James doesn’t hold back even from the onset of chapter 4: battles, wars, and fights arise because of a focus on and a drive for the fulfillment of pleasures. The listeners aren’t told what these “pleasures” are, but they are told how they’re trying to obtain them: by lusting, murdering, coveting, and fighting. Even legitimate and healthy desires can be turned into something terrible when gone after in the wrong way; desiring a deep connection with another human is legitimate and God-given, but seeking it by stalking is neither. Desires for unhealthy or downright sinful experiences take it a step further by being harmful in both the end and the means.
All the worldly ways of gaining simply do not work. Lusting and coveting build a sickening desire for something, while murdering and fighting seek to take things by force and violation of someone else. These ways of gaining something appeal to the carnal heart because they lend a semblance of control and accomplishment. But it is all smoke and mirrors.
When one is seeking to gain in such ineffective ways, James asks, Where is God? Going about gaining access to pleasures in such reckless ways betrays a deep distrust in God. Why not simply ask Him? The believer should trust Him to provide and to give what is needed. Often, though, God is far from the minds of even those who confess allegiance to Him.
Sometimes someone will pray to God, ask for what they want, and they won’t get it. Does that mean God wasn’t listening? There are several reasons for unanswered prayer, and James provides one explicitly here: “You ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3). If God were to fuel the hedonistic pleasures of His children or enable them to further invest in broken cisterns, it would violate the law of love. How could He encourage His children to seek out what will never satisfy, will only harm, will only lead to wanting more of the same vapor? Sometimes God says “No” because He knows saying “Yes” would only lead to harm. It’s easy to misunderstand God when prayer is seen as using God as a vending machine or a similar transactional relationship. Prayer is not about strong-arming God and bending Him to our will—it is about surrendering to His will, learning to trust Him more, and allowing Him to change us.
The humble surrender of prayer is a far cry from the murdering and lusting that the world recommends to get what one wants. Then again, God always does seem to have a non-worldly way of doing just about everything.