You do not have, because you do not ask.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly,
in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
It’s just like Huck Finn to go and raise some irritating theological issues in Mark Twain’s book about him. In Twain’s novel we see Miss Watson lecturing Huck that if he would pray every day he would get what he asked for. Huck tries what Miss Watson tells him, but says that his prayers didn’t work. He prayed for a fish line, but didn’t get any hooks with it. So he prayed three or four times for the hooks, but got nothing. This led Huck to theologize about prayer:
If a body can get anything he prays for, why don’t Deacon Wynn get back the money he lost on pork? Why don’t the widow get back the silver snuffbox that was stole? Why don’t Miss Watson fat up a bit? No, I says to myself, there ain’t nothin’ to it.
Huck is far from alone in having questions about prayer and why prayer might not seem to work.
Some of the best thinking about prayer comes from James, the writer of today’s text. He was the half-brother of the Lord Jesus and leader in the Jerusalem Church (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews) He was known as such a man of prayer that early Christians dubbed him “Camel Knees” from spending so many hours in prayer. (Hegesippus, Fragments, and Jerome, On Illustrious Men) James’ dedication to prayer is obvious from the space he devotes to it in his letter: (1:2-8; 4:1-10; 5:13-20).
James gets right to his point in today’s Scripture, saying that God does give what we ask for; so if we have not received what we have asked, we have asked for the wrong reasons. One might wonder if James remembers when the mother of John and another James asked Jesus if her sons could sit at His right and left hand in His kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23). Jesus answers that she is asking for the wrong reasons, and does not understand the consequences of what she asks.
François Fénelon, a French spiritual writer, looks at Jesus’ response to this grandiose request and applies it to us:
He does not become angry with us as we might expect. He understands us, advises us of our mistakes and tells us how we should pray. That is what the Spirit of prayer undertakes to do every time we misuse prayer and ask for things for ourselves, for our own enjoyment. Lovingly and kindly, but firmly, He reminds us that this is not in accordance with the true meaning of prayer. He shows us that is to pray amiss, and points out our mistakes. (Talking with God)
As God’s children we pray expectantly that Abba Father does hear and answer our prayers. Little by little the Holy Spirit teaches us the true meaning of prayer and how to pray.
- In 2 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul repeatedly asks God to remove his painful “thorn in the flesh”. When God does not answer Paul’s request, He then explains why and leads Paul into yet deeper understanding of His grace. God said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Take some moments to reflect on something for which you have asked God and He has not answered. Ask God to teach you what He wants you to know about your unanswered prayer.
“Do not be timid about praying wrongly if you pray humbly.”
Peter Taylor Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer