Question: "What does it mean to "ask amiss" (James 4:3)?"
Answer: After providing the formula for peaceful living (through living by God’s wisdom, see James 3:13–18), James identifies the source of quarrels and strife. Part of the problem, James explains, is unanswered prayer, and he gives the reason for that: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3, NKJV).
The pleasures that wage war in our bodies are the first part of the problem (James 4:1). This gives occasion for lust or intense desires. We lust and commit murder, or we are envious, seeking to fulfill those lusts, and we can’t get what we want so we fight and quarrel (James 4:2). James adds that we do not have because we do not ask, and even when we ask, we don’t receive because we “ask amiss” (James 4:2b–3a). The Legacy Standard Bible reads, “You ask with wrong motives”; the indictment could simply be translated as “you ask wickedly.” In other words, rather than asking with pure motives for what God would want us to have, we ask with wicked motives so that we can satiate our desires. When we “ask amiss,” we are attempting to use prayer to fulfill our lusts. We are asking wickedly so that we can spend what we receive on our own pleasures (James 4:3b).
James chastises those who think and pray this way, calling them “adulteresses” (James 4:4, BSB). They are being unfaithful to God, choosing friendship with the world over friendship with God. This is hostility toward God. In pursuing friendship with a corrupt world system, we are walking like enemies of God. The solution is to walk humbly before God (James 4:6), focusing on His desires rather than our own. Instead of submitting to our own desires and seeking pleasure, we need to submit to God (James 4:7). We need to follow His direction and design. Only in doing that can we overcome the desires in our bodies (James 4:1) and the world system that is hostile toward God (James 4:4). Only then will we be resisting the devil, and only then will he flee (James 4:7).
James outlines in this context how we have three enemies who hinder us from walking as God designed—our own flesh, the corrupt world system, and the devil. Paul recognizes these same three adversaries. When we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), we walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2), and in the lusts of our flesh (Ephesians 2:3). In this condition we were enemies of God and even children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). But by God’s mercy and love He made us alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–5). He saved us by His grace through faith in Jesus, and not by works of our flesh or our own efforts (Ephesians 2:8–9). He made us new creations designed for good work (Ephesians 2:10).
Paul tells us that prayer is part of the recipe for victory in life (Ephesians 6:18), and he gives direction about how to pray. James offers similar guidance and recognizes that, when we “ask amiss,” we are not following God’s design for us. We ought to be walking in the newness of life that He has provided us, not allowing ourselves to be enslaved to the things from which He has already freed us. James’ exhortation is helpful in remembering that we ought to pray as God has instructed (in Matthew 6:9–15, for example). If we pray amiss, or ask wickedly, we are using the tools He has given us but for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.