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
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:
I. RECOGNIZE THE CAUSE OF CONFLICT
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
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:
II. REPENT OF SUCH SELF-CENTERED DESIRES
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
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:
III. LOOK TO THE LORD FOR FULFILLMENT
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),
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.
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.
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