Malankara World

Articles and Essays

The Causes and Cure of Conflict

by Dr. Stephen Felker

Scripture: James 4:1-3


One problem that has plagued humanity from the beginning is conflict. In fact, in v.2 of our text, James talks about murder, (1) fighting, & war. (2) Shortly after Adam & Eve sinned, their son Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy. As humanity multiplied and divided into nations, wars have erupted. A Norwegian statistician computed that out of 185 generations of recorded history, there have only been 10 generations that have experienced world peace. Not only are there wars between nations, but there are wars of one kind or another on almost every level of life. Different classes of society fight and struggle against the other, the rich & the poor, management & labor. There has been racial conflict in our country & elsewhere. In many cases conflict is common even among family members that are supposed to love each other. We see conflict between husbands and wives, and between children & parents. Someone said that they ate at a real nice family restaurant the other night. Every table had an argument going.

The problem of conflict is even true among professing Christians, in spite of the fact that Jesus prayed for unity among His people. In v.1 James asked, "Where do wars and fights come from among you?" He's talking to Christians. Then in the last of v.1 he talks about "war in your members." This could refer to war among church members (Robertson), rather than an internal war in the members of your body. So evidently conflict was a serious problem in some sections of the early church at that time. For example, the apostle Paul rebuked the members of the Corinthian church for their conflict. Some members were even suing each other in court (1 Cor. 6:1-8). The Galatian believers were "biting and devouring" one another (Gal. 5:15). At Philippi, two women could not get along with each other (Phil. 4:1-3). Today, it is not uncommon for churches to have wars where members take sides, cast verbal bombs at one another, and eventually split into two groups. Such conflict harms the cause of Christ.

Depraved humanity will pay good money to watch a fight, but few of us want to be in a fight. We do not want the stress of conflict, but the blessing of peace. You may be experiencing conflict right now in your life. How can we overcome the problem of conflict in our homes, our churches, and in other groups of people? Well the apostle James gives some insight in our text of Scripture today.

Now if you are going to solve a problem, you must first identify the cause. Deal with the underlying cause of a problem, and you are well on your way to solving the problem. For example, when I go to a doctor, I do not want a medicine that will merely control the symptoms.

I want something that will cure the disease itself. Even so, if we are going to solve the problem of conflict, this is what we must do. First:


In our text today James asks a provocative question in v.1, "Where do wars and fights come from among you?" I do not believe that the main cause would be our environment, or even the influence of TV. Instead, James quickly answers his own question by saying, "Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?" He points the accusing finger at our own desires for such things as pleasure.

Notice how desire can lead to conflict. First you need to realize what a strong, driving force desire can be within us. The word translated "lust" (epithumeo) in v.2 literally means "upon heat" & refers to a strong, passionate desire. Likewise, the word translated "covet" (zeloo) in v.2 probably means "to desire earnestly." It is based on a verb (zeo) that means "to boil with heat, be hot." So we are talking about passionate desire. Desire is just like raw energy. It can be beneficial, but it can also do great damage, as a fire that is out of control.

A famous man was found guilty of willful murder. At his execution, addressing about ten thousand spectators, he said, "Young people, all take warning by me; it was passion that brought me here" [Zodiates, p.223]. Uncontrolled passion led to conflict, murder, and the man's own death by execution.

So don't underestimate the power of passionate desire. Few are able to exercise selfcontrol over such strong desires.

Now let's see how passionate desire can drive people into conflict. For example, when two or more individuals have passionate desire for the same thing, you can imagine how passionate the conflict can become. Suppose two guys are both passionately desiring to have the same girl. Let's suppose she likes both of them. You can imagine what conflict that could produce between the two guys! Or suppose she spurns the advances of one of them. When Cheryl dropped one of her boyfriends, he egged her house!

Now I think the real problem is not with desire in and of itself, but self-centered, selfish desire. In fact, James has already said back in 3:16, "For where envy and self–seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there." That's the real problem that leads to conflict. You can't live to please yourself and not put yourself in conflict with other people. If you are going to please yourself, that means that you are going to displease other people. You are going to have fights and wars.

Usually when a couple gets married, it will not be long before conflict erupts. That because you have two competing monarchies. You have King James and Queen Mary. King James has been used to doing what he wants to do. Queen Mary has been used to doing what she wants to do. So, when they get married, sooner or later there will be war.

Now I believe that in our text James talks about different kinds of selfish desires that can cause conflict. In fact, Titus 3:3 says that before we were saved, we were "serving various lusts and pleasures." So let's consider the different types of desires that cause conflict. The first that James mentions is:

A. Lust for Pleasure

The word translated "pleasure" (hedone) in vv.1 & 3 probably refers to the desire for pleasure. The desire for pleasure is a normal desire, & is not wrong in and off itself. For example, there is nothing wrong with a desire to enjoy the pleasure of food when you are hungry. God put that desire in you for a good reason. But here he is talking here about a self-centered desire for pleasure. In fact, we get our word "hedonism" from the Greek word found here, which refers to the philosophy of making pleasure the top priority in life. It primarily refers to sensual pleasure. This is a powerful form of desire that people have. In fact, Paul said in 2 Tim. 3:4 that in the last days, men would be "lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God." In the early 80's an article appeared in the U.S. News and World Report entitled, "Our Endless Pursuit of Happiness." The article said that the American people were spending more money on leisure and entertainment than we were spending on national defense.

You can imagine how desire for pleasure can cause conflict. For example, the lust for pleasure has caused many a person to commit adultery. That will always cause conflict! The lust for pleasure had cause many to become drunk, or get high on drugs. That can lead to conflict between husband & wife, or between parent & child. The lust for pleasure has caused many to lie & call in sick when actually they are pursuing some form of pleasure. So the lust of pleasure can cause conflict between employer & employee.

When was the last time the selfish lust for pleasure created conflict in your life?

There's another type of lustful desire that can cause conflict:

B. Lust for Power & Position

In the context of chapter 3 we see that there was evidently conflict among James' readers over who should be teachers in the church (3:1). Others fought over leadership in the church. In 3 John 9 John warned of Diotrephes, "who loves to have the pre-eminence among them." That do doubt resulted in conflict.

This was nothing new. King Saul engaged in a war against David & his men, because he feared that David would take his throne. On several occasions there was even conflict among the disciples when they argued over who was the greatest in the kingdom (Luke 9:46-48). Today, lust for power certainly is a major cause of the political conflicts that we see in government. Are you involved in conflict over position & power? We should not seek a better position for ourselves by trampling upon others.

Finally, there's yet another type of lustful desire that can cause conflict:

C. Lust for Possessions

This is brought out especially in v.2, "You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. (3) You fight and war." The word "covet" (zeloo) refers to envious desire. It means "to desire hotly to possess." (4) It is when we burn with desire to have what we see others have. Just watch what happens on Christmas morning when one child gets something, and the other child wants what they have. There will be conflict! It is not necessarily bad to want the good things other people have. But when you realize that you cannot obtain those things in a legitimate way, then it is wrong to start tearing others down, and wishing that they did not have those nice things. These carnal Christians to whom James is writing were apparently jealous of fellow Christians who had more & better things than they, and such envy led to conflict.

We have political conflict today over whether the government should take more of what the rich have, and redistribute that wealth to those who have less. Wars have even been fought as one nation attacked another in their lust to take their land, possessions, & resources. So these different kinds of lust, lust for pleasure, lust for position, and lust for possessions are the underlying causes of so much conflict in the world & church today. The next time you find yourself in the midst of conflict, stop and determine what selfish desire is causing the problem. That is the first step to solving it. Then the second step is this:


James calls for repentance of such self-centered desires in the last of v.8, where he says, "Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double–minded." They were double-minded because on the one hand, they wanted to serve God. But on the other hand, they were pursuing worldly pleasures, positions, and possessions. So we need to recognize selfish desires, and repent of such desires, and keep them under control.

I'm going to give you several reasons why you should repent of such selfish desire. In addition to the fact that self-centered desires lead to conflict, there are two other reasons why we should repent of our self-centered desires:

A. Often Such Desires Are Not Fulfilled

James says in v.2, "You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain…."

The word "obtain" (epitugchano) there really means to miss the mark. You aim for some selfish pleasure, or you covet some possession, but so often you don't get what you are aiming at. So often you are going to be disappointed & miserable, rather than content & thankful.

Life becomes like pursuing a mirage. They tell me that out in the desert thirsty people sometimes will look out and think they see an oasis of water. So they go rushing to that oasis of water, and when they get there, it seems to evaporate - it was a mirage. That is exactly the way a lot of people are living today. They are chasing mirages. So many of their desires are unfulfilled. So, here is a person who has certain personal desires that he has made the number one aim of his life, and he busily pursues them. But so often he can't get what he wants. Then, instead of being thankful for the blessings he does have, he complains about what he doesn't have. By the way, if you wish to be miserable, focus on yourself; think about what you want; what love or respect people ought to give you; and then as you think about all that, you be will become miserable thinking about what you don't have.

There's another problem with pursuing selfish desire:

B. Satisfying Such Desire Only Brings Temporary Satisfaction

This is not brought out in our text, but we know that it is true from other Scriptures & personal experience. Last Christmas many wanted so badly the latest toy, or the hottest electronic device. Yet many of those same items were left unused in someone's closet or entertainment center within a few weeks. Hebrews 11:25 says that the pleasures of sin are "passing," or temporary. Drunkenness, immorality, & other sinful pleasures may give momentary pleasure, but afterwards you are often worse off. Many drug users are no longer satisfied with the drug that they have been using, so they move on to harder drugs. Seeking happiness from material things is like drinking sea water - the more you drink, the thirstier you get. The more money you have, the more you want. The fact is, nothing in this world that you may lust after brings lasting satisfaction. It is foolish to loose your soul or ruin your life just to chase after momentary pleasure or wealth that doesn't last.

I read about an African tribe that selects a new king every seven years. When they select the new king, they give him every imaginable luxury & pleasure. Then at the end of the seven years, when they select the new king, they kill the old king. You would think that in that kind of arrangement, no one would want to be king. However, many a man was willing to take the seven years of luxury & pleasure in exchange for his life. You say they are fools. Yet that illustrates how strong the lust for wealth & pleasure is.

So the next time you feel the tug of selfish desire, think of the conflict it produces. Think of the times such desires are not fulfilled. Think of the fact that even if you get what you want, you will not want what you get for very long. Exercise self-control over such desires with the help of the Lord.

Finally, the last thing you should do is this:


James says in the last of v.2 that "you do not have because you do not ask." They were not looking to the Lord for what they needed, and for personal fulfillment. They were not seeking Him in prayer. That's because we try to get what we want on our own. Too often, we do not turn to God first, but last. Yet true satisfaction in life comes through Christ, and seeking Him first in your life. In Psalm 16:11 the Bible says, "In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore." That statement means that really the only source of lasting pleasure is God. Jesus said in John 4:13-14, "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst…."

A man met Jack, who had recently been converted. He said, "Well, Jack, old fellow, I hear you have given up all your pleasures." "No! No!" said Jack, "the fact lies all the other way. I have just found all my pleasures and have given up only all my follies." (5)

So instead of looking to the pleasures of this world for fulfillment, we should look to the Lord. And as we do so, James indicates that we should do 2 things:

A. Ask in Prayer for What You Need

Prayer is the method God has designed for us to get the things we need in our life. Don't take from others through theft or manipulation. Look to God in prayer. God wants us to depend on Him each & every day. When we need something, we should go to God in prayer first. Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Mt. 7:7). God wants to give you everything you need. He didn't say He would give you all your greed, but all your need. Jesus taught us, "Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt. 6:33). If you seek from God what you truly need, & do your part, you will obtain it, for He will bestow upon you all that is really necessary.

Yet as you pray and ask, James tells us we should:

B. Watch Out for Selfish Motives

James says in v.3, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures." God not only considers the content of our request, but also the motive. The Greek word translated "amiss" (kakos) is a strong adverb which here means to ask "improperly, wrongly." Then James explains why such prayers are so wrong or even evil. First, because they are self-centered. The second occurrence of the word "ask" is in the middle voice in Greek, which means "ask for yourself." (6) But the main indication that such prayer is self-centered is seen in the last of v.3, "that you may spend it on your pleasures." The word "spend" (dapanao) means "to waste, squander, consume." It is the same word that was used of the prodigal son when the Bible says that he spent all. He selfishly squandered it all. James is saying you ask with wrong motives that you may selfishly consume or squander it upon your lust for pleasure.

Some examples of this type of praying would be this: We may ask God for health, not so that we may serve others, but that we may be able to engage in riotous living! We may ask God for wealth, not for the purpose of feeding the hungry and helping God's work, but for the purpose of living in luxury and spending on ourselves. God will not honor such selfish prayers.

Many people call upon God as if He were a magic genie, someone to grant their every wish and desire! But the purpose of prayer is not to get man's will done in heaven, but to get God's will done on earth. Now the fact is God has never promised to give people what they want unconditionally, regardless of His will. James indicates that God sometimes says "No" to our requests. Many times God does not give us what we want simply because He knows that it is not what we really need. We parents do not give our children everything they ask for. If we did, most would eat candy & other sweets most of the time, when they need to eat fruits & vegetables. They are not mature enough to know what is best for them.

There is an old legend that Midas, one of the Phrygian kings, performed some acts of kindness for which the gods promised to give him whatever he should ask. His request was that everything he touched should turn to gold. For a while it seemed that he was most fortunate in his request, but as the very food he touched was changed to gold, he soon besought the gods to take back their fatal gift.

Aren't you glad that our God does not give us everything we ask? How terrible it would be if God did answer our selfish prayers. We ought to thank Him that He doesn't instead of complaining against Him.


So do you want to greatly reduce the conflicts in your life? If so, it is important that you deal with the cause of conflict. Repent of selfish desire. Become selfless like Christ. Do you remember when I talked about King James & Queen Mary? Selfishness will always lead to conflict in a marriage, but putting Jesus on the throne of our lives will lead to peace. That's why James says in v.7, "Therefore submit to God…." Make Him Lord of your life. And if selfishness is the root problem to sinful lust, then we must take up our cross & die to self. Do that, and conflict will disappear like the morning fog!


1 Though physical murder is occasionally the result of conflict, in this context James is probably referring to those who murder the character and reputations of fellow Christians and others (see 3:1-12 & 4:11-12).

2 Two different words for wars are used. The word, "war" (polemeo), refers to a constant state of war. The word, "fight" (machomai) refers to the individual battles that are a part of war. The word, "war" (strateuomai) in v.1 is the word we get the word "strategy." Stratos means "army." It means to carry out a military campaign.

3 It is possible that "You covet and cannot obtain" should be a separate sentence.

4 Used in 1 Corinthians 12:31, "But earnestly desire the best gifts."

5 Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: #4975 (Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1979), 1132.

6 However, Moulton (Prol., p. 160) regards the distinction between the active & middle voices of this verb as "an extinct subtlety." Yet why the change in voice within the same verse?


Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Old & New Testaments: James – Jude (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975 reprint);

Larry Pierce, Online Bible [CD-ROM] (Ontario: Timnathserah Inc., 1996);

A.T. Robertson, New Testament Word Pictures, Vol. IV (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931, accessed through Online Bible);

George Sweeting, How to Solve Conflicts: A Practical Study of the Book of James (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973);

Jerry Vines (notes from his sermon on this text);

Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Mature: James (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1978);

Spiros Zodiates, The Behavior of Belief: An Exposition of James Based Upon the Original Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1959).

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).

© Dr. Stephen Felker.

See Also:

How to Have Unity in the Church
Great harm can come when a group of people, including a church, is divided. We have all experienced quarreling and division before. Division has always been a problem, even among God's people, and almost every New Testament epistle deals with this topic, or mentions it in one way or another. Even the 12 Apostles did not always get along with each other. The problem is common because it is a common problem in all of life.

More Articles

General Sermons Home | Lectionary Sermons Home | Spiritual/Moral Articles | Articles Home | Malankara World - Home

Malankara World
A service of St. Basil's Syriac Orthodox Church, Ohio
Copyright © 2009-2020 - ICBS Group. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer
Website designed, built, and hosted by International Cyber Business Services, Inc., Hudson, Ohio