“You have not, because you ask not” (James 4:2, Douay-Rheims Bible) is an often misunderstood and sometimes misapplied Bible verse in many Christian’s lives.
If we read it superficially, we could get a wrong impression. Does this verse mean that God is obligated to give us whatever we pray for?
In a word, “No!”
This verse explains what happens when Christians don’t pray correctly.
Let’s face it, Christians can and often do make mistakes when praying to God. For example, have you ever:
- Selfishly asked God for something–even though your request didn’t glorify God or serve him or others?
- Prayed that God would punish someone who hurt you?
- Asked for the newest shiny thing even though it would only get you in deeper debt?
- Begged God to bail you out of a mess that your sinful behavior created?
- Believed Word of Faith or prosperity teachers who teach the “name it and claim it” heresy?
And what happens when you don’t get what you want? Do you become angry with God and blame him for your disappointment?
Let’s look at this verse to learn what James 4:2 is saying to his readers. And after we do, we will pray more wisely.
I. Fact 1: Misinterpreting “You Have Not Because You Ask Not” by Proof Texting
If you believe that the verse “you have not: because you ask not” means that God is obligated to give you everything you ask, you are wrong. Your belief is an example of proof-texting.
Proof-texting plucks a verse or passage out of context to support an incorrect belief. The academic term for this mistaken form of biblical interpretation is eisegesis.
Eisegesis is “reading into a text” what you want the verse to mean.
This mistake occurs because we are not interpreting the verse correctly.
II. Fact 2: We Need to Know the Proper Context of “You Have Not Because You Ask Not”
Three essential rules to correctly interpret Scripture are “Context, Context, and Context”!
While that may seem a silly thing to say, it makes an important point. Anytime we want to correctly interpret Scripture (i.e., exegesis), knowing context is critical.
In order to understand the context of James 4:2b, we do three things.
- Firstly, we look at the passages immediately before and after this verse
- Secondly, we expand our investigation to its meaning within all of James chapter four
- Thirdly, we examine the verse within the context of the entire book of James
James wrote to his first-century Christian readers to address several problems. For example, there were:
- Class and employment wars between the rich and poor (Jas. 2:1–9; 5:1–6)
- Interpersonal conflicts within the church (Jas. 1:19–20; 3:13–18; 4:11–12) that were marked by “bitter envy,” “selfish ambition,” “disorder and every vile practice” (Jas. 3:14, 16)
James wants to know why they are behaving so sinfully. He asks, asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” (Jas. 4:1a).
His immediate answer traces the problem to our evil desires and passions (Jas. 4:1b) that wage war against our souls (see 1 Pet. 2:11). In essence, these believers:
- Wanted what they did not have (envy)
- Coveted what they could not obtain (selfish ambition)
Do we ever come to God with these same sinful desires?
III. Fact 3: We Don’t Get Everything We Pray For
James confronts his reader’s evil behavior of envy and coveting. He then writes, “You have not because you ask not” (Jas. 4:2b, DRB).
Huh? Did James think that his readers were simply not praying? The answer is “No!”
And that is why context is so important. It wasn’t that James readers didn’t pray.
But when they did pray, they approached God sinfully. They also prayed for the wrong things and with the wrong motives!
James explains one of his reader’s biggest failures. They failed to approach God in prayer humbly. Their lack of humility deprived them of what God would otherwise have given them (4:2).
God does want to bless us and supply all our needs. In fact, Jesus said:
- “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).
- “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
But how and why would God want to be graciously generous and desire to bless (Jas. 1:5) James’ sinful readers? He doesn’t!
IV. Fact 4: We Are Supposed to Pray
When James wrote, “you have not: because you ask not,” he meant his readers were not praying correctly.
So what do we need to have in mind in order to pray correctly to God?
- Firstly, prayer leads to a deeper relationship with God and an understanding of his will
- Secondly, prayer can and does make a difference in what happens (Jas. 4:2)
- And thirdly, the effectiveness of our prayers comes down to how we approach God in our prayers. And that all depends on our faith.
Faith is a condition for answered prayers (Mark 11:24):
- God responds faithfully when his children approach him humbly and repentantly (Luke 18:14; 1 John 1:9)
- As such, our prayers should reflect his truth (Psalm 145:18) and will (1 John 5:14) through knowing Scripture
- And ultimately, our faith determines our willingness to accept God’s response to them. And that means whether we get what we wanted or understand his answer.
V. Fact 5: James’ Readers Went Wrong
When he wrote, “you have not: because you ask not,” James was criticizing his readers. They were basing their prayers on selfish motives and evil intents.
They wanted to satisfy their sinful cravings. And these desires led them to fight, quarrel, and murder (James 4:2a)!
In other words, their prayers did not glorify God or serve him and others (4:3). And because God is holy, he will have nothing to do with evil (1:13, 17).
Their failures provide you and me with several practical lessons. We should not expect anything from God if we:
- Do not pray (Jas. 4:2)
- Go through the motions of prayer without faith (Jas. 1:6-8)
- Pray from selfish motives (Jas. 4:3)
- Have evil characters or damaged relationships with others (Jas. 4:1 cf., Matt. 5:23–24; 1 Pet. 3:7)
VI. Fact 6: It’s Our Choice
James offers his readers and us a choice.
Firstly, we can become a friend of the world. And by this, he means a culture that lies under Satan’s power (John 14:30; 2 Cor. 4:4; Gal. 1:4; 1 John 5:19).
Or secondly, we can become God’s friend. But be warned!
- God is jealous of his children (Jas. 4:5; cf., Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Zech. 8:2), and anyone choosing the world makes God his enemy (Jas. 4:4).
- There is no middle road for double-minded persons wanting to have it both ways (Jas. 1:1).
VII. A Christian Response to “You Have Not Because You Ask Not”
In his book How I Pray, Jim Castelli writes:
I heard about a young president of a company named Jones. Mr. Jones instructed his secretary not to disturb him because he had an important appointment.
The chairman of the board approached the secretary and said, “I want to see Mr. Jones.” The secretary answered, “I’m terribly sorry; he cannot be disturbed; he has an important appointment.”
The chairman became very angry. He banged open the door and saw the president of his corporation on his knees in prayer.
The chairman softly closed the door and asked the secretary, “Is this usual?” And she said, “Yes, he does that every morning.” To which the chairman of the board responded, “No wonder I come to him for advice.”
Living a Christ-like life in a divisive secular culture is challenging. But if we choose God, he promises his grace to us if we humbly submit to him (James 4:6).
God’s “grace” means he will always supply for the needs (Heb. 4:16; Rom. 5:20) of his children (Isa. 57:15; Matt. 5:3).
As we submit to God and draw nearer to him (Jas. 4:7,8), the more we will learn of his comfort, support, and power (Jas. 4:8). And the easier it will be to resist the devil (Jas. 4:7).
VIII. Your Next Steps:
Here are some practical steps to draw nearer to God:
- Pray to provide for your soul’s desire to come to him, to receive his love, to feel his power as you conform to his will (Jas. 4;8a)
- Purify your thoughts, actions, and speech with single-minded allegiance to God (Jas. 19-20)
- Be genuinely remorseful and repenting of your sin (Jas. 4:9; cf. Mt. 5:4)
- Humble yourself before God (Jas. 4:10; cf., Prov. 3:34; Matt. 23:12)
- Be careful in your communication and judging others (Jas. 1:19-20; 4:11)
In sum, God answers all his children’s prayers when we submit to him by glorifying him and loving others. And because we know he works all things for our good (Rom. 8:28), we accept his answers to our prayers without complaining. Even if what we pray for is not what we get.
- Castelli, J. How I pray Random House, 1994
- Grudem, W. A. Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine, Inter-Varsity Press, 2004, p. 334
- Hatchett, R. “Prayer.” In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Holman Bible Publishers, 2003, p. 1322
- Hodges, Z. C. “The Epistle of James.” The Grace New Testament Commentary, edited by R. N. Wilkin, Grace Evangelical Society, 2010, pp. 1101–1108.
- Hughes, R. K. James: Faith that Works, Crossway Books, 1991, pp.15-85.
- Moo, D. “James.” In Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Book House, 1995, pp. 1158–1160
- Richardson, K. A. “James.” The New American Commentary, v. 36, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997, pp. 172–181.
- Stulac, G. M. James (Jas 1:1–12). IVP Academic, 1993.
- Vaughan, C. James, Founders Press, 2003, pp.17-29.
- Wiersbe, W. W. The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, Victor Books, 1996, pp. 366–370.