The band of Jewish believers to whom the Lord’s brother, James, wrote was a congregation in turmoil. Reading through the letter reveals a collective life in serious jeopardy. Some disciples were having trouble with loving speech patterns. Others embraced a theology that left their lives devoid of merciful actions toward fellow human beings. Some seemed to think they could offer, seemingly, religious ritual in place of true worship/religion before the Father. And it appears that a few had problems with submitting to God himself.
But perhaps, one of the more disturbing aspects of James’ epistle is learning about these followers evil prayers! It sounds like an oxymoron but that is what we read. In James 4.1-6 we learn that some of the members of this congregation had a problem with envy. Envy always produces conflict. James says that “fights and quarrels” (4.1) are rooted in evil “desires” (or “cravings” NRSV). Notice that James even mentions killing (v.2)! I don’t know if James is using hyperbole but he knows that the logic of competition and jockeying for preeminence moves in the direction of elimination. Surely, this is a sorry state of affairs for a congregation of the Prince of Peace.
These believers’ envy even drives their prayers! They pray but they pray perversion. Luke Johnson writes in his Anchor Bible Commentary, “James now turns to the ultimate perversion of envy: it is possible to turn to God in prayer, yet do so wickedly … Their prayer itself is evil in the way that the tongue is characterized as a ‘world of wickedness.’”
These disciples had thought of God as some kind of vending machine for their self-gratification. Genuine prayer is kingdom driven and seeks God’s wisdom (1.5). In the wisdom of God we ask for holy gifts. Gifts that help produce love and shalom in our families, harmony in our congregations, and service toward the poor.
What about me? or you? Do we offer up “evil” prayers? James calls us to take a look at what is flowing from our tongue, not just to each other but to our Father in heaven. What drives the prayers we pray—envy or love? Kingdom prayer is driven by sacrificial love for our brothers and sisters. So lets covenant to pray righteous prayers.