Desire and Personality

James is probably the closest you will get in scripture to the kind of “digging” you find in most pop psychology. Usually Scripture finds it sufficient to list out sinful actions and sinful intent. It’s bad to do these things, and it’s bad to want to do them. There’s very little teasing out the particulars of what makes a person want one sinful habit over another. James goes a little deeper:

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.

That’s probably all the hint you need to work out all knotted details of a sinful psychology.

  1. You want things that you shouldn’t have.
  2. You can’t get the things you want.
  3. You use various combinations of force and guile to get what you want anyway.
  4. Your desires are diffused and multiplied, due to frustration
  5. Repeat.

What’s interesting to me is that you can see a lot of similarity between what James is saying here, and Buddhism. As best I understand, Buddhism teaches that the root of all evil can be summed up in desire. The goal is to come to a place where you have no desires whatsoever. If you desire nothing, then you are never disappointed.

But here’s a difference. Buddhism takes the position that all desire is bad, because all desires, being thwarted, lead to frustration (that is, pain and suffering). James, on the other hand, implies that some desires are good, and that there is a way to go about getting what you want that does not result in quarrels and fights.

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. 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”?

In other words, while Buddha promises ultimate hope in not caring, James promises hope in a person. The reason your desires lead to frustration is not because you have the inconvenience of bumping up against the hard edges of an uncaring universe. It’s much better and much worse than that. There is an active personality who is jealous over you – over the image in which you are created, and if you are a Christian, over the Spirit that he has put inside you. He is actively working against you, because his jealousy has determined that your desires will not be satisfied, so long as they can be satisfied in anything else but him.

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.

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