The War Within You (And How to Win It) (James 4:1-3)

Main Idea: There’s a war going on within each person, and we can only be victorious through Jesus.


Thirty years ago, a group of historians did a research project together, and found that in the last 5,600 years, there have been over 14,000 wars fought in mankind’s history, in which more than 3.6 billion people have been killed. That’s about 2 ½ wars per year, with an average of 650,000 people killed every year as a result of war. They also found that in those 5,600 years that they researched, there have only been 292 years of peace in which they were unaware of a war happening somewhere in the world.

Honestly, I’m actually shocked that the number of years of peace is so high. I kind of think that maybe they missed a few wars, and there were actually a lot fewer years of peace than the research project showed. Mankind just seems to love the idea of going to war. And certainly sometimes there seems to be no other option, and certainly there comes a point when we need to stand up to those who are oppressing others, but I bring all this up just to point out mankind’s history is full of war and murder.

But should we really expect otherwise? Because the problem isn’t just about what’s happening somewhere in the world. The problem is in our own hearts.

James 4:1-3.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:1-3)

Father, we ask You to direct our passions. Help us to desire the things that You want for us. Help us to love one another as You have loved us. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

I read a story about a boy named Johnny who got in trouble because he didn’t have his homework done. His teacher asked him, “Where’s your homework, Johnny?” Johnny replied, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I couldn’t do it because there was too much noise at home.” The teacher was concerned for his home environment, so she asked, “Oh? What kind of noise?” Johnny said, “It was the television, ma’am. It was too loud and nobody would turn it down.” Relieved that it wasn’t a domestic dispute, the teacher replied, “Johnny, you know you could have asked them to turn down the volume so you could do your homework, right?” To which Johnny replied, “I would have, but there was no one else in the room, and it was a show I really liked!”

We always seem to want to blame others. Even as we argue with others, we tell ourselves, “They started it!” So we sometimes justify our sinful behavior in our minds based on how others have sinned before us.

So James starts chapter 4 with a question. Verse 1.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? (James 4:1a)

In other words, “Who started it?” When you argue with others, whether it’s with your spouse, or your neighbor, or a stranger over the internet, James lumps all of these into the same question, and answers them all the same way.

But before we get to the answer, let me ask you: why do you argue with people? Think about the last argument you had. Maybe it was this week, or even this morning. Who or what started it?

If we’re honest, I think we’d often say that we argue with people because we think we’re right and they’re wrong. And, we’d say that they started the fight. But interestingly enough, the people we argue with would probably say the same thing. They’d say they’re right, and we’re wrong, and we started it. It’s funny how pretty much all of us always want to blame others pretty much all of the time. So which is it? Are they right, or are we?

Well, oftentimes, neither of us are right, and we’re both wrong because of the way we speak to and treat one another. The Bible is clear that we’re all sinners. Our thoughts are typically not consumed with helping others, but with helping ourselves. We’re selfish. The Bible even says in Jeremiah 17:9:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

It’s strange that we can understand so many things, all over the earth and universe, and yet fail to understand our own hearts. Sometimes we delight in good, and sometimes we delight in evil. So it actually makes perfect sense to me that there have been so few years of peace in our history, and I’m actually surprised that they found so many.

We seem to love to argue. But why? James answers the question this way. What causes quarrels and fights among you? End of verse 1.

Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? (James 4:1b)

Maybe you’ve gotten into an argument with someone before, and at some point had to apologize for your behavior, saying, “I’m sorry, I guess I’m just so passionate about this subject.” James is saying that’s exactly what gets us into trouble most of the time.

About twenty years ago, there was a CEO of a fast-growing company who said, “I value passion probably more than any other attribute.” He saw to it that he only hired the most passionate employees, and he demanded the highest performance from them at all costs. He worked with passion, arriving early and staying late, so that his company was rated by Fortune Magazine as the most innovative company in America.

The company’s name was Enron. Some of you may have heard of it. The CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, went to prison for conspiracy, fraud, and inside trading, and it was all because his passion above everything else was making money.

1 Timothy 6:10 says:

The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

And, really, we could say the same thing about many passions. The love of TV is a root of all kinds of evils. The love of approval is a root of all kinds of evils. Anything that we put above our love for God can cause us to wander away from the faith.

Alex Rodriguez is considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He’s the youngest player to ever hit 500 homeruns, and he retired as the highest paid major league baseball player of all time, having earned around $450 million dollars from his 22 years playing baseball. Rodriguez gave some great career advice. He said:

“Find your passion. Work at it. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” – Alex Rodriguez

That’s not bad advice. And yet, Rodriguez went down in history for doing steroids in order to improve his ability to play. Apparently, his passion for the game didn’t always steer him to do the right thing.

And yet, passion itself is a good thing! It’s good to be passionate about things. It’s good to love with intensity. Just imagine how boring this life would be if none of us had passions! And yet, we quarrel and fight because our passions are at war within us, and we often put our passions above morality and love of God and others.

Now, there are actually two ways of understanding this verse, and I think we can grow in our faith by looking into both of them.

First, we could understand this verse as talking to us as a people. We each have various passions and opinions, and sometimes those passions and opinions conflict with one another. We see that on Facebook all the time.

But strangely enough, we seem to love to argue most with the people we love the most. It’s sad, but true, that it’s perfectly normal for husbands and wives to argue. It’s perfectly normal for family members to argue. And it’s even perfectly normal for people within churches to argue.

One of my favorite scenes from the show The Office is when Jim and Pam, who seem to have the perfect relationship and marriage, always joking around, never arguing, have a major disagreement on Valentine’s Day. All day long, they just weren’t seeing eye to eye, and at the end of the day, they had a choice to make. Would they work through it, or run away and ignore it? Here’s what happened.

[Video Clip from The Office]

I love that line, “Put your dukes up, Beesly.” It acknowledges that they’re going to have a disagreement, but it’s said out of love.

When you really love each other, sometimes you need to fight over your passions in order to work them out. Even as a church, sometimes it’s healthy to have a fight, because to just ignore conflict is to be an unhealthy church. That’s why Paul constantly brought things up in his letters to the churches, in order to help them become more healthy. So sometimes it’s actually good for a pastor to say to his church or a church to say to their pastor, “Put your dukes up.”

In all honesty, that’s not something I’ve been great at over the years. I’ve tended to lean in the direction of maintaining church unity at the expense of church health. And obviously there’s a balance here, because it wouldn’t be healthy to nitpic every little thing that anyone does, and we need to love another in spite of our imperfections, but at the same time, the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. That means poking and prodding at one another so that we would all learn to turn away from sin more, and glorify God more in our lives. But even when we do that, the goal should always be to love one another.

So that’s the first way we could understand what James is saying. We argue because we each have different passions that conflict with one another. But the second way that we could understand it is that he’s not just talking to us as a whole, but to each of us individually.

In other words, we argue because even within ourselves, we have various passions that conflict with each other. I have various passions that are at war within me, and you have various passions that are at war within you. Paul wrote about it like this in Romans 7, starting in verse 18.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Romans 7:18-19)

Skipping to verse 22, he continues:

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:22-24)

Paul is basically saying that there’s a war within him. He wants to do good, but evil is always right there within him. And he laments the fact that he so often chooses to do the evil thing that he doesn’t even want to do!

It’s kind of like how I tell myself all the time, “Today I’m going to exercise instead of sitting on my butt watching YouTube.” But what do I end up doing? I end up sitting on my butt watching YouTube!

And, of course, there are much worse examples we could bring up. Because this is true of each one of us. We were made in the image of God. So we have the capacity to do good, just as God is good. But the image of God in us has been corrupted because of our sin. And even after we receive Christ, and the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, we still wrestle with sin. So there’s this battle going on within each one of us.

It’s like the stereotypical angel on one shoulder and demon on the other. The demon tempts us to sin, and the angel encourages us to make the right choice. In fact, ten years ago, I had the youth of our church make a video about it, so I just have to show it.

[Video of Angel & Demon]

So, moral of the story: when you allow your pastor to record something, always remember that he can use that video anytime in the future with or without your expressed knowledge or permission.

No, the moral of the story is that God calls us to be good stewards of our lives! And we all have the desire to do good, but evil is always right there with us, too. We have a war within us. Verse 2.

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:2a)

I hope none of your martial conflicts end with murder. Maybe some of you sometimes think it might come to that. But it’s definitely true that many political conflicts end with murder. Nations go to war against nations, and even people with our own nation fight and kill one another because of differing ideologies. That’s the way the world works. But that doesn’t have to be the way that we work.

So in this seemingly impossible situation, how do we win?

End of verse 2.

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:2b-3)

You know, we often apply this verse to prayer, and I think it definitely has something to say about prayer. But in context, it’s actually talking more about our relationships with each other. We argue because we insist on our own passions, without considering the passions of others.

Contrast this with how Jesus lived. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wrestled with going to the cross. And yet, in the end, He prayed to His Father, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” And through His death on the cross, we all have peace with God.

So maybe the way to win the war so that we can all have peace is to actually put someone else’s passions ahead of our own. Rather than asking in order to receive something to spend on our own passions, we can ask to receive something to spend on their passions.

How would it look if children shared their toys, or even delighted in seeing other children play with their toys, not insisting they get a turn? Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?

And how would it look if a husband and wife always put the other person’s desires ahead of their own?

And how would it look if countries always sought to help the citizens of other countries at least as much as their own?

Now, I try not to get too political, but I think that might sound like heaven. If we all thought more about the needs of others rather than our own, that’s heaven.

Regardless, the way we win the war within us is to ask and receive in order to spend on the passions of others. We’re to literally give our lives to others. And the greatest Person to give our lives to is Jesus, because He gave His life to us.

Paul asked before in Romans 7:24, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And he immediately answers the question in verse 25.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25a)

You see, Paul and James are saying that there’s a war going on within each person, and we can only be victorious through Jesus.

So maybe the way to win the war within us is to realize that the battle’s already been won. We have the victory through Jesus. He paid the price for our sin, and through Him we’re reborn and we’re made new creations. And while we might still struggle with our various passions in this life, we can praise God that in the end, He will make all things new.

Pastor Chris Huff

Pastor Chris Huff has been with us since July 2009.  He and his wife, Abby, have four children.  Chris is originally from St. Louis, MO and even though he was raised as a city boy, he has a small town heart. Chris is all over the internet, so you can find him on Facebook, Twitter,… (read more)

James is one of the most simple and practical letters in the New Testament written to encourage and instruct believers. The fact that this letter is in the Bible is interesting, though, because it actually almost didn’t make the cut. Some well-known Christians throughout history didn’t like it or think that it measured up to… (read more)

Bible Passages: James 4:1-3
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