Summary: It’s important to pray in a way that is not self-centered.
Have you ever thought about how much of what we ask God for in our prayers is very self-centered?
For example, I heard about a college student who always concluded her prayers with this simple petition: “God, I’m not asking for myself, but please send my mother a son-in-law.”
Or then there was the heavy snowstorm that closed the schools in one town. When the children returned to school a few days later, one teacher asked her students whether they had used the time away from school constructively. One little girl said, “I sure did, teacher. I just prayed for more snow.”
And I have to confess to having done that a time or two myself. But listen to what James said to us -- to you and to me, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your own pleasures.” (James 4:3)
I don’t remember ever having preached on this specific verse before. And in preparing this lesson, I wonder if the reason is because what James says makes me a little uncomfortable. You see, I want to confess something to you this morning, that I struggle often with the sin of worldliness. I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth. Now before you leave with a totally wrong impression and the rumor begins circulating that Alan confessed to a secret life of carousing, drunkenness, and immorality, let me both deny that emphatically and give you a correct definition of the word "worldly." The New Collegiate Dictionary says that “worldly” means, “of, relating to, or devoted to this world and its pursuits rather than to religion or spiritual affairs.”
And so, with genuine regret, I confess that I all too often am too devoted to this world and its pursuits. And all too often, I make important decisions with too much of this world and too little of that world in mind, with too much dictated to me by my surrounding culture and too little defined by my Christian commitment. Let me ask you, do you think you ever have that problem?
One of the worst things about having a worldly attitude is the effect it has on our prayer lives. Now there are a number of things that can hinder our prayers. Unresolved sin, for example, can affect our prayers. David said in Psalm 66:18, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” Jesus said a refusal to forgive other people who have sinned against us can hinder our prayers. Peter says in I Peter 3:7 if you husbands aren’t treating your wives properly, it can hinder your prayers. In Luke 11, Jesus tells a parable on the importance of persistence in prayer. There may be some prayers that aren’t answered because we’re not persistent enough. But this morning, I want to focus on the reason that James gives to us in James 4:3.
I. Contradictory World-Views
The Book of James is one my favorite New Testament books because just about every line in it is practical advice I need to hear over and over. The importance of not just hearing God’s Word -- the need to do it, the importance of taking care of those who are in need, the importance of controlling the tongue, the importance of not being prejudiced -- so many practical instructions.
And the problem with James is not that it’s difficult to understand — as is the case with such books as Revelation, Hebrews, or Romans. No, the problem with James is that I understand it all too well; I know exactly what he’s telling me to do; I just have trouble putting it into practice. And one of the most significant parts of James is found at the end of the third chapter. Beginning in verse 13, James writes:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” (James 3:13-17)
James says there are two very different kinds of wisdom — I think it’s just as accurate to say that there are two very different world-views — that offer themselves to us every day. One is held up and admired by a world that is in opposition to God. It defines success in terms of money and power, it defines beauty in terms of sex appeal, and it promotes selfishness and the willingness to do anything that is necessary to get what it wants.