Conflict: where it comes from and how to resolve it

Resolving conflict and getting along with others

James–Part 20

God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves, therefore, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
James 4:6b-10

James wrote to a group of believers who were finding it difficult to get along with one another. I’m thankful for his letter because I live in a world filled with conflicts. And while there is little I can do about national and international conflicts, there is something I can do about the conflicts that rage in my soul.

In verse six, James quotes Proverbs 3:34 to identify both the cause of conflict and its cure: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The Bible says pride is the source of our relational troubles. It is pride that leads us to conclude we deserve anything we desire. It is pride that says, “If there is someone or something I can possess that will make me feel better, then I deserve to have it, and I will do all I can to get it. After all, I’m worth it.”

In essence, pride is demanding to have our own way, and this puts us in direct opposition to God. James encourages us to change the way we think. His remedy is wrapped up in the much misunderstood word, repentance, and in verses 7–10 he provides a working definition:

  • Submit to God (v. 7). To submit to God means to live according to his principles. To submit to God is to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and mean it. In this context, submission to God is synonymous with obedience to God.

  • Resist the devil (v. 7). The word translated resist means “to stand against.” How do we stand against the devil? When Jesus battled Satan in the wilderness, his one weapon was the Word of God. We learn to stand against the devil by studying the Scriptures and learning how to live them out. When our mind is filled with the things of God, there is no place for Satan to stand.

  • Draw near to God (v. 8). How do we get closer to God? By doing the things James mentions next–we change the way we think and the way we act.

  • Cleanse your hands… purify your hearts (v. 8). To cleanse your hands is to stop participating in wrong behaviors. To purify your heart is to turn away from the internal attitudes (the thoughts and motives) that prompt the wrong behaviors. The problem, James says, is double-mindedness–a faith that fluctuates from day to day.

  • Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom (v. 9). James is not calling them to put on a outward show, but to seriously consider their sinful nature. Jesus said, “blessed are those who mourn,” because mourning is a key component of repentance. Paul described it as “godly sorrow,” and says this about it in his second letter to Corinth: “It is the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have… For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).

  • Humble yourselves before the Lord (v. 10). James ends with the same admonition he began with. We become humble as we recognize that any worth we have comes from God and not ourselves. We identify with the tax collector in Jesus’s parable who says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

James identifies pride as the cause of conflict. We resolve our conflict with God by changing the way we think–we become spiritually whole. But spiritual wholeness also has a community dimension. James addresses this component in verses 11–12.

Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks against another or judges another, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
James 4:11-12

To “speak against” has a broad range of meaning: it can refer to slander, gossip, false accusations, questioning legitimate authority, and other forms of harmful speech. We live in a culture that has turned harmful speech into an art form, and it is easy to get caught up in it. But here’s the problem: when Christians condemn and slander others, we are forgetting who we are and why we are here. We are here to be ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven. God did not appoint us to judge and condemn one another–he told us to be merciful and pray for one another. He appointed us to preach the good news and be salt and light. When we forget that and speak against others, we open ourselves to conflict. And worse–we are guilty of trying to do God’s job.

James is writing to Christians who, like many of us, were caught up in the quick-to-condemn culture they lived in. And James’s earlier instruction fits well here: we are to be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry.

There are times when Christians should speak against evil, and there are times when people should be confronted with their sins. Indeed, this very letter rebukes its readers for double-mindedness. But there is a big difference between speaking strong words in order to help and speaking strong words in order to condemn.

Next: Understanding time and eternity

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