What Causes Fights Among You?

I grew up something of a brawler.

This is incredibly embarrassing to admit, but the truth is that I was so hot-tempered and prone to schoolyard fighting that I attended three different elementary schools within the same district…and not because my parents moved around a lot – or at all. Kindergarten through 2nd grade was spent at Adams Elementary School; my social skills at that institution earned me a one-year sentence to a program for “kids with special needs” (in my case, “juvenile delinquents”) at another school a few miles away from our home. A third grader! After a year there, the school district (perhaps unwisely) readmitted me to the general population, this time across the railroad tracks at Pembroke, where I somehow managed to finish three years of elementary education. I can vividly recall my parents interacting with Pembroke officials on multiple occasions…not good.

Sometimes I lost the fights that I got into, sometimes I “won;” most of the time, winning or losing was not really the point. The point was to take as many shots as I possibly could before the adults intervened or the other kid managed to put me down. This tendency toward physical problem-solving stuck with me in junior high but mercifully tapered off as I made the transition to high school. Still, I can recall at least three occasions as late as college where I attempted to settle a dispute by throwing a punch or otherwise causing another person bodily harm. These days, my kids are amused by the story wherein I once punched a fraternity brother in the head for having the audacity to take a few French fries off my plate without asking. Obviously, I am very quick to confess it to all of them as a textbook demonstration of my own sinful heart.

It would be nice to say that the absence of physical fighting has been the result of a changed heart, but prior to 1997 (at least) that was not really the case. In fact, up until just a few years ago, I still wore my brawler past as something of a (pathetic) badge of honor; I was quick to let people know that I grew up in Detroit, and even now I still enjoy seeing the response whenever introductions are being made: “Detroit? Really?”

Most Christians I know just can’t relate to my story, and I envy them for that. I really do. But even if you have never laid a hand on another person in anger, surely most people can relate to the idea of lashing out in rage, anger or even impatient frustration, using what James called a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” – their tongues (James 3:8). I don’t know anyone who can claim not to have used their words as a weapon against another.

So it is that I have really come to appreciate the straightforward approach employed by James, the half-brother of Jesus. James wastes no time in identifying what is going on in the hearts of those who struggle with pent-up anger and aggression, no matter how it is ultimately expressed.

James 4:1-3 (ESV)
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

Once more, I want to strongly emphasize that the mere absence of physical brawling does absolutely nothing to exonerate any one of us from the heart-truths that James is writing about. In less than one year of serving in the arena of divorce ministry, I have had occasion to watch an appalling amount of fights and quarrels (almost none of them physical) in which the combatants have done serious and permanent harm not only to their “enemy” but also to those who have the misfortune to be sitting ringside, typically their own children. And yes, I am sadly aware that the ministry my wife and I serve in exposes us to a mere fraction of what is really going on behind the closed doors and neatly-manicured lawns of Columbia.

If you missed hearing Paul Tripp when he spoke at The Crossing over this past Halloween weekend, and if, like me, you sometimes struggle with anger issues, I’d like to strongly recommend that you dig in to his books; start with War of Words, perhaps, or How to Be Good and Angry (available on CD) and listen to what he says about the deeper meaning our anger carries. Ultimately, our human anger does nothing to glorify God (few of us get angry because God’s name has been besmirched), and it exposes a deep-seated core of unbelief, namely that we do not trust our God to settle accounts, as He has promised to do (Romans 12:17-19).

Sure, not everyone’s first response to a minor infraction is to ball up their fists and start swinging; honestly, I hate it that I was that way for so long. But can’t everyone relate to the idea of passions at war within them? I have to think so. Most of us battle with trusting God to bring justice to situations; and because we don’t trust, we take our fists or our tongues and we rush to execute justice ourselves.

Maybe progress looks something like this: Whenever we feel the anger begin to rise up within us, instead of asking “Who can I slug…or slander…and how hard?” we begin to ask ourselves “Which promises of God am I failing to believe?” For what it’s worth, this tactic has actually worked for me on multiple occasions, though admittedly this is “a work of Christ still in progress.” I’m just grateful beyond words that by His grace the remodeling job on my heart has (finally) begun.

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