Practical Holiness and Unanswered Prayers
© 2020 C. O. Bishop
We often wonder why our prayer life seems ineffectual, and either bemoan that “God doesn’t answer,” or cynically declare that “prayer makes no difference, because God will just do whatever His plan was, anyway.” Both ideas are wrong, and the truth is more related to the character of our relationship with God than it is anything else. James begins by backing up and asking a rhetorical question, and then answers it, and begins to build upon the answer.
1From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? 2 Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.
Here, the “you” (plural) to whom James speaks, is the whole human race. There had been no instance (at that time) of literal wars happening between believers, though it has happened more recently. But the history of the human race is absolutely riddled with warfare, raids, murders, enslavement, etc., in every nation, and in virtually every culture, at one time or another. And James recognized the source of the problem: that, far from being just some “force of nature”, or “artifact of human imperfection”, those wars and evil behaviors specifically come from our sinful desires.
Whether the desire is for political ascendancy, more land, more power of any sort, natural resources, or any other thing, the fact is that we, the human race, are willing to commit violence to satisfy our desires. That forces the other party to commit violence in defense: they really have little choice. But invariably, they end up wanting revenge, not just defense. So the cycle goes on, and repeats itself. If we want to see the original source, we can read Isaiah 14:12-15. There we see how Lucifer, the “Light-bearer,” through his desire for power and glory, became Satan, the “Adversary.” We have adversarial relationships with one another because of our sinful, selfish desires, and, ultimately, we, as a race, are adversaries of God thereby as well.
Romans 5:10 agrees with this idea, stating that we were enemies of God (prior to being saved) and that Jesus died for us while we were in that status, not after repentance or because of some “pre-christian” status. (There is no such thing as a “pre-christian,” by the way. We start off as enemies of God, and, if we die in that position, we are eternally lost. If God can bring us to repentance then we make a full transition to being children of God, and are credited with the righteousness of Christ.)
So, this passage tells us why the state of man is so filled with violence. God made a point of this clear back in Genesis 6:12, noting that the earth was corrupt and filled with violence. He also stated, (Genesis 6:5) that every thought of the imagination of man’s heart was only evil continually. “Well (we may protest) that was before the flood. We are all sprung from Noah, today!) So then, after the flood, things should have improved, right? Let’s see what God said: (Genesis 8:21) “…the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth…” The only people present were Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their respective wives! Eight persons comprised the world’s entire population! And God said they were full of evil!
So…if that is the state of man, what chance do we have for improvement? On our own effort? None at all! That is why Jesus became a human being, lived a perfect life so as to qualify as our redeemer, and willingly became our blood-sacrifice at Calvary. He did this so that we could be born from above…born again, with a new nature, which is capable of living for God. What about that old nature? It is still there, otherwise all the warnings of the New Testament would be pointless, as believers would be incapable of sin!
But the truth is that our old nature is completely incapable of being transformed, healed, or salvaged. It is not only corrupt but it is still actively being corrupted. When we sin, we feed our old nature, and it is strengthened. But our new nature is completely holy, like the One who created it. So we are left with a perpetual fight to maintain a Christian life.
James knew all of this, but rather than go into detail explaining it to fellow-Jewish Christians, he built on their knowledge of the Word, and moved forward. (We Gentiles frequently have to go back and read the Old Testament Scriptures in order to catch up.)
3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
When we think of prayer, our opinions may run everywhere from “prayer is a waste of breath, because God is just going to do what He wants to do, anyway” all the way to the idea that God is a “celestial vending machine” who will give us whatever we ask for, if we either ask often enough, or ask with the right formula, or something. Both of those ideas are sadly mistaken, though both have elements of truth.
God does commit Himself to righteousness, and to His own perfect plan, though His plan may seem chaotic to us. We need to realize that what seems rather random and directionless, to us, is actually quite controlled, but so unimaginably complex as to easily evade our understanding. We humans can create machines, computer programs, to produce “random” numbers, but the fact is that they are simply taking whatever micro-millisecond that the computer clock is at, at the moment you give the command, and applying an extremely complex formula to that number, so rapidly that we cannot hope to follow it. Since we have no way to know the exact time we gave the command, and no way to track the math, the resulting number seems completely random to us, but, in reality, it was completely planned: we are just unable to see the plan.
Isn’t it odd that we are willing to entrust our lives and money and health to a computer, designed, built and programmed by humans, who, in turn, were programmed by their own sin, but we are not so willing to trust the God who designed and built us, though He is not contaminated by our sin? Give that some thought!
Prerequisites to Answered Prayer
Over in Hebrews 11:6, it says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that cometh unto God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” We have to begin with the conviction that God exists, and that He is good, beyond comprehension: that He is the creator and designer of all good, and that even the evil in the world is not “outside” His oversight.
We live, today, in the ruins of what was created a perfect world, but which was devastated by sin: we live with the evidence of that destruction all around us: even in the majesty of the peaks, where we see the layered sediments as mute testimony of the flood, and the broken, ragged ridges; evidence of the continental breakup still in motion today. So, within the wreckage of “life after the Fall of Man” we need to realize that God’s ultimate good is still in control, but there are still the ugly realities to deal with: life in a fallen world; life with fallen humans as our fellow-travelers. When we pray, we need to realize that sometimes the things we want are not in keeping with a greater plan of God.
Therefore, we are admonished over in 1st John that there are some prerequisites to answered prayer:
- We, ourselves, have to be in obedience to God, so that we are not already at cross-purposes to His sovereignty. (Yes, it is not only possible to be at cross-purposes to God, it is so common as to be nearly universal. 1st John 3:18-24)
- We have to ask in accordance with His revealed will. (1st John 5:14, 15) This takes some study and growth, on our part, to even know, as an over-arching concept, what that will is, let alone His will for any given matter. But God does reserve the right to reply in one of three ways:
- “Yes,” which is what we always want.
- “No,” which is what we really mean, when we claim that “God didn’t answer me!” or,
- “Wait,” which is very commonly perceived as “no;” but we need to be patient and find out whether our petition has been denied for cause, or simply deferred because a better occasion is coming soon.
So, how does God see our Allegiances with the World?
Finally, here in James, we see that we frequently are turned away because of wrong motives. The wrong motives, whatever the reason, would automatically place us in the category of “not praying according to God’s Will.”
4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
Remember that we all begin as the enemies of God: Romans 5:8-10 made this clear. So, having been born again, and no longer being citizens of this world, we need to change our allegiances, as well. It is not that we are not to befriend the people of the world…Remember? “God so loved the World….” But we are to sever our allegiance to the world’s system of thought, and its values and morals.
The people in the world, every single one of them, are created in the image of God, and are precious souls for whom Jesus has already shed His blood. And yet, even there, we are encouraged to make friends of God’s friends. King Jehoshaphat, in 2nd Chronicles 19:1-3, was rebuked for having allied himself with King Ahab, an evil man, in a war (previous chapter.) God eliminated Ahab through a “random” arrow, but Jehoshaphat had survived the battle.
On his way back home, a prophet, named Jehu, met him on the road, and delivered God’s rebuke. The alliance was the issue; the military partnership with a nation that was already at odds with God. We are not to make alliances or partnerships with people who are at cross-purposes against God. 2nd Corinthians 6:14-18 spells this out very clearly: we are not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers. (This includes, of course, the partnership of marriage. Believers are not to knowingly marry an unbeliever. Have there been people who were tricked into believing that their intended spouse was a believer, only to discover later that it was a lie? Certainly there have been, and God knows that. He addresses that elsewhere.)
This caution against “Friendship with the World” in no way cancels our “debt” to those around us, to offer the love of God, and the Gospel of Christ. (Romans 1:14-16; 13:8). Most will reject the Gospel, and we know that, but we still have the obligation to make the offer of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins to those around us.
But, if we continue to embrace the world’s way of thinking, then, at least at a functional level, we are still behaving as the enemies of God. This is the practice and mindset that we are to abandon, wholesale, and avoid completely. The attitude and arrogance, and duplicity of the world, along with its constant message of self-importance and self-will, is completely repugnant to God. We need to guard against being drawn back to those values. When we find that we are setting aside known directives and values of God in favor of what seems appropriate from a human perspective, then we have already crossed the line, even if we think we are doing something “good.”
Grieving the Holy Spirit
5 Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?
I am given to believe that the “Spirit,” here, is the Holy Spirit (in spite of the lack of capitalization in the KJV): and that the desire the Spirit has, is for us to learn to devote ourselves completely to God. We tend to only see the word “lust” as referencing sexual desire, but it actually means any strong desire, and not necessarily even an evil desire. Our own spirit is never said to “dwell” in us, as it is truly part of who we are (body, soul, and spirit, see 1st Thessalonians 5:23.) Since that is the case, then I do not see this as our own human spirit, since the Holy Spirit is said to dwell in us, and as the third member of the Godhead, He certainly has some strong desires where God’s Will is concerned. Over in Galatians 5:17, it says that “the flesh (old sin nature) lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh…” In that context, at least, the spirit in question is definitely the Holy Spirit. I believe it is, here in James 4:5, as well. But even if that is settled, and if I am correct, I still have to decide what the “desire” of the Holy Spirit is, for us:
In the Old Testament, God claims to be a “jealous God,” desiring his people to serve Him alone, and not go after other gods. In fact, he refers to this sinful practice as spiritual adultery. He considered Israel to be wedded to Himself, and, as a husband, He was jealous of her attention to the foreign, false, evil gods of the nations around her.
We, as the Church-age believers, are called the “Bride of Christ.” Is it surprising, then, that the Holy Spirit jealously calls us to separate ourselves from our old ways and walk with Him alone? Specifically, that He calls us to drop our “friendship with the World”, and draw close to the Lord who bought us out of slavery to sin? I think it is perfectly understandable, and right. In Ephesians 4:30, we are cautioned to “…grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” If we are grieving the Holy Spirit by our attitudes, our actions, or our allegiances, then we definitely should not expect that our prayers will be received as we want them to be. The Psalmist (Psalm 66:18) says “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” It does not say that He cannot hear, but that He will not hear us.
How can we overcome this pattern? Humility!
6 But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
This is a hard passage to apply: we never like to admit to ourselves that we are “proud people.” But, when our pride is causing arguments, division, and a stiff-necked disobedience, then we are not in a condition to be blessed by God. Instead, He has to resist us at every turn. The scripture never lists pride as a “positive” trait. It sometimes lists it as an “ordinary” thing, for example, he mentions a strong man glorying in his strength, but even then, he cautions that it is a temporary, fleeting glory. Pride and self-will are, simply stated, in opposition to God, so He has no choice but to oppose us, and resist us, in our pride. If we want to enjoy God’s Grace, then we need to willingly humble ourselves, so that He does not have to do it, teaching us humility the hard way.
The next verse is easy to misunderstand, as well:
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
This verse must be taken in its entirety: Satan is not “afraid of believers.” But He cannot stand before God. So, a believer, not only indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but also in submission to Him, and thus able to resist Satan, is not just a helpless sheep, ready to become the prey of Satan, but, instead, is a powerful partner of Christ, and is at least dangerous to the plans and programs of the evil one. Consider a wild animal…a coyote: though he is unafraid of a horse alone, when it sees the same horse with a man in the saddle, he runs for cover. It isn’t the horse that frightens him; it is the man directing the horse that is dangerous. The coyote knows that people are his enemies and that they are quite able to kill at a distance.
When we are in submission to God, we are dangerous to the kingdom of darkness. But without that first clause in verse seven (submit yourself therefore to God,) the second clause would be a laughable fallacy. In our own strength, we cannot resist the evil one. We are automatically submitted to him, in fact, when we are not submitted to God.
We only have two natures: Either we will submit ourselves to the Lord Jesus, and see His power working in our lives, or we will, by default, submit ourselves to the evil one, and we will increasingly see him damaging our lives, our testimony, and our happiness.
Where are you now?
There is no middle ground: when we were unbelievers, we thought that we were “free” from the influence of either God or Satan. Indeed, we counted ourselves the “masters of our fates, and the captains of our souls,” as the poem “Invictus” boasts. But we were deceived, and, in fact, were completely, blindly, under the sway of the evil one. We had no conscious knowledge of our plight, and we thought that we were free. Now we have freedom to choose, but there is still no middle ground. We will either serve Jesus, consciously, and willingly, or we will serve Satan, unconsciously, and whether we like it or not.
I frequently think of Samson: Because of his inconsistent, continually “sloppy” walk with God, in spite of the fact that he was a genuine believer, and a man of God, who is even listed in Hebrews 11 as a hero of the faith, he ended up being physically blinded, and working as a prisoner and a slave, under the Philistines, his mortal enemies. A believer today can end up being spiritually blinded, and working for his great enemy, Satan…and not even know that he has again become a slave to sin.
All I can do is look and see where I am: what does the fruit in my life look like: am I being a blessing to the people around me; and am I a “fragrance of Christ,” or am I a curse and a stumbling-block? Do I pray for them with an honest heart, desiring the best for their lives, or am I mostly praying for them to change, so I will be more comfortable? Do I see the people around me as precious souls for whom Jesus died, or do I see them mostly as an irritation, causing me inconvenience and distress? What are my real motives in life? Are they the same as those Jesus displayed, or are they self-centered, just like those of the World?
These are things we can think about, as we examine ourselves in the mirror of God’s Word. These are the things we need to consider, when we question the effectiveness of prayer, and when we wonder where our joy in life has gone.
Please consider carefully, and choose rightly how to respond.