The book of James contains a lot of practical instruction for how Christians should live their lives. James wrote to believers who seemed to have quite a few problems with their behavior. The one he addresses at the beginning of chapter 4 has to do with their desire to get things.
James 4:1–3: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so 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 passage reveals the following inappropriate actions and attitudes:
1. The people wanted a lot, and this was causing them to fight and quarrel among themselves. Presumably, they were frustrated with each other as they could not get what they wanted.
2. The inability to get what they wanted had driven some of them to “kill.” Maybe they were literally murdering each other; more likely, they were thinking and doing hateful things that Jesus said amount to murder (Matthew 5:22; cf. 1 John 3:15).
3. They coveted but were unable to get what they wanted, so they continued to quarrel and fight.
4. They refused to pray, or, if they did pray, they did so out of selfish motives.
Unfortunately, the group of people to whom James writes looks like many people today. There are Christians who are out to further their own agenda to get what they want by any means possible. When they are frustrated in their aims, they lash out at each other.
James says there is a better way. Instead of coveting, quarrelling, fighting, and even killing, Christians need to simply ask God for what they want. One reason they do not have what they want is that they have not asked.
There is debate in theological circles about whether God actually “changes His mind” in response to our prayers. Some would say that God never changes His mind, that He will always do what He had planned in the first place. Others go to the opposite extreme and say that God cannot or will not do anything unless we ask. James 4 does not really address those larger issues. It simply says that, if there is something we want, we need to ask God for it, instead of resorting to ungodly means. It stands to reason that there are some things that we will not get unless we ask for them, but, if we ask, we will receive them. So, if there is something that we want, we need to ask. Christians should be praying.
Of course, James’ statement that “you have not because you ask not” does not guarantee that we will get everything we ask for. A father might tell his child not to steal anything from the tool shed but to simply ask if he wants something. But, if the 10-year-old asks for the chain saw, the father, for safety reasons, might not give it to him. Likewise, when we ask God for something, He reserves the right to do what is best for us.
James 4:3 brings up another situation where God may not grant our requests: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” So, while it is better to ask God for things than to scheme and fight and try to get them at the expense of other people, there are some requests that are still selfish at their root, and these God will deny. The bottom line is that, when you want something, you need to ask God and let Him decide what is best for you.
There are some times when God may say “no” because we ask with the wrong motives, and there may be some times that He says “yes” because He wants us to have what we ask for. (His “yes” does not mean that the object of our desire will necessarily arrive “on a silver platter” from heaven. How He answers our prayers is still up to Him. Receiving what we asked for may mean God gives us the ability to save money to buy what we want. His answer to our prayer does not rule out secondary agency.) Our prayer is our signal that we have abandoned trying to get things our own way and we are instead deferring to God’s judgment about what we get and how we get it. Knowing what God wants to give us is infinitely more valuable and good for us than what we can dream up on our own, we pray in confidence and in faith.
If there is something you want, you need to ask God for it. Many times, “you have not because you ask not.” There is no guarantee that you will get it, but it is the best possible chance you have, and prayer will keep you within God’s will. When you have submitted your will to His, you will be happy with what He gives you, whether or not you get what you originally asked for.