Frustrated desire

Have you ever wanted something so badly you’d be willing to kill for it? Some people, after all, will go to extremes to get what they want. Hopefully, that’s not you. But if you just happen to know someone who fits the description, you’d better not be standing between them and their prize.

It sounds like something ripped from the tabloid headlines. Does this kind of melodrama happen in the church? Something James writes seems to suggest so:

You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. (James 4:2a, CEB)

Does he mean it literally? Were Christians actually murdering people for personal gain?

There’s no way to know for certain, but personally, I don’t think he’s saying that believers were actually guilty of homicide. Surely, if this were happening in the church, he wouldn’t bury the lead; he would deal with it up front, before such moral advice as “Talk less, listen more,” and “Stop favoring the rich.”

What does he mean, then?

Let’s do a little detective work.

First, James has already used the language of murder in 2:11. There, his point was that failing to love one’s neighbor, by showing favor to the rich over the poor, made one a lawbreaker just as surely as if they had committed the more egregious sins of murder or adultery.

Second, this once again echoes the teaching of Jesus, as James does elsewhere in the letter (This is for you, bro; I get it now). When Jesus mentioned adultery and murder in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-30), he was teaching his disciples that true righteousness was not the same as the punctilious rule-following of the scribes and Pharisees. Anger and lust made one as guilty before a holy God as murder and adultery. You could be innocent of the latter as sins of the body, but guilty of the former as sins of the heart.

I read James, therefore, as talking about malice rather than homicide. So let me rephrase the question with which I began this post: Have you ever wanted something so badly that when someone else got it instead of you, you wished them ill? Maybe it was just a twinge. Maybe it was just for a moment. Or maybe you lost sleep over it, endlessly playing out your envy and resentment in your mind again and again. Wherever you find yourself on that continuum, you’ve got company.

There is a fundamental psychological insight here: in part, our conflicts stem from frustrated desire. James says it twice here, in different ways, echoing language that he’s already used in the previous verse. The conflicts he’s seeing in the church arise from people’s lust for status and recognition. When they don’t get what they want, trouble ensues.

Think how this might play out today. You’ve given your all to a particular ministry, say, planning a large church event. You’ve given sacrificially of your time, and have even spent some of your own money to get everything just right, under the radar. It’s a ministry, right? What’s a few bucks here and there?

The day of the event comes. You’re running around trying to make sure everything goes smoothly — and it does. Even better than that, the event is a resounding success.

How would you feel if no one said thank you? If there was no acknowledgment of your effort or sacrifice? Worse yet, what if someone else got the credit? Would you feel angry, jealous, resentful? All of that would be perfectly understandable.

And nothing good would be likely to come from it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that your effort shouldn’t be recognized. Yes, we should expect that those who follow a crucified Savior would be willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. But we should also expect that his commandment to love one another should be embodied in appropriate expressions of gratitude to one another.

The question is where our legitimate desire to be seen as part of the community slides over into the lust to be publicly honored, to have moments of glory worthy of posting to social media. To use our gifts to serve the body is one thing; to seek status is to want to put ourselves higher, to be more important than others.

It only takes one person thinking that way to initiate conflict. But what happens when a critical mass of people in a church think that way?

We’ll see what James has to say in subsequent posts.