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James 4:3 – Of Toy Fire Trucks, Girls, and Wasted Gifts

You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.

Back in the early days of this study I told the story of a toy firetruck I received for Christmas as a very small child. However, there was an aspect of that story that I didn’t share back then.

You see, said toy firetruck had a very special feature. On one side of the truck was a place where it could be hooked up to a garden hose. On the other side, the little hoses that came with the truck could be attached – allowing the the junior fireman (aka me) to actually spray water from them!

Now here’s the thing…I was told that I could only engage in this coveted activity under the direct supervision of my parents. And, my parents having grown-up things to do, I did not get to put out imaginary fires very often. I remember begging and pleading with my parents to allow me to do it by myself…all to no avail. They understood that I was too young, too immature, to handle such sophisticated equipment. I would most definitely break it, and that would be the end of my enjoyment of that particular toy.

Later on, my interest turned from firetrucks to the female of the species (much later, mind you). I remember meeting a young lady at a conference my parents took me to, and knowing instinctively that she was the one. How did I know? If memory serves, she actually smiled at me.

For weeks afterword I would lie in bed at night and plead with God to let me marry her. That she lived in another state, was a good deal older than I, and probably did not even know who I was, were mere details that I was trusting the Almighty to work out.

Thankfully, God said no. I say “thankfully” now, but at the time I was devastated. The girl, had she known, would doubtless have been tremendously relieved. But my heavenly Father knew that such a tremendous gift would have been totally wasted on adolescent Andrew. (By the way, in His time God did give me an amazing wife, causing me to thank Him every day for all the times He said no.)

So why bring up these two incidents from my past? It’s because I believe they help to illustrate the point James is making in this verse.

First, we need to realize that this thought begins in the previous verse, when James introduces the the subject of answers to prayer.

Yet you do not have because you do not ask.

Simple enough. God wants us to go to Him in prayer, and the fact that we don’t have something may mean that we have simply not asked it of our heavenly Father.

But what of the person who has asked, and asked, and asked, and has not received. What then? Where is our Father who loves to give us good gifts?

James answers this question for us in this verse, and they key to understanding his answer can be found by digging into the original language.

So let’s do some Greek, shall we?

There are two parts of this verse where the original helps us to understand it a little better

First, there is the phrase “you ask amiss”. In the original, the word translated is “amiss” is κακῶς (pronounced kakos, with a long “o”), the adverbial form of the word κακός – “bad” or “wicked”. So the phrase could be rendered “you ask badly” or “you ask wickedly”. And I think that gets the idea across better than “amiss”. It’s not just that we got our request a little wrong, the very motive behind our request is corrupted.

The next word we need to look at is the one translated “spend”. Spending is a big part of our lives. We voluntarily part with one resource (usually money) to obtain another resource (usually a good or a service). When we look at this verse from that perspective, God comes off as somewhat of a kill-joy. I mean, when we give something to someone, we want them to enjoy it, right?

But the word translated “spend” here is dapaneiseite (δαπανήσητε, root δαπανάω) which carries more than the idea of simply the exchange of goods. It also means to spend wantonly, or to waste.

So James is saying “You ask, and don’t receive, because your very asking is corrupt, because you want to waste the gifts God would give on your own hedonistic (ἡδοναῖς – the actual word James uses here) pleasures.”

Let’s take this back to the examples I started with. In both cases, my requests went unattended, because they would have been wasted on me. I did not have the maturity to handle the things I thought I so desperately wanted.

Of course this text reminds of us Christ’s own words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!

If my parents knew better than to let me play with things for which I was not ready, how much more will our Heavenly Father know to distinguish between that which we actually need, and that which will be wasted on us – or worse – that which will actually harm us or others.

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