“Pleasure is to happiness what candy is to nutrition.”
James 4:3 reads, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” How do we justify this verse with verses like Matthew 7:7-8? “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
When you find two things in the Bible that seem to contradict one another, study them prayerfully and you will come to understand both passages far more deeply than you would have at a glance.
In fact Jesus gave us a hint at the answer in Matthew 7. The very next verse compares God answering our prayers to a father giving to his child. Does a father who loves his daughter give her all the candy she asks for?
In John 15:7 Jesus brings this promise into divine perspective. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
The English Standard Version of Scripture footnotes the word passions in James 4:3 as “pleasures.” We live in a society that is driven by pleasure. And we may be the first generation to have no awareness of problems with pleasure. Pleasure is to happiness what candy is to nutrition.
The word translated passions here is a broader word than simple desire. It refers to the drive for comfort, luxury, thrills, and physical pleasures in our world. 1 John 2:15,16 warn us, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life—is not from the father but is from the world.”
The entire passage, James 4:1-10, brings all three of these together.
God, as the ultimate Father, protects His children from those things that draw us away from Him. In his book Desiring God John Piper coined the term “Christian Hedonism.” But he was talking about living for the deeper pleasures and the higher joys that come in the presence of God. Psalm 16:11 affirms, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Our prayers spring from what we love. As long as we love the world, we will be drawn away from the only source of satisfaction in our lives. And our prayer lives will be frustrating because our Heavenly Father loves us too much to let us fall into the worlds quagmire of pleasures.