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The War Within

The War Within   

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.” (James 3:14, ESV)

The hardest struggle we have in this life is not with others, but within ourself.

Humility was not valued in Roman culture, Ambition was.*

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:1–4, ESV)

Passions in the Greek is hedon from which we get the word  hedonism.  It is self-centered pursuit of selfish and sensual pleasure.  

We want what we want. 

My grandson is in the terrible 2’s. 

2 Views of Human Nature: People are basically Good in the world’s view, they only do bad or feel bad because of what others do to them. 

No, the biblical view is that we are basically selfish, self-centered, self-willed and sinful, and we need to overcome our selfish impulses through self-discipline by the aid of the Holy Spirit. 

The sinful nature called “the flesh” in Greek and the KJV is best translated as an independent self-will that chooses its own way, rather than submit to God’s way.  When Adam decided for himself to trust his own judgment and eat the fruit, rather than depend upon God’s word, he basically became a judge of God and decided to do his own thing.  That is the flesh.  The consequence of the flesh is all sorts of disorder and every evil work, including sexual immorality, theft, anger, hostility, jealousy, murder, etc. 

Traditional Judaism described this conflict within us as a conflict between our good and evil impulses called the Yetzer in Hebrew. The problem with reading James through the lens of traditional morality is that we think James is telling us to behave if we just put our shoulder to the wheel and buck up. Yet the entire range of scripture tells us that we can’t control our own behaviors and that is the problem.  In fact, the very attempt to be good and moral out of our own resources is in fact the same fleshly self-reliance that got us into trouble in the first place. We are trying to be right and good without relying upon and depending upon God and His Holy Spirit. That is called “self-righteousness.”   

There is a curious psycho-dynamic that the attempt to be good in our own strength leads to a cycle of performance, failure, guilt and trying to do better next time.  In other words, the very thing we are trying to resist becomes an even more powerful temptation than it was if we didn’t know it was wrong. 

There is a line from a Joni Mitchell song called the Boho Dance: 

Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure it’s stricken from your uniform
But you can’t get it out of your eyes

The power of temptation is in what is forbidden. The fact that it is forbidden makes it all the more tempting. 

Long before Sigmund Freud, Paul wrote of the strange psychology of temptation and the fruitless attempt to resist it in the 7th chapter of Romans. 

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.” (Romans 7:7–8, ESV)

A modern translation of covetousness would go like this:

The law says, “you shall not desire forbidden things,” but the law made me lust after and crave the forbidden things all the more, creating in me uncontrollable desires.

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:14–20, ESV)

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:22–25, ESV)

Paul reveals what it means to strive in human strength to resist sinful desires within the human heart. The harder we try the behinder we get.  This is the perfect picture of human nature without Jesus Christ. We know what we should do, what we should desire, but no matter what we do to control our behavior, the worse we become. This is especially true when it comes to fighting additions like drugs, tobacco, alcohol, pornography or sexual immorality. The desire is still there even if we, through force of will restrain our behavior.   

However, Jesus said,  “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34–36, ESV)

Who is freer from addiction to smoking?  The person who has quit but still wants one, or the person who has never smoked and so has no desire? 

Jesus promises us liberty from the power of sin. Paul also speaks of this in Romans 8, where he says 

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:2–4, ESV)

Paul says, that by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who is the presence of God in us, the war within can be won, not by our power but by His. 

Now, sometimes addictions to drugs and cigarettes, for example, require deliverance from demonic spirits of oppression, because the human will is so bound up, that God must set you free by a supernatural act of the Spirit. Sometimes this is instantaneous, but at other times it requires cooperation and resistance to the devil, where we join our will to God’s will and by consent, ask the Holy Spirit to help us resist temptations.  

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:5–10, ESV)

James does not sound promising to our ears, but he knows on the other side of repentance, lies dependence upon God that will turn into joy as we submit to God’s strength and power and give up our self-righteousness.    AA in fact recognizes that we need a “higher power” as they call it. We know it is Jesus who is that higher power. 

Finally, this battle between self-will God’s will is often a lifelong battle. It is a battle which brings humility, for we often will fail which forces us to recognize our need for Jesus. And the fact that, as Paul says, there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, the power of temptation and the cycle of performance, failure and guilt is broken. We get free from our addictions as the guilt of our failures is washed away in Christ’s love and forgiveness. 


*Historical Background *The cross, in antiquity, was an instrument of Rome’s brutalizing power to humiliate. It has been well established that “humility” was not a virtue in Greco-Roman ethics. Rather the word (humilitas in Latin, or tapeinos in Greek) meant something closer to “debased” or “crushed.” It was a term reserved for failure and shame. The ancient Greeks   praised philotimia, “the love of honour.” It would seem that building one’s honor and reputation would prove to be far more advantageous than completely debasing oneself.

In the context of the prevailing Roman Imperial influence. Probably, one of the best known expression of love-of-honor is the  The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, written by the emperor himself and inscribed by his order onto bronze tablets set up in front of his monument. Copies of this were distributed throughout the empire, and it provided a catalogue of the emperor’s activities. However, more importantly, it provides a glimpse of a world-view so different than our own where a sense of boastfulness was accepted and associated with power.

In its place was philotimia, “the love of honor.” Aristotle had insisted that “honor” and “reputation” are among the pleasantest things one could contemplate and attain for oneself.

The logic was compelling. If one had achieved great things, it was only right and proper that full recognition be given: achievement deserves public praise.

Humility before the gods, of course, was appropriate, primarily because they could kill you. Humility was advisable before the emperors for the same reason.

But humility before an equal or a lesser was morally suspect. It upset the assumed equation: merit demanded honor, thus honor was the proof of merit. Avoiding honor implied a diminishment of merit. It was shameful.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”” (Luke 14:7–11, ESV)

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