James 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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What Causes Fights Among You?

The false wisdom that comes from envy and selfish ambition produces disorder (3:16). To put it bluntly, it leads to fighting. James therefore carries his argument forthrightly to this next issue: What causes fights and quarrels among you? The term for fights is polemos; in other contexts (as in Heb 11:34), it refers to actual armed conflict and so carries a violent image. The term for quarrels is mache; it is used in other literature only for battles without material weapons and so refers more to angry disputes. James uses the terms as a pair to make his question inclusive and pointed. It is not to be avoided.

The fighting among Christians which James is addressing is an outrageous evil. Yet I have seen it accepted complacently; one church member who saw a church breaking into factions even commented cheerfully, "Oh, I love a church fight!" In reality it is a tragedy which can cripple a church's internal ministries and external witness for years before a measure of healing and purification becomes evident.

James is not talking about disagreements--the healthy conflicts that should be expected in a church whose ministries are expanding. He is writing about fighting, which is "earthly, unspiritual, of the devil" in origin, and he will call its perpetrators "you adulterous people" (4:4). So serious a crime calls for a serious response. When we Christians find ourselves embroiled in fights with each other, we should examine what we are doing in the light of this paragraph. James gives us great help by answering three questions that are hard for us to face.What Is the Fighting Really About? (4:1)

Honestly facing what James says here is one of the most decisive steps of faith in all of a person's life. For it requires tearing oneself away from self-justification and redirecting oneself toward self-examination. This is a violent uprooting of our selfishness. We try to justify our role in fights in terms of the high ideals, the critical issues and the injured rights we are supposedly defending. James does not entertain any such talk. He drives right to the fact that the fights are, at bottom, about personal desires. His point is reminiscent of 1:14, where he refused to allow excuses for temptation. People are tempted when they are enticed by their own "evil desire." There the term was epithymia; now in 4:1 the term for "desires" is hedone, which speaks more distinctly of pleasures. We get into fights because of pleasures we desire for ourselves. An important self-examining question for Christians in conflict is "What personal desire am I trying to protect or to gain?"

James does not specify examples of the desires. What he does say could refer to conflict in group relationships, such as within a church: inflexibility about issues (from a desire to have one's own way), maneuvering for position of authority (from a desire for status and admiration within the community) or criticizing others (from a desire to make oneself look good). It is equally applicable in individual relationships, such as a marital conflict: constantly exchanging hurtful words (from a desire to get even) or carrying out sexual infidelity (from a desire for selfish pleasure or simply a desire for another spouse). All of these happen in Christian churches and Christian marriages; they are all immoral.

James says the desires battle within you (with the verb in participial form, for we have a continuing problem here). Against whom are they battling? We should not be too quick to assume that James means our good and evil desires are battling against each other. Peter's parallel use of the same verb depicts the evil desires as warring not with each other but against the Christian's own soul (1 Pet 2:11). It is likely that this was the common apostolic concept and is James's own notion here. It means he is not sympathizing with the readers' internal conflicts but warning that those who fight are cooperating in their own self-destruction.How Do the Desires Lead to Fighting? (4:2)

A second way we justify our role in fights is by rationalizing the moral impurity of our actions. James's point in 4:2 is, quite simply, that our desires lead to fighting because of our immorality in trying to grasp what we want. The verb "you want" epithymeo at the beginning of this verse does not automatically signify evil desires; with the same verb Luke has Jesus desiring to eat the Passover with his disciples in Luke 22:15. But the surrounding context here in James is clearly negative, and the verb recalls James's theme of "evil desire" epithymia in 1:14. Thus the NASB translates it "you lust."

What is complicated about this verse is the determination of the correct punctuation and the resulting structure intended by James (since the ancient manuscripts have no punctuation to guide us). One tradition perceives James to be thinking in a series of clauses coming in pairs with contrasting positive and negative verbs. This is reflected in the KJV as a series of three such pairs:

Ye lust, and have not:
ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain:
ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.

The NIV follows the same pattern. A more comprehensive version of this structure is advocated by Dibelius (1976:218) and Davids (1982:157-158) as a series of four pairs extending into 4:3. It could be outlined (translating literally):

You want,
  and you do not have.
You murder and covet,
  and you cannot obtain.
You quarrel and fight,
  [and] you do not have because you do not ask.
You ask,
  and you do not receive because you ask wickedly. . . .

In either variation, this view focuses on the pairs of verbs, a positive verb followed by a negated verb, as the guiding thought in James's meaning. If so, then James's intent is to describe the pattern of frustrated desires. The chief grammatical difficulty with this view is that it requires a key role for kai ("and" in an antithetical sense, similar to "but") to form each of the contrasts and therefore has to overcome the absence of kai from the third pair. Dibelius is willing to conclude that a kai must have been in the original text (1976:218), and Davids considers this a real possibility (1982:158).

A second way to punctuate the verse (preferred by Mayor 1897:131; Mitton 1966:147; Laws 1980:169; Moo 1985:140; Kistemaker 1986:131 and others) is reflected in the RSV, TEV and NASB. This view recognizes the first two contrasts of positive and negated verbs but ends the series where the text lacks the kai to continue the grammatical pattern. This view discerns two parallel statements, each asserting a cause and effect:

You want and do not have: (so) you murder.
And you covet and cannot obtain: (so) you quarrel and fight.

If this is James's meaning, then his intent is to draw a definite connection between desires and behavior. This has James making a clearer moral exhortation, warning that Christians' covetous desires lead to murderous fighting. It leaves the remainder of 4:2, with 4:3, as James's further exhortation on the matter of asking God for what they want.

This second rendering of 4:2 is to be preferred for two reasons. First, it avoids the grammatical difficulty of the missing kai. Second, the questions in 3:13, 4:1 and 4:4 are setting the outline of this section of the epistle, and the clear moral exhortation fits the context perfectly as James's answer to the question posed in 4:1. The conclusion, you quarrel and fight, is even stated with verbs sharing the same roots with the two nouns (in opposite order, fights and quarrels) in the initial question of 4:1.

Many commentators have found the verb kill (more precisely "murder") in 4:2 incongruous--too extreme for the context, especially when followed in sequence by the less violent sin of coveting (as in the rendering adopted by Dibelius and Davids, above). As a result, some have agreed with a conjecture dating back to Erasmus that the verb murder (phoneuete) is a textual error that was envy (phthoneite) in James's original text. (Cf. Mayor 1897:131; Dibelius 1976:217; Adamson 1976:168.) This makes the reading more acceptable to our hearing, but that is not sufficient reason to conclude that the text is corrupt; it is better practice of inductive study to see if sense can be made of the text and to adjust our hearing to the message. In the first place, there is no manuscript evidence for the theory of a textual error here. In the second place, this is not the only time James warns his readers about the sin of murder; he mentions it (with this same verb) in 2:11 and 5:6. Third, the frequent parallels we have found with Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount make it not at all improbable for James to be thinking with Jesus' categories, as in Matthew 5:21-22 where sins of hatred and insult are treated in the same category as murder. It is very likely, then, that murder did not strike James as incongruous at all. Moo wisely rejects the attempts to change or to dilute the term and counsels that "it is simplest to take `murder' straightforwardly and to regard it as that extreme to which frustrated desire, if not checked, may lead" (1985:141).

The purpose of 4:2, then, is to explain the answer James has just declared in the second half of 4:1 to the question he posed in the first half of 4:1. By the parallel structure James implies that quarrels and fights are like murder, and he draws a direct connection between unfulfilled coveting (the cause) and murderous fighting (the effect). James is laying bare the immorality of the motivation for our fights. We fight because we are coveting and are not able to get what we covet.What Is It That Is Going Wrong? (4:2-3)

Even with the origin of the fights identified as our own desires, and even with the immorality of certain actions exposed, there is yet a third way in which we justify our role in fights--by claiming necessity. "I had to do that, or else .......... would have happened!" This last justification is rendered indefensible by the availability of another course of action: prayer.

James makes his point in two stages, and each stage reflects a theological premise he has asserted in chapter 1. First, in 4:2, You do not have, because you do not ask. (The NIV adds God.) The theological premise is that God is graciously generous (stated in 1:5), by which James is convinced that one may ask God and rely on him for what one needs. This emphasis on prayer is another manifestation of James's consistent reliance on God's grace (refuting the portrayal of James as self-reliantly focused on works).

However, God is also pure, and he will have nothing to do with evil (as asserted in 1:13, 17). This is the basis for the second part of James's point, stated in 4:3: a warning that one may not expect God to answer prayer when one's motives are wicked. He warns against asking kakos, wrongly or wickedly, which the NIV paraphrases as with wrong motives. Adamson considers it stronger language than the KJV's "amiss" and paraphrases it "Your praying is corrupt" (1976:168). Then James explains the wrong motives: they ask in order to spend on their pleasures, emphasized by the same noun hedone translated desires in 4:1.

The conclusion for us is that our fights reveal a wrong relationship with God which is manifest in our prayer lives. Either we do not pray, because we do not trust in God's grace, or we pray with wrong motives, because we do not follow God's purity.

In all this, James is again taking his Lord at his word and applying it in full belief to a practical situation of life. Like the references to judgment in 3:13-18, James's flow of thought parallels that of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 7:1-12 James 3:13--4:3
Do not judge. Do not practice false wisdom (which includes judging).
Example: humility to see one's own faults, in contrast to hypocrisy. Examples: humility and not hypocrisy.
Ask (instead of judging). Ask (instead of fighting).

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