Where Does Conflict in Relationships Come From?
Relationships always involve sinners. Since sinners sin, conflict is inevitable in all relationships and we need to deal with it. Because of the ubiquitous nature of conflict, we also need to understand it. One of the most pertinent passages to know with regard to conflict is James 4:1-3. James 4:1-3 addresses the source of conflict in relationships.
1. Conflict comes from within (James 4:1a)
The first point worth noting is that conflict arises from within—from the heart! Understanding a biblical theology of the heart helps solidify this point.
The concept of heart in biblical language is the decision-making, control center of life. It is more akin to the way we think of making up our mind. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Likewise, Jesus states, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:19).
When we think about the conflict in our relationships, it is tempting to point the finger at external factors or other people. But, Scripture is clear that our own heart is the main issue.
2. Conflict comes when our desires are not met (James 4:1b-2)
James zeroes in on the main issue here. He says the ultimate source of conflict is, “that your passions are at war within you” (ESV). The word for passions (ἡδονή) is the word for pleasure, delight, enjoyment, etc. It is the Greek word from which we derive our word hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure).
So James is saying that conflict comes because of the war of desire which rages within us. Specifically, conflict comes when our desires are unmet or unfulfilled. In verse 2 James says, “You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (ESV). Conflict comes in varying forms when the things we want are withheld from us.
By way of application it is essential to note that this applies to both wholesome and sinful desires. We know sinful desires are inherently wicked (e.g. covetousness, etc.), and conflict is sure to stem from sin festering in the heart. But on the one hand, there are neutral (or even good) desires which can cause conflict. For example, someone could desire a promotion at work (which is not an inherently bad desire), but when they do not get it, they respond with bitterness toward the one who did not see them as worthy of the promotion. Or, perhaps someone could desire marriage (which is a good gift from God), but when they are not able to find someone mutually interested on their time table, they respond bitterly.
It is actually sad how easy it is to see this play out in my own life. For example, there have been times when I have my heart set on reading my Bible in a nice quiet environment, but my kids come ripping through; or my wife needs me to do something. My heart often wants to respond in anger because my desire has been withheld. Even though it is a good desire, this is no justification for a sinful response.
Often when I’m talking to a couple or individual who is dealing with conflict James 4:1-2 is where much of the time is spent. It is always easier to point the finger at the person with whom you are in conflict. But, an important part of understanding the conflict is being able to identify the unmet desire that you had, which then caused your sinful response. It is important at that point to repent of making our desires an idol in our life. Scripture forces us to turn our gaze to our own heart—the true culprit of conflict.
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