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Unanswered Prayer in James 4

by Brant Pitre September 19, 2019 0 Comments



In 4:3, James says this — he’s talking about prayer.  Actually 4:2, backup. He says:

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

Now that verse (which again, was in the lectionary) is actually utilized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the section on Unanswered Prayers. Now I don’t know if you’ve read that section lately, but it’s a really important part of the 4th pillar of the Catechism (the Catechism on prayer). So turn with me in your notes for just a moment to page 24, and I just want you to hear how the Catechism uses that verse as a springboard for an explanation of a question that you are going to get, which is, “I pray to God, I ask for this to happen (X, Y, or Z), and he didn’t answer my prayer.” And the question is, “Why?” It’s a big question. Lots of us (I’m sure many of us) could have asked and will ask at some point in our life if we haven’t already; the issue of unanswered prayer.

And now the Catechism has a whole page on this topic of unanswered prayer (I’m not going to be able to look at all of it for the sake of time), but I just want you to see how it uses and interprets this key passage from James. So on the top of page 24 the Catechism says this about unanswered prayer:

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions."

Quoting James directly; and then it goes on to explain:

If we ask [in prayer] with a divided heart, we are "adulterers"; God cannot answer us, for he desires our well-being, our life. "Or do you suppose that it is in vain that the scripture says, 'He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us?’" [Again that’s from James 4] That our God is "jealous" for us is the sign of how true his love is. If we enter into the desire of his Spirit [in our prayers], we shall be heard.

And then it gives two quotes there. One from Evagrius Ponticus (treatise on prayer) and one from St. Augustine. This is what Evagrius said:

Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer.

Interesting there. So what Evagrius is saying is that sometimes our unanswered prayers can be tools by which God draws us deeper into prayer. By not answering them immediately, he actually obtains what he desires, which is for us to cling to him more and more and more in the very unanswered prayers that we’re offering up to him. You see that? In other words ,because God, ultimately, of course being a good father, knows not just what we want, but he knows what we need. And as a parent I know, you do not give your children everything they ask of you, right? That is not a prudential way to parent children. You know what I’m talking about? Anybody has kids? Yes. If you did, you would actually end up harming them. Because a lot of time their vantage point (their point of view) is obscured. They don’t see far into the future, they see their immediate desires, their immediate wants; they often don’t see the negative consequences of the things that they can ask for or have, and so as a good parent you can receive that request, and even relish the communion, take advantage of the communion that takes place when the child asks you for something, but it doesn’t necessarily mean (in fact in many cases it means you won’t) give them what they ask for. You won’t answer the prayer.

I’ll never do this again, but I will do it now. There’s a great Garth Brooks song on unanswered prayers. You know what I’m talking about? That’s a great song…very biblical in the sense that what he’s doing is reflecting back on his life (in the song) about all these things that he prayed for (particularly with relationships) which God didn’t answer and now he can see that the people he thought, like a previous woman he thought he would be happy with, that it would have been a disaster. So he’s thanking God for not answering his prayer. I think it’s called “Unanswered Prayers”, he got it right from the Catechism, part 4. No, I don’t think he wrote that section. But it’s actually a beautiful song and it’s moving precisely because it has some wisdom. There’s real wisdom in that. And so I just bring it up that the Catechism here…look how beautifully the Church is taking James and applying it in a very practical, pastoral mode. James is great for this.

A second thing Augustine says is that:

“God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give.”

So even when he doesn’t answer our requests (our petitionary prayers), we’re engaging in an act of the will that’s exercising our wills to more and more and more align it with his. Even by the very sake of asking him, we’re recognizing that he’s in control. That we’re not, that he’s God and we’re not, and even if that prayer isn’t answered, there’s a real fruit just in that exercise of the will in clinging to God. So those are some thoughts. There lots of other things, I highly recommend part 4 of the Catechism, it’s one of my favorite parts, it’s so beautifully done, but I wanted to bring this one to your attention as an exegesis on prayer.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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