We Must Pray with Right Motives [Principles of Prayer – 2]

You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. – James 4:3

The Bible, in many places, gives us great and precious promises that God will hear and answer our prayers. “Ask, and it shall be given,” is what our Lord has taught us. As we delight to answer the requests of our children, so the Lord delights in hearing from us and answering our prayers. “Fear not, little flock,” Jesus said, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). God is giving by nature, and greatly delights in giving good gifts to His children. It is ‘more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35), and God is blessed when he showers down blessings upon the those who love him.

But it will be objected that many prayers are not answered. Many people have lifted their voice without any response. And because of these experiences, some have cast off faith in God, or else they have concluded that God does not really answer prayer like Jesus said He would. But I must bring attention to the passages of scripture that give us clear reasons for unanswered prayer. James 4:3 is a one of those passages, which we shall explore further.

In James chapter four, the apostle actually gives us two reasons that we do not have the things we desire. The first reason, found in verse two, is that many people simply fail to ask. The second reason, he states, is that for some, when they ask, they ask ‘amiss.’

The word ‘amiss,’ in the originally language of the New Testament (Greek) simply means ‘badly.’ This means that some prayers are asked in a good way and others in a bad way. There are such things as ‘bad prayers.’ These are prayers that are not answered, as the apostle James said, “You ask and do not receive because you ask badly…” He further explains us what it means to ask badly: “You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” In other words, the underlying reason for your prayer is bad, so God will not answer it.

I suspect that a good many prayers are not answered for this reason. The purpose of our prayer, or the motive of our prayer, must not be selfishness. All selfishness is sin. For God to answer a selfish prayer would be for Him to participate in sin. He will not do this. Instead, we must learn to examine our hearts and turn our intentions and desires to a higher place. When we set our heart aright, we set ourselves in a place where God can answer our prayers.

I remember the first time I really prayed. I was fifteen. It was when my girlfriend broke up with me. I was devastated. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, but I clearly remember praying fervently that God would mend our relationship. I was very sincere. I prayed with tears. But my motive was not very high. There was not any higher reason for this prayer except that I liked her and wanted her to be with me rather than anyone else. I was only asking to fulfill my own desires, and nothing else. I certainly fit into the category that James spoke of when he said, “you ask amiss, that you may spend in on your pleasures.”

As Christians however, we are called to a much higher place. Jesus calls us to be born again. This means that the old reasons that we lived for are gone, and now we live for a new reason–to serve God and build His kingdom. This ‘reason’ is also referred to as our ‘ultimate intention.’ To be born again means that our ‘ultimate intention’ has changed. Before, in everything we did, our ultimate intention was to please ourselves. Now, our ultimate intention is to please God–or it should be. Our ultimate intention is the real reason we do something. For example, there may be two people who do the exact same things for the poor. They may both give the exact same amount of time and money for the poor, yet one may do it for selfish intentions and another for benevolent ones. One wants to be recognized as a charitable person, perhaps seeking praise from men. The other does it simply because he genuinely cares about the plight of the poor. The ultimate intention of one is completely opposite to the intention of the other. God sees the heart rather than the deed, and to Him, the former’s gift is a stench, but the latter a sweet smelling aroma.

God calls us to this higher way of living. When we pray, God sees the true intentions of our hearts. Are we asking for something that will build our ego, fill our pockets, or give us selfish pleasure? Such prayers are a stench to Him. And for many of us, we need to seriously examine our hearts, because I suspect that most of our prayers are selfish in nature. Until we can pray truly unselfish prayers, we cannot expect that God will answer them.

I wish to bring an example to your attention. We find in First Chronicles chapter four a man named Jabez. This story is squeezed into the midst of a long genealogy that spans nine chapters in this particular book–so it is often missed. But it is a beautiful story of answered prayer by which we may learn. At first it seems like a selfish prayer, but if we look closer, we can see that this prayer rises to a higher place, and God answers his request:

And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested. – 1 Chronicles 4:10

If we keep in mind the intention, or the underlying reason, as we examine this prayer, we will see why God answered His request. His name, ‘Jabez,’ means ‘he will cause pain.’ He was given this name because of the great pain his mother had at his birth. But this name had stayed with him as a bad omen, it seems, and it is implied that he caused much pain to others as a pattern throughout his life. Because his life consisted of often bringing pain to others, he cried out in desperation that his circumstances might change. What was the ultimate reason for his prayer? “That I may not cause pain.” Yes, he prayed for a blessing upon himself, but for the purpose of removing the pain that he often brought upon the people around him. His prayer was not selfish.

The problem with most of our prayer lives is that we are terribly selfish. This is a constant battle in my own heart. I pray often for our church, that it would grow, that people would be saved, that we would have the finances that we need. But am I praying these things with the right intentions? Do I want people to be saved for because I care about them, or so that I can talk about how many people have gotten saved at my church? Do I pray for more people to come so that I can impart the word of God to them, or so I can feel good about myself when people ask me how big my church is? Do I want increase financially so that I can get a nice paycheck and live comfortably, or is it to truly further the gospel? There is a great temptation among pastors to seek these things for empty motives. Pride is a killer in the church, especially among pastors. The downfall of many start in this way.

And what about your life? Why do you pray for the things you do? Do you pray for financial increase so that you might have a more comfortable and luxurious life? Or do you pray for increase that you might give more to the church and missions? Do you pray for a spouse so that you might be a blessing to your husband or wife and to bless God with offspring, or do you just want a spouse for selfish reasons? Do you pray for a position in the church or in ministry because you love God and others, or is it because you love to be recognized? Our motives must rise higher than the motives of this world. We are not called to please ourselves, but be concerned with the interests of others.

I suspect that many of our prayers are not answered for this reason. We must begin to examine our hearts and think differently about why we do the things that we do. This is opposite to what the world preaches. They always preach, saying, “you deserve this,” or “you need self-care,” or “you need to love yourself more, think of yourself more.” This is terribly foolish. All we do is think about ourselves in the first place. And the ‘wisdom’ of the world is to think about ourselves more? It is utter foolishness and backwards to the ways of God. The truth is that if we would take our focus off of ourselves, we would be much happier by accident than we ever could be on purpose. Seeking happiness for its own sake is a sure way to get a curse, and the quickest way to depression. Let your eyes and your prayers rise higher–not to yourself, but to God. Keep them there, and see that goodness and mercy will follow you wherever you may go.

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