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In chapter 3, James wrote about restraining the tongue, because it reveals the heart. If a man has poison in his heart, he will curse others. We ought to bless, rather than curse. The problem has been that believers in Christ, even those who claim to have the Holy Spirit in them, often have not put to death the “old man” (Paul's term).
James then speaks of the difference between the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God. The New Creation Man manifests the wisdom of God, along with the good fruit of righteousness that is sown in PEACE. James then shows the origin of war and conflict among men. He is commenting on the works of the “old man,” which functions according to the wisdom of men, rather than the wisdom of God.
James 4:1 says,
1 What is the source of quarrels [polemos, “war, battles”] and conflicts [makhay, “a fight or combat”] among you? Is not the source [of war] your pleasures [hedone, “lust, pleasure, or desire for pleasure”] that wage war in your members?
There have been wars and conflicts among nations for thousands of years. The source of such conflict is the selfish desire of the “old man” to obtain pleasure or comfort for itself—always at the expense of others. In essence, this carnal nature in man wants to live a life of comfort by having others do the work. In order to obtain such pleasure, they are willing to go to war to force others into subservience and even slavery.
Many wars are fought over land and natural resources, which are believed to be necessary to achieve a higher comfort level in life. All of this is a violation of the Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.”
James tells us that this conflict among nations and individuals has its origin in the inner conflict “in your members.” This is the same conflict that Paul addressed in Romans 7:15-25. Verses 21-23 says,
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me—the one who wishes to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man [i.e., the New Creation Man], 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
James and Paul are fully united in understanding the dual nature of the believer. These wage war against each other. Paul discusses the issue more fully than James, but it is clear that they are speaking of the same problem. The old man of fleshly Adam is under the law of sin (transgression of the law) and wants to sin; the New Creation Man desires to be obedient to the law of God.
Those who are genuine believers in Christ have an additional nature, because the New Creation Man has been begotten in their spirit by the Holy Spirit through the “seed” of the gospel. Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:15 (The Emphatic Diaglott),
15 For though you may have myriads of leaders in Christ, yet not many fathers; for in Christ I begot you through the glad tidings [gospel].
It is the Word of God, the gospel, which impregnates our spirit. The result is a new life within us in addition to the old Adamic flesh man. That “holy seed” within us cannot sin, because he is begotten of God (1 John 3:9). It is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Paul tells us to identify ourselves with this New Creation Man, rather than with the old Adamic man of sin.
This fully agrees with James as well, who recognizes that the ultimate source of all war and conflict is the mortal, flesh man residing “in your members,” or body parts. James continues,
2 You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.
This is why God established the Tenth Commandment as a restrainer of the fleshly desires. When men want what others have, they are often willing to commit murder to obtain it. They envy what others have, and if those others are unwilling to part with their property, they fight.
The last sentence in verse 2 is one of the most misused statements in Scripture, because it is nearly always taken out of context. When James says, “you do not have,” it runs parallel to the two previous sentences and should be viewed in that light. The first sentence in particular is relevant: “You lust and do not have, so you commit murder.” Likewise, “you do not have, because you do not ask,” but instead, you just go to war to try to take what you do not have.
This is the same sense as James statement, “you are envious and cannot obtain, so you fight.” James is condemning such actions, not advocating them. In that light, it is helpful to look closer at the word “ask.”
The Greek word for “ask” is aiteo. More important, however, is its Hebrew equivalent, sha'al, since the Greek words of the New Testament usually should be understood in terms of their Hebrew equivalents. These equivalents may be learned from studying the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament that was translated more than two centuries before Christ. This translation tells us the accepted Greek words that were used to convey Hebrew thoughts and definitions.
The Hebrew word sha'al is “to ask, require, or present a demand.” It is best illustrated by King Saul, whose name is derived from sha'al. In that case, the people “asked” God for a king, so He gave them Saul, whose name reflected their demand. The people did not merely ask God politely, nor did they ask what God's will was. Instead, they demanded a king. 1 Sam. 8:10 says,
10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who had asked [sha'al] of him a king.
Samuel told them the oppressive nature of earthly kings.
19 Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us.”
Did they ask, or was this a demand? In the coronation ceremony in 1 Sam. 12:12, Samuel said, “...you said to me, 'No, but a king shall reign over us,' although the Lord your God was your king.” In other words, Samuel tried to tell them that this was a really bad idea, but the people insisted. They demanded a king.
This is particularly relevant in that King Saul was crowned on the day of Pentecost, called the day of “wheat harvest” in 1 Sam. 12:17. He is a type of the Church, which, in effect, has demanded earthly kings (popes, apostles, denominational heads) to reign over them. It is one of the root problems of the Age of Pentecost that even believers do not want the direct rule of Jesus Christ, but demand earthly rulers to represent Christ to them as His “vicar.”
Even in the first century, James had to deal with the Church in Jerusalem, which seems to have adopted the same mindset as their forefathers. It was inevitable that the Church would have problems with its leadership throughout the Age of Pentecost. This started as a demand for spiritual leadership, but ended centuries later with the spiritual leader demanding political power as well.
So when James says, “YOU do not have because you do not demand,” it contains a subtle irony. Samuel warned the people that an earthly king would be a taker. 1 Samuel 8:11-17 says,
11 And he said, “This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will TAKE your sons. . . 13 He will also TAKE your daughters. . . 14 And he will TAKE the best of your fields. . . 15 And he will TAKE a tenth of your seed. . . 16 He will also TAKE your male servants and your female servants. . . 17 He will TAKE a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants.
Kings demand the property and resources of other nations, because they believe that they have this right. They are willing to go to war if necessary. Christians are often poor, because they do not make the same carnal demands as their leaders so often do.
I can see James writing this with a faint smile. The people demanded a king, only to discover that the king also makes demands upon the people. Let me paraphrase James 3:2,
2 You lust after what someone else owns—and wish that you had it for yourself—so you commit murder in order to get it. And you are envious of what someone else owns, wishing you had it for yourself, but are unable to buy it for yourself, so you fight and quarrel in order to get it. You do not have because, unlike kings, you cannot make such demands.
Was James advocating that Christians ask, beg, or demand things from either God or men? Not at all. He was setting the stage for a deeper truth, that those who made such demands—whether kings or peasants—tend to make demands with carnal motives.
3 You ask [or demand] and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
The difference is that when kings make demands, they have armed men to enforce their demands. When ordinary people make such demands, they have no power to enforce their demands. But James was less concerned with demands upon our fellow men, but focuses instead upon our demands upon God.
One does not have to look far to see how often Christians make carnal demands upon God in order to increase their level of bodily comfort. Much of this is motivated by seeing what other people own, which then breeds envy and lust within us. Somehow we think that life ought to be fair and that everyone should be able to obtain what other people have, regardless of who has actually worked for it.
Socialism, which is the religious persuasion of Mystery Babylon today, has bred a generation of people who actually believe that they have the right to demand the fruit of other people’s labor. They expect the government to enforce this on their behalf, if necessary, through taxation. Biblical law has an entirely different system of welfare, accomplished without theft.
Hence, “asking” must be done, not by demanding, but with respect for the property rights of both God and men.