The question featured in the title of this article is one that often occurs to people when they see what is happening around the world today, especially the numerous wars that wrack nations in Africa, Asia and Europe. You may remember the time just after the fall of the Soviet Union when some thought that we had reached “the end of history” and that we would soon see the establishment of “a new world order” where peace would prevail and nations would develop quickly through free trade and the advance of technology, along with the spread of democracy and human rights. Sadly, the demise of the Soviet Union was soon followed by new wars, atrocities and economic catastrophes, not to mention terrible natural calamities for which the populations affected were unprepared. Our own nation became involved in the longest wars in which we have ever engaged – in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, many wars have antagonists that claim to be fighting for their brand of Islam, others over tribal and national rivalries.
I love to watch C-Span when the various “experts” discuss the problems of the world. They often have some ideas that I hope our political leaders are listening to but I know they don’t have the ultimate solution because that solution lies deeper than they are looking. At best, they offer temporary fixes that don’t get to the root cause of war and other human conflicts. The ultimate solution must depend upon the nature of the problem. This is where the Bible goes much deeper than mere human wisdom. In that divinely-inspired book we will find both the most accurate and in-depth analysis of the problem and the only real and lasting solution. Let’s see what they are!
In the book of James we read, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your [bodily] members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” (4:1-3) It is the war within that leads to outward wars between people and nations. Peter tells us, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11) The “fleshly lusts” or “desires for pleasure” wage war in the body against the soul. The soul was created to reign over the body and use it to do good in the world. The principle of love was to have the command of both soul and body. But the principle of selfishness, the true opposite of love, took charge of the soul through bodily desires. You see this in the case of Adam and Eve. The desires they had for food and beauty and wisdom were not evil at all. What was evil was to place these desires in ultimate control of the will rather than the principle of love – love for God and for His creation. From being innocent, beneficial desires they were turned into lusts that demanded satisfaction regardless of how it would affect the ultimate outcome for God and His kingdom, including one’s own immortal soul.
Their story is our story too. All of us come into this world desiring the satisfaction of our bodily needs. By the time we reach the age when our conscience develops and we understand, to some extent, right and wrong, our habits are fixed. Our will is used to giving way to our desires irrespective of what is right or wrong. Feelings of guilt develop and we cope with these by rationalization, projection of our faults on others or plain denial that we have a problem. Selfishness therefore reigns supreme and selfishness always leads, sooner or later, to conflict with others. From conflicts with individuals we proceed to conflicts with people who are perceived as not part of “our group”, whom we think offer some threat to our happiness or hindrance to the pursuit thereof. This is clear and most people would agree to this connection between selfishness and conflict. But there is another, more subtle, connection between selfishness and conflict - one that is arguably even more powerful.
When selfishness prevails within and among people, wealth and worldly goods of all kinds tend to concentrate in the hands of some more than others. Two things occur when this happens. On the one hand, the “losers” in the competition for this world’s goods become highly susceptible to envy and to appeals of those who point out to them the discrepancy and injustice of their lower position in the world. This leads to “wars of liberation” or “jihad”, or other forms of violent opposition to oppression, whether perceived or real. On the side of those who are relatively better off, the desire to secure what they have and increase it leads to indifference toward the suffering of the “have-nots” and a blindness concerning how their desire for more results in the oppression of others. It also leads to large military expenditures, police forces and prison building programs.
John Woolman, an American Quaker who lived in the period just before the American Revolution, saw this clearly as he examined his own life in the light of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. He urged his fellow Quakers to examine themselves, whether the seeds of war might be growing within them: ‘Oh! that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast.” Imagine warning Quakers against nourishing the seeds of war within them! Woolman knew his own heart and believed the testimony of the Scriptures and saw that unless a deep work of the Holy Spirit is allowed to root out the covetous spirit within even the most outwardly pious and apparently harmless souls, then wars and conflicts among men would be inevitable.
For instance, in many parts of the world, people whose lands once provided plenty for local consumption now must work for meagre or no wages at all in fields owned by foreign corporations the produce of which is sent abroad to satisfy the desire for cheap goods in wealthy nations. Feeling their oppression, some of these people are attracted to demagogues and ideologues who promise them “liberation” from such conditions through violence. In other places, in order to protect their “national interests” the U.S., Russia, France and other governments have provided military assistance for many years to authoritarian, oppressive regimes in the Middle East who are now threatened by Islamist extremists who promise justice for the poor through the imposition of “Sharia”. Trying to protect themselves and their interests has led, ironically, to those interests being threatened more than ever! Thus it has ever been and will continue to be unless something very different is done about the underlying problem: selfishness, greed and pride.
What then is the answer? Jesus tells us: “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life… If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free… Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:12, 31-32, 34-35) Jesus is the One sent by the Father to set us free from slavery to selfishness. And He sent His disciples into the world to proclaim the gospel of salvation from selfishness and to “make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20), namely, to love God with all one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Moreover, Christ’s teaching and example comes with the power of the Holy Spirit to break the hold of selfishness on our hearts. This is the answer! Let us dedicate ourselves afresh to Christ’s rule over our own hearts and to spreading His kingdom throughout the world through faithful proclamation and practical demonstration!