Every marriage relationship experiences conflict. Sometimes it can be healthy conflict. Many times it can be destructive conflict. I have already written about preventing destructive conflict here.
James 4:1-2 is well-known, but often not thought of when it comes to the marriage relationship. This verse can provide some special help in understanding your last conflict and moving towards a more positive discussion next time.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. James 4:1-2
Let’s take this phrase by phrase.
1. The Question. What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?
James starts with a rhetorical question, but we should stop and examine it. During a disagreement with our spouse, we think the answer to this question is easy—my spouse! He or she is the cause of this disagreement. He just will not see things my way and is stubborn. Or she is just so thoughtless and inconsiderate.
But now James will go on to tell us what causes fights and quarrels.
2. Answer 1: Inner Turmoil. Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?
One set of fights can come because we are inwardly in turmoil. Perhaps there is stress at work. Or someone criticized us at church. Or we are jealous of what we have just seen on social media. And this internal turmoil causes us to lash out at the one closest to us.
3. Answer 2: Competing Desires. You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.
Here James provides a second answer to his rhetorical question. It is our desires that lead to outward clashing. This rhetorical device is an obvious reference to Jesus teaching on anger as murder (Matt 5:21-22). It is doubtful the early church was actually murdering each other! James is saying that is our desires are causing us to get sinfully angry with one another.
What James has done is drill down to the heart of a disagreement—clashing desires. She wants to move; he doesn’t. He wants their son to play football; she doesn’t. She wants to eat out; he doesn’t.
So what is the answer? Will James argue for some Zen-like, desireless existence? That is not the case at all. There are good desires as well as bad. There are also desires that are neither good nor bad, just different.
Understanding the desires underneath the disagreement can help us understand each other. I have written about the difference in positions and interests here and in The Disciple-Making Parent.
Turning Arguments into Prayer
While understanding desires is helpful, it is not enough. James goes on to prescribe prayer.
4. Solution 1: Prayer. You do not have, because you do not ask God.
In other words, just as an argument is a prompt to dig deeper for the desire, it is also a prompt to pray. When I have a disagreement, I should also sense a growing desire to pray.
How can prayer help?
a. We can pray for understanding of our inner turmoil. Remember the earlier point about fights coming from passions at war within us? We can bring that turmoil to the Lord in prayer. Perhaps we should “externally process” the inner turmoil with the Lord before we dump on our spouse.
b. We can pray separately about the competing desires. If the conflict involves different large issues with our spouse, then we should make them a matter of private prayer. We can bring the conflict we are having (for example, “Should we move?”) and ask the Lord to either change the other person’s heart or to change ours. We can ask him to give us insight into his mind on this issue.
c. We can pray together about the competing desires. Finally, a third option is to make the disagreement a matter of prayer together. Calmly go before the Lord in prayer. You could say something like, “Lord, we are disagreeing over this issue. Would you lead us forward? Would you help each of us see what we are not seeing? Show us what you want us to do.”
How we work through conflict shows off the gospel to our children. We don’t want our children, when they become adults, to tell others, “My parents were constantly fighting.” Instead, we want them to say, “They were very different people but the Lord helped them work through those differences.”