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Desperation and Hope

Category Articles
Date April 8, 2011

You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2a-3)

In the context of our ministry here in West Hartford, I live with a constant two-fold state of desperation and hope. At least ten to twelve of us are committed to times of weekly and fervent prayer for revival, and while we have seen God convert a few people here and there, and while we have a loving and gracious congregation, it still seems that very little has been accomplished for the kingdom of Christ. We have tried numerous evangelistic outreaches. We have sent thousands of postcards to thousands of homes near our church meeting place, inviting people to church, and not one person has attended a worship service because of these overtures. Our radio ministry reaches thousands of people and some have come to Christ and joined our church, but still this seems to be a pittance. The lack of interest in the gospel, the paltry number of conversions, and the hard-heartedness of the people here makes me desperate. If, however, all I have is desperation then this can lead to depression, a desire to quit, to give up. If I have only hope, then I become a kind of Pollyanna, just figuring that somehow, some way everything will work out just fine. Neither are biblical responses. We need both desperation and hope.

Here’s where prayer comes into the picture. In addressing the question, ‘What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?’, James gives four reasons for them. The first is hedonism. He says, ‘Is not the source of your quarrels and conflicts your pleasures (hedonon is the Greek word) that wage war in your members?’ Hedonism is an all-consuming desire for self-gratification (Gal. 5:16, Luke 8:14, 2 Pet. 2:13). This is what we see in Joshua 7:16ff with Achan who saw the things on the ban, desired them, and took them. It is like David who saw Bathsheba, desired her, and took her (2 Sam. 11:1ff). Hedonism is the actual receipt of the desired pleasure. The second cause of quarrels and conflicts is epithumia or lust. You lust and do not have so you commit murder. You desire and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel. Lust is deformed desire, a perverted passion. It is what Shechem felt for Dinah when he raped her (Gen. 34:1ff). It is the murderous revenge Jacob’s sons (Simeon and Levi) felt toward Shechem when they murdered him and all the men of their town (Gen. 34:25ff). But a third cause of quarrels and conflicts is lack of prayer. We have not because we ask not. Have you ever considered that your marital conflict, your problems with your children, or the problems in your church are because you do not pray! When I counsel a married couple in marital trouble, I always first ask, ‘Do you pray daily as a couple?’ Not surprisingly the answer is, ‘No.’ But you may say, ‘I pray for my marriage and my children all the time.’ Okay, but perhaps the quarrels and conflicts are because you fail to pray correctly. That’s the fourth cause of conflicts. ‘You ask and you do not receive, because you ask with wrong or wicked motives, for the purpose of spending it on your own pleasures.’ The Greek verb for ask aiteo is in both the active and middle voices in verse 3. You ask and do not receive (present tense, active voice). But James quite emphatically1 also says, ‘Because you ask (present tense, middle voice) with wrong motives (literally with wickedness, see James 1:21, kakos). Furthermore James adds a purpose clause, saying, ‘in order that you may spend it on your hedonais.’ Have you ever taken an inventory of your prayers? Perhaps you are praying with self-gratification as your driving motive. For example, a wife who prays for her drunkard and verbally abusive husband to be saved in order to bring peace to her life, is praying selfishly. A father who never attends the weekly church prayer meeting but who then attends because his son is diagnosed with a brain tumour is probably praying selfishly. He just does not want to see his son die. A man who prays for a well-paying job may be praying selfishly. He should ask himself, ‘Why do I want this job? Is it to make myself feel good? Is it to make money to gain or maintain a lavish lifestyle?’ If single, why do you pray for a spouse? Is it to make you feel better about yourself? If you want deliverance from a horrid work environment, then ask yourself why? Is it merely to relieve your stress level? Have you considered the sanctifying aspect of your suffering? If you pray selfishly then God will not hear your prayer. Well, he may hear it and he may answer but you will not like what he does. Sometimes he gives us our selfish desires and sends leanness to our souls (see Israel requesting a king, 1 Samuel 8:4ff; and Israel wanting meat to eat, Numbers 11:1ff, Psalm 106:13-15).

How can we maintain the proper Biblical balance of desperation and hope? How can you persevere in a difficult marriage, with troubled teens, with a stagnant community or church? You must pray in faith (Matt. 21:22). You must really pray. By this I don’t mean a few minutes on the way to work in your car. By really praying I mean at least four things. First, you must pray with a kingdom focus. What’s that? A good place to begin is praying the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). Ask God to work in you a passion for his passion – that his name be glorified in everything you do, that you desire the salvation of the nations, that you learn to submit cheerfully to God’s will in your every circumstance, that you can become content with only the barest of necessities, that you daily and graciously forgive others who wrong you, that you are so zealous for God’s glory you ask him not to expose you to any sordid temptation lest you fail the test and bring shame to his name. Second, learn to pray with a zealous persistence. Ask, seek, knock (Matt. 7:7-11). We tend not to pray with zeal and persistence unless we know our true desperation. If you pray only a few minutes per day, if you find yourself falling asleep when you pray, then surely you are not sensing your desperation, and you lack zeal. If your ten year old son is diagnosed with a brain tumour then you do not fall asleep while praying for him. Likewise, when you truly consider the lost condition of so many in our world then your prayers will have a fervency and persistence about them. Third, learn to pray Word-driven prayers. John says, ‘This is the confidence we have before him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us’ (1 John 5:14). You have no assurance that God will give you that specific job you want. You can be sure, however, that if you pray, asking him to meet your every need in Christ Jesus, if you pray asking him to sanctify you in truth, if you pray that you will know the height and depth and breadth and length of his love, then you can be sure he will answer. We pray for only a few minutes at a time because we pray our pet phrases – God be with John . . . give travelling mercies to Janet . . . help Bill through his surgery – and thus we quickly run out of material. If however, we pray the Word of God we can go on literally for hours. And fourth, learn to pray Spirit-saturated prayers (Eph. 6:18-19). This never comes with only a few minutes in prayer. This means to pray until you pray. Pray until the Spirit comes upon you. Pray until you sense the glory of God’s presence, until the door, as it were, of the throne room of God is closed behind you.

If you pray in this way then you will have power in your life. You will be able to live with desperation and hope. You will live realistically, seeing the desperate need of people and your inability to affect any change whatsoever; but you also will be able to live with a quiet confidence and expectancy in what God can and will do.


  1. The middle voice is a most distinctive phenomenon of the Greek language. Nothing like it exists in the English language and it cannot be accurately translated. The middle voice is that use of the verb which describes the subject as participating in the results of the action. See Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, pages 156-157. In other words we do not receive from God because we, yes we ourselves, make selfish requests.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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