Reflections on James 4:2-3

You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. 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 pleasure.

James 4:2–3

This is a situation that we each face eventually. You have a desire for something, but you don’t get it. That is a plain fact, but our perspective about it is important. 

The unhelpful perspective is that we need the thing, and we need to figure out a clever way to get it. It’s horrifying how quickly this gets violent, how working harder turns into manipulation, which turns into open force. Repeating this blunt analysis to myself helped me see how common this is.

The helpful perspective is not mentioned as clearly. All we get is that we need to ask God. From that we can guess that God could give us what we want. But I do not think it is enough to believe only that.

We cannot see God as a miser. He does not withhold anything from us in order to harm us. He is wise about the gifts he gives us, and timing is part of that. We must believe not only that he can give us what we want, but that he wants to give us good things, and even that he has already given us good things. 

This brings me back to two virtues that I seem to be coming back to a great many times: gratitude and humility. Gratitude helps us to see what God has already given us, protecting us from the poisonous idea that God doesn’t want us to be happy. Humility helps us to accept God’s gifts as the right ones for us and to be content with them.

That God has not given us something is also enough for us to consider whether it would really be good for us if we got it. Is it so uncommon for us to desire something that would harm us? 

Lastly, James tells us the wrong motive to ask for something––that we may spend what we get on our own pleasures––but what is the right motive? It has to be related to God’s glory and our good, and the good of those around us. 

This ties in to another thought that has been rolling around in my mind: we can be most confident in God’s help when we are doing his will. A few examples: obeying him, serving others, building up the church, seeking satisfaction from him, reconciling other people to him, teaching others about him. 

These are things we already know that he cares about and wants. If we are honestly trying to do them, we are already so much closer to his heart, and we can be confident that he will come to our aid. In short, we should ask for his help to fulfill his purposes, not ours.

This is the confidence we have in approaching God, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

1 John 5:14