“I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” So said C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy 1955. Over the last six decades, surely our world has become more filled with trinkets and tools that offer us more instant gratification (pleasure, as Lewis put it), but dissuade us from the pursuit of real, lasting joy – the kind of joy that God offers us in the gospel.
The book of James has a particular concern for showing that a driving desire for the pleasures of this world can be fatal for our prayer lives.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. 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.” (James 4:1-3)
James addresses Christians who have enthroned personal pleasure as the driving goal of their lives – so much so that they will wage war against one another in the pursuit of this goal. “Of all that have tried the selfish experiment, let one come forth, and say that he has succeeded. He that has made gold his idol, has it satisfied him? He that has toiled in the fields of ambition, has he been repaid? … Can any answer in the affirmative? Not one!” (Samuel Johnson)
Having destroyed their ability to relate to one another, the pursuit of pleasure destroys their ability to relate to God in prayer. In the first instance, they simply stop asking. “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (4:2) Kent Hughes puts it this way: “The pleasure-mad Christian, who has some spiritual sensitivity, realizes his prayers are inappropriate.… So he asks for nothing. In fact, he doesn’t pray much at all because few of the things he wants are high on the divine priority list.”
Second, the prayers of this person become so self-centred that there is no hope of God answering in the affirmative: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Prayer is not the genie-in-the-bottle approach to having our petty desires fulfilled.
As many have pointed out, there is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure (rightly defined). But when our definition of pleasure becomes focused on the things of this world – when we have so embraced ‘friendship with the world’ (4:4) that we long for the things it offers more than the things God offers – our desires are deeply distorted. And what follows is a deeply distorted prayer life. What’s the way forward? We’ll look at that tomorrow…
“Praying and sinning will never live together in the same heart. Prayer will consume sin, or sin will choke prayer.” (J.C. Ryle)
Heavenly Father, forgive me for the times that I prefer friendship with the world to seeking the joy that you offer in Jesus. Help me to see where there are passions at war within me, and to repent of these things. Please help me not to ask wrongly, to indulge my own passions. In Jesus’ name. Amen.