You’re Praying Wrong

Ask, and it will be given you, Jesus promised. Crave, and you’ll kill for it, James warned. /

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:3, NRSV used throughout)

The Roman Empire was an economy of bragging rights that required aggressive, ambitious behavior to be best, and first, and biggest. It was a predatory economy of getting everything you could for yourself at the expense of every other person. Does that sound familiar? (It is not a new idea that the US, in its economy of craving, reinforced by strong military power, has close parallels to the ancient economy of Rome.)

And the early church had to live in that economy. So James, wise elder that he is, wrote to give advice and reprimand to the church, instruction that we used to call “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” The church was tempted to imitate its cultural environment, and James insists otherwise. In the third and fourth chapters of his letter, James offers a social analysis and an alternative proposal that invites the church to choose and act differently.

The social analysis is in three stages:

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” he asks first. “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”

There is everywhere conflict and dispute, a readiness to be quarrelsome, even to the performance of violence against those who think and act otherwise. Paul terms this the “desires of the flesh”: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21). These are not “natural” or innate practices, but learned habits of self-indulgence, life without restraint.

The second thing James notes is that the practice of such conflict and dispute results in destructive behavior. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder,” he says. “And you covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:2). James identifies two violations of the Big Ten from Sinai—murder and coveting—but the other commandments are implied. They are affronts against God and against neighbor.

This behavior in dispute and conflict is propelled by cravings that are at war within you. So the cultural expectations of a society of bragging, ambition, and aggression generate cravings—an assumption that if you want it you need it, and you ought to have it, and you must ask for it in demanding terms.

But, says James, you do not receive, because you ask wrongly (4:3). So we get the sequence of unrestrained craving, conflict and dispute that violates neighbor, and wrong asking, a recipe for disaster that nearly seduced the church in its imitation of a greedy, anxious society.

We have been taught an alternative by Jesus:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and it you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Of if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:7–11)

But you do not receive, says James, because you ask wrongly:

You ask only for yourself.

You ask for instant gratification, so we need a quicker contact and a faster follow through, for who is taught to wait?

You ask only for your own kind in a practice of tribalism, the tribe of America, or whiteness, or liberals or conservatives.

You ask without restraint or limitation or discipline, because if you want it, you need it!

God is ready to give bread and not a stone. God is prepared to give you a fish and not a snake. But you ask wrongly, in imitation of a world of anxious greed.

What Right Asking Sounds Like

So I wondered: What would James say is “right asking,” the kind of asking that a craving, aggressive, ambitious, bragging, anxious society cannot practice? How would the church ask faithfully? Maybe like this:

Ask not for self, but for the neighborhood, always in the presence of brothers and sisters. Such a horizon of right asking contradicts the dominant value system of Rome or the US economy.

Ask for the future. Right asking is not about instant gratification. It is about gifts given slowly, to be nurtured and treasured and passed along, not used up in a flash.

Ask for those who are not of our own tribe. Our asking is so much defined by our class, our race, our nation state, our ethnic group, because the others are not on our screen. But the prayers of the faithful rightly match the praise of the faithful. And you know how the praise goes:

Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens! …

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together! (Ps. 148:3–4, 7–12)

All creatures of our God and king gather together with radishes and kangaroos and kings and young girls, all in praise. So ask for all the creatures. Ask for the creation. Ask on behalf of the world around you.

Ask with disciplined restraint, because not nearly as much is needed as our empire-satiated craving might suggest. Ask modestly. Ask a little.

And the outcome of right asking is bread and not a stone, fish and not a snake; maybe it will be two loaves of bread and five fish. The outcome of right asking is what Paul terms “the fruit of the spirit”: “By contrast the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

And then Paul adds: “There is no law against such things”—not even in the greedy empire of Rome (Gal. 5:22–23).

Or as James has it: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:17–18).

‘If Your Child Asks’

Right asking sounds like an act of quiet piety. It is that; but it is more than that. It is a mighty challenge to the dominant greed system. It is an alternative to be acted out in the public sphere. It is an exposé of the entire loan and credit system that preys upon the vulnerable and keeps them in debt. It is a summons to transform structures and policies that are propelled by the craving that consists in wrong asking. James does not propose a quiet little community of right asking, but a bold invitation to a larger society that is devouring itself in wrong asking.

So what if, in the end, right asking is only asking for the little children? Jesus holds up the little ones as a test case. But not just the cute entitled ones that belong to the ownership class. All the children! All the children of the world and of the city, all the children left behind. All the children who are victims of the predatory economy. In my town, Cincinnati, 53 percent of the children live below the poverty line. They live below the poverty line because the cravings of empire depend on the cheap labor of the vulnerable who do not make it in an economy of greed. They are left behind because they are relentlessly kept “separate but equal” concerning education and housing and health care. Jesus speaks of a stumbling block set before the little ones. The stumbling block of inadequate provision, of social stigma from birth, of disadvantage of a systemic kind. Such stumbling blocks are predictable in a society of wrong asking, because children are left behind when the asking is only for self, only for our tribe, only for instant gratification, only without restraint, limitation, or discipline.

The word from James is indeed that it could be otherwise. There could be right asking. But that, he writes, depends on friendship. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (4:4).

Friendship with God, by contrast, depends on meditating day and night on God’s Torah, day and night on the good purposes of God, day and night on our part in those good purposes. Right asking depends on that friendship. So ask rightly: Ask for bread, but be sure it is broken bread. Ask for wine, but be sure it is wine poured out. Those who do not ask rightly perish, as is happening right before our eyes. But, says the psalmist, those who ask rightly will prosper. What better! What better than to prosper through right asking. That is very good news indeed!

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Adapted with permission from a sermon delivered at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, September 20, 2015.

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