to the root of what James is revealing here,
let’s break down what exactly he means by “our desires.”
The word translated as “desires” here comes from a Greek word
that has a strong negative connotation, referring to a longing or craving
that becomes an end in itself at the expense of other things.
But what does that mean? How does this happen?
All of us share common desires that are God-given
– desires for love and well-being, for security and protection,
for fruitfulness and for harmonious relationships in life.
These desires given to us by God are intended to be fulfilled by God.
In other words, God has instilled these desires within us
so that we would look to and rely on Him,
so that the basis of our relationship with God would derive from
our acknowledgment that God is the provider and sustainer of our lives.
However, these natural, God-given, good desires
can and will go bad when we seek to fulfill them
on our own – apart from our Creator.
When we convince ourselves that satisfying these desires are entirely up to us,
whether because we truly believe we’re on our own because there is no God
or because we refuse to acknowledge
that our good things come alone from God’s hand,
our desires become distorted.
Apart from God,
instead of engaging the fulfillment of these desires
out of a posture of confident expectancy and abiding trust,
we pursue them out of a mindset of fear and uncertainty.
If I believe I’m alone or it’s up to me
in achieving these desires that drive us,
then life becomes not
the mutual reception of divine blessing for all
but a challenge and a competition
in which it is every person for themselves.
And when life is viewed as a competition, fulfilling those desires:
looking for love and our well-being, seeking security and protection,
working towards fruitfulness in life, and even pursuing relationships
becomes defined by getting ahead and having more than everyone else.
Once I start to think that fulfilling those desires is up to me,
our God-given desires become self-centered desires.
When this happens, our desires change from what we need.
God-given desires are about what we need
and again, they lead us back to the God
who provides everything that we need.
But when our desires become self-centered rather than God-given,
our focus, our fixation changes from what we need to what we want.
Again, when life is a competition, when it’s you against me,
each of us against the rest of the world,
then needs become eclipsed by wants
because it is not enough to have what we need.
To win, to succeed, to be secure, to stay on top,
to remain ahead, we want more.
We want more than we have. We want more than we need.
Do we remember the definition of the word James uses here
that is translated as “desires” – a longing that becomes
an end in itself at the expense of other things?
The fulfillment of our God-given desires is supposed to lead to contentment.
When we let God fulfill those desires, we find contentment
– not in the desires themselves but in the One who fulfills them.
In other words, our contentment is found in our relationship with our Creator.
Part of God supplying what we need is not only the need itself
but making possible the enjoyment, the satisfaction from
the fulfillment of that need.
But apart from God, as our desires become distorted,
as our desires become self-centered,
as we become focused not on what we need but on what we want,
we never experience contentment because whatever we desire
becomes an end in itself.
Meaning we continue to be driven by wanting more
and therefore, we never have enough.
Apart from God we may experience momentary satisfaction,
but when wanting becomes an end in itself, we will always want more.
Our wants always increase. Our wants are never satisfied.
Constantly fixated on what we want but never having enough,
we become consumed by our desires at the expense of our own contentment.
This internal conflict – the war within that James describes of us
continually wanting more but never having enough
– heightens our insecurity and inevitably spills out
into our relationships with each other.
Why can’t we all just get along?
Because my wants collide with your wants. Your wants bump up against mine.
Deep down, in the midst of our competing agendas,
we know we can’t all get what we want
but the hell if we’re not going to try to attempt
to beg, borrow, or steal as much we can to try and be satisfied.
When our distorted desires are not met
– when we can’t get want we want in the way we want when we want it,
we become tempted us to try and seize power and control
that doesn’t belong to us – that only belongs to God.
And what happens when we attempt to play God?
Destruction and death. James calls it for what it is.
“You desire but do not have, so you kill.
You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”
James, no doubt, is employing a bit of hyperbole here
as he talks about us killing each other
because of we can’t get what we want.
And yet, there are ways to kill another person
beyond actually taking someone else’s life.
Our envy of others due to our frustrated desires
can lead us to kill our relationship with them,
to gossip about them to others in an effort to “kill” their reputation,
or simply to “kill” our feelings towards them
because we are so unhappy that they have it better than we do.
More often than not, we covet what another person has
because of an unfulfilled want in our own life
– we want to be loved like that, we want to be that well-off,
we want to have that kind of security,
we want to see that kind of fruitfulness in our life,
…and so we tell ourselves, it’s just not fair the way,
that we have a “right” not only to want what they have
but to do whatever it takes to get it.
Driven by our distorted desires, our never-ending wants,
James says, we go to war. We create, we perpetuate onflict.
We will even get violent about it.
The tragic Irony of our broken humanity is this.
We defiantly demand and will even fight for all our wants
even as the basic needs of all people remain unfulfilled.
Let us dwell on that for a moment.
God can meet all our needs – all the needs of this world.
What gets in the way is when our wants eclipse the needs of others.
James goes on to tell us, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”
Now this one verse is a favorite of many, but it is also
a classic example of how people misquote what the Bible actually says.
Those who advance the “the name it and claim it,”
or the “prosperity” gospel often take this verse out of context
to argue, if you’re not being blessed with health, wealth, and prosperity
by the Lord, it’s simply because you’ve haven’t asked for these things.
You haven’t asked in true faith for what the Lord wants to give you.
But let us notice what the rest of the verse says, VERSE 3
“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives,
that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Again, let it be perfectly clear. Our God-given desires are for what we need.
God intends for us to receive what we need by asking Him.
He is our Father, the One from whom all the blessings of this life flow.
On the one hand, James is declaring,
we do not have because it doesn’t even occur to us
to ask God because we are looking for our own glory, not God’s.
How can we possibly receive anything God desires to give us
if we are so busy attempting to assume power over and take control of our lives?
If we are counting on ourselves, then we will not be counting on God
and therefore, we be unable to receive what He is ready to give us.
On the other hand, James says, even when we do think to ask God,
our distorted desires dictate our prayer life in selfish ways.
The prayers we end up lifting up are for what we want
and not for what God wants for us.
Let’s think about that for a second.
When’s the last time we prayed for what God wants for us
versus for what we want from God?
When’s the last time we prayed for God’s will
– and not ours – to be done. Isn’t that how Jesus taught to pray?
James is telling us God is not to be viewed as merely a means to our own ends.
Our Father isn’t as interested in giving us what we want
as He is giving us what He wants FOR us.
Our Father is committed to giving what we need
– what is necessary, what is the best for us,
what will enable us to flourish not just today but for eternity.
Do we pray out of this conviction?
Or do we pray out of our insistence that we know better than the Lord?
At this point, James gets pretty fired up.
James accuses us of adultery as he insists that
we cannot be friends of the world without ending up being an enemy of God.
He questions us as to whether or not we think
the Bible is kidding around when it repeatedly states
our God is a jealous God – jealous in His desire
for an exclusive relationship with us.
What is James getting so animated about?
First of all, we need to understand what James means by the “world.”
He doesn’t mean the physical earth itself
or the natural creation or the world of human beings.
When James speaks of “friendship with the world”
he is talking about embracing a philosophy, a spirit of living
that is divorced from the way of God,
that tells us to live for ourselves, that life is all about me,
that I am the author of my own story.
Notice this is the ethos that distorts our God-given desires
and makes them self-centered rather than God-centered.
Why does being friendly with this kind of belief system
make us enemies with God?
Because when we buy into the lie that the world revolves around me,
we all end up competing to be the center of the universe,
and the net result is the disorder, the abuse, and destruction of
all that God created – including us.
And our Father won’t stand for that.
As James reminds us, the Bible declares our God is a jealous God.
But wait isn’t jealousy a bad thing?
Not necessarily. Jealousy can be good or bad.
There can be two kinds of jealousy in a relationship.
There can be jealousy born of our insecurity
– our fear that you’ll find something or someone better
and therefore, we become excessively possessive
for the sake of protecting ourselves.
And then there can be jealousy born of the security
of genuine love – legitimate, selfless care and concern
for protecting the well-being of the other person.
This kind of jealousy truly wants what is
best for the other person and therefore is
opposed to anything that threatens or harms them.
God is not jealous because of any insecurity in His heart.
Think about it.
If God wanted to absolutely control us
out of a sense of fear or ego,
God would not have given us free will.
Our Father created us with the possibility,
the risk of breaking His heart.
And therefore, God’s jealousy for us stems from that love.
Our Creator is not neutral about us
and what do to ourselves and to each other.
God created us, with our best in mind,
and He is passionate about seeing
all the good He intends for us to come to fruition.
Because He loves us, wholly and completely,
God will not be satisfied with each of us
doing “whatever” with our lives when
He has so much better in mind for us.
Out of His devotion and commitment
to the best for us, our Father refuses
to stand idly as we turn against and destroy each other
and therefore, out of his jealousy will resist any and all
forces that would come between us and Him.
We worship a God who is for giving us life
and therefore, for the sake of our salvation,
He will oppose our attempts to pursue what
in the end only brings death to us and our relationships.
When James accuses us of adultery,
he is invoking a repeated biblical image
of our relationship with God as being like that of a marriage.
This spousal metaphor became as description of
the Lord’s relationship with Israel and with the coming of Jesus,
it is carried over into the Lord’s relationship with His Church,
as the Bride of Christ.
Through this metaphor, James is making it clear, we can’t have it both ways.
We can’t claim to be in a committed relationship with God
while we continue to maintain a long running affair with the way of the world
– with a mindset and a pattern of living that is all about ME
– doing it my way and getting everything I want
at the expense of others not getting what they need.
The more we keep insisting on grasping and clinging
to power and control, the more we are cheating on God
– because we are not yielding to His control and serving out of His power.
There’s a name for this kind of self-posturing. It’s called our ego, our pride.
VERSE 6, SECOND PART
But as James quoting Proverbs 3, reminds us,
the proud only meet resistance from God.
It’s not that having a little pride in ourselves and in our work is a bad thing.
It’s pride unchecked that’s the problem
– when our pride leads us to resist or refuses to acknowledge,
to accept, to defer to God as the One who is ultimately in control,
from whom all power is given.
Such pride not only gets in the way of our relationship with God;
it also gets in the way of all our relationships
– leading to our mistreatment of others,
which ultimately is to mistreat the God in whose image we are all made.
Therefore, God opposes the proud.
He resists our resistance because He loves all of us too much not to.
With the rest of this passage, James moves from
giving us a diagnosis of the problem to offering us
a prescription to be made well again.
James’ prescription isn’t that surprising. He calls us to humility.
After all, James just told us that’s the posture God favors from us.
Notice also, in the list of instructions James is about to give us
are bookended by this theme of humility.
He starts the list with “Submit yourselves to God”
and then ends it with “Humble yourselves before the Lord.”
However, if we read through the list that follows carefully,
James isn’t just calling us to humble in a general way.
He’s calling us to humble ourselves in a specific way.
He’s calling us humble ourselves through repentance
– to change direction, to turn around and stop living for ME first.
James gets specific.
VERSE 7, PART TWO and VERSE 8, PART ONE
He urges us to resist the devil and come near to God.
That which is evil in this world is of the devil and the demonic
– spiritual forces opposed to God, forces of evil
that continue to tempt and to assault us
even though they’ve already lost because of Christ,
even though their destiny is annihilation when all things are made new.
Nonetheless, the devil and these forces persist to take down,
to take as many of us with them as they can.
Understand the devil wants you to live for yourself – apart from God
– because that makes you fair game and an easy target.
The devil thrives on our unhealthy fears and uncontrollable anger
even while stroking our ego – our pride – our selfish ambition,
our hunger for validation, for recognition,
and therefore, our bitter envy of others.
James tells us to resist the devil by drawing near to God.
There are only two directions we can go
– running into trouble or running away from it.
Following Jesus or going our own way.
One way leads to unnecessary pain
that not only affects us but hurts others and ultimately leads to death.
The other way, the only way – drawing near to God, following Jesus,
leads to peace within ourselves and with others – to life beyond our failures, our mistakes, our sins – beyond even death itself.
Which way are we running – away from God or back toward the Lord?
Humble repentance — heading in the right direction
– back home to our Heavenly Father – James says, involves
purifying our hearts from being divided. VERSE 8, PART TWO
We need to stop paying lip service and giving God a quick nod of praise but then going out the back door to have another fling with the ways of this world.
When James tell us to grieve
– to change our laughter to mourning and our joy to gloom,
James is cautioning us to treat our sin seriously.
We need to stop minimizing going our own way,
doing whatever we want to do apart from God wills for us
as not really a big deal or worse, promoting living for ourselves as a good thing.
Living apart from God is no joke.
Apart from God, it’s all bad news.
Nothing good ever comes of it.
And it never ends well for anybody – including us.
James is calling us to repentance – offering us a prescription to get back on track.
But here’s the thing, a prescription is only good if we actually take it.
We can’t just listen to James today and leave it at admitting we have a problem.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step, but the most crucial step is
the next one – addressing the problem by letting go and receiving help.
How many Christians confess their need for Jesus
but don’t position or posture themselves to be changed by Jesus?
How many of us have heard the Spirit speak
into our lives through the word of God
opening our eyes and convicting us,
and in response we say “You’re right, Lord. You’re so right, Lord”
but then we go right back to living on our own, apart from God?
Beloved, confession is good for the soul.
But repentance is actually putting our lives in God’s hands.
Perhaps this all sounds a bit overwhelming.
How can we possibly live a life that won’t provoke God to jealousy?
How can I ever be faithful to the person Christ sees in me
– the person the Lord created me to become?
How can we conceivably manage to avoid buying into
all the competition and division, all the conflict and the fighting
that marks this broken world?
On our own, we can’t.
By if we repent, if we submit and commit to Christ,
if we put our lives in the Lord’s hands,
then we can do it – God will do it in and through us.
In the midst of everything else James tells us today,
we cannot miss the most important thing he declares.
VERSE 6: “But he gives us more grace.”
We can’t change ourselves.
But we can be changed
– changed for the better even despite ourselves
because we worship a God who relentlessly pursues us.
He is the Father who is always waiting, looking towards the horizon for us,
running toward us even as we keep our distance from Him.
He is the God who is tirelessly on our side,
never offers us less grace no matter what we do
but always has more and more grace to give.
God gives us more grace through His limitless patience with us
even as we lose patience with ourselves.
God gives us more grace through His steadfast love toward us
even when we believe we are not lovable anymore.
God gives us more grace through His persistent faithfulness
in always providing for us even when
we prove ourselves to be unfaithful to Him.
God gives us more grace
– because God’s grace is greater than all our sin,
greater than all our shame,
greater than all our failures,
greater than all than this world can offer,
greater even than all we can ever imagine
or hope for on our own.
The grace of God is not just the grace of past forgiveness.
The grace of God is not just the grace of a future life beyond death.
The grace of God is the Lord’s inexhaustible generosity in equipping
to be changed, to be matured, to be transformed into the very best
we can become together.
Can’t we all just get along?
And the answer is “Yes, we can.”
Thanks to the endless grace of God at work in and through us,
we can do more than get along, we can flourish together in Christ.
If each of us would repentantly humble ourselves,
yielding the control and power of our lives to God,
then we can be filled – flooded – empowered by the grace of God.
And out of that grace, of which God always has more to give,
we can find the strength to stop living as slaves to our distorted desires
– and instead to start living in a way that God’s desires for us,
for others, for this world, become our desires as well.
Out of the grace of God, we can stop competing and fighting
with each other over what we want and instead
work together by serving each other so that the Lord
can provide for the needs of everyone. Amen.