James 4:2 says, “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.” The core of this verse is the last phrase that we don’t have what we want because we don’t ask for it.
Sadly, this verse has been twisted and misinterpreted to mean something that Scripture does not teach. There are those who would say that we should simply ask God for whatever we want, and He will give it to us. They also pull in other similar verses to bolster their argument.
But is this really what the Bible teaches?
What Is Your Wish?
We love stories about wishes that are magically fulfilled. Whether it’s a genie in a lamp or a fairy godmother that swoops in with the wave of a magic wand, we all search for a way to instantly obtain the deepest desires of our hearts.
Many have looked at Christianity that way. The promises of salvation, redemption, and regeneration are appealing to everyone who hears them, and there are those who come to God only seeking the benefits of eternal life or protection from hell. Veins of doctrine like the so-called “prosperity gospel” have gained large followings that focus on doing the right things in order to obtain the blessing of God. Doing good things and going to church will bring you great material wealth, and if you do not have an overabundance of goods then something must not be right in your walk with God.
A surface reading of the Old Testament may lead you to believe that this is the way God works. Many of the original covenants carried with them a series of tangible signs of blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 28). Many of the proverbs promoted common sense habits and righteous living, and explicitly tied them to wealth and prosperity as well as happiness; wickedness an unrighteous living was similarly tied with poverty and squalor. A popular book written within the last 30 years was The Prayer of Jabez, which took a very short passage of 1 Chronicle and crafted nearly an entire theology on asking for God to bless us and keep us from harm.
Because of all of this, we might think that God is ready to give or withhold His blessings based solely on our actions and that we can simply ask Him for whatever we want and He will do it. However, this is not the right way to look at God – He is not a genie to grant our every wish.
A Matter of the Heart
When Jesus began proclaiming the kingdom of God, He taught that the motivation of our hearts is what mattered. The Sermon on the Mount, one of His most beloved collection of teachings, shows that every specific sinful action comes from a sinful motivation in our hearts. Even thinking or feeling certain things is an act of rebellion against a perfect God. He directly states that a man’s heart is the source of sin, not what he does (Mark 7:20).
In other places, however, Jesus teaches us to ask God for what we desire, and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7-8). The key to understanding this commandment – and the key to understanding the entire notion of approaching God with the desires of our heart – comes from the context. The context that matters is a heart that is first focused on God, not on our desires.
James begins chapter 4 of his letter to believers by pointing out the futility and failure of their quarreling and strife. He openly condemns murder, theft, war, and lustful desires and points to the fact that they have not asked God for what they want. This does not mean that they – or we – should approach God and ask for something that is sinful. We must first get our own hearts focused on Him, then our desires will change accordingly.
The key is to abide in the Father. Abiding means to rely on and remain faithful to; it carries with it a picture of setting up your dwelling someplace and building your life there. Jesus says in John 15:7, “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” Abiding in Him must come first, and only after that will we receive what we ask for. The apostle John continues this line of thought in his own letter to believers by saying that we must keep the commandments of God and remain faithful to Him if we hope to gain His blessings (1 John 3:22).
The crux of this argument, however, is found later on in John’s writings: we must ask for what we desire within the will of God (1 John 5:14). This is the point that James is making as well, along with the consistent testimony of the whole Bible. We must first seek after God’s heart and align our desires with His. Then, and only then, will our desires be fulfilled, since we are seeking after the things of God and putting His will ahead of ours (Psalm 37:4, James 1:5-8).
Ask, And You Shall Receive
The change in our hearts is not Who we are asking, but how and why we ask. The Bible teaches us that belief in Christ must come first, and seeking after the will of God must be the primary motivation of our hearts. If we selfishly ask for blessings without being willing to submit to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are asking with the wrong ends in mind and using God only as a means to get what we want. We should yield to God first and align our desires with His.
God’s purposes will always be fulfilled, which is the beautiful hidden truth behind what James is saying: we will always receive what we ask when we ask that God’s will be done.
Bible Study on James 4:2
Expert Overview of James
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.