Welcome to the WarPastor Lutzer | May 2, 1999
Giving in to our desires of lust, covetousness, and selfishness never satisfies.
Selected highlights from this sermon
There is a war raging and we desperately need to know how to win it. This battle is taking place within each and every one of us. Desires, empowered by the work of the devil, are warring for our mind. Meanwhile, we resist the only One who can help us.
James says that we can be free from these desires. He calls us to humbly and prayerfully submit our desires to God and resist the enemy.
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I know that we prayed just a moment ago, but would you bow your head one more time?
Father, whenever Your Word is preached, barriers are put up to its truth, because by nature we do not want to be touched either by its power or its conviction. And so we ask in these moments that You might graciously take those barriers down and reach to us in love, and let us just be honest. And we pray that in our honesty You might meet us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
And I think that if we were honest we’d admit that there is a war that takes place within us. Sometimes the war rages. Sometimes it subsides, but it’s always there. There are different ways that the war can be described. It can be described as the struggle of the flesh and spirit. It can be described as the struggle between what we know is right, and that which is right, and that which we really desire to do. And oftentimes we follow those desires because, quite frankly, those desires promise us happiness. They tell us, “You follow me and I will finally give you the pleasure that you so richly deserve.” But the pleasures that we’re talking about today cannot keep those promises. We’re talking about the war within and how it might be won.
Take your Bibles today and turn to James 4. He begins by asking a question which all of us, I think, have asked. And he gives the answer to it. He says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? Isn’t that the source?” James here may be talking about a number of different quarrels and fights. He might be talking about quarrels within the church.
You remember the church in Corinth. They had their quarrels. One person said, “I am of Paul.” Another, “of apostles,” and so they had their various cliques, their various groups, and Paul said, “You are acting like children. You are acting like immature people. Grow up and understand the centrality of it all is Christ.” Maybe it’s those kinds of quarrels.
Maybe it’s the kind of quarrels that sometimes go on in your vocation at work, in the bank or the factory or the hospital. Oftentimes a lot of unsaid quarrels are going on and tension begins to build and you have animosity, and at any moment it could very easily be fanned into a flame. Maybe James has in mind the quarrels that sometimes happen in our homes. There are some homes where there is so much hostility, so much tension, that it doesn’t take much until two people (usually the parents) are shouting at one another over every small matter that becomes a huge issue because of the level of frustration, the level of anger. James asks the question. He says, “What is really the source of all of these quarrels and all of these fights?” He says, “It is the desires that battle within you.” The desires!
What I’d like to do today is to help you to notice that James actually talks about two conflicts, maybe three, but we’ll boil it down to two. First of all, he says, there is a conflict within us. A conflict within us! You’ll notice he says that these desires (the Greek word is hēdonē, from which we get hedonism) battle within us. And we all experience the tension. Paul says that “the spirit and the flesh war against my mind.” We know that battle.
Now these desires may be revenge, and I’m sure that the two young men who shot as many students as they could, as they went into that school room, were desirous of revenge, and as they were blowing people away, for a moment it apparently felt good because at last they were to even the score, they thought. Foolishness, perverseness and stupidity, but isn’t that why people do what they do—desires that have run amuck? It could be revenge. It could be covetousness.
You know that is actually an introductory message in a series titled Seven Snares and we’re going to talk about greed and gambling and alcoholism and pornography and immorality and the pleasures of life and occultism, snares into which we can fall which eventually will strangle us. But isn’t that why some people fall into gambling and into all kinds of sins? It is because of the love of money, and it is the sin of covetousness which lies at the heart of greed and debt. Or it could be another desire. It could be lust. It could be self-seeking. And these desires, if we simply pursue them and say, “Well, that’s the way I am,” will lead us to despair and lead us to emptiness and guilt.
James says that these do battle within us. Now, let’s take one of the ones we’ll be discussing in detail. Let’s take, for example, alcoholism. Here’s an alcoholic who has cursed that bottle a thousand times and sworn it off, but he’s back the next day, because the bottle mocks him. Here’s a gambler who says, “Never again,” but after all he’s so far in debt because of his gambling, he has to win it all back. So he throws it all away in one more rush to happiness, and suddenly it’s gone. And here you have these desires within us that conflict, because every time we do these things they backfire.
You know, it’s something like a person awash in an ocean. And he’s in a boat and he’s going somewhere, but he’s lost and he can’t get back, and he is out of water—fresh water. And here he is, surrounded by all this water, and the water seems to say, as it laps against the boat, “Drink me, drink me, drink me! I’m wet, I’m accessible, and if you do it, you will quench your thirst.” But he takes it and what does he discover? Well, simply this: that the more he takes, the thirstier he becomes because of the salt, and soon that which looked so good to him ruins him.
What an interesting statement that James is making here regarding the battles of the desires, he says, that are within us. And so you can just imagine now all of these things, oftentimes done in secret, the snares that we’ve talked about. But in being done in secret they only cause the erosion of the soul, and the tension of trying to keep the whole thing hidden is so powerful, along with the sense of guilt and shame. How would you like to live with a person like that? You know, it’s quiet in here right now, but some of you are saying, “Pastor, I do. I do.”
I tell you, it’s difficult. I can’t help but think of those fellows who came out of a tavern drunk, walking along, and someone had smeared some strong smelling cheese under their noses. And as they walked into the clear night air they said, “The whole world stinks.” Now there are people like that who see the world as the problem, and they don’t see themselves as being a part of the problem.
James says it’s the desires that we fight within, the battle within, but it gets worse. What James says is, it is not only the desires that are within, and by the way, he says, “You want something and you don’t get it; you kill and covet but you cannot have what you want.” I don’t think that he’s saying they physically killed one another. I think it’s a figure of speech, something like Billy who said regarding his brother, “I wish he wouldn’t kill me so often.” The simple fact is that you have people here who are quarreling and coveting and damaging one another’s reputations, and having so much hatred that in their hearts they are murderers. But James is saying, “All that is happening, and you covet, and you can’t have what you want, and you’re not getting what all of these things promised you.” That’s the battle that takes place within.
But now I want you to look at the text and see the battle that takes place with God. Notice this. We are actually in the middle of verse 2. We have to pick it up there in the middle. “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” I need to stop there and simply say oftentimes Christians don’t have God’s will because they don’t even stop to ask Him. Have you ever had the experience of doing something that hasn’t worked out well, and then later on you begin to think, “You know, I never even prayed about this.” You think to yourself when it’s too late.
You know, because of the fact that Christians sometimes are mismatched in marriage… You do know, don’t you, that there are some very unhappy Christian marriages? I wish I could tell you that when you have Jesus in your heart, you know, you are just going to have a happy marriage, and everything is going to be sweetness and light, but that’s not the way it is. But sometimes I say to these couples, and it has to be done tenderly, because you don’t want to rub salt in their deep wounds but, “When you were in that courting stage, and when you were planning to be married, did you actually consult God?” That’s a good question to ask. Sometimes in all due honesty I’ve heard things like this: “No, I was afraid to consult Him, because in the depths of my soul I thought He might say no.”
Now this is a parenthesis in the message, but if God said no, does He not have your best interest at heart? Doesn’t He know more about that person than you do? A ton more! If you knew it all, you’d have gone with God. How much better to trust somebody who knows all things, like that old line that goes, “Don’t tell your girlfriend that you are unworthy of her. Just let it come as a surprise.” (laughter) So people get married and reality comes as a surprise, and sometimes it’s because, quite frankly, they didn’t even ask God. They didn’t say, “God, this relationship is Yours. Do as You will.”
And now James goes on and he says this: “When you ask you do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” And even when you do pray (and number one, you don’t) what you want to do is to say, “God, my will be done,” instead of “God, Thy will be done.” And so what you are doing really is asking in vain. And then, of course, God doesn’t answer you because the text says that He’s not going to answer those kinds of prayers where you just want to spend things on your own hēdonē. And the same Greek word appears—the same pleasures, your own hedonism, and so God doesn’t come through, and then people say, “Why should I bother God? I prayed for certain things and He didn’t do them anyway. There’s no use, and I’m just not going to get into it.” And so you begin to shove God off of your life, the very one who can finally help you, who can finally put it together, who can give you some sense of peace in the midst of all of your struggles. The very one who stands ready to help is spurned.
In fact, James now gives us some very strong language. We’ve talked about the battle within us, and now we’re talking about the battle with God. Verse 4: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with (hatred toward) God?” You say, “I don’t believe it. I love the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life,” and that’s the world that James is speaking about. It’s not the world of people. It’s the world system with all of its values. “I love the world but I don’t really hate God. In fact, I love Him. I go to church and I sing all the right hymns. And I sing the right hymns, and I stand and I tell God that I love Him.” But the text says you hate Him. Now, this is strong language because remember where this is going. All of us innately, without God’s intervention, love the world. And God is saying, “You can’t do that and [you can’t] love Me too. In fact, you hate me.”
Now the text even becomes stronger. “Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world (Ouch! Oh, James!), not only does he hate God, but he is actually an enemy of God.” Now you think about the power of the world in our lives, and you think of so-called worldly Christians, who love the world, who are absolutely determined that they are going to take in all of the pleasures of the world. We’re talking about the wrong kind of pleasures now. And they are going to pursue these pleasures and entertain them in their lives, and then they are going to learn how to manage their sin so that they can get through a worship service and manage somehow, and go back and do the same thing again.
James says: “You hate God and you are His enemy.” Oh, this is so strong, but so needed. It’s strong for me, and it’s strong for all of us. He says then, “You adulterous people!” My, oh my! Now, in the Old Testament Israel was spoken of as having gone after other gods, having committed adultery. “‘As a woman treacherously departs from her lover, so you have done to me, oh Israel,’ says the Lord,” it says in the book of Jeremiah.
In 2 Corinthians 11 the Apostle Paul says, “I have betrothed you to one husband, namely Christ, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him.” Now, all that you need to do is to talk to a woman whose husband has committed adultery. Do you understand something of the pain? And some of you who are listening can say, “Yeah, I can understand the pain,” because you’ve been through it. The sense of betrayal, the sense of lack of trust, the sense of hurt, all of the relationship that has been so carefully built shattered in those moments! And the rebuilding might take months, if not years.
That’s what we do to Christ who married us when we were redeemed. We were, as a wife to her husband said, “Well, Jesus, now You are our husband. You are the husband. We are the bride. You have responsibility for us. Husbands have certain responsibilities, and they’re supposed to take care of the bride, but Jesus, You are not meeting our deepest needs. The only way that we can meet those needs is to find the root of pleasure and find someone else who can be a better lover than You.”
Do you realize how that hurts God? That hurts God. “You adulteresses,” James says. And he’s talking to us. And then James, of course, as he’s talking about this says, “Do you think that the Scripture says without reason that the Spirit that dwells in us lusts to envy?” (James 4:5) By the way, that is one of the most difficult verses in all the New Testament to interpret, because there are two problems with it. The first is the question of what spirit is he talking about.
Is James saying that the Holy Spirit of God within us is so jealous for God that He grieves when we sin? That’s one way to interpret it, and if that’s the interpretation, that certainly is theological and scriptural and could be found in many other passages. Imagine what the Holy Spirit has to go through when the Holy Spirit is in contact with all of the sin that we so easily bring into our life. Can you feel His pain and His grief?
There’s another way to interpret it and that’s the way the NIV has it here, namely that the spirit of man, and we could almost say an evil spirit within him, is there and it causes us to envy. It causes the restlessness. It causes us to look into the world and think that we have been gypped, and therefore we go to the world to meet the deepest needs of our hearts. Either way, what James is saying is, “Look, we are adulteresses if we love the world.” What a statement!
Oh, the second problem, by the way, which I didn’t deal with is this: There is no verse of Scripture that says that the spirit that is within us causes us to envy intensely where James says, “Or do you not think that the Scripture says?” There’s no Scripture that says this. I think that what James was doing is he was actually thinking ahead to the next thought that he was going to bring to people, namely the words, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” That’s a passage of Scripture that comes to us from Proverb 3 so I think that that’s the explanation for what James is trying to say.
What I’d like to do now is to make two life-changing concluding observations of the text. The first is notice this. Even though James acknowledges the desires that are within us, and there is no personal lie, he doesn’t know what we’re talking about. Even though James acknowledges that, he is still holding us accountable for our actions. He’s saying, “You know, you have all of these quarrels, you have all of these desires that are at war with your members, and these desires are at war with you and they are at war with God. But he doesn’t say, “Well, you know, after all, you have to follow your desire because it is all in your genes anyway, so just act it out.” James doesn’t go that route.
You know that a couple of years ago (Time goes so quickly it might be years ago), Time had a cover story on adultery. What it basically said was that the reason that men commit adultery is that it is because of their genetic makeup. It’s these genes that are causing the problems, and as a result of that, what you have is men who are promiscuous because they are born to be promiscuous. That was the bottom line.
There have been people who have been saying, “Well, you know, there’s an adultery gene, and it gives you a disposition to adultery.” There’s an alcohol gene because it runs in the family, and we know that it runs in the family. We’ll discuss this when we talk about alcoholism. Identical twins can be adopted in different families, and yet they have a propensity to alcohol even if they are raised in families where there is no alcohol. So you know that’s exactly what the Scripture says. It says, “The sins of the father being visited upon the third and fourth generations.” So there are those social consequences and connections. But what people want to do is they want to isolate that alcohol gene so that they know why some people are alcoholics and others aren’t.
When I was in high school we had a student who would steal. He would quote the verse in Ephesians this way: “Let him who stole steal no more.” But he said, “That’s the way I’m born.” He said, “Ever since I was young I could not stop taking things that I saw.” If he could have put it in contemporary language, he has a stealing gene. And then you have people who say, “We’re going to make sure that we uncover that homosexual gene, because if we can uncover that gene, why then indeed homosexuality has to be accepted as normal.” No, no, no! That’s now how it goes.
Listen to me carefully. James does not buy that. Find as many genes as you want. We are responsible for our desires and for our actions. Please keep that in mind. Do you know what the problem is for some of us? Maybe we don’t have the sins that I’ve listed for you on the sheet of paper that we’re going to be speaking about, but do you know what our problem is? Do you know what my problem is? Do you know what the problem is with the pastoral staff over here? (laughter) Yeah! We’re all born with the sin gene. That’s our problem. There’s a sin gene that they still need to uncover and that’s the seed of all of our difficulties.
Of course, we may have dispositions because of genes, because of desires. James does not let us off the hook, and you cannot be let off the hook, and you cannot be helped as long as you blame it on your genes.
Now, that’s the first observation. Let’s go to a second. James now says, “Look, I’m going to tell you what to do.” By the way, when I preach this series of messages (and I do want you to pray for me a great deal because obviously we’re invading Satan’s territory once we get into the things that are listed), I want to preach very redemptively. You know, the easy thing is for a pastor to stand up and just flail against some of these sins, and rail against them and send everybody home feeling guilty. Either if you are involved in the problem or the sin, you go home feeling guilty. If you’re not, you go home feeling very, very self-righteous. My dear friend, the only reason we tackle these subjects (the only one) is to make sure that there’s a helping hand extended to the needy, because we’re all fallen creatures as I mentioned. We’ve all got the sin gene. And so what we want to do is to be redemptive, and we as a staff have talked about that, how in future messages we can give people counsel, and how we can show them the way.
There was a young artist who painted a very, very dark picture, and it was just almost horrid in (What shall we say?) the depth and the intensity of its darkness. And there was a man who was an artist who said, “You know, never just paint a picture like that without painting a way leading out.” There’s got to be a way out of the darkness, and what we’re interested in is to find that way.
So James says, “I’ve got something for you to do. You’ve got a problem with the quarrels and the desires that are driving you, and you swear them off and they are back the next day. Here are the words of God. Verse 7: “Submit yourself to God.” A good place to start!
You say, “Well, does that mean that my spouse is going to treat me much nicer now that I’ve submitted to God? Does that mean that that boss with whom I have to work and who is such an incredible irritation, who does everything that he or she can possibly do to make my life miserable, does that mean that on Monday morning everything is going to be fine because at last that office is going to be turned around according to my liking so that they do it right?” No! But let me tell you that when you submit to God… Now listen! That submission is a very thorough submission. That is a submission that simply says, “God, I’m here, and whatever you ask me to do so that I will not be desire-driven, I’ll do it.” That’s not a submission that comes easily, but James says, “Submit yourself to God.”
Resist the devil. That’s number two. You say, “Well, what does he have to do with all these things?” Oh, my friend, the sins that we are talking about are his playground. This is where he spends his time, making havoc, doing whatever he can to get us down and to fall into a snare. And he has two lies that he loves to pass off onto people. Let me give them to you. The first lie is, number one, just do it once, and that’s all. “After you’ve done it once,” he says, “now that you’re defiled, you might just as well keep doing it,” and you are hooked. Both are lies.
Resist the devil. See there are all kinds of people who are trying to resist the devil, and they’ve not submitted to God, and it’s not working, because the devil comes back. When Jesus even quoted verses of Scripture at him, he memorized his own verses. I don’t know whether or not he carries cards around with him or not, but he memorized his own verses and he gave Jesus a verse back in His face.
The thing that works is, “Dearly beloved, submit yourself to God.”
Secondly, resist the devil, James says, and then he says, “Come near to God and he’ll come near to you.” And I say that to those of you who feel on the fringes. I say that to those of you who feel that you’ve tried it a thousand times. I’m saying, “Try it a thousand and one times.” I say it to those of you who may feel as if God is so angry with that He’s turned His back on you. He hasn’t. Draw near to Him and He will draw near to you. That’s the promise that you can claim.
“Wash your hands, you sinners. Purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Get clean as you confess your sins so that your conscience isn’t constantly agitating you and telling you, “Well, you know, now that you’ve done it you have to travel down the same path again.”
“Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.” And by the way, it says, “Grieve and mourn for your sins,” but verse 10 says, “Humble yourself before the Lord and he’ll lift you up.” Why does he say that? It’s because (Listen carefully) all sin begins with pride, because all sin says, “I know better than God as to what’s going to give me pleasure.” And we will never overcome the tremendous desires within unless we go for pleasure, but they have to be God’s pleasures that are on the right hand of God, that have no backwash of guilt, learning to enjoy God so much that we do not want to grieve Him because of our sin. That’s really what happens. James says, “Folks, number one, there’s a war within.” And we say, “James, we agree. We’ve all been there and done that.”
Secondly, he’s saying, “You’re at war with God, and if you continue to be the lover of the world you actually become His enemy.” And that frightens us. I, for one, do not want to be an enemy of God. I hope that you agree with that. Don’t be an enemy of God.
And then James is saying, “Look, there is a way out. Submit yourself to God. Resist the devil. Be cleansed. And humble yourself under His mighty hand.” And sometimes that humility means that we go to other people for help and we disclose the secrets that we have so carefully crafted and covered, because it is in the process of disclosure that there is help and there is healing.
Moody Church is a place where it’s okay to have problems. If it wasn’t we’d have nobody here. It’s okay to be needy, but we encourage you to come to God.
There is that old story, that Indian legend, that talks about the Indian who said, “You know, I have two dogs within me. There’s that ugly dog that’s in the shadows, and then there’s the dog that is in the light.” And the old question is, “Which one controls you?” And the Indian wisely answered, “The one that I feed the most.”
Who are you feeding today? The desires which are going to drive you, or are you feeding the desire for God? That’s the question. James says you can change. You can be different, and Jesus said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”
Join me as we pray.
And now, Father, we come to You, and we ask that with sensitivity but firmness Your blessed Holy Spirit would work in our hearts. Father, we cannot even grasp the words that we have said this morning, that to love the world is to be an enemy of God. Oh Father, may it be said of the members and friends of Moody Church and our listening audience that we never want to be Your enemy because You are opposed to the proud. You are at war with the proud, the Bible says, but You do give grace to the humble. We desire that we shall have that humility.
And now, before I close this prayer, what do you today have to tell God? Whatever it is, would you tell Him right now?
Father, You know our weakness. You know that we are but dust. You know the struggles of the flesh. You know how often we have failed. You know, Father, that all of our willpower has not been strong enough to subdue desires that want to control us. Grant us at this moment that we might submit to You, Father. And may we love You so much that we would never want to be Your enemy. Do that in my heart and in the hearts of all the leadership of the church, and every person who is listening. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.