Mrs. Ella Sanderson’s wide-brimmed pink hat drops to the floor and is stomped flat by Ms. Florence McHenry’s patent leather pumps with 4″ heels. Florence tries to wrap her arms around the buxom Mrs. Sanderson and wrestle her onto the front pew. For her part, Mrs. Sanderson digs her talons–she just had them done yesterday at Uncommon Nails on Spruce Street–into Florence’s chiffon frock and yanks hard in opposite directions, tearing the dress and drawing blood.
The pastor sputters, “Ladies–n-now, ladies! Please! This is neither the time nor the place…” just as Ella’s husband, Mort (who boxed in the Army) jumps up and assumes a menacing stance. His ham-sized dukes are poised, ready to apply a neat left jab to the thrusting jaw of Florence’s fiancee, Mr. James Quincy Jackson, Esq., Attorney at Law. Mr. Jackson is quoting the criminal code and wagging his finger.
A few rows back, a loud argument gets louder, peppered with language that sounds like it may not come from the Bible. Malcolm DePriest has accused Deacon P. J. Albert of scuffing the left front fender of his new Mercedes last Sunday in the church parking lot. Deacon Albert denies it, and threatens to visit Mr. James Quincy Jackson first thing Monday morning to seek legal counsel. (Please let it be pro bono. I’m a deacon!)
In the narthex, Mike O’Leary has Finn Peters in a headlock. Finn is red-faced and gasping, and Mike is screaming at Heather Gilmour, his hot babe. He just caught Finn and the lovely Heather kissing hungrily in the stairwell of the church. Heather stands aghast in her less-than-adequate attire, with the fingers of one hand entwined in her hair and the other hand clamped over her mouth. She is weeping hysterically, big tears rolling down her beautiful face. Fortunately, her mascara is waterproof.
This is a parody–at least, it is meant to be. But James opens the fourth chapter of his letter with a first-century scenario that reflects the attitudes, if not the actions, demonstrated in the Sunday morning brawl at Peaceable Kingdom Community Church:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (JAM 4.1-3)
Not a lot has changed. It appears some professing Christians in the first century could be as shallow and materialistic as we can be in our culture today. James has just explained how destructive the tongue can be, and how self interest is hellish and breeds “disorder and every vile practice.” (JAM 3.15,16) Now, he gives his readers some examples from their own experience.
Their desires and choices are not only selfish, but also temporal and–in some cases–immoral. Instead of reaping righteousness, they are wreaking havoc. Instead of peace in the churches, there is conflict. While they may not have literally murdered each other–at least not in the Sunday morning service–there is evidence here of heated disputes, assaults, extreme jealousy and envy, and sexual misconduct. Their behaviour was nothing like what James had just described in Chapter 3.
What brought about all this chaos? James identifies five specific causes:
- “Your passions are at war within you.” They are struggling inwardly between their inordinate desires–literally, “pleasures”–and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Who now indwells them. They experience internal conflict between what they want to do and what they know they should do. Too often, they choose pleasure.
- “You desire and do not have.” These inordinate desires for what–or for whom–God did not want them to have frustrate them when they remain unfulfilled, and their frustration even erupts in physical violence.
- “You covet and cannot obtain.” Their inability to get what they want causes them to be contentious and pugnacious. They cannot see the folly of living for this world.
- “You do not have, because you do not ask.” They fail to ask God to provide for them, choosing instead to try to get what they want on their own terms and in their own way.
- “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Those who actually pray do so with sinful motives, hoping to use whatever God gives them for self-gratification.
James is not being condescending or self-righteous. Remember–Jesus was his big brother. And Jesus never argued with him, never wanted something he had, never beat him up, never engaged in worldly pleasures or even wished He could, and was content with His life even though He had “nowhere to lay His head.” (MAT 8.20) James knows what verses 13-18 of his third chapter actually look like, and what he’s seeing among his readers isn’t even remotely like it.
Is your family, your class, your workplace, your organization–even your church–characterized by conflict? Re-read James 3.1-4.12 and you’ll discover why.
Image is from RECAPO