Strife seems unavoidable in life. In fact, one might say that strife defines life.
We see strife in the Middle East. Strife in Washington, D.C. Strife in economics, strife in politics, strife in culture. Strife between siblings, couples, co-workers, nations. Strife just is. We probably wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if there were no strife.
Even so, most of us would prefer to remove as much strife from life as possible.
Mental health professionals and sociologists have long recognized that a significant contributor to strife in a person’s life is unfilled desire. When a person’s desires aren’t met, or aren’t fulfilled easily, strife is the invariable outcome. If my desire to eat goes consistently unfulfilled, then it would not be a surprise that my days are characterized by anxiety, distress, worry, envy, jealousy, anger, maybe even crime.
For most of us, unmet desires aren’t nearly so dramatic as going without food. But we are striving, nonetheless.
Long before modern mental health professionals, God told us about the horrible consequences of unmet and ungodly desires. After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, God told the woman that her desire would be for her husband, and that he would lord it over her (Genesis 3:16). He tells followers of Jesus to quit the desires of their ignorance (the desire that governed them before they came to Jesus; 1 Peter 1:14). Desire entices and leads people into sin and death (James 1:14).
According to God, desires lead to strife with God, strife with other people, and strife within oneself (James 4:1-5). And according to him, ridding ourselves of strife requires that we address the desires of our heart. To eliminate strife, we must start to rid ourselves of two things:
- Impotent Passions
- Impotent Prayer
James tells us that the cause of strife and conflict is the desire in our heart. He says you desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:2).
Not Having. Desiring something and not having it, whether it is a new car, a spouse, a promotion, or respect, leads us to murder. We certainly see this truth in action when nations battle over territory or trade, but wonder how it possibly applies as we go to work or to worship. Remember Jesus said that we should be aware of the command not to commit murder, but we should become aware that hating others is also murder (Matthew 5:21). When we desire and don’t have, we tend to blame others, whether God, or friends, or enemies. And when we blame others, our attitude toward them changes, and becomes hateful, murderous.
Not Obtaining. Covet and cannot obtain brings into view those occasions when we desire something strongly and attempt to get it, but can’t. When we can’t get something we desire to have, we tend to view others as somehow impeding our efforts. My wife won’t give me the respect I desire. My boss won’t give me the pay I desire. My governors won’t give me the freedom I desire. My desire remains unfilled because someone has thwarted me. And all those we deem to have thwarted us become our enemies, with whom we must fight.
James indicates that there is something else involved when desires produce conflict. He says 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 4:2b-3). The presence of strife (impotent desires) is directly related to the absence of potent prayer. What affects whether prayer is potent? Its Omission and its Orientation.
Impotent by Omission. We won’t receive from God when we’re not asking of God. Of course, God provides much to us that we don’t request, and for which we are sinfully ungrateful. We don’t need to ask for the sun to rise for God to give us daylight. But if we have such strong desires, why might we refuse to ask God? There are several possible reasons.
- We don’t know God.
- We know God, but aren’t humble.
- We know God, and also know our desires aren’t godly.
Impotent by Orientation. Even if we’re asking of God, we won’t be receiving from God if we ask in order to serve ourselves, to fulfill our ungodly desires. This is where friendship with the world comes in, and tells us that desires which reflect the world’s interests, the world’s priorities, the world’s goals, is offensive to God and actually makes us his enemy. So, if we are asking God to fulfill our desires, and our desires are more similar to materialism, individualism, and hedonism that to generosity, community, and worship, then we should not expect those desires to be fulfilled.
Jesus gave us instruction about how to orient our prayer, and the desires expressed in it, when he told the disciples to pray your kingdom come, your will be done (Matthew 6:9-13). James further instructs us to orient our desires to what God desires to give us. God, James tells us, gives more grace.
The problem with us and our desires, and the strife that inevitably comes when our desires aren’t met, is not that we desire too much, but that we don’t desire enough. Our sin-laden desires are impotent not because they can’t deliver, but because they frequently do. And what they deliver is infinitely inferior to what God desire for us to desire: His grace.
There are many types of strife in the world, but they all originate in unmet desire. Adam and Eve desired something inferior to God with greater zeal than they desired him. To begin eliminating strife from our lives, strife with God or others or even with ourselves, we should address our Passions and our Prayer.