Wars and Fightings

War in the church

The next subject James undertakes is a natural outgrowth of his long discourse on speech, contrasting the evil uses of the tongue with uses controlled by true wisdom. He now turns to consider the most destructive kind of speech within the body of Christ (v. 1). To unmask its true nature, he calls it "wars and fightings." He is talking about the verbal feuding that may intrude upon a church and tear it apart. This kind of speech is like warfare not only in its intent to do harm, but also in its unwillingness to stop without total victory. The emotional engine that starts the fighting, or that eventually emerges to prolong it, is hatred. Because hatred speaks to the heart in a roar that drowns out the still, small voice of conscience, each side in the war easily yields to the temptation to carry on their campaign without restraint or pity.

James asks the obvious question: what causes heartless conflict of this kind within the church, which is supposedly a showcase of love? The answer is that outward war always starts with inward war. War between brothers is always an outgrowth of war within themselves, as they struggle unsuccessfully to manage their own lusts. The Greek word translated "lusts" signifies the desire to please self. Failure to control this desire can quickly bring brothers into conflict. In church settings, the root of most battles is ambition, whether for recognition or power. But all objects of ambition are in limited supply. One man cannot be promoted to teach a class, for example, without demoting another, or at least without denying another the same promotion. The other forms of privilege also resist being shared equally. Ambition is therefore a breeding ground for wars and fightings. It is not an exaggeration to say that somebody’s self-seeking desire, usually in the form of ambition, is at the bottom of every dispute in the church.

Murder in the church

James now shows the precise connection between desire and fighting (v. 2). The opinion of many scholars is that verse 2 should be rendered as follows: "You lust and have not, and so you kill. You desire to have and cannot obtain, so you fight and war. You have not because you ask not." Clearly, then, desire leads to fighting because a man’s own power to change his world may be insufficient to satisfy his heart’s desire. He cannot get what he wants because he wants things beyond his reach. The result is frustration, prompting him to more desperate attempts to gain the prize that has so far eluded him. Such attempts may bring him into competition with others, and from competition comes war.

James makes the shocking assertion that in striving to satisfy desire a person may commit murder. He says, "Ye kill." This statement has provoked endless discussion. What does James mean? After all, he is talking to believers. Surely he does not mean that in the churches he was addressing, people were killing each other. No, he does not mean that. I have never heard or read about a dispute within a local church that led to fatalities. Yet James is not using murder as a mere figure of speech for doing great harm. He is not saying that when believers fight, what they are doing is so bad that it amounts to killing.

Then what does he mean? Perhaps he is looking down the corridors of distant church history and anticipating all the wars that would erupt between different branches of Christendom, such as between Catholics and Protestants in the years following the Reformation. This interpretation is untenable, however, because throughout his epistle James is talking to "my brethren" (Jas. 1:2; 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10, 12, 19). If we examine the religious wars in the past, we find that the leaders on both sides were seldom, if ever, true brothers in Christ. Generally, power hungry rulers were fighting each other under a religious pretext, or authorities allied with a corrupt church were wreaking violence against those seeking to rebuild the New Testament church.

So, what does James mean? He must mean that fighting can kill people indirectly. How? It can happen in many ways.

  1. If you raise your voice at another believer—especially if you engage him in a shouting match—what might happen? You might raise his blood pressure high enough to precipitate a stroke, and he dies. Then before God, you will be guilty of murder.
  2. To keep on fighting with another believer could have serious consequences in another way. If he is emotionally vulnerable, you could discourage him to the extent that he falls into depression and commits suicide. Then before God, you will be guilty of murder.
  3. Even though the fellow believer you have attacked may not become suicidal, the stress you have added to his life may cause or aggravate a disorder that saps his good health and shortens his life. Stress can be fatal. If anyone dies from a stress-related condition that you have made worse by fighting against him, then before God, you will be guilty of murder.
  4. If you bring strife into the church, some churchgoers may become so bitter or disillusioned that they leave. They may forsake Bible-based religion and adopt a less wholesome lifestyle involving more eating and less exercise, or perhaps even involving drink or drugs or dangerous companions or crime. Their new way of life apart from God may well lead to premature death. Then before God, you will be guilty of murder.
  5. The same disaster could overtake members of your own family if the strife you have nurtured causes you to leave the church and to remove them as well. Any of them who subsequently follows the way of the world could become a victim of early death. Then before God, you will be guilty of murder.
  6. Besides all these ways of killing the body, there are also ways of killing the soul—of committing spiritual murder. Your wars and fightings make you guilty of spiritual murder if they keep anyone from coming to Christ.

Obviously, there are many ways to commit murder that we refuse to acknowledge, lest we see the despicable selfishness and hellish blackness of our own behavior toward people that we dislike or that keep us from pleasing ourselves.

The power of prayer

James next reminds his reader that there is a right way to gain our desires. Instead of fighting to fulfill them, we should take them to God. Just ask, James says, and expect God to answer. James is harking back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus gave His disciples a blank check to cash in the bank of heaven (Matt. 7:7-12). Jesus promised that whatever they sought, the Father would provide. Of course, James is taking for granted that his readers have not forgotten his earlier admonition to ask in faith (1:6-7). Faith is the first key to successful prayer.

When prayer fails

James knew full well, however, that some among his readers would protest, "I tried that, and it didn’t work. I asked God to give me my heart’s desire, and it never came." James replies by giving the clearest and bluntest explanation in all Scripture for unsuccessful prayer (v. 3). He says simply that many prayers go unanswered because they are motivated by lust. As we noted earlier, the Greek word translated "lust" just means desire. So, the desire prompting the request may not seek anything actually sinful. Yet the request fails because the petitioner wants something with no purpose or value except to please himself. In other words, the prayer is selfish. The point James is making is that in our prayer life, we should be mainly seeking good things for others. What will meet their needs and bring them joy should be our emphasis. Therefore, the second key to successful prayer is unselfishness.

Is it wrong to seek good things for ourselves? No, the Bible authorizes a believer to pray for his spiritual and material needs (Matt. 6:11-13). But as a rule, he is wise not to beseech more from God unless he is expressing a desire that the Holy Spirit has placed in his heart. We must remember that God is already generous before we pray. On His own initiative, He lavishes pleasurable things upon us. Is He not the source of "every good gift and every perfect gift" (Jas. 1:17; 1 Tim. 6:17)? We need not ask Him for good things any more than a child needs to ask his father for Christmas presents. God’s gifts are more precious to us, and our gratitude is more pleasing to Him, if we have not pestered Him for the things He gives, but have been content to let Him provide as He sees fit. And it always turns out that His choices give us far more satisfaction than we would derive from many of our own choices.


1. Have I ever participated in fighting or feuding within the church?

Can you now see that your basic motive was self-seeking, in pursuit of a selfish desire? In other words, do you understand that the conflict arose from lust in your heart?

2. Do I realize that by raising strife in a church, I could kill someone by bringing about his premature death?

As we have said, you can kill people just by raising their stress level.

There is also the danger of making someone suicidal. We must recognize that the church is a refuge for all kinds of people, including many who are weak, although in time by the grace of God they will become strong. Yet at first when they receive Christ, they are emotionally vulnerable.

Most of our churches include members who suffer or who have suffered from depression. One component of the treatment they receive should be Biblically-based counseling. Yet many churches fail to provide it for two reasons: first, because they fear legal liability and, second, because they have unwisely yielded to the view of modern society that depression is a medical condition manageable by pills alone. It is undoubtedly true that pills give symptomatic relief, but symptomatic relief is not a solution. A person whose mind is oppressed by sadness needs to learn effective life-changing dependence on the sweet influence of the Holy Spirit. He does not need to attend a church where feuding prevails, putting him at risk of serious or even life-threatening discouragement. The church should be a place where the afflicted find an atmosphere of healing, not hatred.

Another danger of strife is that it might drive spiritually weak people wholly out of the church, into circumstances that will shorten their lives. We dare not be numbered among those responsible for the strife that proved fatal.

3. Do I realize that by raising strife in a church, I could destroy my own family members?

James says that self-centered ambition leads to killing (v. 2). One tragedy he foresees is the destiny of children dragged from church. Case histories abound of young people formerly in church who later fell into wretched and unhappy lifestyles, or who went to jail for committing felonies, or who even killed themselves. In many instances the root cause was a decision by parents to leave a church because they had become embroiled in strife. When they broke away after losing some battle, they hoped to find something better, but instead brought disaster to their own home. They ended up killing their own children, either their bodies or their souls.

4. Do I realize that if I engage in fighting and feuding, I could block someone from receiving Christ, and that as a result I would be guilty of spiritual murder?

How much evangelism is accomplished when a church is fighting? Virtually none. All those responsible for the fighting are therefore guilty of withholding life-saving truth from lost people. Perhaps the lost who were left unreached will never have another chance to hear the truth. They will die in their sins, and the bickerers and back-biters who kept them out of the Kingdom will be parties to soul-murder.

5. Is the focus of my prayer life on myself or on others?

It is of course proper to pray for your own needs. God wants you to pray for them, so that you will see His answering provision and love Him still more. But it is equally proper and important to pray for the needs of others. Indeed, God wants you to learn the discipline of unselfishness.

6. Do I pray improperly for God to increase my pleasures?

Instead, you should be content with those He provides, and you will find that He will provide even your heart’s desire (Ps. 37:4), assuming of course that you let Him shape your heart’s desire so that it seeks what is truly good.

Study Questions

  1. What is the most destructive kind of speech within the church?
  2. What is always the source of wars and fightings?
  3. What is the causal chain leading to war?
  4. To whom is James speaking throughout his epistle?
  5. What does James mean when he says, "Ye kill"?
  6. In what six ways can feuding lead to murder indirectly?
  7. What is the right way to gain our desires?
  8. What is generally the reason God does not grant a request?
  9. What should be the emphasis of our prayers?
  10. Why is it unnecessary to ask God for good things beyond our needs?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.