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Fighting Words

fightingwords_headerMake sure you pick the right fight

by Mark Buchanan

“What causes fights and quarrels among you?”

Jesus’ brother, James, asked his congregation that question a long way back, and every pastor since, one time or another, has asked it of their congregation. Why are followers of the Prince of Peace so prone to catfights and squabbles? Why do those called to live by grace so often live by the lex talionis, the law of retaliation: eye for eye and tooth for tooth? Why do people who worship the God who buries our sins in the deepest ocean and remembers them no more store other’s sins in shallow trenches and dredge them up in a blink?

James was clear enough in his diagnosis: “Don’t they—the fights and quarrels—come from the desires that battle within you?” Isn’t your belligerence mostly selfishness decked out for war?

It rings true. Recently, I nursed a grudge against someone. With good cause, you understand. I had arguments with them in my head where I was brilliant, eloquent and devastatingly right, while they were stupid, tongue-tied and humiliatingly wrong. I got to the place where I attributed everything this person did to their folly and spite, cunningly masked, of course, so that only I could really see through it.

And then I re-read Brother James. What if the problem was me? What if my anger and indignation stemmed, not from the fault of the other, but the waywardness of my own heart? I opened myself, tentatively, gingerly, to consider such an unlikely scenario. And guess what? Well, you know what: I traced a clear line of causation right back to my own double-mindedness (to use an earlier phrase from James), an unresolved dispute in my own guts.

James pushes his diagnosis further: the battle within comes from ungodly desire, and ungodly desire comes from friendship with the world (James 4:1-4).

I’ve learned to trust James on this. In the “fights and quarrels” I am tempted to engage, and in the ones I am, as pastor, called to help resolve, I’ve found that the real issue almost never is the presenting issue. The real issue is friendship with the world. That friendship feeds selfish desire, and a battle within erupts. The real issue is entitlement, envy, rivalry, jealousy, greed, pride, and the like—things that have nothing at all to do with God’s kingdom and righteousness indeed, usually nothing at all to do with even the matter at hand though often masqueraded as such. Most quarrels I see are personal vendetta dressed up as pious crusade.

Not long ago I stepped in to help two Christians resolve a fight. They had formerly been close friends but, over a deal gone sour, had become bitter enemies. I asked one of the offended parties, “What if you never get your money back— what then?”

“I’ll sue.”

“And forgiveness? Where does that fit here?”

The person looked at me with horror and contempt. “Are you serious? Do you even live in the real world?”

In a moment of James-like clearness, I responded, “What real world do you want to live in? Afghanistan? Iraq? Darfur? The Congo? The real world I want to live in, and am inviting you to live in, is called the Kingdom of God.”

Which is a kingdom of peace. But first it must take up occupancy in our own hearts.

And that’s exactly what James says next. “Submit yourself to God,” he says, “and resist the devil…” (James 4:7). Go ahead, James says, pick a fight. Just be clear who the enemy is. It’s not God, and it’s not the person in front of you who’s somehow foiling your worldly desires.

It’s the prince of darkness who’s set himself up in enmity against the Prince of Peace, but who uses people as canon fodder.

Pray you’ve got enough warrior in you not to fall for that.

Mark Buchanan is an author and pastor living on Vancouver Island. He is the author of five bestselling books and numerous articles, and recently spoke at the Promise Keepers Legacy Conference in Winnipeg.

The article above was featured in the November 2008 issue of SEVEN magazine.