Have you ever considered that you might be praying badly?
We can view prayer a bit like some kids view brushing their teeth, our concern being simply with whether or not we did it, not with how well or to what end we did it. If we prayed today, we’re good; if not, we’ll hopefully do better tomorrow. In this view, prayer is a box to be checked, a habit to be kept, but not necessarily a vital component of a healthy life.
Most things in life are more complicated than this. In school, for example, completing assignments is only part of the grade; the quality of work also plays a large role. In fact, turning in all assignments but failing to pay attention to the guidelines and warnings for each assignment may result in failure of the course. Similar points might be made concerning relationships, cooking, exercise, service, and jobs. Viewing responsibilities as merely boxes to be checked overlooks the nuances of each action, wasting opportunities for creativity and excellence in the pursuit of the minimum requirement. We wouldn’t want a restaurant to simply get the job done when it comes to our meal, nor would we want the same mentality to determine how we raise our children, love our spouses, or serve our friends. We recognize the importance of excellence, a recognition not uncommon to Scripture. The Bible is filled with commands to work as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:22), to run as one seeking the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24), and to live as an example to the world (Matthew 5:16). Christ does not call people to half-hearted efforts but to total devotion (Romans 12:1-2).
So how does one approach prayer rightly? Jesus gives some direction regarding publicity and repetition, calling his followers to pray in secret and in faith (Matthew 6:5-8). But it’s the words of James I’m wrestling with today. James writes,
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
James diagnoses the unhealthiness of the body as a problem of passions. He informs his readers that they do not have what they seek due to their failure to ask and their further failure to ask rightly. His first statement corrects any absence of prayer in our lives. As James already made clear, every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:16-18). Our lack may be due to our failure to seek the Giver. But James’s second statement tells us that there is a wrong way to pray, and, consequently, a right way to pray. For James, praying wrongly seems to be tied still to passions (James 4:3).
I don’t think this verse rules out desperate prayers. The Psalms recount cries of desperation from time to time, and Lamentations shows us lament. Further, the father’s cries for his child were granted, though they appear to be strongly passionate (Mark 9:24). What James seems to have in mind here, then, is prayer that views God as a means to an end. When we seek God for what he can give us and not for who he is, we’re committing a sort of idolatry. We may be turning to God, but we don’t really want God; we want something we can’t get on our own. Because of this, God’s refusal to grant our requests is a great mercy, for his acquiescence might be our ruin.
As I consider James’s words, I think about how often I pray badly. I offer up hasty, repetitive prayers, desperate to keep what I fear I might lose, desperate to regain what I’ve already lost, desperate to receive what I think I need. When health is challenged, I pray for relief. When stress rises, I pray for rest. When needs arise, I pray for provision. And while these may each be legitimate and healthy prayers in some cases, I often pray them not for the sake of the LORD but for the sake of my own self-confidence or composure. I want to keep the status quo, to avoid change if possible, and to rest not in the LORD but in my circumstances. My prayers often seek this end. And, therefore, I’m sure some of my requests aren’t granted because I ask wrongly, to spend God’s gifts on my passions rather than on his glory. James’s words humble me and challenge me in this regard.
I’m glad God doesn’t answer every request we make with a “yes.” I’m glad he knows better than we do, that he withholds in order to help. Let us then be people who pray rightly. Let us seek the Giver more than we seek his gifts, and let us seek his gifts in order that we might better serve him and his kingdom. Let us not be driven by our passions but be driven by our love for the LORD. And let us rest in his peace as we submit our requests to him, thankful for his goodness to us (Philippians 4:6-7).