Do statements like these sound familiar?

  • “You make me so mad!”
  • “You’re driving me crazy!”
  • “If you would do what I say, I wouldn’t nag so often.”
  • “I had a hard day at work, give me a break.”

Jesus says the things we say reveal our deepest beliefs and desires. After all, as Jesus says “what you say flows from within your heart.” So think about what is revealed about the heart in the above common statements. They demonstrate that we believe our behavior is controlled by things outside of us – other people, a job, the weather, and so on. But, Christian, is that really true? If taken to its extreme, we feel as if we are never at fault for anything, but instead victims of circumstance. But is that biblical? Is it the weather’s fault that I lost my temper with my children? Is it my bad day at work that made me short with my spouse?

Determining the cause of conflict is central to the process of marital and relational growth and healing. James actually asks this very question in James 4:1 – “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” And he answers: “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” In other words, your temper can be blamed on one thing alone. Not the external circumstances of your life, but the internal desires of your heart. James repeats it several ways so we understand how comprehensive this is for understanding the cause of sinful conflict: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel (4:2). James is not speaking of ordinary, good desires, but inordinate – out of bounds – desires, that somehow we’ve considered “normal.” This happens when good desires become ruling desires, hijacking our hearts. We become demanding as if we are saying “my kingdom come, my will be done.” This is the antithesis of how Jesus graciously teaches us to pray.

James’ point is simple: we fight because our hearts’ desires are out of order. While our culture may call these “mental disorders,” as biblical counselors we speak more about hijacked hearts and minds trying to play god. Remember dear brothers and sisters, the Creator defines His creation. And as His most prized possessions, He will stop at nothing to bring us unto Himself. As part of the created order, we must listen to how Our Loving, Gracious Heavenly Father instructs us how to live in His world, not the other way around!

Of course, external circumstances, unhealthy family dynamics, ways you are sinned against, and many other important shaping influences matter greatly. They are powerful temptations toward certain behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. A bad day at work, a critical spouse, a friend’s betrayal – these are contexts that can certainly help us make sense of how conflict is happening and will continue to happen. But they don’t explain why it is happening and said difficult circumstances sure do not define who we are. He defines Himself and His people, so let’s listen to Our Father and King together and learn what He desires from His people since Jesus purchased us with His blood and faithfully and graciously gave us His Holy Spirit to dwell in us. If we understand conflict to be present, we are only beginning to understand the problem. We must delve further into why it’s there in the first place.

James dives deeper before pointing us to a solution. These fights and quarrels not only reveal a heart with disordered desires; these disordered desires reveal a heart of disordered worship! We do not behave our way into sin so we cannot behave our way out of sin. We worship our way into sin, therefore we must worship our way out of sin.

James says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” He is not claiming that we are all guilty of adultery on our spouses, but adultery toward God, in the sense that we are being unfaithful to the Lord by devoting ourselves to things other than him. According to James, by following after the disordered desires of our hearts we’re actually worshiping false gods, something totally incongruent with the new nature and new identity we’ve been given in Christ.

In essence, this is the same thing Jesus told us: where your treasure is, there will your heart be. So where is your treasure? Is it in your career? Your children? Is it in your possessions and appearance? Or in your intellect and books and degrees? To put it differently, whatever you value most (treasure) will hold your deepest devotion (heart). And if that treasure is anything other than Christ, if the heart is devoted to anything other than Christ, you can be sure that it will cause all kinds of sin, such as fights and quarrels. And, to be sure, we can always find our hearts lusting for things other than the Risen Savior. But, He knows this and if you are a believer…. Jesus has already forgiven you! This may sound too good, but it’s nonetheless TRUE!

Having described how our fights and quarrels reveal hearts that have strayed from God, James gives us some very good news: “But [God] gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” That is an amazing statement! Yes, God is gracious to the humble. But he is also gracious toward the proud by opposing them….PLEASE feast on such truth. We see this in Jesus’ loving, tough opposition to the proud Pharisees. God is not content to let us remain in our disordered desires and worship. He is gracious in that he uses our trials and suffering to recapture our hearts to worship him and follow his desires. That is why, as James says earlier, we can “count it pure joy” when we “meet trials of all kinds” – because we know that through such trials he is purifying our hearts to worship him. So external circumstances, rather than being the scapegoat for wrongdoing, are actually the very things that the Father graciously uses as discipline to lead his children back to himself – the only One who can redeem the heart of conflict.