Why are you quarreling? What makes you fight?
These are the questions James opens chapter 4 with. I remember asking my children that when they were younger. Why are you bickering? Why is it that every time you are in a room together, something must erupt?
The answer is in verse 2-3:
You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have have, because you do not ask. You ask and you do not receive, because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions.
We want what is not ours. We cannot get what we want. We have wrong motives, namely to serve ourselves.
So much quarreling comes from the motive of self, whether it is competition, comparison, or jockeying to get ourselves in a better position. Frustration arises because we can't get what we want, but we see someone else getting it, so we push. It's like a bunch of kids all lining up at the drinking fountain after receess to be first. Sometimes, people get pushed, or knocked down. The first people we criticize are the ones we'd like to see knocked off their place of privilege. They may take exception to us and push back. And a quarrel is born.
In whatever venue we're working in, we may have selfish motives. Whether it is within the family, a job, or on a church committee, we are so convinced that what we want is the right thing that we may not see our own motives.
Later in the chapter (v. 6, 10), James talks about humility. Humility is the crucial element for having right motives. We are reminded that God is the one exalts, not us. And he exalts the one who is not exalting himself: "Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you." We may not get what we want, but better to be lifted up in our humility than brought down in our pride.
Craig Blomberg, in his commentary on James says this:
People who are humble do not seek their own "rights" to postions of leadership, but allow God to encourage and lift them up as he sees fit. Thus, humility comprises an essential attribute for community.
It's about being willing to be small. It's about being content not to be noticed. It's about maybe being silent on a matter. It may mean anonymity.
Blomberg also reminds us what humility is not, quoting another commentator:
"Humility is not passivity, but receptivity. It is certainly not groveling before God or others; it is simply accepting truth, learning from every situation, growing in simplicity and wisdom."
Often, our motives are most clearly exposed by our unwillingness to be receptive. That is a good heart-check when we evaluate our motives about why we're doing what we do. Are we willing to listen to others? Or do we want to have the first and last word? How willing am I to learn from every situation? Or am I assuming that I'm the one teaching every moment?
Good questions to ponder.