“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you can not have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4: 1-3, NIV).
Because of the fall of Adam and humankind's sinful nature, people are unbalanced: They want what they want—at any cost. This is the very essence of selfishness and therefore at the root of the disturbances to which James is referring. When people are determined to fulfill the desires of their minds and the passions of their bodies, every sort of evil is bound to result.
Certainly conflicts within the church do stem from such root causes as jealousy, envy, self-seeking, and the like. Churches have been torn apart from within as a result of such activities going on unchecked. Thus, Christians always need to be on the guard against the kind of complacency that lets evil get a foothold.
However, in a broader sense, the same kind of character defects and sins that work among church members work among groups and nations as well. Wars may not, in every case at least, be the mere result of the sum total of individual conflicts. Yet personal sins, such as jealousy, greed, and the like, do infect society and produce a climate in which war becomes almost inevitable. Covetousness, rivalries, the unbridled quest for gain—these evils not only wreck homes and blight lives, but may well seize whole peoples.
It is interesting to note that James says, “You cannot have what you want.” This is almost a universal principle of human psychology: rapacious desire to possess or “have” anything often leads to poverty, loss, and destitution. Greed and coveting are self-defeating. The more one wants, the less one has. Yet we never seem to learn this truth.
Our very desires affect our prayer lives, James says. We do not have because we do not ask, and when we do ask, we ask with wrong motives and so don't receive what we want.
Here is an answer to those who say that it is really unbelief to preface our prayers with “If it be Thy will...” We are not to presume that we necessarily know God's will or even want it. Our mere strong desire for something is not necessarily evidence that God gave us that desire and that we should pray in faith for its fulfillment. We must look to our “motives” as James says.
Perhaps it is just characteristic of the times in which we live, where it has become necessary to have two-income families just to stay even financially, but there is a growing movement among some Christians to “name it and claim it” for God when it comes to material needs. “For Jesus' sake. Amen!”
Prayers for genuine needs are answered, but can you see how we can perhaps be “innocently” carried away by our own desires? The word translated “desires” in the NIV is the same Greek word from which we get “hedonism”, a term often used of the self-indulgent. Yes, James named one of the reasons why certain prayers may go unanswered: selfish desires.
One's goals should glorify God. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” ( 1 Corinthians 10:31). If you live by the philosophy of those words, you will see your prayers answered. But if you are selfish, self-centered, or self-indulgent, your prayers will not be answered. Pretty simple truth, yet profound!