Instead of the climate of peace necessary for the production of righteousness (3:18), James’s readers were living in an atmosphere of constant “fights and quarrels.” The false wisdom that comes from envy and selfish ambition produces disorder (leads to fighting). “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” (James 3:16) James carries his argument to this next issue “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (v4:1) 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), those who are spiritually unfaithful, who love the world rather than God. 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? “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (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 “but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” , where he refused to allow excuses for temptation. People are tempted when they are enticed by their own “evil desire.” The Greek word for “desires” is the source of the English word “hedonism,” the designation of the philosophy that views pleasure as the chief goal of life. James pictures these pleasures as residing within his readers as the overriding desires of their lives. Nothing will be allowed to stand in the way of their realization.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 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. “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your 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? “You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.” (James 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. So strong is the desire that “you kill and covet.” James then repeats his assertion that, with all their consuming desire and bitter antagonism, his readers were not able to obtain what they wanted, because they were going after it in the wrong way. They did “not ask God” for it. They were lusting and fighting rather than praying. The purpose of 4:2, then, is to explain the answer James has just declared in the second half of 4:1 “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” to the question he posed in the first half of 4:1 “What causes fights and quarrels among you?”. 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? 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. First, in 4:2, You do not have, because you do not ask God. God is graciously generous “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (v 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 a manifestation of James’s consistent reliance on God’s grace.

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. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (v3) James then 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 prodigal son exemplifies one who spent his money in this way (Lk 15:14). It was the desire of James’s readers for pleasures that was battling within them for satisfaction (v.1) and even leading them to try to use prayer as a means of gratification. They wanted to gratify themselves rather than help others and please God. 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 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).

Having identified the source of the bitter fighting as being the desire for pleasure, James next rebukes his readers for spiritual unfaithfulness. “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (v4:4) “Adulterous people” renders “adulteresses”. The people of God in the OT are considered the wife of the Lord (Jer 31:32), and in the NT, the bride of Christ (Eph 5:23-32). It is reasonable, therefore, to understand “adulteress” as a figure of speech for spiritual unfaithfulness. It is a blunt and shocking word, intended to jar the readers and awaken them to their true spiritual condition.

For believers, there are two possible objects for affection: the world and God, and these two are direct opposites. James uses “world” to refer to the system of evil controlled by Satan. It includes all that is wicked and opposed to God on this earth. James is thinking especially of pleasures that lure people’s hearts from God. By its very nature, “friendship with the world is hatred toward God.” To have a warm, familiar attitude toward this evil world is to be on good terms with God’s enemy.

“Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?” (v4:5) In v.4 James has accused his readers of spiritual unfaithfulness. If they are not willing to accept this indictment, he asks in v.5 what they think about the Old Testament passages dealing with God’s jealous longing for his people. “The spirit he caused to dwell in us”, alludes to God’s creation of Adam (see Ge 2:7). Because of the fall (Ge 3), a person’s spirit “envies intensely”.  The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.’” (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

But God’s grace (v. 6) is able to overcome human envy, when we come to Him in prayer with the motive to give Him all the glory that is rightfully His, and His alone.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)