Formations 09.23.2018: Conflicts and Disputes

James 4:1-12

Fedor Solntsev, Fist Fight, 1836

Today’s passage gives us a good example of how James constantly revisits his central themes. He has already urged his readers to be slow to anger (1:19-20) and love their neighbors as themselves (2:8). He has already commended gentleness born of wisdom (3:13), and warned his readers that the fruit of envy and selfish ambition is disorder and wickedness (3:16).

In chapter 4, James condemns his readers for their selfish desires, chides them for failing to ask God for what they do not have, calls them to lead holy lives, and warns them against speaking harmful words. He places all of these exhortations in the context of “conflicts and disputes” (v. 1).

It’s hardly controversial to suggest that conflicts often bring out the worst in us. Just turn on the evening news or—better yet—take a look at what people are saying on social media about whatever has most recently offended them!

Of course, Christians have every right to be offended by things that are offensive. Furthermore, there is a difference between selfish desires and legitimate needs. Nevertheless, we can bring unhealthy attitudes toward these offenses and deprivations, and these attitudes can lead to unhelpful behaviors that either lead to conflict or manifest in the midst of conflict.

Help participants wrestle with the fact that our high morals and ideals are often tossed aside in the heat of interpersonal conflict. Why is this the case, and what can we do about it?


• What part of James’ instruction speaks most clearly to how you respond to conflict? Why?
• What is the relationship between peace and prayer (vv. 2-3)?
• How can we humbly submit to God and avoid temptation in the context of strife and animosity?

Reference Shelf

“Resist the Devil”

The power of evil in the world is usually attributed in the NT to the figure of Satan, who is the primary enemy of God and his Kingdom. “Satan” ultimately goes back to the Heb. word for “enemy” or “adversary,” one who “obstructs” or “opposes” another. This meaning is carried over into the Gk. satanas (Satan) or diabolos (devil), the chief designations of this evil power in the NT….

The role and functions of Satan or the devil are fairly clear, though no one passage in the NT describes them fully. He is the personification of evil, opposing God in everything (Matt 13:41; Acts 26:18); he physically attacks or possesses humans, causing sickness (Mark 1:32; 5:1-13; Luke 13:16); he tempts people to sin by deception (Matt 4:3; 2 Cor 11:14-15; 1 Thess 3:5) and afflicts those who listen to him with lies and murder (John 8:44-47)….

Though the NT warns that Satan is a continuing danger of which the believer must be wary, it does not suggest that Satan is to be considered equal to God in power, that Satan’s actions deprive men and women of full freedom and responsibility for their actions, or that Satan’s presence alters the affirmation that life is ultimately ordered by a just and loving God. Satan’s presence in the NT forces Christians to take the reality of evil seriously and raises questions for later theological consideration, but it does not change the biblical vision of one God “who is Savior of all men” (1 Tim 4:10).

David W. Rutledge, “Satan in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 797–98.

Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

Here in 4:1-10, James asks and answers the question, Why can’t we just get along? Self-centered desire is the culprit; unfulfilled, it can even lead to murder (4:2a); James lays a similar charge against the unjust landowners in 5:6. James 4:2c (“You do not have, because you do not ask”) reflects various sayings of Jesus on prayer that encourage absolute confidence in God’s affirmative response. James, however perceives that God’s good gifts are conditioned on right asking: God does not give so that those who pray can satisfy their self-centered desires (4:3). Earlier James has cautioned that the double-minded cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord (1:7-8); whereas those who petition in faith are promised wisdom with which to confront their struggles (1:5). God gives “generously and ungrudgingly” to those who are wholly committed to God; God holds back from those fence-straddlers who imagine they can serve God while satisfying their own selfishness.

James labels some among his hearers adulteresses (4:5; NRSV “adulterers”). In James the paramour is the world, that value system that ‘justifies’ one’s self-centered indulgence even when oppression is the means to that end. Some have questioned whether such harsh terms as “adulterers” (4:4) and “sinners” (4:8) can be used for members of the Christian community; James normally addresses his hearers tenderly as “brothers and sisters” or “beloved.” The adultery metaphor, however, is apt precisely for members of the covenant community who are not living up to their covenant commitments, such as offering relief to the oppressed. These covenant insiders are those James accuses of two-timing God.

Earlier, James depicts Abraham as the paradigmatic friend of God, whose life displayed his faith, that is, his unadulterated commitment to serve God (2:23). According to the Greco-Roman conception of friendship, friends share common values. James has earlier characterized God as the giver of good gifts, who shares with all without any grudging (1:17,5). The merciful who give to naked and hungry brothers and sisters are, like Abraham, vindicated by their deeds as friends of God (2:14-16, 23). But those who take the bait of self-centered desire through their destructive actions show themselves friends of the world (1:14-15; 3:14-16). Such friends as these may have religion but only a polluted kind, stained by the world’s perspective, insensitive to those in need (1:27). Tamez has suggested that when speaking of friendship with the world, “James has in mind the words of Jesus about Mammon (the god of riches) and God, that is, two mutually exclusive masters.”

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 385–86.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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