Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?
During the War of 1812, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry won a decisive victory over the British Navy on Lake Erie. His communication of that victory to his superiors has become the stuff of legends:
We have met the enemy, and they are ours.
Many years later, in 1970, cartoonist Walt Kelly appropriated the phrase for an Earth Day poster, changing it to “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
As we come to our text, we need to notice the military language James uses, which leads one to think of the first example above: “wars”, “fights”, “to war” (this last coming from the Greek root for “soldier”).
The goal of warfare is the utter destruction of the enemy. And wars within the church are no exception. Over the years I have been party to many situations within the local church where interpersonal conflicts were tearing the congregation apart. On these occasions, it is common to hear someone opine “Satan is really attacking our church!” While I am not inclined to completely discount demonic activity, today’s text clearly indicates that our focus should be elsewhere.
Put simply, James here echoes the cartoon possum from the ’70s – the true enemy is us. The problem doesn’t come from without, it comes from within. Back in chapter one, James made this point when he countered those who would try to blame God for their temptations to sin. The same principle applies when we try to blame the Devil, or even the “other side” of a particular conflict.
To be clear: the Devil might indeed be at work. Other people may indeed be stirring up trouble. But before we look in those directions James tells us we should give our own hearts a thorough examination.
But what is it, specifically, in our own heart that causes these wars and fights? James tells us that it is our desires for pleasure. I don’t think we should read into this specifically a sexual connotation (although such desires certainly could apply). Rather, I believe the term refers to more subtle desires that can easily creep into the lives of believers:
The desire to be recognized.
The desire to be needed.
The desire to be right.
The desire for position.
The desire for revenge.
The desire for financial gain.
This partial list has caused believers, brothers in Christ, to take up arms and wage war with one another, for to trample on any of these desires automatically makes the other person my enemy.
But this is wrong. The enemy lies within my heart. Those desires are the enemy. That’s where my battle should be. They are the evil forces that should be met head on, and destroyed.
And in the next verses James is going to get a lot more specific as to the danger this enemy poses.
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