Asking is something we learn to do at a very early age. When a baby wants milk, he asks the only way he knows how, crying. When a child wants to be carried, he asks for it. When a child wants a toy, he asks for it. When our kids want a car, they ask for it. Asking is a very normal human behavior. We also learn at a very early stage that we don’t always get what we ask for, and we don’t like it! When the baby doesn’t get his milk, he has a fit! When a child wants to be carried and they don’t get it, they have a temper tantrum. When a child wants a toy and he doesn’t get it, he will have an attack! When a young person doesn’t get what he wants, he’s devastated. As parents, one of our many responsibilities is teaching our kids that you don’t always get what you ask for. Often, we are presented with amazing teaching moments where we can teach our kids how to ask, how to respond to the word “no,” and many times we can even teach them why some requests are not granted. A sure sign of maturity is the ability to take “no” for an answer.
As Christians, we often find ourselves dealing with the same lessons all over again. Part of what it means to be a mature Christian is knowing how to pray. It is learning to wait on God for a response. It is learning not to be frustrated when we don’t get what we ask for. An important lesson is understanding that God does not spoil his children. God is not moved by temper tantrums. Having fits does not persuade God to grant us what He has chosen not to. Much of the frustration these days comes from a misunderstanding of prayer. Too often, Christians take passages out of context and completely misunderstand them This creates false expectations that inevitably lead to frustration.
As we approach the topic of why God denies some of our requests, I understand that the spectrum of answers is broad. This article is not meant to be an exhaustive treaty on the subject. What I attempt to do is focus on some key principles that help us understand why our requests are often denied.
Let me begin with a powerful verse in the Epistle of James. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” (James 4:3, NKJV). A simple analysis of the verse can provide us with rich content. James begins by telling believers (his audience is the church) that they definitely send up many prayer requests. This is true of us all. We ask for a lot. We are constantly asking. When we ask, we do so anticipating that our request will be granted. After all, isn’t that what Jesus said in Matthew 7, “7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8, NKJV).
We are so desirous of having our requests granted, that we often find ourselves falling for gimmicks that are supposed to guarantee a favorable response. Some hucksters will have you believe that the secret lies in giving large offerings so that God will have no choice but to grant you what you desire. Others are led to believe that the secret is in offering a sacrifice with your prayer. Another approach that is very popular these days is praying with authoritative words—decreeing and declaring that our request must be granted (often called “name-it-and-claim-it). Some have been led to believe that the key is found in using the right formula of words, in the right order, and the request will be granted. Many traditions have resorted to asking through an intermediary. If we ask through so-and-so, God must grant the request. Still others believe that the secret is to have the pastor make the request on their behalf. No wonder we get so frustrated! All of these “methods” are simple attempts to manipulate God. However, God will not be manipulated, He is not for sale, and He will not be intimidated! There are no magic words! God is not a vending machine!
The simple truth is that God does not have to grant any requests and often chooses not to. As the passage in James clearly states, “You ask and do not receive…” Some may think there is a contradiction between what James is telling us and what Jesus said in Matthew 7. However, that is not the case as we will see in Part 2 of this article. But first, let us consider the common responses we have when we don’t get what we want. There is a three-step process to the typical reaction. The first step is frustration. We have a temper tantrum, in varying degrees, we kick and scream as a child who has been denied the toy. That in turn leads to the second step, we rebel. We blame God for not granting our wishes. There must be something wrong with God. We find ourselves attacking God, “If God loved me, surely he would not have denied my request.” That leads us to the final step—we give up—we stop praying. After all, if God does not answer, then why waste our time asking? That’s why many Christians don’t even pray, they are angry at God and stop believing He really cares about us.
James goes after this erroneous mentality in very explicit terms. James points to the fact that the problem is not God’s but ours instead. James clarifies why there is a denial, “…because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” The problem is in the request and the motives behind it. I love the way the NLT translates this verse, “And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.” Apparently, the recipients of James’ letter see God as a dumb father that will grant them whatever they need to keep the party going. James is saying that our desires and our passions are not aligned with what God wants for us. That is why we are denied! The Greek word for “pleasures” is hedonai from where we get the word “hedonism.” If our primary focus is pursuing pleasure, we will be denied. There is no contradiction between James 4:3 and Matthew 7:7-8 because Jesus never promised us anything we wanted! All confusion is immediately clarified when we understand the context of Jesus’ teachings on prayer. There are principles that condition the response to our prayers. In Part two we will take a closer look at how Jesus illuminates this topic in the Gospel of John. Stay tuned!