[forthright] Prayer and Asking in James 4

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From: "Forthright Magazine" <forthrightmag@...>
Date: Thu, 14 Jun 2007 16:17:47 -0300
Forthright Magazine
Straight to the Cross

Think ahead. Think retirement.


Prayer and Asking in James 4
by J. Randal Matheny

In James 4:2-3, the readers fail to receive
something because they failed to ask. But ask
whom? One person thought there was nothing in 4:1-
3 to suggest that James has prayer in mind.

The passage of James 4:1-3 says,

   "Where do the conflicts and where do the
   quarrels among you come from? Is it not
   from this, from your passions that battle
   inside you? 4:2 You desire and you do not
   have; you murder and envy and you cannot
   obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not
   have because you do not ask; 4:3 you ask
   and do not receive because you ask
   wrongly, so you can spend it on your
   passions" (NET).


Within the context of 4:1-3, verse 3 does indeed
suggest prayer. The supplicant does not receive
because he seeks to spend it on his own passions.

This would suggest that the refusal is based upon
the supplicant's intent of the heart. Another
person, the recipient of the request, could not
know that. Only God could know. Therefore, verse 3
would lead one to believe that the asking is made
of God and that James has prayer in view.


In the book of James, the word "ask" (Greek,
aiteo) is used five times, three of those in 4:2-
3. The other two occurrences are in 1:5-8, where
James writes,

   "But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he
   should ask God, who gives to all
   generously and without reprimand, and it
   will be given to him. 1:6 But he must ask
   in faith without doubting, for the one who
   doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown
   and tossed around by the wind. 1:7 For
   that person must not suppose that he will
   receive anything from the Lord, 1:8 since
   he is a double-minded individual, unstable
   in all his ways".

So 1:5-6 provide us a context to determine whom
should be asked. The usage in chapter 1 would lead
the reader or listener (since letters were read to
the congregation) to think of God when James again
mentions asking and receiving (or not receiving)
in chapter 4.


The word "receive" (Greek, lambano) is used in
both 1:7 and 4:3, strengthening the connection
between the two passages and the subject of
prayer. More so, since "receive" in other contexts
in James refers to receiving from God: a crown of
life (1:12), "heavier judgment" (ASV, 3:1), and
early and latter rain (5:7, though here the giver
may not be much in view).

The only other use of "lambano" (to receive) in
James is 5:10, where it is translated as "take:"
"As an example of suffering and patience, brothers
and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the
Lord's name."

Considering that this common word with a very wide
range of semantic meaning is used 5 of 6 times of
"receiving" something, and that, of those 5 times,
4 are undisputedly as receiving from God, it would
seem to indicate that when James speaks of
receiving in his letter, one may fairly conclude
that he automatically thinks of receiving from

Both passages of 1:5-7 and 4:1-3 discuss the
possibility or reality of NOT receiving, which
also appears suggestive, since it offers yet
another connection between the two and reinforces
the idea of asking and receiving from God.


James highlights several lessons for us in this
text. First, selfishness generates conflict. I
want, you want, we fight.

Second, selfishness begrudges asking. "You do not
have because you do not ask." The self-centered
person hates asking; he prefers taking from

Third, selfishness breeds privation. "You ask and
do not receive because you ask wrongly." God
refuses to give to those who want to spend on

Through some attention to the details of the text,
our understanding of prayer in the book of James
is greatly enriched.

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Read these other archived articles on prayer:

When He Prayed for His Friends

Day of United Prayer

The Purpose-filled Prayer

Regretting God's Answer to Prayer

Educated in Prayer

Prayer is the Answer

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