You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
JAMES 4:3 NAS
I always like ironic tales and jokes dealing with the genie in the lamp. Usually, the story or joke involves someone being granted a wish or three wishes except that the wish ends up being a curse. The moral of the story is that you should be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.
It is tempting to think of God as a genie like this. This usually comes after reading the promise in Matthew 7:7-11,
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 he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 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 what is good to those who ask Him!When you read something like that, the first impulse is to ask to win the lottery. This is basically the idea behind the Prosperity Gospel. God cares passionately that you get a new Maserati. But James gives his rebuke to this notion in James 4:3. God is not Santa Claus. He always gives us what we need. The problem is that we are clueless about what we really need.
Imagine a small child. His father knows that his son needs him to keep a roof over his head, clothes on his back, and to educate him. The father knows that he needs to save for his son's college education and to be a good husband to his mother, and he does these things. His day is filled with tending to his young son's needs. Then, one day, the son asks the dad for a new toy fire truck. The dad seeing all of the toys his son has worries that his kid is becoming a self-indulgent brat, so he tells him no. Despite all the good things he does for his son including denying him this fire truck, the dad instantly becomes the Worst Dad That Ever Lived. Dad being good ignores this and keeps on being the good dad that he is. We may laugh, but we are the little kid in our prayers. We want things, and we don't like it when we don't get what we want.
My perspective on prayer has changed recently as I continue to not get an answer for something I have asked for many times. I know of a single mother with three children. She has breast cancer that has now metastasized throughout her body. She is 25 years old. I pray for her daily and requested others to pray for her. I ask that you, Gentle Reader, also pray for this poor woman and her children. I have not received what I have asked for in regards to this woman, and it has caused my heart to turn bitter towards God. Atheists are atheist not because of science but because they can't deal with the fact that God allows evil to exist. This is why I was an atheist, and it still stings for me as a repentant Christian. I wondered why God would not answer me and then He answered me. He told me what I needed to hear. The words came from my own lips as they do every single day. The words? Thy will be done.
I confess that I have not ever properly reflected on what it means to pray "Thy will be done." The Bible has two notable denials of prayer requests. The first is when Paul asks for the thorn to be removed from his flesh and God does not do it. God's grace would be sufficient, so Paul stopped asking. The other is when Jesus asks that the cup be taken from Him in Gethsemane. But Jesus says, "Not my will but thy will be done." Jesus drank from that cup, and we all know the rest of the story.
When it comes to God, there are two popular approaches. The first is the genie in the bottle approach as I have already alluded to. Naturally, this doesn't work, so the person reproaches themselves because they must somehow lack faith. Prosperity believers say this all the time, so they become maniacal in trying to believe their way into winning the lottery. The second approach is the fatalistic approach. If God already knows what we need, why bother Him with our petitions? Neither of these approaches is correct.
The correct approach is to take all of our requests to God. Just ask. It can be big or small. It doesn't matter. This is what Jesus tells us to do. But --and this is key--we should be satisfied with whatever answer God gives us. This is what it means to pray Thy will be done. God knows best. Whenever we ask for things, we should always add on the words of Jesus, "Not my will but Thy will be done." The effect of this practice will be a peace in your soul. The no answers to your prayers become just as satisfying as the yes answers. The result is a purification of our intentions. We should want what God wants. This is maturity.
I am still going to keep praying for mothers with cancer. This is what God wants. And I am also going to trust that God will make it all good even if I can't see it at this moment. I have seen God do enough to know that He is good and that He cares. I pray, and I leave it in His hands.