What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. (James 4:1-3, NLT)
Years ago my administrative assistant knocked on the door of my office to ask a question. “Did you hear about what happened at (name withheld) Church last night?” I shook my head and said, “No, what happened?” She went on to explain that the church had a contentious congregational business meeting regarding a by-laws revision, which culminated in a fist fight between deacons and church members in the parking lot. The police were called to break it up. The stories that began to spread following that evening described a simmering struggle for power and control of the congregation that was being leveraged through changing the governing documents of the church and the demand for the Senior Pastor’s removal.
In the third chapter of James, the writer summarized the vices of worldly wisdom as bringing chaos and discord, whereas the virtues of godly wisdom yields peace. Clearly, the original audience of James’ epistle was not exhibiting godly wisdom. He describes their current state in militaristic language. Notice the descriptive words: quarrels, fights, war, scheme, and kill. All of these actions are birthed out of jealousy and selfish ambition.
I find it interesting that James doesn’t weigh in on the particular issues of the conflict. He doesn’t take sides, and doesn’t bother to even name them. His concern is not the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the issues. His concern is the manner in which they are attempting to resolve their dispute. The conflict could be verbal, including harsh words, criticism and slander. But words seldom remain in a vacuum, so it’s quite possible that the argument transitioned into violent confrontation. When our arguments become deeply and selfishly passionate, they can quickly become personal and even physical. As Doug Moo writes, “Verbal argument, private violence or national conflict–the cause of them all can be traced back to the frustrated desire to want more than we have, to be envious and covet what others have, whether it be their position or their possessions.” (Moo, 1985, 141-142)
So what is James’ solution? His answer is not prayer, but proper prayer. Prayer requests that are offered for self gratification or selfish motives are not answered. Praying knees and clenched fists cannot coexist on the same body. So how can I know if my motives are correct? I think the best litmus test for properly motivated prayer comes from the prayer life of Jesus.
In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), Jesus taught his disciples to first pray for God’s name to be honored. Next, he taught that we should pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Once we have aligned our hearts with God’s agenda, we can then pray for our needs, and what we pray for ourselves should also be requested for others. Finally, we conclude with the expressed desire for God to be glorified. If we can maintain the discipline to follow those principles, we can take steps toward properly motivated prayer.