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

Does James 4:2b-3 refer to asking of God in prayer or to asking of a person?

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