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A Closer Look at Motives In ‘You Have Not Because You Ask Not’

you have not because you ask not

…ye have not, because ye ask not.James 4:2 (KJV)

This is a very popular scripture to quote—especially when you are praying and believing God for something in your life. Jesus instructs us to ‘ask’ in many places in Scripture, so it makes sense that if you don’t have something, it could be because you didn’t ask for it.

Does this mean that God will give me whatever I ask for?   Is that what James really means here...or is there more to the story? Well, there is; and that's what we’re going to look into. Let’s take a closer look at motives as we explore the scriptural idea that you “have not” because you “ask not.”

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bible open to book of James - Have Not Because You Ask Not

Who Is James Addressing?

Take a moment to read this whole thought in James, and as you’re reading ask yourself: who is James talking to?

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 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

Is James really talking to Christians here? I know it’s hard to believe, because he mentions words like fights, quarrels, kill, and covet. Yet he is talking to Christians. More importantly, he is giving us a great reminder of the proper attitude you need to have when you come to prayer. It’s like James is giving you a litmus test to bring with you when you go to pray.

Why Are You Asking? A Look at Motives

Looking closely at having not because of asking not reveals that the problem is not really in the asking. The problem is in the reason why you are asking.

James identifies some of these wrong motives, but the ultimate desire that drives all the others is the burning desire to get something you do not have. This is known as coveting. To covet is to be jealous of something that someone else has, or to possess a strong eagerness to get something that does not belong to you.

How do you know if you are experiencing this emotion? One way is to think about how you feel when you see others around you being blessed and it seems like God is passing you by. Do you rejoice in the blessing of others or do you despise them? When someone shares about how God has blessed them, do you feel the need to try to trump their blessing with one of your own?

When someone gets a new job, promotion, new house, new car, or any myriad of material blessings...do you find yourself being excited for them, or envious of them instead? If you do, then be careful; because the “covet monster” could be stirring inside you. So the next time someone shares what God is doing in their lives, rejoice with them! The Bible says we should rejoice with those who rejoice. (Rom. 12:15)

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woman coveting another woman's dessert - Have Not Because You Ask Not

The Negative Power of Coveting

This type of emotion is not only unhealthy, it is a catalyst that leads to fights, quarrels, and yes—even murder. I must remind you again that James is talking to Christians. The striking thing about this desire is that it comes from within you. This is a reminder of how deceitful the human heart is and the strong pull your sinful nature can have over you if you let it get out of control. 

When James reminds us in James 4:2 that we have not because we ask not, realize it’s a good thing and that God is doing you a favor. In other words, thank God for the next verse: 

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. – James 4:3

God in his great wisdom and love, chooses not to answer prayers that are pursued with wrong motives. Can you imagine how we would be if God answered our prayers that were coming from our selfish motives? We would all be a mess.

What God is reminding us through James is that while, yes, asking matters and faith matters—motives matter even more.

The Problem of Misplaced Desires

Another problem here is the object of the desires, or the things that bring you pleasure. It would be one thing if you were desiring to be more like Christ or to be filled with more of the Holy Spirit, those desires are not only beneficial to you but also to others. The desires James refers to are only beneficial to you. They are rooted in selfishness. You want what you want and you want it now. Is there any wonder God would not answer this type of prayer? 

The other problem these misplaced desires create is fights and quarrels. It’s really no shock that selfish desires result in fights and quarrels, because when you want only what you want...what else do you expect to happen? That’s why Paul warns us:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. – Philippians 2:3-4

Imagine if this was the motivation behind your prayers? These are the types of prayers God loves to answer.

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stack of bibles outdoors in wildflower field

How Does James 4:2 Read in Other Translations?

Looking at other translations can give greater clarity to the full meaning of any biblical verse. Consider these two translations:

AMP - What leads to [the unending] quarrels and conflicts among you? Do they not come from your [hedonistic] desires that wage war in your [bodily] members [fighting for control over you]? You are jealous and covet [what others have] and your lust goes unfulfilled; so you murder. You are envious and cannot obtain [the object of your envy]; so you fight and battle. You do not have because you do not ask [it of God]. You ask [God for something] and do not receive it, because you ask with wrong motives [out of selfishness or with an unrighteous agenda], so that [when you get what you want] you may spend it on your [hedonistic] desires.

MSG - Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.

These are very strong words from James and as the old saying goes: if you can’t say “amen,” just say “ouch.”

The 3-Check Prayer Litmus Test

We have clearly seen in James that just praying is not enough. You must look closer at the motives you have. Because you do not ask is not the only reason you do not receive. To help you when you pray, I want you to check these three things.

1. Check your faith.
You simply cannot receive anything from God without faith. Hebrews reminds us of this.

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. – Hebrews 11:6

Any prayer you bring to God must be in faith so make sure you have faith.

2. Check your ask.
Make sure that what you are asking lines up with God’s will. A great way of doing this is by simply praying the promises God has provided you in his word. If God has promised to do it, then you can be confident in asking for it.

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 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

3. Check your why.
As we have just seen in James, your motives matter, so check your why. Why are you asking for what you are asking for? Be sure to take a close look at your motives. If your motives are pure and right, then you can be confident in asking.

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man at laptop praying

A Closing Thought on Motives

Motives are so important, and sometimes we can be blinded and not see them in our own heart. Thankfully, God is not blind, and he is willing to expose motives if you ask him. So today, before you pray or do anything, let’s pray what David prayed:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. – Psalm 139:23-24

I fully believe if you always do that, God will reveal wrong motives. With this you can be confident that your motives are right. With right motives, you position yourself to pray correctly.

This doesn’t mean God will always answer exactly the way you want. He is God, after all, and he does have a plan for your life.

It does mean that if you don’t receive the answer you want, it’s not because you didn’t ask or because you asked with wrong motives. It simply means God has something different in mind for you.

When your motives are right you can be certain and trust that what he has is going to be the best answer for you, anyway. So go and pray much, just do it with the right motives.

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Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.


This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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