“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 4:2b–3).
We come today to James 4, in which we shall read some of the harshest words James has for his audience. Many commentators feel that with chapter 4, James begins to move away from the distinction between earthly and heavenly wisdom that we read about in 3:13-18. However, this is probably not the best way to view this passage. In fact, we shall see that James’ admonishments are actually grounded in the distinction between these two different kinds of wisdom.
Today’s passage makes this plain. In 4:1-3, James directly addresses some of the problems present in the original audience. We read in verses 1 and 2 that there are many quarrels and fights in the audience motivated by covetousness and inordinate desire. Such motivations are just like the jealousy and selfish ambition that characterize earthly wisdom. For what is covetousness except the jealous desire to have what belongs to our neighbor? Moreover, is not selfish ambition often the result of coveting another’s power or position?
These desires were resulting in murder (v. 2). Some commentators take the word murder literally since some in the audience were probably former Zealots and not above taking the lives of others. However, this is probably not the best interpretation since the condemnations would certainly be more harsh if those in the audience were actually killing one another. The word used for “murder” here can be used figuratively and such use is in keeping with James’ warnings concerning the tongue. The murder discussed here was not being perpetrated against physical life, but rather against another person’s character.
Far from displaying the fruits of heavenly wisdom, this audience was manifesting the “disorder” and “vile practices” (3:16) that result from earthly wisdom. Many did so because they did not follow James’ earlier instruction to ask for heavenly wisdom without doubting (1:5-8; 4:2b). Others did ask for such wisdom, but did so wrongly, in order to fulfill their sinful desires (4:3). The solution then is clear, if heavenly wisdom is going to be granted to the people of God, it must be asked for sincerely and purely from a desire that this wisdom would equip us to serve Him better.
When we do not ask the Lord to meet our needs, or if we ask Him to do so with the wrong motives, we will miss out on the wisdom and all the other blessings that God freely offers to His children. Why do you lack God’s wisdom today? Is it because you do not believe that He can give it to you? Or is it because you ask in order that you might further your own agenda? Search your heart and ask for God to purify your motives so that you might pray in a manner pleasing to Him.
Passages for Further Study
Num. 20:2–13, 1 Sam. 13:13–14, Matt. 17:20, Acts 8:9–25
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