So this is what James means by the word “pleasures,” but how does this earthly pursuit of gratification “wage war in your members?” We must understand that James is not referring to church members here, but instead to the physical and mental members of one’s body. The war is the war between an unbelievers flesh and consciences. Despite the fall of man even unbelievers have an awareness of God and His truth. We find this in Romans 1:18 & 24-25. Even unbelievers have enough awareness of God’s truth to be disturbed by sin.
It is a Christian truth from God that murder is wrong, but you do not have to be a Christian to understand that. But why is this so? John MacArthur explains it this way:
“The fall of man corrupted the race, affecting every part of man’s being. Yet because man is made in God’s image, he retains a certain nobility and dignity that may be reflected even in those who are unsaved. Many unbelievers are kind and generous, peace-loving and self-giving. Many are extremely talented, creating beautiful music and art, making great scientific discoveries and inventing amazing machines and technology. But without God, their fleshly impulses and passions fight against that residual nobility. And desires for the wrong kinds of pleasures, the wrong kinds of satisfaction, and selfish fulfillment inevitably wage an internal war, a war within [their] members, with everything that stands in their way.”
I think that MacArthur is correct in explaining what this inner conflict is, but it is hard to define exactly what the inner conflict is because James emphasizes the result of the conflict more than the conflict itself. This is why the result of inner-conflict will be our main focus.
James makes it clear, just like he did in 3:16, that their worldly desires had bad results. James writes “you lust and you do not have; so you commit murder.” By using the term murder here in v. 2 James startles his readers. It is unlikely that James’ original readers had come to the point of actually killing one another, but through his startling language James’ sought to show them the depths of their evil behavior. James has depended on the teachings of Christ heavily in his letter; specifically the book of Matthew. In Matthew 5:21-22 we find Jesus talking about murder. Here Jesus teaches that it does not take the actually killing of someone to be condemned of the law. In fact, he says that anyone who is angry is guilty. In a similar manner John addresses this issue in 1 John 3:15. Here we read that “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer…” It seems probable that this was the teaching that James had in mind. That being said, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that they were actually murder one another. Lust is a dangerous thing, and when it does not get what it wants it lashes out. A great example of the great power of lust is found in Genesis 19:11. Here we see that the men of
Sodom lusted after the messengers of the Lord. Even after they were struck blind they continued to try and get through the door into
Lot’s house. Lust can be a very powerful thing, and it is for that reason I cannot say with absolute certainty that these people weren’t actually murdering one another.
Regardless of whether or not they were killing people their behavior was very destructive. James goes on to write that they were envious and could not obtain; so they fought. Think for a moment about what these people were doing. They saw what other people had and they wanted it. When they couldn’t get it they fought for it. They were not fighting to keep what belonged to them, or against some injustice. They fought to take from others what they had long been envious of. These people had hatred and anger towards people because of envy. The people that they hated didn’t necessarily do anything to them; they just had more stuff. “It wasn’t fair.” Can you imagine living life like this? Not only wanting what other people have, but also being angry with people because they have it. This happens all the time. It may be a nicer house, or car, or a boyfriend/girlfriend, maybe it’s a TV, or playstation, it could even be popularity. We become jealous of what others have, and then we cannot even stand to be around them. We want what they have. For some reason we even want them to loose what they have. This is the conflict that will arise from the pursuit of worldly gratification.
MacArthur, J. (1998). James.
Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.