1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
4 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. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.James 4:1-10 NIV
Our desires may be natural, and not inherently wrong, but if not kept under control they can cause great harm. Earlier James identified our desires as the root that brings us into temptation, sin and death. Here he turns from the personal result of desires to what they do within the body, identifying our desires as the root cause for conflict with others. When I choose to pursue my own desires, and encounter someone who is doing the same thing, then conflict is inevitable. How far that conflict will progress will depend on how badly I want my desires to be fulfilled. While at times the conflict might result in physical death, it will more commonly result in attempts to kill reputations, character assassination, as well as quarrels and fights within the body. Putting my own perceived ‘good’ above the good of the body is actually pretty common, but never good.
Having desires is not bad. And asking God to satisfy my desires is not necessarily a bad thing. What is a problem is when I am selfishly pursuing my desires for my own pleasure. If I am a part of a body, then my desires, and the fulfillment of those desires, should be directed toward the good of the body as a whole, rather than toward myself as a member. Imagine what would happen should my feet choose to pursue that is best for them, at least in the short term. I would end up laid up in the Lazy-boy all the time with my feet elevated and non load bearing. And the body would suffer, not to mention that the feet would also suffer in the long run through atrophy.
My bride is the love of my life, and I would not consciously do anything to hurt her. And that includes sharing my affections with another woman. In the Old Testament Israel is sometimes pictured as God’s wife, while in the New Testament the church is identified as the bride of Christ. In the Old Testament, a couple of the prophets accused Israel of adultery when they would chase after idols, Hosea’s wife Gomer being the best example. And now James accuses me of adultery when I am enjoying friendship with the world, getting caught up in worldly pleasures and pursuits. In a sense, I am committing adultery whenever my passion for God is turned to other things, regardless how good I see them to be. The same desires that bring me into conflict with others in the body also bring me into conflict with God.
So what do I do with my desires? Do I want to know God’s desires? Do I want to be a productive and edifying member of the body? James says I need to submit myself to God. Resist Satan. Wash and purify. Grieve, mourn and wail. Humble myself before God. That sounds harsh and uninviting. But I do not believe James is telling us that we need to live a life of doom and gloom; joy is mentioned in connection with the Christian life too many times to think that we should be gloomy. Instead, I believe James is talking about our attitudes to our own desires and the harm they cause to us and to the church. I need to repent of my sin, and turn away from the desires that cause so much harm, and submit myself to God. James assures us that if we do that, God will lift us up, and joy will result.