First published 21 March 2011
I didn’t expect this series to last this long. I have to be honest and say that we are only about half way through! I’m hoping it’s not boring, but encouraging. I’m simply sharing what I learned after I started to ask the question, “does the Bible teach that we will receive everything and anything we ask for in prayer?” I found around 15-20 verses in the New Testament that appeared to lead to that conclusion. And that was a problem for me, because I could think of examples in my own experience and in the Bible itself where prayer requests were not granted. I don’t like to live with contradictions, so I studied for a couple of months, looking into whether these verses really did teach that, and what I should be learning about prayer to my thinking straight.
I also have to admit that I am not good when it comes to prayer. I seem to talk, write and read more about prayer than I actually do it! And that is wrong. If there are two things that I can sum up out of the passages we have gone through so far, it would be that the Bible encourages us, if not nags us, to pray; and that God wants to give us good things in response to our prayers, because He is our loving and gracious heavenly Father. Those things should, and often do, spur me on to pray in my imperfect way. So as I write this, I am praying that I would pray more and learn how to pray in a way that is honouring to God.
The verses I want to look at today are James 4:1-3:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they 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.
The suggestion that we will receive everything we ask for in prayer is not explicit in this passage. I initially took it as implicit. But I think you only have to read it once or twice to see that it’s not even implicit.
As we saw in Part Five of this series, James is talking about how we should respond to suffering and hardship. He is challenging us. And one of the things that can happen when hardships come upon us is that we can become bitter and jealous. We want to live comfortably and we see that other people either prevent us from living comfortably or simply live the lifestyle we want. And it can cause quarrels and fights.
The ticking off from James is really, “why are you complaining and fighting about things you don’t have? You haven’t even asked the One who can give you anything! Nothing is impossible for Him. So ask Him!!”
Hence, we see again the emphasis on the asking, not on the receiving.
But there is a second point in this passage, which is something that we have touched on before. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives…” (v3) What are the wrong motives? “… so that may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
This is why the “name it and claim it” philosophy that was popular for a time, especially in America, is so wrong. Popular preachers were saying, “if you want a mansion, ask for a mansion, claim it, have faith, and it will be yours. If you want a pink Rolls Royce, visualise it, ask for it, claim it… and it will be yours.”
James would have said, “Why? Why do you want a pink Rolls Royce or a huge mansion?” If we have selfish motives then we are never entitled to expect God will grant our requests.
So we see again the challenge to ask ourselves whether we are praying in the name of Jesus. Are we sharing His priorities? Or are we asking selfishly, for only our own benefit?
And here we have to understand the bluntness of what James is saying. This is not a call for all Christians to agonise over every phrase in their prayers to see whether they have the right motives, to wonder whether they are being spiritual enough. Ultimately that kind of agonising drives us away from prayer (at least it does for me), because we get to the point where we don’t feel like we can trust our own motives. We are in danger of spending so long in self-examination that we don’t leave enough time to actually talk to God! And that conflicts with James’ point – don’t neglect to pray! When James speaks of those who people who ask with the wrong motives, hoping to spend what they get on their own pleasures, he is talking about people who are, deep down, still worldly and unconverted. They ask for riches, freedom from persecution, so that they can be comfortable and enjoy worldly pleasures. They have no interest in glorifying and serving God, no interest in following their suffering Saviour. As we saw when we looked at James chapter 1 (see Part Five of this series), these are not people who are weak in faith, but people who have no faith at all.
From the moment we become Christians – when we are brought to the realisation that we need to repent of our old selfish ways, to live God’s way rather than our own, to change and believe things we didn’t believe before – our lives are a struggle to bring our motives into line with God’s will. We struggle to make our priorities and motivation consistent with God’s. We will struggle with this for the rest of our earthly lives. And part of that struggle will manifest itself in our prayers. But that should not stop us praying! On the contrary we should pray all the more, that the Lord would continue His work within us to change us and enable us to have His priorities at the centre of our lives.
So in conclusion, if we are struggling it ought not to be because we are neglecting to ask the Lord for help. We ought to pray – pray with God-glorifying motives, and pray for God-glorifying motives.