Coveting, Quarrel, Killing: A Plea From the Book of James

Have you ever taken a big swig of orange juice, when you thought it was something else? It’s jarring! Or, have you ever had to take a cold shower? Once on a mission trip, the only options I had were cold shower or no shower. Oh, it was awful! On mornings when I decided I really ought to shower, it was a terrible way to wake up—but I did wake up fast, at least!

The Bible is full of sweet comfort: I’m thinking of Luke, who records Elizabeth breaking out in song, Mary breaking out in song, angels breaking out in song—it’s like something out of a Disney flick! But it’s also full of cold-shower-passages, those Scriptures that sober you up and leave you wide awake. Many parts of the Book of James are like that. Both the comfort and the hard words are essential for spiritual maturity, so we mustn’t shy away from those difficult passages.

I’d like to take a look at a sobering passage in James 4 that may wake you up fast.

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you” (verse 1)? Well, he’s getting right into it, eh? But let that sink in for a moment. The level to which you bicker and squabble with someone reveals the level of your selfishness. Oof. I’m reminded of that little girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory who always stomped her foot and said, “But Daddy, I want it now!”

James goes on, “You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God” (verse 2, emphasis mine). Oh, my! It seems like he’s suggesting that in our demand to have things our way in our timing, we actually bypass God and take matters into our own hands. How… dangerous. Could it be true of us that instead of “making our requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6) and “casting our cares on Him” (1 Peter 5:7), we want a certain outcome so badly that we fight, scheme, covet, manipulate?

Then James presses a little more in verse 3: “[And when you do ask God], you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Jeeza-louisa. This keeps getting worse and worse. When we still don’t get what we want after our fighting and scheming, we sit before God and complain and beg for the most selfish outcome, like an upset toddler who has no real perspective other than what he wants.

Buckle up for the next verse. James is about to get even more real with us.

“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world”—which is doing things the world’s way; in this context, fighting and not trusting the Lord—“is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit He caused to live in us envies intensely” (verses 4-5, emphasis mine)? Other translations render that last sentence as, “Do you think the Scriptures have no meaning? They say that God is passionate that the spirit He has placed within us should be faithful to Him” (NLT) and “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit He has made to dwell in us’” (ESV)?

Oh, boy. Let’s take a beat.

To believers, James likens all this behavior to adultery. To sing in church, “All my life You have been faithful. All my life You have been so, so good,” and then constantly bark at your spouse, wrestle with your employer, buck against your authority, heckle cashiers or waiters, fight with your child’s school teacher, or covetously keep up with the Joneses is equivalent to cheating on God. Later James will say in verse 8 that such behavior is double-minded. Either be friends with the world, where all that sin is the norm, or be friends with God, where none of that has a place in the Kingdom… but you can’t have a foot in both camps.

What a difficult word. What an important reality. What a necessary truth. Maybe even now, your heart is pricked. So, what do we do with this information? If James was preaching this message at my church, he would transition into what we call “an altar call,” a plea to come to the altar and respond to the Lord’s message.

He says in verse 6 and on, “But He gives more grace. That is why the Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (Proverbs 3:34). Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash 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.”

So, friends… if you find that James’s difficult message resonates with you—if you realize that you often covet, quarrel, kill, and scheme to get your way instead of entirely trusting the Lord to do what is right—then here is how James advises you to move forward.

  1. Submit to God.

Come close to Him again, and submit to Him in reverence. In one sense, submission to God means to run the details of our lives past Him, invite His feedback, and obey what He says. For example, if you want a new promotion that has opened up in your workplace, do not try to break down the door, slander your ‘competition,’ blackmail your employer, or otherwise manipulate the situation. Also, don’t assume that if you want it, God also wants it for you. Instead, bring it to the Lord. “Father, they’re going to give one of us a promotion, and the extra money would be great for my family. But what do You think? I know that You have good things lined up for me and that You will not withhold any good thing from me. Is this one of those good things? Should I submit my name?” In that scenario, it would be fine to desire the promotion, but that desire mustn’t override your submission to God and your trust in Him to take care of you.

  1. Resist the devil.

Especially if arguing, scheming, and coveting is pretty normal for you, it may be difficult to resist the temptation to engage in this sinful activity, but James is clear: resist Satan. Resist, to your own benefit. And when you resist his tactics and temptations, he will depart from you!

  1. Repent in humility.

James would tell you today to wash your hands, purify your heart, grieve over your sinful behavior, and even mourn over the sinful choices you’ve made. There’s really no such thing as winning a petty argument—every party that engages is really a loser—so turn that “celebration” into repentance.

  1. Take heart: the Lord will exalt you.

And finally, friends, it’s not the heart of the Lord to rub your nose in the dirt. When you submit to God, resist the devil, and repent in humility, He will lift you up (verse 10)! He will restore you! An old pastor of mine used to say, “If we let Him, God will be better to us than we could ever be to ourselves,” and it’s the truth. He is such a loving, kind God, and He will bless you.

Why don’t you take 30 seconds more and pray this with me today?

Dear Lord Jesus, thank You for Your Word, even the parts that confront my sinfulness. Thank You for revealing to me in mercy that arguing, scheming, coveting, and killing to get my way is completely out of line for one of Your followers. I submit to Your way of gentleness, peacemaking, and trusting. Help me to resist the devil’s temptations to engage in that sinful lifestyle. I repent in humility over how I have sinned against You and the unified church You are building. When things look like they won’t go my way, please help me, Lord, to trust You and cast all my cares on You. Thank You for dusting me off, lifting me to my feet, and not counting my sins against me. What a good God You are! Amen.

For Jesus,