I’d like to think that God answers all my prayers, but he doesn’t (at least not by saying yes). Can you relate? It happens for dozens of reasons, and James gives us one of them here:
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:3).
I can think of specific times when it seemed like God was ignoring me, but now I know why he refused to grant my request . . . my motives weren’t right. I wanted what I wanted because I was selfish.
James doesn’t tell us exactly what was going on with his readers, but apparently they were asking God for things that they would use in self-advancing, impure ways. Some of them may have been rich people who were using what they had to oppress the poor.
Regardless, the principle is clear—we need to think about what motivates us to ask what we ask.
Are we asking him to help us financially? Sometimes God doesn’t answer that prayer because we haven’t been faithful with the money he’s already given us. Why would he give me more when I’ve used most of what he gave me to meet my unending list of wants? On the other hand, he who is faithful with little might be trusted with more.
But it extends beyond money, of course, and I think James wants us to look carefully at all of our prayer motives.
Why do we ask for better health and a longer life?
Why are we pleading for a better job?
Why do we ask God to remove our stress?
There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking for any of that, but we ought to think about why we want it. Everything we take to God’s throne should have some connection to our primary desire to bring him glory through what we do.
We want better health so that he might work through our lives to honor him. We’d like a better job that would give us an opportunity to reflect his glory more widely. We’d like less stress so that our focus on him wouldn’t be diluted by all the cares of life. And we’d like more financial resources so that we can give more and use his money in ways that spread his word and honor his name.
It would be a good exercise for each of us to keep a prayer journal and write down everything we ask God about. And then—for each thing—we could reflect on our why.
God loves giving us what we want, but only when we’ll use the gifts to come closer to him and draw others toward him.