We know that we should pray to God. And we know that we should desire to pray to God, and we know that we should enjoy praying to God.
But we don’t.
Sometimes, as the saying goes, it seems as though our prayer doesn’t even make it past the ceiling.
The Book of James is concerned to demonstrate for us what living, true faith looks like in real life, and in demonstrating that for us James contrasts fruitful faith with faith that is not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not consistent with the gospel for members of the church to strive with one another, with God, and with themselves. In James 4:2-3 we’re told,
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
The Bible tells us many things that will impede our prayer, but here James reveals two things that make prayer impotent: Omission and Orientation.
You do not have, because you do not ask. How often do we notice that something is not quite going the way we would like? Whether it relates to the relationship we have with our wife, to parenting our kids, to progress at work, or to ministry in the church, we frequently notice that things aren’t working as we would like them to. Or, whether it relates to income, or health, or broken appliance, or car repairs, we frequently notice that we don’t have something we would like to have.
But how often do we pray about those things? It’s likely that we desire something we don’t have much more frequently than we pray about it. This is quite odd, for if we believe that God is sovereign (controls all things) and that he is omnipotent (can do all things), why wouldn’t we pray about all our unmet desires? There are many reasons why we might omit to pray, but we can be sure that God won’t address a prayer that isn’t prayed.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly. We’re all familiar with the saying that there is no dumb question. We might transfer that truism to the spiritual realm of prayer, and conclude that there is no “dumb” request. But James tells us otherwise. Even when we pray, there are times we don’t get what we ask for because we ask wrongly. What makes a prayer wrong? James says we pray wrongly when we pray to spend it on our passions.
But we might recognize an issue at this point. Passion is another word for pleasure, which has to do with desire. And isn’t prayer an expression of desire? How do we pray without expressing desire? The key is to understand that James doesn’t condemn all desires, just those that are sinful.
What James means by this is that if we pray out of jealousy or selfish ambition (James 3:14), pray for things that would produce disorder and evil practices (James 3:16), or ask for things that facilitate quarrels and conflicts (James 4:1), then we pray wrongly. And, if we pray in ways that reflect our desire for friendship with the world (James 4:4), then we pray wrongly, and we shouldn’t expect any answer but “No.”
In order for prayer to be powerful, it must be done. The first step to communing with God faithfully through prayer, then, is to pray. But we should recognize that the state of our relationship with God can impede prayer.
Thankfully, we need not be perfect to come to God in prayer, but the relationship can’t be in breach. That is, we can’t be holding on to sin or disobeying the Lord and expect him to hear us in prayer. Additionally, if you don’t know God he won’t hear. The only way that a person can relate to God is through his Son, Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12), and the only way anyone can have Jesus Christ is by being made new by the Holy Spirit, resulting in repentance and faith in the salvation Christ offers. Thus, prayer is made to the Father, though the Son, by the Spirit.
Similarly, if you don’t believe God answers prayer, or if you have the attitude that you don’t need God to supply your desires, you won’t pray. We pray relationally, faithfully, and humbly.
- Pray Rightly
But having the right relationship and maintaining the right attitude in prayer might not be enough. We still need to pray rightly. This means that we orient our prayer to God’s desires, not our own. We orient our prayer to God’s holiness, God’s kingdom, and God’s will (Matthew 6:9-13).
To pray rightly, we strive to do all things for his glory and in a way that pleases him (1 Corinthians 10:31; 2 Corinthians 5:9).
James gives us all this to tell us that there are, then, two primary ways to improve prayer: Pray, and Pray Rightly.