“Say please.” Many of us have been taught that since we were kids, and have in turn taught it to our own (or at least tried). There are social niceties to observe, after all, and we don’t want our kids to be seen as rude or impolite. Nor do we want people to think we’re not doing our job as parents.
Truth be told, though, this often turns into a power struggle between a child and a parent who want competing things: the parent wants obedience and a particular behavior, and the child…well, small children just want what they want (adult-sized children, too). They don’t understand the concept of politeness, but they know when someone’s denying them something they want, or trying to make them do something they don’t want to do.
Even when children learn to say please, at some point this moves from mere compliance to intentional strategizing. They still don’t understand the abstract notion of etiquette, but they know that they can get what they want if behave a certain way. It’s an intrinsic cost-benefit analysis: All I have to do is say the magic words? Worth it. When they know they’re making a bigger ask than usual, they may smile sweetly, bat their eyes, and adopt a syrupy tone of voice: “Oh, please. Pretty please?”
And in the throes of cute overload, the adult gives in.
But it’s not pure manipulation. Both the parent and the child may know they’re playing a bit of a game. And the parent may actually be happy to give what the child is asking for, as long as they ask in the appropriate way.
As believers, then, what can we ask of our Father? What should we be able to expect? And does it matter how we ask?
. . .
James, as we’ve seen, has been confronting his readers about their selfish ambition to increase their status in the community. Specifically, the people who want public teaching roles may think they have wisdom to share, but their lack of humility is showing that they lack true and godly wisdom. Having said that the conflicts in the church stem from their frustration at not getting what they want, James writes:
You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2b-3, NRSVUE)
We must be careful not to take what James is saying out of context. That first sentence could be read as supporting a prosperity gospel: You want something? Just ask faithfully, and you’ll get it!
That interpretation would be deeply ironic, given that the very next sentence suggests the opposite. If you don’t get what you ask for, it’s not because you haven’t asked in faith, it’s because your motives are self-centered.
Nor is James talking about asking for just anything. Echoing words from the beginning of the letter, he is probably talking about wisdom from God, which God is glad to give to those who ask rightly (James 1:5-6). We don’t have to say “pretty please.” We just have to believe that God is indeed the giver of good gifts (1:17), and will give us the wisdom we need to do works of shalom (3:18).
So what does it look like to ask for wisdom wrongly? Note that the word translated above as “pleasures” is the same word James used in 4:1 — the disputes between believers are being fueled by the “cravings” battling inside of them. They are asking for wisdom in a way that is an extension of the selfish desires that are already driving the conflict in the church.
I’m willing to bet that, like me, many of you have prayed “God grant me wisdom” when faced with a difficult situation or person. But here’s the question: if we were to dig honestly beneath that question, would we find that it assumed a position of superiority? Oh, Lord, here I am again, having to deal with this person who just doesn’t get it. I don’t know what else to say to get them to listen. Show me what I need to do to convince them they’re wrong!
It is, of course, entirely possible that we are right, and the other person is wrong. But James seems to think that true wisdom is bound up with humility (3:13), not clever words or convincing arguments. We may ask for wisdom in ways that assume God is automatically on our side, commiserating with us over how tiresome it is to have to deal with the other person. We forget how easily actually being right gets entangled with the need to be right, and how that need in turn may blind us to the ways we are wrong.
The next time we pray for wisdom, then, we might want to add the psalmist’s words:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps 139:23-24)
Maybe then the wisdom we have will be the wisdom we need.