Monday, October 31, 2011

James 4:2-3 - History Changing Prayer

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 4:2-3)
You do not have, because you do not ask

A plain reading of James 4:2 implies that if you had asked God, if you had prayed for what you wanted, you would have it. I want to quickly get past any prosperity gospel charge coming from this line of thinking, because James shuts that down in the next verse. "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3). So for those who were asking, they were not receiving because they were selfish. They were not praying, "Lord, Thy will be done," they were praying, "Lord, my will be done." Just because a person asks for something from God does not automatically imply they will receive it. Everything asked for according to the will of God will be granted. However, as finite men and women we cannot know the whole will of God (Deuteronomy 29:29).

The Sovereign Lord's Will

Historical or theological exceptions of asking and not receiving do not destroy the logic of the verse. James is saying that there are some things believers fail to ask for that they would have received had they asked for it. This is a staggering thought. God, in his infinite power and wisdom has created a system that includes human response in the outcome of some events. That does not mean that we know what those events always are. But we do know some of them. When we pray to God, and he answers, "Yes," we have seen by the answered prayer that God ordained our ministry of prayer as part of his sovereign purpose. Part of what may bother us is not knowing what was missed because we did not pray.

Another objection to this line of reasoning might come from application of God's character. God is omnipotent, omniscient and immutable. Combining those elements to their full logical conclusion would mean a deterministic, fatalistic universe. If God exercised his omnipotence and immutability according to our simple definitions, we would not have free will. But through those two characteristics he created beings in his own image who contain some kind of free will. In the same way, God has chosen the direction of history in part by the prayers of the saints. This does not sacrifice his immutability. God may set the course of history as conditional outcomes instead of deterministic paths in some circumstances. In other words, God's may ordain an "if-then" branch on the basis of something like human prayer. If a person prays about a circumstance, then God will grant his intercession, otherwise he will not. God's will has not changed (he ordained the condition); what has changed is the prayer's action.

Moses as Example

Reformed Christians (of which I am) are very uncomfortable with this kind of thinking. However, here is a piece of biblical evidence that helps validate this interpretation of James 4:2. Consider the familiar story of Moses coming down off Mount Sinai to find Israel worshiping the golden calves they had made. At this point (not the only one!), God was ready to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, "Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you" (Ex 32:10). But Moses interceded for them, "But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, 'O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people? ... Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people'" (Ex 32:11-12). God relented! (Ex 32:14)

Unless James 4:2 makes sense, the account of Exodus 32 should make someone even more uncomfortable. It reads as though God changed his mind, as if God is not immutable. But if God had chosen to decide the outcome based on Moses' response, then God is still unchanging and Moses' prayer affected the outcome of history. God's immutable choice was a fork in the road, and Moses was permitted to travel either branch. The same is true for our prayer life, even if we don't have the benefit of God's revelation on every choice we make.

Evangelism as Analogy

There is an important parallel to evangelism for those who subscribe to the doctrine of election. Hyper-Calvinists assert that Christians need not engage in evangelism because God will call whom he's predestined. They ignore their God-ordained responsibility in the Great Commission, that God uses us as the means of calling. Even though God knows who will be saved, we don't. It would be blasphemously presumptuous to pretend to know, and it's blatantly disobedient to ignore our call to make disciples.

Just as God uses his people to save those he's predestined, he uses the prayers of his people to accomplish his purposes. An omniscient God knows the outcome of all things--after all, he is God. God's omniscience does not mitigate our responsibility to pray or to evangelize. Do not subscribe to fatalism. Prayer changes things. God has ordained that prayer changes things. Otherwise, prayer would be incredibly superficial.

This does not mean that God is not sovereign over those conditional outcomes, our choices or the results. If you trace back all the conditionals leading to a person's conversion, we'll see a person is chosen in God before the foundation of the world. Perhaps God will grant us the understanding of this interplay as we look back in history from an eternal perspective.


Hopefully this is an encouragement to pray. We have too much to do to NOT pray. And we have too many impossible tasks, like winning souls, to ignore our call to prayer. Let's seek the face of God as wrestle with our Lord in earnest prayer.

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