Last week, I asked you to think back to the last time you had an argument with someone. I asked you to remember what the conflict was about and what happened: what the other person said and did, and what you said and did in response.
If you would, go back to that memory again. This time, however, instead of trying to remember your behavior, think about your motivation, that is, what you wanted right that moment as you argued.
Got it? Now look at the list below. Here are several ways you might complete the sentence, “As we were fighting, what I really wanted was…” Which ones fit for you?
- …to be heard.
- …to win.
- …to be a person of good character.
- …to get revenge.
- …to promote God’s peace.
- …to put the other person in his/her place.
- …to act wisely.
- …to overpower the other person with my words.
- …to be humble.
- …to be proven right.
- …to show love.
- …to win. (Did I say that already?)
The list, of course, could go on and on. But if you’re like me, and being honest, you may have had more answers on the negative side than on the positive. The psychological reality is that when we don’t get what we want, we feel threatened and go on defense, offense, or both. Strong negative emotion feels self-justified, and we automatically blame the other person.
What we typically don’t recognize is the way our own goals and desires play a role in the conflict. James, a keen observer, sees this happening in the church, and confronts his readers:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? (James 4:1, NRSVUE)
He doesn’t say, of course, what the conflicts were about, but we might guess from what he’s already said in his letter. It may have been about the way the rich were being favored and the poor disrespected. It may have been a doctrinal dispute over things being said by false teachers. People saw themselves on opposite sides, and no doubt everyone thought their own side right and the other dead wrong.
But James doesn’t wade into the argument itself. Instead, he forces his readers to ask the harder question: What is it about your own desires that fuels the conflict and division between you? We’ve already seen how people in the church were seeking positions of status and influence for selfish reasons, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how motivations like these could lead to mutual animosity and anger.
Note too that James implies that we can have mixed motivations that are at odds with each other. In a doctrinal dispute, for example, I may want the truth to be honored. That’s a good thing. But I may also want the personal satisfaction of being right and proving someone else wrong. I may want to stand up for the poor and the disenfranchised, to promote social justice. That’s good too. But I may also relish the opportunity to stick it to the man and be lauded as the crusading hero.
James says this right after teaching his readers that true and godly wisdom is demonstrated in a life of humility and peacemaking: the person who has the wisdom from above continually sows peace and harvests justice. Peacemaking, a desire for God’s shalom in all our relationships, is the motivation that matters.
So go back to that argument one more time. What was the desire in your heart that kept the conflict going? What would it look like for you to humbly desire wisdom and shalom instead?
If you can envision that, then you know what to strive toward when the next conflict happens.