Musings on the Morality of Prayer (James 4)

I have been thinking about the moral aspect of prayer.  Morality is defined as principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong.  Logically speaking, if there is a right way to do something, there must be a wrong way.  Theologically speaking, we believe that God determines morality and as Christian people we believe God’s morality is communicated to us through scripture.  What are the Ten Commandments apart from a moral imperative to separate God’s people from the other people of the earth?  When we hold prayer to a moral standard, we must ask, “Is there a right and a wrong way to pray?”  I would answer this query very specifically, “Since Jesus told us the right way to pray; there must be a wrong way to pray.”   

There is an incredible and most disturbing story relayed to us in Genesis 22.  The fact that it was long considered a children’s story is straight up amazing to me.  The One God had promised a young, childless wanderer named Abram that he would be the father of a great nation and from his seed salvation would come to the world.  Decades later and now called Abraham (Father of Many), he is an old man and the promise lies unfulfilled; he has no legitimate heir.  Sin had invited complexity into his life and his attempts to move the promise forward in his own strength proved disastrous.  Surely the promise now seemed more a lingering memory than a pulsating future but Abraham still believed God despite all evidence to the contrary.  That belief was called faith and consistent with God’s sense of timing, about six minutes after things were mathematically impossible, the son of promise arrived and his name was Isaac, meaning laughter.  Heaven and earth laughed with joy.  All good right?

One day God and Abraham were talking, praying if you will, and God asked Abraham to offer Isaac to Him as a burnt offering.  The command stands in direct contrast to the nature of God, but still the command was given.  Shockingly, Abraham, who had just negotiated for the lives of the morally depraved people of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter nineteen, did not attempt to negotiate for the life of his innocent son.  He awakened early, loaded up the supplies, packed his flint knife and traveled to the holy mountain (modern Jerusalem) with Isaac.  Abraham prepared the place of sacrifice and tied his beloved son to the altar.  A lifetime of promise, wandering, prosperity, deception, impatience, sin and obedience suddenly culminated into this one trembling moment in the time continuum of salvation history.  Did this impatient and pragmatic wanderer have the mettle to be the Father of a Great Nation?  Did Abraham love the promise more than the promise giver?  Does the he drive the knife downward or cast it aside?  It was a test of faith with an uncertain outcome as are all true tests of faith.  Abraham lifted the knife above him as his son looked into his father’s eyes.

I remember the first time I heard this story as a kid and was horrified every time my dad asked for me to go somewhere with him for six years.  “Do you want to go hiking son?”  “NO!”  If this story teaches us nothing else, we are reminded that the ways of God cannot be fully understood.  That is the thing about the Bible.  We get it like we get it.  Not always like we want it.  God’s morality is different than our own.  God will not be made into our own image.

Now to our text.  We know almost nothing about the book of James other than it made the sixty-six books that comprise the Bible…barely.  We don’t know who wrote it, when it was written or the historical context that led to its writing.  What we do know is that it was not a part of the earliest compilations of Scripture that later became the New Testament; it is more about morality than theology; more about works than grace and Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw.”  But we do know the intended audience.  It is addressed to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire.  These were a “set apart” and persecuted people.  They would not declare Caesar to be Lord and they would not assimilate into the Roman melting pot, no matter how hot the Emperor’s fire.  The Jews were a people of prayer to the One God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  THAT Abraham.  THAT Isaac.  Jewish teachings on prayer emerged from a very specific Jewish tradition who viewed prayer most uniquely.  Author Philip Yancey in his book Prayer writes about the prayer culture that produced Jesus.  “The Romans of the time prayed to their gods as one might finger a good luck charm, not really expecting much.  The skeptical Greeks derided prayer, their playwrights weaving foolish, ridiculous and even obscene prayers into their plays to provoke the audience to uproarious laughter.  Only the stubborn Jews, despite their tragic history of unanswered prayers, contended that a supreme and loving God ruled the earth, listened to their prayers and would someday respond.”  Always remember this when it comes to Jesus; he was born a Jew, he died a Jew and he was steeped in the prayer tradition of the Jews.

V. 1 What is causing all this fighting among you? Isn’t it your evil desires?

It is clear there was conflict in James’ church. It had to break the heart of Christ who prayed for unity in the church above all things.  Now, instead of fighting evil and spreading the Gospel, the church was fighting each other and spreading dissension.  They were still connected to the water source of God and attempting to offer ministry to the world but there was a major kink their water hose and the water was only trickling out.  It appears James’s battle front was established on the line of discipleship.  Some in the church had given their entire lives to Christ.  For them, being a part of what God was doing in this world was their number one core value and they passionately offered their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness to serve Christ and his church.  We would call these people disciples.  But others were only attempting to maneuver God into doing what they wanted Him to do for them.  They were “playing church” and worse yet “playing God” like one might play a slot machine today.  Those in the church who prayed only to manipulate the hand of God have their motives labeled as evil; unethical, immoral.

If evil sounds like a strong word to use here, it is a theologically appropriate one if we define evil as that which stands in direct opposition to the will of God.  If what we want is more important to us than what God wants, then our desires are evil, even if they are not intended for harm.  Selfishness is a serious evil precisely because it does not seem intrinsically evil.  Some people in James’ audience believed God existed to do their will.  Their prayers consisted of telling God what they wanted Him to do, when they wanted Him to do it and how they wanted it done.  Christ Church, hear me!  God is not a household servant in our employ, a genie in a bottle to grant us three wishes, a DJ to play our requests or a Santa Claus who exists to bring all the good boys and girls really cool presents.  God is God.  Holy.  Sovereign.  Immutable.  The desire for God to be lesser things is evil for it puts God in service of us rather than us in service of God.

V. 2 You want what you don’t have so you sin to get it

There were apparently some folks in James’ church who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer from God. ‘No” is a very proper response from a loving God to a prayer of petition. You see, God is not limited to time and space.  God can not only see the outcome of the decisions we have made in the past but can also see the outcomes of the decisions we will make in the future.  We can pray for something that may make good short-term sense to our limited perspectives but only God knows what is truly best.  If your prayer for the physical recovery of an elderly loved one is answered “no”, could it be that God knew that to go on living would mean months or years in a vegetative state?  If your prayer for a promising relationship to prosper is answered “no” could it be that God knows choosing that road, no matter how good it looks right now, would only be one of abandonment, sorrow and pain for you?  If your prayer for that new job is answered “no” could it be that God knows that job will do harm to your soul or has something better for you just around the corner?  We may never understand God’s response to our prayers but He never asks us to; He simply asks that we trust Him to know what is best.  We must trust God enough to take “no” for an answer.

2b-3 The reason you don’t have what you want is because you don’t ask God for it and even when you ask God you don’t get it because you have the wrong motive. You want only what gives you pleasure.

Jesus instructed us to ask for God for our needs.  When I ask God, I realize that he is God and I am not, I affirm that he has the power to provide and I submit my life to his ultimate control.  Prayer is a process of readying ourselves to be used by God; not readying God to be used by us.  God is not a vending machine who is obliged to spit out a Snickers bar or an old jukebox obliged to play “Walking the Floor” every time we put in the right amount of money and hit B6.  Have you ever noticed how people react when they put in their money, hit the code and the candy bar does not come out?  They push the coin return button and then frantically push it again and again.  When that does not work, I have seen people rock the machine, stick their hands up the shoot or start hitting the machine with their fist.  Many people treat God the same way!  Unlike a vending machine or an old jukebox, we must realize God is not broken when he answers a prayer with “no.”

V 4-5 Adulterers! Wanting the things of this world is to reject God. God is jealous for us.

As Abraham led the world from polytheism, the belief in many gods, towards monotheism, the belief in one God; adultery is a consistent metaphor used to denote human rejection of the One True God.  Over and over God is portrayed as a faithful and good husband and Israel is portrayed as an adulterous woman who wantonly pursues other lovers.  The Old Testament book of Hosea is a living metaphor were the prophet Hosea marries a prostitute named Gomer who is a serial adulterer and constantly rejects his faithful love.  Gomer pursues other lovers until they tire of her and Hosea keeps taking her back when no one else will have her.  Finally she has been sold into slavery and right about the time no one could blame Hosea for rejecting her forever, he buys back what is already his.  Hosea is a laughing stock but his faithfulness and steadfast love will not allow him to let Gomer go.  She is unfaithful but he is faithful because faithful is all he knows how to be!  You see, Hosea is not a cautionary tale; Hosea is a living metaphor.  That is how God is with us!  II Timothy 2: 13 reads, “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is.”

In the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, the Second Commandment is a prohibition on worshiping other gods.  It is followed by a Third Commandment which prohibits the making of idols.  An idol in ancient pagan religions was an object of manipulation.  Like politicians of the 1920’s the pagan gods were not only there to serve you; they were expected to entertain you as well!  The ancients prayed to their mischievous gods as good luck charms, priestesses told R-rated stories about their otherworldly and lewd escapades and then led the faithful to the sacred brothels for a little fund raising and encouraged them to upgrade their idols in the gift shop on the way out.

The God of Israel categorically refused to be treated in such way.  He would not be worshipped as a god among gods, nor would he sing, tell jokes or play the fool for the entertainment of humanity.  He was the one, true God.  He was holy, not promiscuous; He was righteous, not mischievous and he was spirit, not material.  God was “wholly other.”  He refused to serve as an object of manipulation.  You could embrace His will to your salvation or reject His will to your demise but he was no trifling object.  The first four of Ten Commandments clearly spell out the fact that God desires our whole hearts.  God declares himself to be a “jealous God who will not share our affection with any other God.”  God desires our exclusive love! “Who is like our God?”

V. 6-7 God gives strength to stand against evil desires. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. All Satan can do is advertise; he can’t make you buy anything. Temptation is not a sin, Jesus was tempted as was Abraham; temptation is a natural condition of living in a fallen world.   Here is the deal: We are all flawed.  There will always be something in our operating systems that wants to manipulate God.  We must resist it knowing that it will fle

Our motive in prayer is the moral aspect of prayer.  It should not surprise us that in a moral play like James there is an expectation that as we mature in the faith that we will become more honorable people with purer motives. James reminds us that when we stop being selfish, stop fighting with each other, stop wanting things that aren’t ours to have, stop lusting for what the world has to offer, stop trying to manipulate God and stop refusing to take “no” for an answer from God; THEN we are ready to pray.  The mature Christian comes to prayer with no motive other than to know and serve God.

The Morality of Prayer

  1. Submit to the authority of God
  2. Pray to come into union with the intentions of God
  3. Don’t attempt to manipulate God
  4. Take no for an answer when no is the answer

Abraham took a deep breath, blinked the sweat from his eyes, steadied his hands and drove the knife downward toward his beloved son.  An angel from heaven shouted, “Abraham, Abraham, lay down the knife for I know that you truly fear God.”  Abraham cast death away, untied his son, found a ram stuck in the thicket and offered sacrifice to the Lord.  In verse 15 God says, “Because you obeyed me, I will bless you richly.  I will multiply your descendants into countless millions, they will defeat their enemies and through you all nations on earth will be blessed.”  When Abraham submitted his will to the will of God, the promise was rebooted and put back on line.  Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”  Perhaps that is what Abraham and James were trying to tell us all along about the morality of prayer.  Put God’s will first and everything else will find its proper place.


-Rev. Shane L. Bishop has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.


Published by Rev. Shane L. Bishop

Senior Pastor of Christ Church, Fairview Heights, IL since 1997. I am an orthodox Christian but I am not in a bad mood about it.

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