James obviously had information about what life was like in the gatherings of Christians to which he sent this letter. Instead of being places of peace and fellowship they were the opposite. He wants them to consider where they are and how they arrived there, and also what one of the major consequences was. And he does this by asking straightforward questions, by getting them to think about their situation. The consequence of their disagreements was that their prayers were not being answered.
Their disagreements, says James, arose from inner covetousness. He does not say what it was that they were wanting so strongly – the only clue that he provides is when he says that their desires were expressions of worldliness (v. 4). Whatever it was that they wanted, it was not provided for them.
The failure to get what they wanted then led them to break the sixth commandment, ‘You shall not kill.’ I doubt if James is saying that they literally committed murder. Instead he probably has in mind what Jesus taught when he applied the sixth commandment to attitudes of anger and hatred (Matt. 5:21-22).
It is obvious that the recipients of James’ letter were very zealous and pursued their causes with energy. Yet he points out to them that there was one defect in their outlook that stood out very clearly and that was a lack of real prayer. It was not that they were not engaging in a form of prayer, but what they were praying about was not an expression of true prayer.
James points out that their prayers were only an expression of their selfishness. They must have been asking the Lord to give them something which they intended to use in an inappropriate way. It should not be surprising to us that the Lord refused to answer such requests. The obvious lesson from this detail is that sometimes prayers reveal a person’s wrong desires.
So there is a wrong way to pray. Thankfully, James tells us about the right way to pray and we will think about his words on correct prayer tomorrow.