Yesterday, we looked at how pursuing the pleasures of this world as our driving desire can be fatal to our prayer lives. ‘You do not have, because you do not ask,’ is James’ blunt way of putting it. (Sorry for making you think of James Blunt just then.)
Isaiah puts it equally bluntly: Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isa 59:1-2) The Psalmist raises a similar idea in Psalm 66: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.”
Yes, we have access to God in prayer solely because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. But at the same time, it’s right to ask the questions: Am I cherishing sin (not just sinning as all people do, but cherishing sin)? Am I pursuing friendship with the world (James 4:4)? If our answer to either question is yes, it’s a safe bet our prayers are being seriously hindered.
What’s the alternative? David puts it beautifully in Psalm 37: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires.” (37:4) Great, God will give me my heart’s desires! Well, not so fast. This passage isn’t a promise that God is going to give us whatever we want. And if you think, ‘Bummer, I thought I was about to cash in,’ you can be sure you’re not taking delight in the Lord.
That phrase is key to understanding what this verse does (and does not) promise. If I take delight in the Lord, I won’t be seeking friendship with the world. I won’t be asking for things so I can spend them on my passions (James 4:3). Instead, I’ll be asking for the things that are really important – the things that matter most to God.
What matters most to God? We’ll look at that, and how it should shape our prayers, in a bit more detail in future reflections. But for now, let’s just notice this relatively simple idea. Cherishing sin, pursuing friendship with the world, leaves us with no grounds for confidence that God will hear and answer our prayers. But if our trust is in Jesus and our delight is in the Lord, we can come before God with confidence and hope; we can share the closing words of Psalm 66: “Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!”
“The unvarnished truth is that what we most frequently give thanks for betrays what we most highly value.” (D.A. Carson)
Heavenly Father, I am regularly tempted to seek friendship with the world, rather than taking delight in you. Please forgive me. Please change my heart and mind so these words from Psalm 73 will be true of me: “Whom have I in heaven bu you, and there is nothing on earth I desire besides you; my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”