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Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?

Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.

Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.

James 4:1-3

From the previous chapter it becomes evident that the saints in the early church were sinning with their tongues. With the tongue they blessed God, and with the tongue they were cursing each other as brothers in the Lord. James pointed out that this evil speaking came from a wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and devilish. And this kind of wisdom produces envy, strife, confusion, and every evil work.

It’s not surprising that James speaks of wars and fightings in the church. The early Christian church was characterized by fierce infighting.

James points out the source of this infighting. It was the lusts that warred within their members. The word “lusts” is our word hedonism. It means a strong desire for and seeking of pleasure. This was the cause of the infighting that had developed in the church.

What happened in the early church has been repeated throughout history. A hedonistic pursuit of pleasure has repeatedly brought wars and fightings into the church.

God grant that we avoid such folly!

A dreadful hedonism!

We said that hedonism is a strong desire for and seeking of pleasure. The hedonist is one who lives for pleasure. The goal of his life is to enjoy pleasure.

The pleasure of hedonism is not the spiritual pleasures of God’s covenant. Within His covenant God has provided full and free salvation in Jesus Christ. That salvation consists of reconciliation with God through the covering of sin. To this salvation belongs a life of friendship and fellowship with God as we are empowered to serve Him in righteousness. Salvation also includes a life of friendship and fellowship with other children of God, who share in the salvation of Jesus Christ. In this salvation there is great pleasure. The psalmist speaks of this in Psalm 16:11: “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”

This is not the pleasure of hedonism.

The pleasure of hedonism is strictly earthly. The hedonist lives for earthly pleasure. He lives for sexual gratification, the pleasure that earthly riches afford, the pleasure of recognition by others, the pleasure of power, the pleasure of position in society…. The pleasure seeking of the hedonists includes the pleasures of sin. The hedonist is not content to enjoy earthly pleasures in moderation but soon runs to an excess that brings him into sin. He is not satisfied with sexual gratification only in marriage, but he also wants this gratification outside of marriage. He not only wants the pleasure of food and drink, but also wants the pleasure of overindulgence—of gluttony and drunkenness. Not only does he desire power and position, but he also wants to abuse that power by lording it over others.

This hedonistic spirit controls the world.

The world in which we live is depraved and completely under the control of sin. This depravity frequently shows itself in hedonism. The depraved world of the ungodly certainly does not desire and seek the pleasures of the covenant as they are found in Jesus Christ. The world rather seeks earthly and often sinful pleasure.

This certainly characterizes the society in which we live. Our society is a pleasure-mad society in which people for the most part live only for pleasure. They live for sexual gratification, for luxury homes and cars, for parties, for food and drink, for vacations. In their pursuit of these pleasures our society runs wild into the pleasures of sin—fornication, gluttony, drunkenness, drug abuse. For the sake of these pleasures they sacrifice their marriages and their families. They will even go into great debt that threatens financial ruin.

But the sad thing is that this same thing is found in the church.

James speaks of your lusts that war in your members. As we have indicated, “lusts” here refers to desires for pleasure—hedonistic desires and cravings. These lusts reside in every saint because the work of God’s grace is not complete in him. Because of God’s renewing grace, the saint desires the blessings and pleasures of salvation in God’s covenant. But he still has a sinful nature filled with these hedonistic desires. These lusts war in his members. This means that they are engaged in a military campaign within him. They contend with the new man that he has become in Jesus Christ and the desires of this new man. At issue in this warfare is which of them will control the members of his body—his eyes, ears, mouth, hands, and feet. Will the new man with its desire for heavenly pleasures in Christ control his members, so that the members of his body become instruments to seek and find the pleasures of heaven? Or will the sinful nature with its hedonistic lusts for earthly pleasure control his members, so that they become instruments to seek the pleasures of this life?

It is obvious that for many of the saints in the church of James’ day the hedonistic lusts of the sinful nature were having the upper hand. And the result was that many were following the hedonistic life of the world of that day.

It is obvious that this is true of many in the church also today.

A sad result!

The sad result of this hedonism in the church was the fighting among the members. James speaks of wars and fightings and even of killing. The word “fightings” is used in the New Testament mostly in the sense of verbal battles or quarreling. This is also consistent with the subject matter of the previous chapter—the sinful use of the tongue. From the term “wars and fightings” it is apparent that these verbal battles were widespread, frequent, and of some duration. And in the process of these verbal battles the saints were killing each other with gossip, backbiting, evil reports, and the like.

How soon this had developed in the church. The book of Acts describes a church that was at peace and unity. Now only a few decades later, there was widespread fighting in the church. How easily the peace of the church is disrupted.

And the cause of it all was the hedonistic desires that warred in their members and that had taken control in their lives.

This is not difficult to understand.

Those who are caught up in seeking their own pleasure tend to be self-seeking and self-serving. Self-seeking people are quick to get in each other’s way, to hurt one another and take offense at one another. This quickly leads to war and fighting.

In turn, those who are caught up in seeking their own pleasure soon become covetous of others. They never have enough for themselves and always know of someone who has more. This leads to envy, taking what belongs to others, and desire of revenge. And war soon ensues.

We see this kind of thing happen in the world on every level—business, race relations and international politics.

The same thing happens in the church.

James adds a few more details to this process as it developed in the church of his day.

“Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war.”

What James is saying here is that the saints were not attaining that for which they lusted. In the pursuit of pleasure they desired and sought after earthly riches, ease, comforts, power, and position. But for the most part they were not able to attain enough. This is most often the case. The pleasure that the hedonist attains from earthly things is never enough. He always wants more—more riches, more comforts, and more power. But this more is never enough. He cannot attain. Sometimes a hedonistic spirit and life lead even to poverty. The obvious case is the drunkard.

James indicates that this in turn led to more fighting and warfare. Those who cannot attain what they want are inclined to covet what others have, be envious of them, and even steal from them. All this leads to fighting and war.

James has more to say. “Yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.”

The saints were not praying. Seeking the pleasures of this world does not lead one to the communion of prayer with our heavenly Father. In anticipation of an objection, James concedes that some were praying. But they were praying amiss. They were praying for that which would satisfy their lust for pleasure. These prayers were unacceptable to God. And the result was that these hedonists received nothing from God. They did not enjoy the blessings of salvation. In some cases they did not even receive the material necessities of life. This is in keeping with the principle that God’s gracious gifts are found in the way of prayer. Those who do not pray, or who pray amiss, do not receive.

And that became a factor in their fightings and wars. Only with the spiritual blessings of grace that come with prayer can we maintain peace and unity in the church. Whatever interrupts or robs us of our prayers will generate strife.

An important calling!

We are called to live at peace and unity in the church. This calling is found throughout Scripture. “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19). “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you” (I Cor. 1:10). “And be at peace among yourselves” (I Thess. 5:13).

That was James’ concern in this passage.

And this must be our concern.

Remember how easily and quickly the peace of the church is disrupted.

To have and maintain peace in the church, we must all do several things.

We must pray to the Lord.

In the power of prayer we must turn away the lust for pleasure that wars in our members. We must seek the pleasures of God’s covenant as they are in Jesus Christ.

And the result will be that we will be full and satisfied in Jesus Christ.

We will also live at peace with God and each other to the glory of His name.