wrong motives

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series When God doesn't answer Prayer


A deacon had a parrot that said, “lets kiss, lets kiss.”
The Pastor had a parrot that said, “lets pray, lets pray.”
So the deacon asked the preacher if he could leave his parrot with the pastor to influence his parrot so that it wouldn’t say, “lets kiss…”
So the pastor kept the deacons parrot and it began to recite, “lets kiss, lets kiss.”
The pastor’s parrot immediately began to say, “Praise the Lord! My prayers been answered!”
(quoted in “Are your Prayers Answered?” by Ted Sutherland)

Recap previous messages in the series:
– yes, not yet, and no
– no faith
– broken relationships (with God, with each other)

There are a number of scriptures we are going to be looking at as I share the final message in this series but I want to begin with what James writes in chapter 4 of his letter,

1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
James 4:1-3 (NIV)

Let’s focus on that last verse for a moment, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Two quick things to observe when looking at another reason for why God doesn’t answer prayers:

1. You do not receive because you ask with wrong MOTIVES
2. Wrong motives are harbored in the desire to spend what you get on YOUR PLEASURES.

Some people approach prayer like they do a soft drink machine. What do you do when you go up to a soft drink machine? You put in your money, you make your selection, you punch the button, and you wait for your soft drink to drop out of the machine. The whole transaction takes a few seconds. If the soft drink doesn’t drop out of the machine, you get ticked-off. You push the machine. You hit it, and if that doesn’t work, you write a nasty little note that says, “This machine took my money!” and you leave it on the machine. Some people approach prayer like that! (“Answered Prayers” by Roger Thompson)

Many people think that God is always going to answer their prayers the way they want them answered and in the time that they want them answered. And when God doesn’t perform the way they think God ought to perform, they feel cheated. They think God is not a “good” or loving God. I’ve had people tell me that they no longer believe in God because their prayer wasn’t answered. It’s like they’re saying: “So, there, God. If you won’t do what I want, I won’t believe in you.” One individual I’ve counseled was convinced God was out to get him because it seemed like not only was God not answering his prayers but things were getting worse!

Prayer is not given to us as a way to present our demands to God! Prayer is not like presenting our Christmas wish list to Santa Claus. Prayer is all about our relationship with God, not about getting what we want.

There was a woman who had a different understanding of prayer. She wanted a swimming pool in her back yard. Her husband was in the anti-swimming pool camp. He didn’t want one, said they couldn’t afford one, that they didn’t need one. No, no way, no how were they going to have a swimming pool in her back yard. Then she put feet to her prayer by calling the swimming pool company and ordering a pool. And when the pool was delivered, she charged the cost to her husband’s credit card, all the while proclaiming that God gave her the swimming pool! (“Answered Prayers” by Roger Thompson)

Prayer is not about swimming pools or new cars or houses or clothes or CD players or stuff. Prayer is all about our relationship with God. When we pray for things – stuff – we tread close to missing the point that prayer is about or relationship with God….Jesus demonstrated the way we are to approach prayer when he was in the Garden of Eden.

Here’s the setting: Jesus had just finished the Last Supper with his disciples. In just a short while, he will be arrested, tried, and executed. In between his last meal and his arrest, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to pray. Do you remember what Jesus prayed?

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Matthew 26:39 (NIV)

Yet this wasn’t the only time he prayed. Matthew records three times Jesus going to pray this prayer…

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
Matthew 26:42 (NIV)

So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Matthew 26:44 (NIV)

This account about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is no doubt included in scriptures for a number of reasons by the Holy Spirit but among those reasons I believe a predominant one is to demonstrate that even Jesus modeled the importance of our prayers being according to the will of the Father!

So in our text from James 4:3, James is writing that when we ask according to our own will, according to our own desires that are independent of God’s will and His desires our prayers won’t be answered. Now this is a pretty obvious conclusion to make although it’s not so readily practiced in our prayer lives. The truth is, that if we pray something that is not of God’s will – it won’t be answered. If we pray according to God’s will – it will be answered (providing that the other factors that I’ve already talked about in this series are in order!)

The question then is,

How do we know if our prayer is consistent with God’s Will?

Does the prayer align with God’s nature and character?

Some examples:

a. Holiness

God will never give you anything that would lead you to impurity and sin. Any prayer request motivated by lust, sensuality, or sinful passion is against the character and nature of God.

b. Love & Mercy

God is a very loving and merciful God. He will never pay attention to prayer requests that are expressed to Him out of anger, hatred, jealousy & envy.

See for example the story of Balaam and King Balak in Numbers 22-24. Balak paid prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse upon Israel out of fear that Israel would invade and take over his land. God’s answer wasn’t very pleasant to Balak – in fact, God commanded Balaam to pronounce a blessing, instead of a curse, upon Israel.

c. Honesty and Trustworthiness

If your prayer is motivated out of dishonest or dishonorable desires, God will not honor such prayers.

An example of such motives is found in the scripture that was read at the beginning of the service this morning – I want to refresh our memory by reading once again verse 5 and 6:

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Matthew 6:5-6 (NIV)

Jesus is giving a clear warning about prayer here to the disciples and it begins with do not. It is a warning to not pray with a wrong motive as demonstrated by the “hypocrites” in Jesus’ example.

We may look at this and think automatically that this line could never describe us. The Greek word that Jesus uses here is hypocrites (hoop-ok-ree-tace’) which was used in Greek theater. This word was used to describe an actor who wore a mask and played a specific role. A hypocrite is a person who pretends to be something they are not. An actor playing a specific role and nothing more.

How many people come to church wearing “masks”? How often do we show up just to “play the part”?

We hid our pain, our turmoil, our trials, our anger behind the mask of a painted smile and fake our way through. We put up masks to hide our brokenness. We put up masks to hide our true feelings and emotions.

We show up at church to fulfill our role, whatever it may be. We take on a role, play the part.

But we must important this simple truth. God sees through every mask you wear and every role you play. There is no hiding yourself from God. You cannot be hypocritical with God because He knows the truth already.

All of us are a little hypocritical at times. There are times when we pretend life doesn’t hurt. We pretend things aren’t hard at times. We pretend our lives are OK all of the time. We pretend and we become less and less genuine. Do you know that the term is for something or someone who isn’t genuine? Fake!

So in this passage then, how are the people being “fake”?

i. What they are fake about – The love of prayer
Jesus said that these hypocrites loved to pray and at first glance that sounds pretty good but as I’ve said before, when we read scriptures – context means everything! The word that is used here for love is not centered on God and His divine love but rather is focused on the brotherly love and acceptance of humanity. The core issue here is that the focus was completely wrong. The love that Jesus speaks about is not motivated by God but by human selfishness.

ii. Where they are fake about it – In worship and in public
Is Jesus saying that public prayer is wrong? Absolutely not! There is nothing wrong with praying aloud in church. The issue here is not public versus private prayer. The key issue that Jesus is dealing with is “showboating” prayer.

In other words, the hypocrites made it a practice to pray in public places to show others that they were praying. The purpose was to make themselves look good, pious and spiritual. This would be like __________ going over to the grocery store and just shouting out a bunch of prayers in the bakery department to be seen by other people. It would be as fake as a three dollar bill.

iii. Why they are fake about it – to be seen by men.
Who is getting the attention by that kind of praying? The person giving the prayer and the focus on God is completely lost. The goal of prayer ought to be to enter into a deeper awareness of the presence of God. You do not pray to be with others, you pray to be with God. It’s been said that worship is meant to have an audience of one – meaning that God is really the only one that matters when we worship. The same thing is true when we pray. It is not to get the attention of others but to enter the presence of God Almighty.

If our prayers are self-centered and hypocritical in nature they will accomplish nothing.

d. Generous and Just

God is incredibly generous and delights in showering blessings upon His people. He is also a just God and sin and evil does not survive for long in His presence.

If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
Proverbs 21:13 (NIV)

Listen, if you are a person who hoards and stores anything that you get. If you are a person that is stingy when it comes to helping those in need, the poor, the widows, orphans. What do you think is the motivation behind your prayers when you pray? More than likely it will be that your life will be enriched, that your house will be enhanced, that your barn can get bigger all for your own benefit. In God’s eyes, this is wrong motives – it doesn’t line up with His generous and just character, and nature.

A pastor could be praying for revival and be praying with wrong motives. How? By praying not chiefly so that God may be glorified and people saved, but that his church might begin to grow and other pastors might look up to him as an effective evangelist. In “The Power of Prayer” and “The Prayer of Power”, R.A. Torrey tells of one minister who was praying for revival so he would not lose his church. He told of another minister who was praying to be baptized with the Holy Spirit because he thought he would be paid more if he was. (“Some reasons for unanswered prayer” by Freddy Fritz)

So it is important that our prayer is consistent with God’s character and nature in order for it to be His will. Now before I go further I need to clarify something. Most Christians make a big mistake in prayer. They go around constantly saying, “God, is it Your will that I ask for this?” over every little item. How do you know if you are like this? Well as I started going over the list of character traits and the nature of God – did you think to yourself, “I’ve got to get this down, I’ve got to remember this, next time I pray I’m going to match up what I pray against this list, Is there anything I’m missing?” The reality is, for most of you, after you walk through these doors at the end of the service you won’t remember even one item from that list.

The real issue is not “God, what is Your will regarding this specific circumstance?” The real issue is “Am I in God’s will as a person?” If my life is in harmony with God, then my desires are going to be in harmony with God!” I love this quote attributed to Saint Augustine,

“Love God and do what you please”

On the surface that seems like a license to the very thing James warns against. But it really cleverly summarizes what I’ve already stated. For, if you really love God with all Your heart, you’re not going to want to do what displeases God and indeed the desires of your heart will line up with the desires of His heart!

Is it no wonder then, that Jesus urgently shared with His disciples the importance to abide in Him? I shared this verse last week but it is worthwhile to refresh your memory here,

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
John 15:5-8 (NIV)

So you don’t have to constantly say, “Is it Your will?” When you go to buy a new car: “God is it Your will that I buy a brown Chevy or a gold Mercedes?…God is it Your will that I order the steak or the pork chops?” No, you don’t have to ask god’s will on every little item like that. You get your life in God’s will and say, “To the best of my knowledge, I’m trying to do what’s right, Lord. I want to live in Your will.” Then you ask according to your desires. You get in God’s will!

But then how do you know if you really want God’s will for your life? Simple. How eager are you to read the Bible? How eager are you to spend time in His presence in prayer, and worship? How excited are you about getting together with other believers to serve, to worship, to pray, to learn God’s word together? The only way you can know the will of God is by reading and doing the Word of God. And God’s word tells you God’s will.

The wonderful promise of scripture is this,

14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.
1 John 5:14-15 (NIV)


In this series of messages I’ve had a chance to share with you some of the discoveries I’ve made in scripture in answering the question, “Why God doesn’t answer prayer?” I’ve learned (and hopefully you have as well) that there are predominately three main reasons for unanswered prayer: (briefly expand on each point verbally as the Spirit leads)

? lack of faith
? broken relationships
? wrong motives

I want to conclude with a poem that helps put everything back into perspective.

I asked God to take away my habit
God said, No.
It is not for me to take away, but for you to give it up.

I asked God to grant me patience.
God said, No.
Patience is a byproduct of tribulations;
It isn’t granted, it is learned.

I asked God to give me happiness.
God said, No.
I give you blessings; Happiness is up to you.

I asked God to spare me pain.
God said, No.
Suffering teaches you to lean on me instead of yourself.

I asked God for all things that I might enjoy life.
God said, No.
I will give you life, so that you may enjoy all things.

I asked God to help me LOVE others, as much as He loves me.
God said…Ahhh, finally you have the idea
(quoted in the message “Why does God sometimes say “No” to my prayer?” by Marc Axelrod”)

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