Today, I’d like to address a verse that is often used to encourage us to pray. I do feel that as a Church, we have largely neglected biblical teaching on prayer in favor of many unbiblical forms of prayer. Whenever this portion of scripture is quoted, even in solid churches, problems can arise. I believe that this verse is used incorrectly, even by solid churches who are simply trying to encourage congregants to pray, because James isn’t directly teaching about prayer, he is addressing a sin issue of worldliness. Jesus taught directly on prayer, as did John, and Paul… if you want to teach the congregation about prayer, pull from one of the many teaching texts on prayer (we will cover a few at the end). James is addressing something different here. Though this portion is a complete sentence (a big improvement over other CTT verses addressed), this sentence is only one of three found in this verse.
James 4:2 (ESV) 2 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.
So, let’s take a look at where we find this often quoted scripture within the greater context of the Epistle of James. Normally, I like to go back to the start of the immediate section or the beginning of the chapter, but for today’s topic I’d like to reach back to the previous chapter.
James 3:13-18 (ESV) 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
James 4:1-10 (ESV) 1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 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. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 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. 5 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”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Notice the focus of James is on the heart (passions) of the people. We see here James is challenging the reader to demonstrate his/her wisdom and understanding by his good conduct and works in meekness of wisdom. In the very next verse he has moved from the outward works and is now addressing our heart condition. He is addressing motive. He is exposing the fact that the quarrels and fights among the brothers and sisters are rooted in their sinful hearts and in their worldliness. It is in this regard that any attempt to set up a contradiction between James and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to be vain and fruitless. The flesh is incapable of accomplishing good works on its own, because its passions (such as bitter jealousy and selfish ambition) are earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic. Where these heart conditions exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. There is a specific train of thought here beginning in James 4:1 whose climax is in verse 4, “…whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God”. James isn’t teaching that God is waiting up in heaven with all sorts of goodies that are piling up because His people just aren’t asking for them. James is pointing out that the worldliness of the brethren is putting them at odds with God and with each other. There is sin in the camp. At this point (verse 6) James transitions to provide the corrective measure. Let’s look at it again:
James 4:6-10 (ESV) 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Praise God. No, James does not circle around and say that all of the things they were desiring would be handed over to them… he was pointing out their sinful hearts. Does this mean that we should not teach our Brothers and Sisters to ask God for things? Absolutely not! We should, however, focus on clearer passages of scripture whose focus is indeed on prayer. Let us examine some solid teaching on prayer, with particular focus on making our petitions to God.
1 John 5:1-15 (ESV) 1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. 9 If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
John isn’t just equating prayer to the rubbing of a magic lamp, he is summarizing well the Gospel of Jesus Christ and clearly stating how in Him (by faith) we have overcome the world. The Gospel of Jesus Christ IS our eternal life, and our victory. We dare not cheapen this testimony by making it a spring-board to some false gospel of prosperous, earthly living. Now, before we close, I’d like to return back to the Gospel of Matthew to see some of what Jesus taught regarding prayer and asking God to meet our needs.
Matthew 6:19-33 (ESV) 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Notice the section between verse 22 and verse 24 and how it lines up with what James was discussing in chapter 4:1-4. If your eye is dark (jealousy, covetousness) then the whole body will be full of darkness (disorder and every vile practice).
Verse 33 is often used as a blanket “ask God anything” verse, but I believe that “these things” is referring back to what Jesus was saying NOT to be anxious about in verse 25 (food, drink, clothing). God will provide for those who humbly seek Him. Amen! Let us look at some more in chapter 7, in light of what we have discussed thus far:
Matthew 7:7-14 (ESV) 7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. 13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
God is not a piñata, and prayer is not a stick and a blindfold. We are promised that our Father in heaven hears our prayer and gives good gifts to His children. Ask and you will receive what is in accordance with His Will. You will receive, not necessarily what you ask for, but that which is good and beneficial for His children. Sometimes it will be hardship. Did you know that for an apple tree to bear springtime fruit it requires a cold winter? A mediocre winter will leave the tree dormant and unprepared to bear fruit at its proper time. Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ. Humble yourselves before God, and make your prayers known to Him, and leave it to Him to exalt or lift you up. He knows your needs, better than you do. He gives good gifts. But He also opposes the proud (James 4:6) and He reproves and disciplines those He loves (Rev 3:19).
We are to pray at all times, not just when we think we need something. Prayer is the means by which we can follow Paul’s encouragement in Galatians 5 to “walk in the Spirit”.
Galatians 5:16-25 (ESV) 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
May the Lord bless and keep you,