What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:1-10 (NIV)
Sometimes the book of James gets a bad rap. We as Lutherans are uncomfortable with James sometimes because he is all about putting the rubber to the road. James makes us think about the squirmy things that cause us to examine our consciences, which we should do before we pray.
Early in Martin Luther’s ministry, Luther called the book of James an “epistle of straw.” At first glance one could take James’ point of view as supporting a system of works-righteousness. Later in his life, Luther grew to appreciate the book and James’ perspective.
James is not subscribing to a works-righteousness relationship with God at all. God still loves us and names us and claims us in spite of our sinful nature and all the things we screw up on a regular basis. God’s grace abounds, and none of us would be able to live a life that honors God apart from His grace. Yet liberty is not license. We may not be bound by the Law, but we were not set free in Christ to live lawless, hedonistic lives and think only of ourselves. We are called to examine our hearts and ask ourselves if we are truly surrendering ourselves to God and allowing Him to transform us.
When we pray we should be bold. We should pray with shameless audacity, and with authenticity. We shouldn’t pray for leftovers. We should know that God has a good plan for our lives and He wants the best for His children. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask God for anything. However, James is calling us to examine our motive when we pray. Sometimes God’s answer is no, because we ask for the wrong things for the wrong reasons. He has a better plan for us than we can imagine.
Are we affirming God’s will when we pray? As much as it would be great to win millions in the lottery, perhaps God has a different plan for us than to give us earthly riches. Perhaps it is more congruent with God’s will if we pray to trust Him for our daily bread and for the ability to share with others?
When we follow Jesus we are called to take up our crosses and follow Him. It’s not always easy to do that. Sometimes sacrifice just plain sucks. We don’t have any kind of satisfactory answers for the existence and the prevalence of evil or of suffering. It’s not always easy to eat humble pie and admit that we don’t always know best, that sometimes our motives are completely wrong, and that we fall short of the glory of God every single day.
Following Jesus means putting the rubber to the road. It means as the apostle Paul said, to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”- Philippians 2:12 (NIV)
This doesn’t mean that our salvation is contingent upon what we do (it isn’t, it is contingent only on the merit of Jesus alone) but that salvation is a process. We are called to ask, seek and knock. Jesus tells us to pray with shameless audacity- with the confidence that God is infinitely able to answer our prayers. We are called to listen, to open our hearts and minds, and to let God transform us.