Getting to the Heart of Conflict
Topic: Conflict Passage: James 4:1–4:5
Getting to the Heart of Conflict
Pastor Allen Snapp
James asks a great question: what causes all the quarreling and conflict in our lives? We have all fight and bicker and argue at times – but why do we do it? What causes all the arguments and conflicts in our lives? And, maybe more importantly, what would God have us do to lessen the conflicts in our lives?
The story is told that famous novelist Alexandre Dumas got into such a heated argument with a young politician that they decided the only way to settle their fight was by a duel (that’s how people settled arguments back then). However both men were such good shots they realized that they’d probably just kill each other so instead they decided to draw lots with the understanding that the loser would shoot himself. Dumas drew the short stick and resignedly picked up his pistol and went with silent dignity into the next room. His companions waited gloomily for the shot that would end their friend’s young life and promising career. After what seemed an eternity, the shot finally rang out…
A moment later, to their surprise, Duma himself opened the door and said, “Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened. I missed.”
If only all quarrels and conflicts could end so harmlessly – if only all the angry words and cruel barbs and cutting remarks and sarcastic put downs we’ve said to others or others have said to us all missed and did no damage. But that’s not the case. Everyone of us have probably hurt others and been hurt by things said and things done in the heat of conflict. Our words don’t miss.
Conflicts can happen anywhere and at any time. In fact, there’s a good chance that someone here had a fight on the way to church this morning. Quarrels come in all shapes and sizes – we can argue about almost anything. I once argued with a friend to the point of anger about the love of God. Fights happen between husbands and wives, between sons and fathers, between mothers and daughters. I know a father who hadn’t heard from his two adult sons in a decade. Due to hurt and anger they wanted nothing to do with him.
A married couple shared how they would argue for hours 3-4 nights a week over their need to spend more quality time together. I can think of a way they could spend more quality time together – stop fighting!
Sometimes really small things can turn into really big fights. Some years ago Janice and I got into such a heated argument on the way to pick up Jeff and Rachel for a double date, that when they got into the car the first thing we said to them was you might want to turn right around and go back into your home. We’re probably not going to be great company tonight. They said they were up for going out if we were, and we ended up having a very nice evening and being able to talk about our conflict with friends helped Janice and me. But here’s the thing: today I can’t remember what we were fighting about.
On a lighter note, we had over 20 family members at our home for Thanksgiving, and Friday night we decided to play a game, but as I tried to explain how to play the game it was hard to get everyone’s attention so I began to talk louder to be heard over the chatter. I was already beginning to get annoyed when Janice chose that moment to tell me I was talking too loud and I threw up my hands and said, “that’s it. Some else needs to take over - I’m done!” The family saw I was annoyed and decided it’d be fun to play a new game called “piss off the pastor”.
Conflict is inevitable in this world, and conflict can be a good and necessary thing in relationships. If we never have conflicts, we might be stuffing and not sharing things honestly. In heaven there won’t be fights and quarrels but here on earth there will be. Handled correctly they can be an important part of how we grow in Christ. Handled wrongly they can do a lot of damage.
James asks, what causes quarrels and fights among you? Our tendency is to think of a person when we think of what causes the conflicts in our lives. What causes fights? Have you ever tried living with my husband? What causes fights? My wife constantly nags me and I can’t get a minute’s peace.
There’s a scene in the movie Daddy’s Home 2 where Will Ferrell’s character wisely points to a mirror hanging on the wall and tells Mark Wahlburg’s character that the only person who can ruin his Christmas is the person he sees in the mirror. But from the angle Mark is standing at, the only face he sees in the mirror is Will Ferrell’s face. So Will tells him to switch places, so they switch places. But when Mark looks in the mirror, still all he sees is Will Ferrell’s face.
From the angle you’re standing at, does it look like someone else is responsible for the conflict in your life? Do you see your husband’s face, or your wife’s face? Do you think your life would be conflict free if it weren’t for your teenager or your boss or your mother-in-law?
James says before we look outside for the source of our conflicts we need to look in the mirror: What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.
The Heart of Conflict
Ultimately the outer conflicts in our lives come from inner conflicts going on in our hearts. Your heart is full of desires and longings that make your heart a virtual battlefield, and the person next to you has the same war of desires going on in their heart. When we don’t get what we want, conflict happens. James uses the word murder as the ultimate result of frustrated desires, and we might think “I’ve never murdered anyone” but remember Jesus said when we’re angry at our brother it’s like we’ve murdered them in our heart.
Not all of these desires at war within us are wrong in and of themselves. Obviously some desires are sinful: coveting, lust, jealousy, selfish ambition (some of the things James talks about in the previous chapter). But other desires are good and healthy: the desire for safety, for respect, for love, for appreciation, for affirmation, for validation, for peace, for justice, and on and on. The sin may not be in what we desire, but in how much we desire it. When a desire rules us, it becomes an idol – anything that becomes first in our hearts is an idol.
So, for instance, if we want respect more than we want God, respect is an idol of our heart. If we perceive someone isn’t giving us the respect we crave, then what God wants for us in that moment goes out the door and the gloves come off. We feel justified to do or say anything to get the respect we crave so badly.
What causes quarrels and fights among you? It’s when the desires in my heart gets frustrated by the desires in your heart, and the desires in your heart gets frustrated by the desires in my heart – and suddenly the enemy is engaged and the heart is locked and loaded. Conflict!
- You come home from a hard day at work and all you can think about is a peaceful evening, kicking back and chilling out to your favorite TV show. But your kids have other ideas and peace and quiet isn’t one of them. Something rises up in your heart and it isn’t love and joy. It’s anger at your plans being disturbed. All I wanted was some peace and quiet – is that too much to ask??? Your craving for a quiet evening is frustrated and the night is spent fighting and quarreling.
In marriages conflict often has a circular nature:
- The husband craves respect, the wife craves loving engagement and these two desires – neither of them wrong in themselves – often go to war. She feels resentment because he’s disengaged or demanding. He’s frustrated cause he doesn’t feel she respects him. What they don’t realize is their desires are moving them away from, rather than toward, the things they desire. He gets angry and demands respect and in doing so becomes less and less the kind of man she can respect. She criticizes and nags him more and more, making him less and less inclined to engage in a loving way toward her.
Often insecurities are at work in both. Insecurities are fears we won’t get what we desire. The husband tries to look strong and manly, but inside is full of insecurities and fears he never wants to admit and his wife’s lack of respect and encouragement triggers those insecurities and make him ever more petty and harsh and demanding (less manly). The wife is insecure about her husband’s love and his actions feed those insecurities but she can’t talk to him about it. The man she’s supposed to be able look to to protect her is the very one she feels most unsafe with. So where is she to go?
These desires eventually either squash our prayer life or they turn prayer into a means of getting what we want: You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Rather than praying “Your will be done”, we pray, “my will be done.”
James identifies this as worldliness. You adulterous people![c] Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (vs. 4) When we’re living for our fleshly desires we’re living according to the principles of this fallen world rather than the transcendent principles of the kingdom of God. When the church is full of conflict and quarreling and gossip and broken relationships it looks like the world not like Christ.
Worldliness isn’t enjoying the good things that God gave us. Enjoying a beautiful sunset or a good meal or making memories with family aren’t worldly. Desiring safety or peace or respect aren’t worldly – until they drive us to be and do things that run contrary to the spirit of Christ. And the primary characteristic of the spirit of Christ is love. Jesus allowed himself to be rejected by his own, even though he longed for them to receive him. Jesus asked the Father to forgive the very ones who were mocking and scorning him and were responsible for him being crucified. He loved those who hated him. His desires were always submitted to the will of his Father and always ran in the direction of love. That should be our prayer: Father, fill my heart with love and grace towards the people in my life even when they get in the way of the desires of my heart. Only the love of Christ filling our hearts can free us from the tyranny of our desires.
Verse 5 is a tough one to interpret, but I think in essence it means that God created our spirit (our life) and He is jealous to own our hearts. God’s jealousy isn’t a petty, selfish jealousy, it’s an expression of His love. God is what we need more than anything. Only God can fulfill our deepest longings and desires. If we get everything else but don’t have God we’re lost. If we have God and nothing else we are rich. God is jealous that we are His and He is ours.
Conflicts are complicated and sometimes necessary. God uses conflict to accomplish good things when we respond in a Christlike way. But conflicts can also do so much harm and wound and damage. Share a few principles for working through conflict in a godly way.
- Examine your own heart first. James is calling us to look deeply at our own heart. Our desires. Jesus also said, first take the log out of your own eye. Ask this question of yourself and be brutally honest: what’s it like to be on the other side of me?
- Listen carefully to the other person. James says we are to be quick to listen and slow to speak. In conflict often we tend to listen less and talk more. Do you really understand what their point of contention is? We hear things through filters that often interpret their words in ways they didn’t mean. Sometimes people don’t say what they mean very clearly and we then put their words or actions in the worst light possible. Say, this is what I am hearing you say. Am I understanding you correctly? Then, before you kneejerk react, go to point one and examine yourself. Is there some truth in what they’re saying?
- Choose your conflicts carefully. Is this really worth fighting over? Don’t look at every contention and every difference as a hill worth dying on. Forbearance is the ability to let smaller things slide and forbear them and it’s a quality of the Spirit-filled life. Give grace to people, choose your conflicts carefully.
- Let your love be strong and your strength be loving. There are times when we need to take a strong stand against someone’s actions or words. It’s not loving to step aside and allow misguided or evil people to call the shots. Society needs good people to stand up and lead.
There are people who hate conflict and avoid it at all costs to an unhealthy degree. We shouldn’t love conflict (if you enjoy conflict, you may want to rethink that), but sometimes we need to stand up and speak the truth. We can’t sacrifice truth in the name of grace. And we can’t sacrifice grace in the name of truth.
As we navigate conflict, let’s ask God to fill our hearts with a strong love, and a loving strength, so even when hard things need to be said and done, they’re said and done with love.
- Pray for the other person or people. James says our prayers shouldn’t be selfishly centered on what we want. It’s not wrong to lift a desire to the Lord, but we aren’t to make prayer a wish list of what we want. But the highest prayers are to lift up others. In conflict, Carey suggests that we not pray about the other person but pray for them. Pray that God blesses them. Helps them. Does good in their lives.
God has given us such riches in Christ that if we just knew how rich we were, we wouldn’t crave other things as if our lives depended on them. We don’t need people’s respect. It’s healthy to want it. It’d be weird not to. But ultimately we don’t need it. The world could hold you in contempt and if God holds you in His esteem, you’re golden.
We don’t need people to protect us – God is our refuge. Our high tower. We don’t need peace with people who hate us when we have peace with God. The more our hearts are filled with the riches of Christ and the love of Christ, the more our hearts will be free from the voracious demands of our desires and the conflicts they create. Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart even when you’re in the storm of conflict. Let’s pray.