The Underlying Cause of Marital Strife
The truths that James articulates in chapter four, verses one through three of his letter are relevant not merely to life in the church but to life in general, especially in the marriage relationship. Continue reading . . .
The truths that James articulates in chapter four, verses one through three of his letter are relevant not merely to life in the church but to life in general, especially in the marriage relationship.
“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” (James 4:1-3).
I strongly suspect that many of you, upon reading the question James asks in the first half of v. 1, think that you have the answer. Look at it again: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?”
Many of the women reading this will answer by saying:
“Well, goodness, that’s easy. My husband and I quarrel and fight because he is so utterly insensitive to my needs. On occasion he treats me with utter contempt. Sometimes he just ignores me. He doesn’t appear to have any idea how much I’m hurting. He only cares about himself. We only get to watch his favorite TV shows, never mine. When it comes to vacation, we always go where he wants to go, never where I’d like to go. And he’s so darn critical of virtually everything I do. Nothing seems to be good enough for him. He takes for granted everything I do. I feel so unappreciated. So you can imagine why we have so much angry energy in our home.”
Now, let’s give equal time to you men. I can hear some of you answer James’s question along these lines:
“She treats me with such disrespect. I work hard all day and all she does is complain that there’s never enough money. She picks at all my shortcomings as if she’s in the yard pulling weeds. No matter how hard I try, she rarely seems to appreciate it. My goodness, she gives ‘nagging’ a bad name. Sometimes I wish I were totally deaf, but no, I hear every critical word she speaks. And then the fight gets ugly and may go on for days.”
First of all, I want to go on record as saying that the way both of you treat the other is sinful. But the fundamental reason why you fight and argue and fail to love one another as you should is deeper than that. The cause of the friction and chaos and arguments and angry words is not because your spouse ignored you or treated you unfairly or took advantage of you or let you down. The reason for the dysfunction in every marriage, family, and all other relationships is the sinful passions and desires that are at war within you.
Didn’t you notice that after James asks the question he provides the answer? Think of it this way. It’s somewhat analogous to what happens when you go to the doctor. The first thing that happens is that you tell him/her where it hurts. You point to the pain. You show him/her the swelling or the cut or the bruise. That is analogous to what James refers to as “quarrels” and “fights” (v. 1).
The second thing that happens is that the doctor identifies for you the underlying cause of your pain and discomfort. The pain and the swelling and the discomfort are only symptoms of a far more serious and underlying disease or infection. That is what James does in the second half of v. 1. He says:
“People. I’m going to answer my own question. The real problem isn’t that you fight with each other and criticize each other and undermine and betray one another. That’s a problem, to be sure. But the real problem is more than that. There is a cause for your acting and speaking in the way you do. It’s called evil, fleshly ‘passions’ that ‘are at war within you’” (v. 1b).
If I once again may be allowed to simplify things, here is what James is saying. All your problems, all your struggles, whether in your relationship with others or in your battle with temptation in the world, can largely be reduced to one thing: selfish desires.
Look at how James unpacks this in v. 2. First, he says that “you desire and do not have, so you murder” (v. 2a). I think that if James had literal, physical murder in mind, he would have said far more about it than he does. He probably means something along the lines of: “you are murderously angry,” similar to what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:21-26. There he warns us against being “angry” with others in our heart. The Apostle John put it this way: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).
Then again he says: “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (v. 2b). Notice what is happening here. James says in no uncertain terms that the reason you fight and quarrel and undermine each other and compete for power and position is that you have selfish desires within that, when not satisfied, frustrate you and anger you and lead to bitter, divisive, and destructive outbursts. John Calvin said it beautifully:
“When a man allows his appetites free rein, he will never come to an end to his lust. Even if he were given the earth, he would long to have new worlds made for him” (296).
Listen to what James and Paul and Peter are saying. Your most basic and fundamental problem in all of life, mine too, is that we are selfish. We desire this. We have passion for that. And when we don’t get it, we explode. It isn’t always a verbal or physical outburst, but we vent our anger and frustration at others in all manner of ways. Fights and quarrels and division and the harm we inflict on one another is because we are selfish. Period.
Don’t try to rationalize your behavior on some other grounds. Don’t try to excuse your bitterness and your resentment and your unforgiving attitude by appealing to a bad education, or bad parents, or a bad society, or some bad example, or a bad Satan, or a bad world. The only “badness” that is needed to explain our sinful behavior is what resides in our own hearts and it’s called selfishness!
Let me expand a bit on the principle that James articulates. The underlying problem, once again, in all our relational and marital struggles is not something outside us. It’s not other people. It’s not your boss or your spouse or your child or your neighbor or your mom or dad. It’s not another person who frustrates your goals or who undermines your plans or who fails to come through when you expect them to. The fundamental, underlying problem is inside us: passions, desires, demands, and covetousness. I want convenience! I desire more money! I need respect! I have a passion for pleasure! I covet what you’ve got! I want to be loved! I demand obedience!
And when others don’t come through to fulfill our desires, passions, needs, and demands, we fight. We argue. We criticize. We seek revenge. We cut them off. We steal. We lie. We get even. And we turn our attention to someone else, anything else, other than God, to satisfy those raging desires within.
And how does all this relate to prayer? And it does, as vv. 2b-3 clearly indicate. Here is what James is saying:
“If you don’t have what you think you need it is because you don’t come to God and ask him for it. And when you do come and ask you pray with wrong motives. You want God to give you things so that you might use them to satisf your selfish desires. You don’t pray for what you need to experience more of God, or so that you might be less selfish and more giving, or so that you might be a blessing to others. In order to get what you selfishly want and covet and desire you turn to God and ask him to supply it.”
This is stunning. James portrays men and women wanting something (or someone) that satisfies, and then coming to God not because he satisfies, but only to ask him for the means to get something else. Once we get it we turn away from God to find our satisfaction in whatever thing he gave us. This is why James will describe people in the next verse as “adulterous” (v. 4a)!
In essence, James portrays God as our heavenly husband to whom we come asking for money to pay for a visit to a prostitute! “God is our husband,” says Piper, “and the world is a prostitute luring us to give affections to her that belong only to God” (A Hunger for God, 74).
James has in mind people who use prayer to try to get from God something they desire more than God. Again, as Piper says, “We are like a wife who asks her husband for money to visit another lover” (356). We will look at this in considerably more detail next week.
So what is it that we should desire and long for? For what ought we to be passionate? This brings me back to my comparison of this scenario with your visit to the doctor. Remember the first two things that happen: first, you explain the problem, the pain; and second, the doctor identifies the underlying cause or disease. But if that is where things ended you would be in trouble. What would happen if your doctor said: “I’m so sorry, but there’s no cure. Your disease is terminal. There’s nothing that I or anyone else can do for you.” That’s not what you want to hear! You need a cure! You need a prescription. You need a remedy to the underlying disease.
And what is the cure or the remedy or the answer to our selfish and frustrated desires? God! The only way to defeat one passion is with the superior and more satisfying power of another. Fill your mind with things that display the superior beauty of God. Meditate on things that exhibit the superior greatness of Christ. Resist the allure of fleshly passions by flooding your soul with godly ones. Study God. Sing about Christ. Rely on the Spirit. Read the Word. And be absolutely ruthless to amputate from your life anything that draws you away from God or dulls your appetite for him.
Ladies, if you were altogether satisfied with the goodness and grace of God and enthralled with how he loves you and enjoys you would your desire for your husband to treat you with sensitivity and understanding be as intense as it is? Would the pain in your heart be so unbearable? Would you be as inclined to manipulate him or to pick a fight and argue and quarrel? That isn’t to excuse what he does. What he does is sinful. But it doesn’t have to kill you!
Husbands, the same applies to you. Why do you not love your wife as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25)? Because you really don’t know what it means to say Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. For many of you, it’s only a verse of Scripture. It hasn’t yet become a dominant force for change in your life, a truth in which your soul can fully rest and rejoice.
Simply put, both of you desire and demand and expect the other to do for yourself what only God can provide. You hurt and grieve and get angry and fight and try to get even because you selfishly desire from the other what only God can give you.
So what would it look like if you were captivated by the splendor of God’s love and kindness and sovereignty and grace? How would it affect your relationships in life if you were altogether overwhelmed with the realization that you deserve eternal damnation but have instead been given eternal life and happiness? What would happen to those sinful, selfish, evil passions and desires that incline you to make self-serving demands of others? I’m not saying you should stop desiring. Passion isn’t evil. Passion that seeks satisfaction in anything or anyone other than God is evil. God built you with passions and desires. He wants you to want. But he wants you to want him so that he can glorify himself by satisfying your soul in ways that no other human being or earthly experience ever could.