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Predictable Patterns

Big storms are common along the Atlantic Seaboard. Old salts call them nor’easters. In 1991, early in the last week of October, a nor’easter named Hurricane Grace skipped along the coast, skirting the Bahamas. By midweek a second cyclonic depression had slipped down the coast from Nova Scotia to join forces with Grace. Sometime on October 30, the two systems merged about 100 miles off Cape Cod. Later that same day, the newly formed system, which was never officially named a hurricane, collided with a monster high-pressure ridge of cold Canadian air swooping in from the Midwest. The result was a weather system so large and powerful that it deserves a place in history all its own. A television broadcaster dubbed it “the perfect storm.” Sebastian Junger later wrote a best seller using the newsman’s phrase as his title. The story tells of the tragic loss of the Andrea Gail, a 72-foot fishing vessel that went down somewhere in the North Atlantic in gales of more than 100 knots and waves that have been calculated at over 100 feet.

In spiritual terms, conflict is the perfect storm of sinful entanglements. And just as meteorologists analyze patterns in nature that combine to create powerful weather systems, a study of the anatomy of a developing conflict can be very instructive.

Like weather systems, conflicts often follow a predictable course. Fortunately, a lot of groundbreaking work has already been done in the area of conflict. In fact, some findings are almost two thousand years old. Yet the insights of one author in particular resonate fresh, as if his words were rendered just yesterday. The writer’s name was James. He was an apostle and the man who composed the general New Testament epistle with the appropriate title “James.” James had a special talent for understanding people—especially people involved in conflict. His short letter in Scripture has much to say about human relationships and the heartrending conflicts we endure. Writing in terms that are disarmingly personal, James analyzed the pattern for a growing conflict. His target audience consisted of folks like us—sinner-saints. The question he posed is what interests us in this chapter: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (James 4:1).

Saint James was never one to beat around the bush. He approached his topic with a searing rhetorical question. And he didn’t waste time getting right to the heart of the matter with an answer: “Don’t [fights and quarrels] come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).

Forceful words. Did you feel their impact? Some would say James crossed the rudeness line when he indicted every member of his reading audience. With the icy finger of accusation, James said it’s all because of your desires that conflicts arise—all of you. You want. You kill. You covet. You do not have because you have wrong motives. You. YOU! You are the problem. The fights and quarrels you get tangled up in originate in the darkness of your own heart. What’s more, the root cause of it all is that you want.

So how accurate was the apostle? If you and I are completely honest, we’d admit he was spot-on. The human heart is the very first place to begin looking for the causes of conflict. Each of us needs to honestly assess the motives in our own hearts before we lay blame at the feet of someone else. My own sinful self could very well be an integral part of the nasty conflict I am fighting.

The Seeds of Conflict

This is about the time when most of us, dear reader, get up on our high horses in protest to challenge the notion that there may be something wrong with wanting something—with dreaming big. After all, in one way or another, we each subscribe to the concept of the great American dream. Disney built an empire based on the idea that our dreams can come true if we just wish hard enough. For humankind, dreams are a default setting—a given. When the harsh realities of life hit us the hardest (think of the worst things that can happen), we still dream. So what’s wrong with that?

Actually, the objects of our wanting aren’t that important. James didn’t even bother to cite examples. Nor was he saying that there is anything inherently wrong with wanting or even dreaming big. He was saying that if you are searching for the seeds of conflict, look no further than your own heart. That’s where ungodly desires can put down tiny shoots that eventually root and spring up as full-blown, hate-filled, smashmouth conflicts. He was saying that even our dreams are tainted.

Let me be the first to offer up a mea culpa: There are things I want. Isn’t that true for everyone? We’d have to be unconscious not to want. I’ll even admit there are a few things I am willing to fight for. And I have some ideas about what others may want bad enough to fight for as well. Some of our desires (for example, power, fame, influence, money, etc.) have the potential to corrupt even the most pious disciple. It’s easy to label these longings as dangerous. On the other hand, a good education, responsible government, reasonable health, freedom, a loving spouse, servant-minded pastors and teachers, God-fearing children, a satisfying job, and loyal friends are definitely worth dreaming about. We may even refer to them as blessings.We teach our children to vigorously pursue them. Should we feel guilty for wanting these blessings?

And what about those things we unselfishly want for others? A meaningful life. A stronger faith. Another day of grace. Is that so wrong?

The problem with characteristic old-Adam thinking is that our wanting can degenerate into self-serving obsessions. And when we put self at the center of our wanting, it can become idolatrous. Alfred Poirier explains how in the heart of a sinful person, even God-pleasing intentions can become idolatrous:

Most of the time our desires are good. They turn bad when we start serving them—when we treat them as gods and they rule over us. . . . The evil is not what we want but in wanting it too much. It is not in the desire but in making the desire an ultimatum (when only God is ultimate, and only God should give ultimatums). . . . As counterfeit gods, idols are lawgivers. They command us. They shape our affections, direct our decisions, and motivate our behavior. What we do we do because we obey the command of our [false inner] god.15

Godly wanting always lines up with God’s holy will. It echoes Jesus’ prayer: “Your will be done.”16 It approaches the Father’s throne with motives driven by our faith in Jesus. Such wanting is in complete harmony with the compassion we see in his life and death.

Self-serving obsessions have a way of replacing God’s will with my will. That’s a significant shift. We dare not let it go unnoticed. A self-serving obsession is the very first stage of a conflict in the making.

In his gospel, Mark recorded a revealing little episode involving two brothers who had come to know Jesus well. Their names were James and John. For two-and-a-half years they had followed Jesus everywhere, sitting at his feet, drinking in the many wonderful lessons he taught, witnessing his incredible miracles. One day, when they had gathered up the nerve, the two brothers came to Jesus with a request. “Teacher,” they began, we want you to do for us whatever we ask (Mark 10:35). How blatant can self-indulgent wanting be? Even when we try to put their request in the best possible light, it’s difficult to find much of a “Your will be done” attitude in those words.

Have you ever prayed with the attitude James and John had? I have. A reasonable guess is that most of us have. Our wanting is often spoiled by self-serving attitudes. Our underlying motives are not always as righteous as we may like to believe.

From Self-Serving obsession to False perception

Our self-serving obsessions have an adverse effect on how we see the world we live in. Wanting something so badly shapes our view of the truth. Wrongheaded desires inevitably distort our understanding of reality and fact. Such distortions mark the second stage in a growing conflict. Journalists call it spin. Spin inevitably leans in our favor, sometimes in very subtle ways. Twisted truth is not really truth at all. And you don’t have to be a journalist to operate a spin machine. We are all predisposed (by sin) to a version of the truth that is undergoing constant revision. All of it is designed to protect the self-serving obsession that has quietly grown into a little idol, secretly hidden in a dark place within the heart.

Judge and Jury

Judging is the third phase. When I am no longer able to discern objective truth, it is really quite easy to see the flaws and faults of others, even as I see myself as flawless and innocent. The old Adam uses this ploy to get us to concentrate on the weaknesses and sins of others when we should be focusing on our own. As judge, I can rearrange the furniture of my own sins so that the sins of the person I am judging will always appear more heinous than my own. Or, perhaps, I will simply ignore my own defects and blemishes altogether.

The judging phase has some other interesting overtones. If I am the judge, I can also convince myself that I am effectively eliminating the possibility that the person I am judging will do the same to me. It’s flawed logic, and we all know it’s not true. Nevertheless, we still want to believe that when we judge others, we are taking away their power to judge us.

Head Executioner

The fourth and final stage of a developing conflict is the most observable. It is the stage in which the judge carries out the punishment. If open hostilities haven’t already broken out from growing tensions, this phase is usually potent enough to incite open warfare.

In a sense, the punishing stage is merely an extension of the judging stage. As judge, I not only declare guilt but I also determine punishment. Nevermind that my authority as another person’s judge is self-declared or that my view of another person’s guilt is the result of some twisted view of the truth.

Punishing another person can involve little more than a disapproving glance or the flip of a simple gesture. But it can also be as severe as the punishment Cain brought down on Abel. In any case, the intent is to exact a penalty that is thinly veiled as justice.

The punishing phase brings a kind of unholy closure to the whole cycle. My obsessive desire has now shifted. My new obsession is to destroy the enemy who has dared to stand in my way of securing my own obsession. To that end I have accepted the lie that tells me I have the moral authority to pursue my new desire. Using the authority this lie convinces me I have, I conclude that my enemy is unquestionably guilty. My moral obligation is to carry out the sentence without any consideration for due process or mercy. End of story.

If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s intent to serve as your judge, jury, and head executioner, you have a real sense of how troubling this final stage can be. We rebel against the injustice of trumped-up charges served up in kangaroo courts by self-appointed judges. It’s just not fair! The code of the jungle calls for a response; and wherever there is injustice, there is fuel for a raging conflict.

The model for a gathering conflict, then, has four distinguishable phases: I (we) obsess. I (we) distort. I (we) judge. I (we) punish. Without intervention, each phase will inevitably drive the hearts of sinners toward conflict. Some conflicts follow the pattern in lockstep manner. Some people get stuck for a while in one of the early phases. Some people change the order or combine stages in ways that make them more difficult to observe. Serious disputes all seem to have at least one thing in common: The pattern gathers momentum, grows in intensity, and eventually entangles more people, resulting in dysfunction.

For thought and Discussion

• Can knowing the pattern for a developing conflict help deter or undo it?

• Read Matthew 5:44. Then develop a simple test that could be used to determine if a Christian’s motives over and against an enemy are Godpleasing.

• Many of the Bible’s narratives document conflict in various stages of development. One of the most fascinating is recorded in Genesis chapter 16, where a tangled assortment of obsessive, distorted, judgmental, and punishing behaviors is documented. This tangled web of conflict tore Abram’s family apart and ruined several people’s lives. Read this account of conflict and dysfunction. Look for examples of each of the four phases of conflict.


15 Poirier, pp. 57-59. Poirier uses an interesting anecdote to make his point. “One night after dinner I called my wife and my children to family worship. I went to get my Bible and when I returned, I was struck by the look of boredom in their faces and the sense of resistance and disrespect communicated in their body language. Through all this, I ignored them and began as a dutiful father to do the right thing—or so I thought. I read Scripture, asked questions, and proceeded to hear the lamest of responses. I became angry and eventually erupted. ‘What’s the matter with you? Don’t you love God? This is God’s Word. What’s wrong with you?’ No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the Holy Spirit convicted me. My desire for family worship was mixed with a desire for self-worship, the self-worship won out. I demanded a show of respect. I damned my family for not giving it to me. Above all, I erected and served a god in the very place where we were meant to worship our Savior.”

16 Matthew 26:42.

Heart at Peace Image Map

From A Heart at Peace © 2014 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: “The Perfect Storm’  by Michael Bolognesi is licensed under CC BY 2.0.