Those conflicts and quarrels among you, where do they come from? Don’t they come from your desires that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask God. And even when you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives–you want to spend it on your pleasures.
Conflict. None of us like it, but all of us have to deal with it from time to time. It’s not uncommon to hear couples say things like, “We love each other, but we can’t get along, and we fight about the stupidest things.” It’s not uncommon to hear a parent confess, “There’s constant tension between me and the kids. It seems like we’re always arguing.”
We identify with those kinds of feelings because all of us have a dark side to our nature. Inside each of us is a person who says and does venomous things. Then we wonder, “Where did that come from?”
James tells us exactly where it comes from: our hurtful words and actions come from hedonai that compete within us. The word is found in verse 1 (translated desires) and verse 3 (translated pleasures). We get the word “hedonism” from it.
Is God saying the pursuit of pleasure is inappropriate? Is it wrong to want to enjoy life? Absolutely not! Jesus said he came so that his followers might enjoy life in all its fullness (John 10:10), and 1 Timothy 6:17 says God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
So if God wants us to enjoy life, what is the difference between hedonism and Christianity? Simply this: hedonism is an indulgent self-centered philosophy that views pleasure as the chief goal of life. In essence, pleasure functions as the god of hedonism. Christianity teaches us to enjoy life, but not at the expense of our integrity.
James is telling them that they are serving the wrong god. What about us? Use the questions below to evaluate your hedonistic tendencies:
Am I more concerned with getting what I want than with pleasing God?
When someone gets in the way of what I want, do I get angry?
Few of us can answer “no” to both questions, and the desire to have things our way motivates many other desires, such as those mentioned in verse 2: “You want something and do not have it, so you murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it, so you fight and quarrel.”
Materialism and covetousness follow hedonism like a cart follows a horse. Making pleasure our top priority will inexorably lead us to want more and more. And it’s not that wanting things is evil. God gave us the earth to use for our enjoyment. The problem comes when we stop using things and start serving them.
In chapter 1, James warned his readers that these kinds of desires give birth to sin and result in death (vv. 14–15). In chapter 3, he identified the desires they were struggling with as envy and selfish ambition (vv. 14–16). Most of us can relate to their struggle. I sure can. Personal experience has taught me how these twin desires can twist a soul into an angry knot.
In chapter 4, James explains the source of our frustration: blocked goals. Something or someone is standing in the way of what we want. And James says our tendency will be to do whatever it takes to remove the obstacle. If we have to lie or manipulate or hurt someone’s feelings, so be it. All is fair in war. But at the heart of our reasoning is a kind of blindness. We can’t see that our real problem is not a blocked goal, but a blocked relationship with God. So instead of asking God for what we want, we power up and try to get it on our own. And even when we do think about praying for something, our motive is often wrong. We attempt to manipulate God the same way we try to manipulate everyone else. And your experiences may be completely different, but this is what I learned after years of trying: I cannot manipulate God.
So if I can’t cajole God into doing things my way, what are my options? Well, I could sit and stew and get bitter and blame God and everyone else for my circumstances. That’s a popular option. But, as James points out, it ends in misery and death. So is there another option? Yes. I can change the way I am looking at the world.
One helpful question I ask myself when I feel angry or frustrated is, “what did I want that I did not get?” It’s usually something petty like getting stuck in traffic when I’m running late or getting cold fries at the drive-thru, but sometimes it is more significant, like the doctor visit that didn’t go the way I wanted it to, or the income that can’t keep up with the outgo.
Determining the source of my frustration won’t necessarily resolve my problem, but it will help me put things in perspective, and that is a good place to start. James has more to say on this, and we’ll look at that next week, but for the sake of our collective mental health, let’s confess something to one another: at the core of our being, all of us are wanters and cravers and desirers who will go to great extremes to get what we want when we want it.
Next: a call to spiritual wholeness