There Are No Magic Lamps

((from Brittany))

“You have not because you asked not.”

I think we can all agree that this verse is slightly overused and abused in our Christian circles, am I right? How many times have you sat around a table when prayer requests were being discussed and heard that response given like a band-aid to a gushing wound?

Need a job? Are you hoping for a better season in your marriage? Or maybe you’re praying to be married? Or how about an illness you need healing from? A promotion? Freedom from a financial burden? Restoration for a broken relationship? Infertility?

“Well, you have not because you asked not sister! Just give it to the Lord.”

And just like that we rub our magic genie lamp and try to pray our will into existence.

Friends who have been wounded by this verse, hear me out. I am truly sorry for the way this verse has been used to make you think that God is withholding a good gift from you. But in order to right a wrong type of thinking, context to this popular verse needs to be given. So let’s hop in and look at James 4.

“What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you? 2 You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and wage war. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.4 You adulterous people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the friend of the world becomes the enemy of God. 5 Or do you think it’s without reason that the Scripture says: The spirit he made to dwell in us envies intensely? 6 But he gives greater grace. Therefore he says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. 7 Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” James 4:1-8

In order to better understand this verse it’s important to know (a) who it was written to and (b) what it meant to that group of individuals. You see James, the half-brother of Jesus and the author of these verses, was writing to Jews that were believers who had been scattered during the Jewish Diaspora. Scholars that these scattered believers had sat under James’ teaching while at the church in Jerusalem prior to the diaspora. So he was writing with authority and leadership to people that he had loved and served previously.

I love the book of James and I love the author’s style. It is a letter, but it is written stylistically like a proverb. The book of James brings together our works and our faith and I love how he shows us that these two should fuel each other—how one without the other is empty. Another favorite part of mine is that the first few verses of James’ letter give a shout-out to suffering. James makes a point to let us know that we should count it all joy when we endure trials, for these trials produce a maturity that does not disappoint. He also admonishes these believers to get a hold of their tongues and seek out true wisdom.

Which leads us to chapter 4.

If you read the whole book of James, this “I’m a genie in the bottle baby, gotta rub me the right way” verse doesn’t really seem to fit with the way our culture uses it out of context (Sorry not sorry for the 90’s music reference). James doesn’t really seem to be saying, “You’re not getting what you want because you’re not asking for it.” Rather, in the appropriate context, he seems to be reprimanding these Jewish believers about pursuing their worldly desires without considering God’s will.

One commentary says that the point of this section is that James’ readers were seeking fleshly desires that were causing divisions among them. The NIV translation, “You want something” is not quite forceful enough to fit the context or to represent the Greek verb. Epithymeite expresses longing and eager desire. Buschel says, “Epithymia is anxious self-seeking. (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12, Hebrews through Revelation, Zondervan 1981).

You see, James is talking to believers who are trapped in pursuing anxious, self-seeking desires, who are fighting and waging war to get whatever they want. James isn’t telling them to ask God for whatever fleshly desire they want and He’ll grant their wishes; rather, he’s urging them to run to the Father and ask Him. But still, they ask with wrong motives!

My friends, asking for good and godly things and not getting a YES from the Lord is hard. It is so hard. I’ve been there. And truth be told, I’m currently there. But let me tell you this, God’s Scripture is holy and God-breathed and life-giving and convicting. Whipping phrases out of passages and using them like band-aids for life’s wounds isn’t just unwise, it’s spiritual malpractice. When a wounded person is seeking God and comes to see that the WHOLE story isn’t simply about God healing our wounds and granting our wishes, but rather about saving and restoring an entire world (including ourselves!)… Well… a miracle takes place and the story not only comes to life but it brings new life.

It brings life to the unknowns.

It brings life to the not yets.

It brings life to the no’s.

I don’t have a fix-it-Jesus answer for why you “have not,” but I can tell you this it’s not “because you ask not.” What I do have for you is this: even in the no’s and not-yet’s, He is worth it all.

Hoping and Praying with you,

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