What C.J. Mahaney Has To Say About Cravings, Conflict, and Marriage

February 1, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

On C.J. Mahaney’s blog, Tony Reinke recently posted an audio of a talk that C.J. gave to the Pastors College students and their wives.  Here is a transcript of that brief 7-minute presentation.  (My commentary will be in blue.)


C.J. Mahaney speaking:

If you have a Bible, turn to James chapter 4.  This is gonna be a veddy brief exhortation.  [Kris says:  Yes, you read that right.  It’s not a typo.  C.J. really did seem to roll his R’s when he said the word “very.”]  This passage will serve you, I’m sure it has served you to date, it will serve you the rest of your lives.  In having the privilege to pre – ah, provide the pre-marital counseling for our daughters and their husbands, ah, this formed an entire evening to prepare them for the inevitable, to in effect interrupt their romantic trance and prepare them for conflict, which awaited them.  In light of indwelling sin.  And I have found this passage to be a difference-maker on countless occasions, uh, not only in the context of marriage but in every context in relation to relational conflict [Kris says:  Emphasis mine.]  And it’s – just, just a few words, but it’s a wealth of wisdom.  [Kris says:  For an organization that would have people believe that its pastors do “expository preaching,” I find it interesting that so many of C.J. Mahaney’s own sermons are rarely anything more than a small snippet of Scripture read at the beginning of the teaching, followed by his own thoughts on the topic, along with quotes from other Christian authors.]  And you will use this and reference this not only in your own heart but in counseling.  And if you don’t, I wanna encourage you to do so.

Chapter 4 verse 1, “What…CAUSES quarrels and what…CAUSES fights among you?”  Quarrels and fights were taking place, plural – quarrels, fights among the original recipients – so this wasn’t occasional, this was a pattern.  And James is gonna draw attention to the cause.  Now we could say the entire letter and speculate, it would be educated speculation as to what the circumstantial cause was, but we can’t be certain what the circumstantial cause was, and the circumstantial cause ultimately is irrelevant, and aren’t you glad – I’m glad – that it’s not even identified here because that only – that only provides immediate relevance for every couple in this room.  So reading this passage, it is relevant to each and every time YOU are tempted to quarrel or actually quarrel and fight. 

[Kris says:  While I haven’t been to seminary, I do know enough about Bible scholarship to know that just because specific circumstances for a particular passage are not spelled out within that passage, that does not mean that all the words in the passage will necessarily be directed to all people for all time in all situations.  C.J.’s assertion that the context is irrelevant is not exactly correct and, moreover, does not even directly connect with whether or not these words will mean precisely what C.J. is going to say that they mean.]

“Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you.”  So James locates the conflict within our hearts.  Doesn’t locate it within conflict, he locates – er, within circumstances, but within our hearts.  “You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”

The best quote I have read in relation to this passage is provided by our good friend David Powlison, and he has a phrase that’s worth memorizing, which is really just a summation of this passage.  And it’s simply this:  “Cravings underlie conflicts.”  That is easily memorable, it is a summation of this passage, there’s a wealth of wisdom IN that phrase, and that phrase can make all the difference in the midst of temptation, protecting you from temptation and delivering you from actual sin in the midst of a quarrel or a fight.  Where there’s a quarrel, where there’s a fight, there’s an unfulfilled craving.  Underneath every quarrel, and underneath every conflict, is a craving.  Look underneath the craving – look underneath the conflict, and you’re gonna find a craving, some unfulfilled craving that is asserting itself.  Some SINFUL unfulfilled craving.

[Kris says:  Is it true that EVERY disagreement – EVERY conflict – is always the result of SINFUL unfulfilled cravings?  Really?

(After all, C.J. did say that this principle applies to “every context in relation to relational conflict.”)

Are there always SINFUL unfulfilled cravings on each side of a conflict?

Is there never room for someone involved in a conflict to be right, while the other person is wrong?

I think we can look into SGM’s own history – and C.J. Mahaney’s own history – and see plenty of instances where C.J. clearly did not believe that his own sinful unfulfilled cravings were the source of the conflicts in which he found himself embroiled.  What are the chances that ALL of the former members of PDI/Sovereign Grace Ministries – ALL the people who have left the organization because of conflicts they had with their pastors – were ALWAYS motivated by “sinful unfulfilled cravings”?  Would C.J. also then assert that the SGM pastors involved in those conflicts were themselves motivated by “sinful unfulfilled cravings”?  I don’t think so. 

We can also look in Scripture and find plenty of places where there were two sides locked in a disagreement, and one side was portrayed as right (NOT driven by sinful cravings) and the other side was portrayed as wrong.

For example, in Exodus, when the Israelites were being held as slaves in Egypt, they were in conflict with Pharoah.  According to God Himself, it was not a “sinful craving” that caused the Israelites to want freedom from slavery.  It was God’s own will for them to be brought out of Egypt.

In the New Testament, Jesus was often “in conflict” with the religious leaders around him.  Certainly C.J. would never say that Jesus was acting out of “sinful cravings.”  No doubt the Pharisees were, but not Jesus.

Likewise, Peter and Paul found themselves in a conflict, which Paul writes about in Galatians 2.  Paul does not appear to believe that any of their conflict was related to his own “sinful cravings.”  Rather, he speaks of opposing Peter “to his face.”

Yet C.J. would have us believe that anytime there is a conflict – a disagreement, a quarrel – each person must immediately look inside himself and sniff out what “sinful cravings” might be motivating the conflict.

While I would agree that it is good and wise to examine oneself and question one’s motives when finding oneself in the midst of a disagreement, I believe the Bible is clear that we cannot make blanket assumptions about the source of ALL quarrels. 

The simple truth is that sometimes quarrels and fights happen because one party is right and the other party is wrong.]

So, David writes, “One of the joys of biblical counseling comes when you are able to turn on the lights in another person’s darkroom.  I have yet to meet a couple locked in hostility who really understood their motives.  James 4:1 teaches that cravings underlie conflicts, and couples who see what rules them, cravings for” – and this is just a sampling list – “cravings for affection, attention, power, vindication, control, comfort, a hassle-free life, can repent and begin to learn how to make peace.”  It’s not complicated.  Often quarrels can seem complicated.  They aren’t complicated.  “Why do you fight?”  Heh.  James is clear.  “Here’s why you fight – you fight because you didn’t get what you want.”  And if you can discern what it is you want, you are on your way to repentance and ultimately reconciliation.

In effect, there’s nothing deeper than this.  So, we are protected in this passage from modern psychology as well.  There is nothing deeper than this. [Kris says:  Note C.J.’s obvious negative bias against “modern psychology.”  It is something so understood by the men and women in his audience (Pastors College students and their wives) that he doesn’t even need to explain himself further.

And yet is all of “modern psychology” really so completely wrong and off-base?  Is “modern psychology” something from which we need “protection”?  Could we even say that what James writes in this passage not only doesn’t contradict “modern psychology,” but in fact dovetails with it?

It seems to me that if C.J. had actually spent some time in college, where he would have studied “modern psychology,” he may have grasped that one of the primary assumptions underlying many psychological theories is this very premise, that conflicts are caused by unfulfilled cravings.

For instance, a chaotic home life, perhaps where a father has a problem with alcohol abuse, can lead a child to grow up with an unfulfilled craving to control all of his circumstances.  Also, the child of an alcoholic can reach adulthood with an unfulfilled craving for perfection…leading him to seek to create an environment where he can present a perfect face to the world around him at all times, and at all times remain in control.

So, such “modern psychology” would not necessarily be in conflict with what we read in James 4.]   

So this is simple, this is profound, and this will make all the difference.  This served my soul last night.  In the midst of a wonderfully romantic time on top of W Hotel overlooking Washington, D.C., we ALMOST had a conflict.  WHY DIDN’T WE?  WHAT SAVED US?  This passage.  [Loud chortles from crowd.]  This passage came to the rescue.  Uh.  And particularly for me.  Because in one part of the conversation, Carolyn was not agreeing with me.  AND WE CAN’T HAVE THAT!  So I was CRAVING her agreement, ultimately her approval.  SHE WASN’T GIVING IT! 

All day I’d been persuading people, all day there were people… [crowd chuckles] foolishly disagreeing, eventually saying, “I see the wisdom of your perspective.”  [Kris says:  Actually, although C.J.’s tone here is humorous, I don’t doubt that he is speaking the literal truth.  I don’t doubt that in C.J.’s world, it would be rare for anyone to persist in a disagreement with him.]  Suddenly I found myself with the woman I love the most.  [Crowd laughs.]  She didn’t seem to come under my persuasive spell.  [Crowd laughs.]  “My love, I give you all of Washington, D.C. [Laughter]  Surely that, plus my gift of persuasion, should convince you.”  No!  Not her.  [Chuckles]  My arguments were sound, superior to hers.  Or so I thought.  And I was tempted to anger.  [Kris says:  It is a very telling thing indeed, that C.J. describes “anger” as his response when his wife would not agree with him.  I wonder, do most of us experience anger when we discover people do not share our opinions?  Is that a normal response?  Or do the majority of us respond to disagreements with a shrug, or an open-minded interest in hearing and understanding the other person’s point of view?]   And this passage saved me. 

Cravings underlie conflicts.  [Makes a honking noise mimicking the sound of an alarm]  Conflict alert!  [Honking noise again]  What do I do.  Go inside.  What’s underneath here?  What’s going on in there?  What do you want?  What do you so desire that you’re willing to fight for it if necessary?  [Kris says:  Again, I want to emphasize that I don’t necessarily believe that C.J.’s advice – to look inside oneself when finding oneself embroiled in a conflict – is completely wrong.  I think, actually, that if we are arguing with someone, it’s wise for us to ask ourselves why we’re feeling so passionate about a particular issue.

But I disagree with C.J.’s conclusion, that we will always discover sinful cravings at the root of all sides of all conflicts.]  I began to identify, flee to the cross, romantic evening saved, memories for a lifetime.

[Crowd chuckles during a long pause.  One or two men giggle and titter in falsettos.]

I give you James 4:1-3.  Take it with you into your marriage.  For the rest of your life.  Trust me, within the next month, you’re gonna need this passage.

© 2010, Kris. All rights reserved.