Waging War against the Passions of the Flesh
In the previous article we noted how James identifies the fundamental cause or source of our sin: it is our “passions” or “desires” that wage war within our souls (see James 4:1-3). Continue reading . . .
In the previous article we noted how James identifies the fundamental cause or source of our sin: it is our “passions” or “desires” that wage war within our souls (see James 4:1-3). Then note how he turns to give three examples of how these sinful passions express themselves: (1) You desire or want things but you do not get them. The result is that you commit “murder” (v. 2a). (2) You covet and cannot obtain. The result is that you engage in fights and quarrels (v. 2b). (3) You don’t have what you need most, because you don’t ask God for it in prayer. And when you do finally get around to asking God, you don’t receive it because your motivation is to spend God’s gifts to satisfy your sinful passions and desires (vv. 2c-3).
Let’s begin where James does, by identifying the fundamental cause and source of our sin. Quarrels and fights that break out among God’s people are not the primary problem. They are the symptom of a much deeper and more pressing problem. By the way, “quarrels” and “fights” could be of a wide variety: verbal disputes, arguments over theology, competing with others for power and recognition, jostling for authority, accusing others of treating you unjustly and your demand that they be called to account. This would also include bitterness towards others and lingering unforgiveness in your heart. It’s possible that physical fights on occasion broke out as tempers flared and things spun out of control.
But the important thing for us to note is the cause of it all. Let me say first of all that we must take note of what James does not say. He does not say that the cause of our sinning is Satan. He doesn’t say that you fight and engage in bitter conflict because Satan is at war within you. Neither does he say that the cause of our sinning is the world and its corrupt ways. Nowhere does he suggest that the cause of our sin is the dysfunctional family in which we were raised. The cause of all our sinning are those “passions” or “desires” that wage war within us.
Let’s look at how this same idea is expressed by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2:11 – “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Note that the “soul” of a man or woman is the place of godly thinking, living, and choosing. That is why fleshly passions wage war against it. The enemy is not your soul. The enemy is your flesh! The enemy is not your mind. The enemy is your flesh!
But it is an enemy that with the help of God’s grace and the indwelling Holy Spirit we can defeat! A command such as this implies that inward desires are not beyond our control, are not simply “who we are” or something to which we must acquiesce and yield but are in fact to be consciously controlled. Such desires are not simply a given that we must embrace fatalistically.
Well, Peter clearly believed that we must never yield or give into the way we were born. He clearly believed that one can exercise control over one’s desires. One need not slavishly and passively yield to them. Note well: Peter does not say that we should refrain merely from the outward expression of those desires (although that is surely included in 1 Peter 2:12). Rather, we are exhorted to abstain from and even to kill the desire itself. Put to death passion. Put to death evil desire. Put to death covetousness. Put to death illicit sexual impulses.
The Apostle Paul was in complete agreement with Peter on this point. In Colossians 3 he says, “put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
Secular theorists find this untenable because they don’t believe a person has any power on which to rely other than the strength of one’s own will. One simply cannot resolve or determine or will oneself to cease desiring. All such desires, they say, are a given of human nature and cannot be altered or overcome and for the sake of your emotional health you simply need to give in to them and express them in whatever way you find most satisfying.
But the counsel of both Paul and Peter is based on their belief that the Christian is energized, animated, and empowered by the Holy Spirit (cf. Col. 1:29)! No desire or passion or urge is so entrenched in the human soul that a person indwelt by the Spirit cannot conquer it. But even if you can’t conquer it or change it you can, with the Spirit’s help, choose not to indulge in it.
Many contend that you can’t simply choose to suppress certain passions. In fact, they argue that it is psychologically dangerous to attempt any such thing. Venting our desires, giving them full and fetterless freedom, is the counsel we most often hear. “Be yourself! Embrace your longings!” And above all else, never judge or condemn someone for their expression or attempt to find fulfillment of these inward urges.
I’m speaking only for myself when I say that I don’t want to “be myself”! I want to be like Christ. When I look within myself I see evil passions and selfish desires and uncleanness and covetousness and I want nothing of them. These are violations of my true self. These are invasive enemies from which I long to be delivered by the grace of God. I have no desire to affirm all that is within me. I rather choose to defy much of what is within me. I choose by the grace of God to oppose it, defeat it, and live in true freedom from its enslaving power.
In Ephesians 4:22 Paul referred to this as “deceitful desires.” These “passions” or “desires” that Paul, Peter and James all mention will always lie to you. They will try to deceive you into believing that by indulging them and giving them sway in your life and by making room for them in your experience that you will find real and lasting joy. Don’t believe them! They lie! They are “deceitful” desires. Fight them with reminders of truth. Fight them by laying hold of the truth of Psalm 16:11.