When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. James 4:3
Someone has asked me to elaborate on this passage of Scripture as to its meaning on prayer. James makes a bold statement here, and it is important that we understand just what is being said. A proper comprehension of the statement will impact our prayer life, but we must use sound interpretation principles. So let’s delve in to observe what God has for us through the pen of James.
The context of this verse provides an accurate understanding of James’ teaching. In chapter 3 James appears to address problems among his Christian readers. He begins by talking about the tongue, and the evil that words can do in harming others (3:1-12). His next subject is that of wisdom among believers, an issue which seems to be at the heart of the matter. He even reminds them that “where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (3:16). His exhortation is that they should use heavenly wisdom in dealing with matters among them, a wisdom he had already instructed them to request from God Himself (1:5). In the closing verses of chapter 3, James describes that wisdom from God as “pure . . . peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17), and says that “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (3:18). All of this teaching is aimed specifically at the problem of dissension in the church among believers.
Verse 1 of chapter 4 continues that thought by speaking of the “fights and quarrels” among the believers. James chastises his readers and instructs them that the selfish “pleasures” (the Greek word is the word from which we get our word hedonism) warring within their own souls are the culprits that are causing the disagreements and dissensions among them as believers. The sinful desires of the old self are warring against the regenerated nature. Peter speaks similarly when he says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet. 2:11, ESV, emphasis mine). The word for “abstain” literally reads “keep on abstaining or refraining.” Paul fought this same battle: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:22-23, ESV, emphasis mine). Their old selfish desires have temporarily overcome their minds and taken them captive, and they now are ruled by their sinful nature again instead of their regenerated nature. These desires have caused strife among the brothers as they each seek to exercise their own will to get their own desired result.
Little good have these desires and lusts done them, for in verse 2 James reminds them that they still do not have what they desire, and so the quarrels continue. Then James makes a bold statement: “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Though the word “God” is not in the original, the NIV rightly includes it to clarify the intent of the passage. The word for “ask” is a term that most often signifies the request made by an inferior to a superior. The implication of this declaration is that they have continued to live selfishly, seeking to attain their own will in their own way, instead of asking their heavenly Father to supply the wisdom needed to know what is best. We should only desire what we need, and should only ask God to obtain it.
That brings us to the verse in question. In verse 3, James seems to be anticipating a possible objection that his readers may have. Perhaps some would object to his tirade against them by affirming that they had indeed made their requests to God but that God had not answered, and so they decided to use their own means and strengths to obtain what they wanted. The folly of their objection is answered by James when he states, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” The reason they did not receive was simple; they asked with wrong motives. The word here literally means “evilly or with evil intent.” What was their evil intent? It was to squander their selfish desires upon their pleasures, to satiate their morally corrupt sinful nature and its passions. There is little wonder that God did not answer their prayers. The problem was that they had bent themselves to their own will, and were completely unwilling to submit to the will of God. To submit to His will means we desire what He desires, we want what He wants, and we seek for His will to be done rather than our own.
What, therefore, are the principles from this passage concerning prayer? As I see it, James speaks here of submission, either to our own hedonistic pleasures or to the will of God. According to James, the only prayer God will answer is that prayer offered with a proper motive. The only way to have a correct motive is to be in full submission to the will of the Father. And the avenue to submission is lined with faith: faith in who God is, faith in what He can do, and faith that His will is perfect.
What then, is the proper motive for prayer? How do we know if we are asking in the right way? Most often we know if our desire in prayer is selfish or not. How can we be assured that our motives are pure? There is one supreme principle that applies here, and it is found in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (ESV). We must dig deep into our hearts and souls to determine our true motive when we pray. For example, for a woman to pray for her husband to accept Christ as Savior is a noble request. If, however, her motive is so that there may be a better home life, it is a selfish motive. The proper motive is that God would be glorified in the salvation of a lost soul. Close examination of our motives will require humility and submission to God, and the desire to see Him glorified above all else.
James reminds his readers that they are indeed to ask in prayer for their needs. His words are an evident allusion to the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7, ESV). But there are at least three conditions for answered prayer, and knowing them will enhance our prayer life as well as aid us in seeing answers to our prayers.
1. Praying in faith – Jesus indicated that faith must be present in our prayers, and the answer will come. “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matt. 21:22).
2. Praying in the name of Jesus – It is the finished work of Jesus on the cross and His present work as intercessor that makes prayer possible, and it is only right to seek answers to our prayers through His “name,” which represents all that He is. “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14, ESV); “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23b, ESV).
3.Praying for God’s will – True prayer is always submitted to God in submission to His perfect will, for He alone knows all things, and works all things for our good. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, ESV); “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 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” (1 John 4:14-15, ESV).