Tag Archives: Wisdom

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:15

James 3:15
This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic (NASB).

Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil (NIV).

In this verse James continues his contrast of the behaviour that stands opposed to his understanding of wisdom presented in verse thirteen. The way of jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition may have an appearance of wisdom, but it is not that wisdom which is ‘from above.’ Indeed, for James, it is not even ‘wisdom’ at all (note the scare-quotes used in the NIV). Literally James says, ‘This is not the wisdom from above…’ (ouk estin hautē hē sophia anōthen; οὐκ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ σοφία ἄνωθεν), where the this is a demonstrative pronoun referring back to the behaviour of those he is chastising in verse fourteen. James refuses to use the term wisdom to describe this manner of life.

James describes this manner of life using three graphic adjectives, which are listed in an order of increasing alienation from God (Davids, 152; Vlachos, 123). First, it is earthly (epigeios, ἐπίγειος) as opposed to that which is ‘from above,’ heavenly, of the earth or belonging to the earth, or arising solely from human existence. Second, it is natural, the Greek word psychikē (ψυχική) referring to the life in which human feeling and human reason reign supreme (Moo, 134). It has to do with that which is governed by the senses or sensual appetites and as such, refers to life apart from the divine Spirit—‘unspiritual.’ Finally, demonic (daimoniōdēs, δαιμονιώδης) simply means that which comes from or pertains to demons.

Where jealousy, envy and selfish ambition are the order of the day, the manner of life is not that which is from above, divine in origin and nature, meek and full of good works (v. 13). Rather, it is human or even demonic in origin and character, although it seems better to assign this wisdom a human rather than demonic origin. This person might be better described as selfish, as ‘worldly-wise,’ rather than demonically inspired, although the latter is possibly the case in some circumstances. Moo’s comment, however, is insightful:

The wisdom that does not produce a good lifestyle (v. 13) is, in sum, characterized by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ In each of these ways it is the direct antithesis of ‘the wisdom that comes from above’—heavenly in nature, spiritual in essence, divine in origin (134).

James is evidently contrasting two types of teachers (3:1) or two types of leadership, and aligning them with two types of wisdom. The fulcrum between the two seems to lie in the fundamental impulse at work in each model. Is the leader’s activity, work and motive directed toward the self (self-promotion, improvement, or aggrandisement), or the kindliness of God toward others, and the promotion and benefit of their welfare? Most leaders are not under the thrall of demons, but their leadership may have characteristics that are opposed to the purposes, way and wisdom of God, and detrimental to the welfare and common good of those people for whom they are responsible. Further, while many religious teachers and leaders claim to be spiritual, if their manner of life is that described here by James, they are in fact unspiritual and devoid of the Holy Spirit. ‘“You claim,” says James, “to have the Holy Spirit. Impossible! You are inspired, all right—you are inspired by the devil!” (Davids, 153).

In the contemporary world of organisations (including churches and other Christian agencies), we have much leadership technology—technical knowledge and skill; depth of understanding with respect to the pragmatic dynamics of leadership in diverse communities, contexts, and human affairs; skill in diagnosis, management, and application; a vast range of tools, resources, and equipment to enhance our capacities. Is such technology ‘wrong,’ or something to be avoided? Perhaps not. But James focusses on the character of leadership in verse thirteen (and also verses seventeen and eighteen) contrasting it with the alternate mode in verses fourteen to sixteen. To the extent that leadership technology subverts kingdom priorities such as those enumerated in 2:5 or 1:27—personal engagement with the lowly and apparently ‘insignificant’—it is ‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:14

James 3:14
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

The juxtaposition of and sudden shift from verse 13 to verse 14 indicates that James is contrasting some others with those who are wise and understanding. In place of good conduct, and works done in the meekness of wisdom, he finds envy, bitterness, selfish rivalry, ambition and strife.

The word translated ‘jealousy’ (zēlos; ζηλος) can have either positive or negative connotations. Positively, it might refer to zeal, ardour, or enthusiasm; negatively, it might speak of indignation, envy, or jealousy. Literally, it means to have ‘ferment of spirit’ (Friberg), signifying an inner life active and generative, boiling and bubbling away; but what is being produced? James obviously uses the word in its negative sense, pairing it with another word pikros (πικρος, cf. v. 11)—bitter—which has the sense of being pointed and sharp, and used figuratively as it is here, refers to a resentful attitude that may also be harsh or cruel.

‘Selfish ambition’ (eritheia; ἐριθεία) means just what it says, though it also carries the sense of rivalry or factionalism. Moo notes that it is a comparatively rare word:

In its only pre-New Testament occurrences (in Aristotle), the word refers to the selfish ambition, the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. This meaning makes excellent sense here in James (Moo, 133).

Together these terms portray individuals or even groups within the congregation at odds with one another, striving not with but against one another, seeking an advantage over the over, and jealous or resentful of any success that the other may achieve.

James sees these attitudes and attributes as lodged in the heart, at the centre of one’s personality. Vlachos (122) notes that James’ language indicates that his listeners are ‘harbouring’ these attitudes in their hearts. If this is the ‘spirit’ at work in a person’s heart, they are actually far from wise and understanding. Rather, these attitudes are evidence of an ‘arrogance’ or ‘boastfulness’ that James prohibits (mē katakauchasthe; μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε), an expression of the belief in one’s superiority over others, and as such the very antithesis of the ‘meekness of wisdom.’ Such a person claiming to be wise and understanding is in fact ‘lying against the truth’ (pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias; ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας): their very attitudes and resulting actions betray them. It is not surprising, then, that James prohibits these attitudes. He is calling upon his hearers either to stop this behaviour, or more generally, to avoid becoming these kinds of persons at all (Vlachos, 122-123).

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the little word zēlos which is used by James. Zeal in itself can be a commendable quality, if one is zealous for the right things in the right way. Titus 2:14, for example, exhorts believers to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’ One can be zealous for the things of God, for his word, his truth, his justice, and his mission, in ways that are life-affirming and kingdom-oriented. But it is also possible that this commendable zeal might tip over to become the kind of harsh and bitter zeal that James condemns here.

The problem is that zeal can easily become blind fanaticism, bitter strife, or a disguised form of rivalry and thus jealousy; the person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth (Davids, 151).

How does this occur, and how might it be avoided? James would teach us that if we become convinced of our own rectitude in such a way that we are now against others, if we become partisan and competitive, angry and jealous, ever more determined to press our understanding upon those with whom we disagree, we have already passed beyond the tipping point. James would call us to return to the meekness of wisdom that displays itself good works kindly intended and executed.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 14

Brad Pitt Atheist Quote

Read Psalm 14

Psalm 14 is a challenge to modern—and not so modern—self-reliance, to the kind of practical atheism so widespread in contemporary Western society: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

The fool, here, is a fool in God’s eyes rather than a human label, for those labelled fools in Scripture are anything but fools from a human perspective. The problem is not lack of intelligence or common sense; it is not mental deficiency but moral deficiency. As Craigie (147) notes, the ‘fool’ may in fact be highly intelligent, cultured, worldly-wise, and esteemed. Yet, when “the Lord has looked down from heaven,” he sees—a fool.

I must pause. It is much too easy at this point for Christians to read this psalm with a defensive or otherwise aggressive and antagonistic ‘us-versus-them’ attitude, as though the label is not rightly applied also to them. It is much too easy to claim the high moral ground and despise those ‘godless fools!’ This the psalm does not allow: “There is no one who does good…not even one….They have all turned aside” (vv. 1-3). If we are not presently fools, we have been, and, from a New Testament perspective, it is only by divine grace that we are not fools now.

In my experience, Proverbs 22:15 has an ongoing significance: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child”—it does not depart just because one grows up! Parents rightly discipline their children to help them learn the pathways of wisdom and righteousness. Adults, even Christian adults, must discipline themselves lest the fool buried deeply within emerge and return. “The fool is not a rare subspecies within the human race; all human beings are fools apart from the wisdom of God” (Craigie, 148).

The word for fool in this psalm is nāb̲āl, which implies an ‘aggressive perversity’ (Kidner, 79). The concept is common in Israel’s wisdom tradition, and especially prominent in Proverbs. The sense the word carries is seen in Proverbs 1:7 where it is set in opposition to the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of knowledge (cf. Proverbs 9:10). The essential characteristic of the fool is that they do not take the reality, relevance and reign of God into consideration in their thought: they live as though “There is no God” (cf. Psalm 10:4).

For faith, however, this is the fundamental reality of existence: there is indeed a God. This God looks upon human affairs, cares for his people and will be their refuge and salvation. This God will ultimately judge the world, holding its inhabitants to account. Fools are such because they do not acknowledge this fundamental reality and so live and act as though they were their own god. It is this aspect of human life that St. Paul so clearly outlines in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools… (vv. 18-22).

That Paul has Psalm 14 in mind is confirmed in Romans 3:10-12 where he cites this psalm to emphasise the universal sinfulness of humanity. (Craigie (146f.) notes that some Hebrew manuscripts include Paul’s entire passage from Romans 3:10-18 in their version of Psalm 14. This is of historical interest for it shows that perhaps some Jewish scholars in the early Christian centuries were also reading Paul to the extent that his words found their way back into the Hebrew manuscript tradition.)

The essential characteristic of the wicked is further described in Psalm 14:4, presented as God’s own speech: not only do the wicked fail to “call upon the Lord,” they also “eat up my people as they eat bread.” Here the failure to show due regard to God is linked with its corollary: the failure to show due regard to others. Again, Craigie’s exposition (147) is worth hearing:

The fool is opposed to God, threatens the life of the righteous, and thus evokes both lament and prayer for deliverance from those whose lives he affects. … The fool is one whose life is lived without the direction or acknowledgement of God. Thus, the precise opposite of fool and folly is not wise man and wisdom; the opposite of folly in the wisdom literature is lovingkindness. That is to say, the fool is defined by the absence of lovingkindness, which in turn is the principal characteristic of the relationship of the covenant; he lives as if there were no covenant, and thus as if there were no God (Craigie, 147, original emphasis).

Wisdom therefore laments the folly and oppressive activity of the wicked, and cries out to God for salvation, and is also hopeful that God will indeed “restore the fortunes of his people,” and show himself their refuge, especially in the judgement. Thus the people of God continue to counsel the wicked (v. 6), declaring their faith in God, and instructing others in the fear of the Lord. Although their affliction and lament is genuine, their posture is resolute in faith toward God, steadfast toward their companions in sufferings, and firm in their attitude toward the oppressor.

Once again, as in Psalms 9-10, we find that practical atheism issues in “abominable deeds” (v. 1) which oppress others. This atheism is grounded not so much in philosophical speculation as in moral scepticism (Charry, 65). Thus Ellen Charry insists that “the pedagogical import of Ps. 14 is that faith in God is the moral basis of society” (69). When we turn from God as the orienting centre from which and toward which we live, we substitute something else—almost invariably the self—as that centre. We become, in Luther’s famous phrase, homo incurvatus in se—humanity turned in on itself—and so selfish, or sinners, which is to say the same thing.

A Sermon for Sunday: James 1:2-8

Saint_James_the_JustSorry for the inordinate length of this post. Having spent a number of weeks on the exegesis of this passage, I wanted to prepare a sermon based on the passage, moving from exegesis to exposition. I have not preached the sermon, and it would change somewhat according to the audience and context, and as story, illustration and application are added and focused. It could be shortened if time was limited, or extended to two sermons to allow for more extensive exposition of the supporting texts and ideas. I have tried to avoid moralising and to use the passage to preach the gospel, though with faithfulness to James’ idiom. Let me know if you think it works.

*****

“FAITH UNDER FIRE”

A common experience is misconception: we read the data wrongly and get the wrong impression; we have false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps we think we will get married and live happily ever after: never the slightest spat; this one person will delight me, nurture me, inspire me—til death do us part! Maybe we start a new job or join a new church with high hopes that soon come crashing down. We go to a reputation restaurant and leave disappointed. We think the Dockers will win the Grand Final…

Many believers tend to have misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about the Christian life. Sometimes, having experienced something of the good and gracious God, having received answers to prayer, and the blessings of Christian acceptance and fellowship, having been taught about the victory we have in Christ, some believers may gain the impression that the Christian life is one of continual blessing and endless triumph, praise, thanksgiving and victory. If only that were true! Generally it does not take too long to be disabused of these misconceptions because, simply speaking—you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “stuff” happens.

From the very first words of his letter, James wants to set us straight, but also give us a fresh perspective concerning the nature of Christian life.

     Read the Text: James 1:2-8

James’ words are almost incomprehensible: rejoice when the tough times come! I like J.B. Phillips’ rendition of this verse: When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my friends, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! What was James thinking? Welcome trouble? Invite it in like a long-lost friend? Rejoice in trials? The worse it gets the better we like it? At least he is not telling us to go looking for trouble! He doesn’t have to, because you know as well as I do that trouble comes, “ready or not.” Troubles and trials come to everybody. Is there anyone here who has not faced some kind of test even this week? For some, the trials may have been a minor inconvenience or a momentary frustration. For others, the trials are far more serious, perhaps even a matter of life and death, of major stress or life-change. For others still, the whole course of their life is a continual trial and hardship: unrelenting pain, physical or emotional; the grief of loved ones gone and never returning, of dreams which can never be fulfilled, of reversals from which it seems there is no return.

Alana’s story: measles in infancy...

How can those who suffer in these ways ever make sense of James’ advice? Actually, it’s more than advice: it’s a command. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind. How can we possibly obey so counter-intuitive a command? Where’s the joy in trials? How can we rejoice when life threatens, hurts and disappoints?

It is evident that James wants to reframe our understanding of life and its many and various trials. He wants God’s people to have new wisdom, godly wisdom, and a new perspective so that when the trials come, they may view them with new eyes, so that they may even become productive rather than destructive. What is James wants us to know?

1. Trials come, but they have a special meaning for Christians

Everyone faces all kinds of trials, and Christians are not exempt (1 Cor. 10:13). Trials arise simply on account of life in a fallen and broken world. These are the conditions of existence faced by all and sundry. Other trials emerge because of human sinfulness and foolishness—our own and that of others. Christians will face all kinds of trials because of these features of life, just as everyone else will. You don’t have to go looking for trouble…

But Christians also face trials specifically on account of their faith. Trials arise because we are Christians: persecution, the suffering which arises because we refuse to participate in the sinfulness of the world, the difficulties which may arise because we have chosen to do the good. We may be forced to wonder if it is really worth being Christian at all. But our faith is also tested even in the normal trials of life: we may wonder where is God when it hurts? Does God care, or have we been forsaken? Is God even real, or have we mistakenly believed in God? Would it not be easier if we simply gave up our belief? It is for this reason that James refers to trials as tests of our faith. No matter how practical an issue we face, in the end what is being tested, tried, probed, pressured and put to question, is our faith.

“These things are sent to try us…” Yes—and No. Another common misconception amongst Christians especially, is that God sends these trials for the purpose of perfecting us, maturing us, or teaching us some lesson. To say this, I believe, is to confuse purpose and effect. God may bring a positive effect out of our trials, but this is not to say that God purposed the trial for this effect. I want to affirm that God is sovereign over all things, that there is not one moment nor one millimetre of this world which is not subject to his vision and power. But to say this is not to suggest that God is the only actor in this world and in our lives. Indeed, James holds a vision of reality similar to other New Testament writers, and to that of his brother, Jesus.

See Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Luke 22:21-32
The apostles Paul and Peter, and the Lord Jesus each warn us of the spiritual context in which the believer’s faith is tested. There is a spiritual enemy whose attack is directed against our faith. These tests do not come to build our faith, but to destroy it.

Why? Because our faith is precious (2 Peter 1:1), a precious gift by which we have been brought into a living relation to God and made heir of all his promises (Romans 5:1-2). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and indeed Jesus wondered whether, at his return, he would find faith on the earth (Luke 18:8). Thus, he gave the great assurance to Peter—and so also to us—that he prays for us that our faith would not fail (Luke 22:32; cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), for it is by faith that we overcome the world (1 John 5:4) and inherit eternal life (John 3:16; Hebrews 6:12). Indeed, we are preserved by the power of God through faith, and our faith will result in praise, glory and honour to God at the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:5-6). How precious is our faith! No wonder the enemy of our souls directs his attack against this most precious gift of God.

Given what is at stake, James goes on to teach us how to stand in the midst of trial.

2. Rejoice in Hope

And so we are back where we began. James’ first instruction is that we rejoice in the face of testing and trials. We do not rejoice for the test—which intends our hurt—but in the midst of the test, trusting that God can provide a way of escape and deliverance (1 Corinthians 10:13; Psalm 34:19), and that regardless of what happens, our very lives and our every hope are in his hands. Many passages of Scripture instruct us to rejoice in God even in the midst of testing (e.g. Psalm 27:5-6; 50:23; Jonah 2:9; Matthew 5:11-12). We rejoice in God’s saving grace and promise. We rejoice in the hope which is laid up for us in heaven beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

It is only possible to have such joy, even in the midst of suffering, if we know these ways of God. Because you know, says James. Not only are we to know and believe the hope which awaits us beyond this life, the hope of eternal life and blessing and grace in Christ, but we are also to know that as we stand fast in the midst of the trial, as we persevere and endure, as we exercise the very faith that is under attack, and hold fast to it trusting God, then the trial intended to destroy our faith actually serves to strengthen it! Indeed, the trying of our faith develops patience, endurance and perseverance.

Hypomonē – replacing and strengthening the pillars under Garrett Road bridge. When faith is threatened and begins to sag or weaken, endurance is the strength that helps us stand and withstand. Instead of buckling and collapsing under the pressure, our faith is supported and strengthened.

3. Stand Fast Together

But, says James, adding a second command, let perseverance finish its work. In other words, we must stand fast until the end, as Jesus also taught, the one who endures to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:23; 24:13). How could we ever do this? Only together, only in the company and with the encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. James has addressed these commands not primarily to individuals, but to the community of the church, his brothers and sisters in the faith. We need one another more than we realise, and over the course of our lives together, we will have many opportunities to give and receive encouragement and care, and help one another stand firm in our faith. Those who are strong are to help bear the burden of the weak for tomorrow we may be the weak in need of their strength (see Romans 15:1-2).

But there is also something more at work here. We are to let perseverance have its perfect work so that [we] may be perfect—mature and complete—not lacking anything. For James, this is the way to maturity, to wholeness, to perfection. God is able to bring good out of that which was intended for evil! He is able to make all things—even the attacks designed to overcome us—work together for good, so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). That you may be perfect!—what vision and confidence James has for his suffering people! James views Christian maturity in terms of mature and virtuous character, and this character is formed and refined as we stand fast together, encouraging and supporting each other, that we might grow, more and more, into the very image of Christ. This is what we were made for—to become a people of character, a truly human community!

4. Pray—and stay—in faith

James finishes his exhortation with two further commands and a very solemn warning. The two commands are let him ask of God and, let him ask in faith. In every trial we need the kind of wisdom that we have already been receiving from James. But we also need the particular wisdom required for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we can respond wisely and appropriately. And so James commands any who lack wisdom to ask God for it, and he encourages us that it will be given to us.

But while we may lack wisdom, we must not lack faith! Again we are alerted to the importance of faith in the Christian’s relation with God. Of the various virtues mentioned in this passage—faith, joy, perseverance, wisdom, mature character—faith is singled out as preeminent. We have already mentioned that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith it is also impossible to receive the answers to our prayers. Let not that [doubt-filled] person think that they shall receive anything from the Lord.

Over against the steady trustingness of faith stands the unstable, wavering nature of doubt. To some extent we all doubt sometimes. To doubt is to stand wavering between two options, non-committal and undecided. However, Martin Luther has helpfully suggested that although we cannot stop the birds from flying over our heads, we can stop them from building a nest in our hair! Doubtful thoughts will come into our minds and when they do we must let perseverance finish its work! We can stand together and help one another to trust in God. This kind of doubt is normal and not what James assails in this text.

What James assails is the doubt which has become entrenched in a person’s life to such an extent that it now characterises them: they are a doubter. James graphically portrays this person in terms of the restless, ceaseless, shifting movement of the stormy sea, tossed and thrown hither and thither, driven this way and that: in other words, this person is precisely the opposite of the settled strength and confidence of those who have let perseverance finish its work. They are a double-minded, two-souled, unstable, indecisive, uncommitted kind of person. They cannot, will not and do not commit themselves unreservedly to God. They cannot, will not and do not entrust themselves to his promise and his care alone. They cannot, will not and do not depend rest their hope fully upon God. Let not that person expect to receive anything from the Lord—anything!

A great secret to answered prayer is to pray in faith and then to stay in faith. Nowhere in Scripture is this more clearly taught than in Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-25, where Jesus teaches that when we pray we must “believe that you have received it, and you shall have it.” The believer believes the answer has been given when they pray, and before they ever actually receive the answer. They must believe first and then “you shall have it.” I once heard an elderly preacher with a whole life of experience say, “Between every prayer and its answer there is a wilderness, and what you do in that wilderness determines whether or not the prayer will be answered.” What was he saying? Pray in faith and then stay in faith. Continue to trust. Let perseverance finish its work!

How can we possibly have such unwavering faith? Here pastor James provides another piece of practical Christian wisdom: keep your eyes firmly fixed on the good and gracious God, rather than on yourself! Instead of worrying about whether or not our faith is sufficient, turn away from yourself and look solely toward the good and gracious God. In verse five James magnifies the generosity of the good and gracious God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. The Greek text is even stronger: God gives with single-minded generosity. Over against the double-minded person stands the single-minded God! God is single-minded in his grace and generosity toward us, and calls us to be single-minded in faith and trust toward him. He is the good and gracious God, the generous-hearted God who has promised to accompany us through every moment of this life, to hear and answer our prayers, and to bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom! This is the good and gracious God who holds our entire existence—past, present and future—in the palm of his hands; the God who will never leave or forsake us.

Trust in this good and gracious God!
Stand fast in the good and gracious God!
Rejoice in the good and gracious God … that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing!

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:5

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:5
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

James trusts that through the work of endurance we ultimately will be so complete as to “lack nothing” (v. 4). In the present, however, it is entirely possible that we may lack various attributes, among them, wisdom. This new paragraph continues James’ reflection on the theme of trials, and uses the link-word leipō (“lack”) to connect verse five to verse four.

Why does James single out wisdom rather than, say, peace or courage, love or unity? These, too, are significant and worthy virtues, even and especially in the midst of trials. But James directs his listeners to wisdom, and will later devote a whole section to wisdom as something he desires for his listeners. Wisdom is crucial to maturity. Wisdom is important in times of stress and trial. Wisdom guides action and response. Even James’ “knowing” in verse three is an aspect of wisdom. In singling out wisdom, James stands in a long Hebrew tradition which valued wisdom as “the principal thing” (cf. Proverbs 4:7 KJV). The best thing for which we might ask is not deliverance from trials but wisdom that we might conduct ourselves wisely in the midst of them.

What, exactly, is wisdom (sophia)? In the New Testament the term is used with a range of meanings, including the knowledge of God’s plan of salvation or of God’s eschatological purpose (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18-30; Ephesians 1:8-11). In his first letter to the Corinthians and that to the Colossians, Paul contrasted forms of speculative religious wisdom with the true wisdom which is found in Christ. Members of these communities wanted to appear spiritually wise by claiming secret forms of wisdom by which they knew spiritual mysteries, or the processes by which to become truly spiritual (Colossians 2:8-23). Paul rejects these religious expressions of wisdom as worldly. So, too, James contrasts earthly wisdom with that true wisdom which is from above (3:13-18). Since the true wisdom is from above, it is a gift given by God rather than a natural endowment humanity is graced with or can develop apart from a relationship with God. The wisdom humanity can develop is earth-bound rather than divine. In this text, then, James shows us that wisdom is given to the believer in response to prayer. It is not a speculative kind of wisdom intent on exploring and explaining esoteric spiritual mysteries. It is spiritual wisdom—the gift of God—but is also intensely practical, providing a true perspective on the nature of life and trials, and oriented to the kind of virtuous character befitting the people of God. Moo (62) identifies wisdom as a practically oriented virtue that gives life direction for the godly. It includes insight into God’s will and the way that will is to be applied in the common circumstances of life. For Davids (72), this gift from God enables the believing community to see history from a divine perspective and so also enables them to stand firm in the midst of the trial.

Hence James commands any who lack wisdom to ask for it: aiteitō (ask), as a present imperative suggests that God’s people should continually ask for such wisdom, and indeed may do so with great confidence because the God to whom the prayer is addressed is “the giving God.” By declaring God to be the giving God (para tou didontos theou) who gives generously or wholeheartedly (haplōs) and without reproach (oneidizontos) to all (pasiv), James provides great assurance to those who pray to this God for wisdom: “it will be given to them” (kai dothēsetai autō).

Confidence in prayer is the fruit of confidence in God, which in turn is based upon the knowledge of God’s gracious character and God’s will (cf. 1 John 5:14-15). James simply assumes (no doubt on the basis of the Old Testament, e.g. Proverbs 2:1-5) that God wills to give wisdom to his people. Thus his whole focus is on the generous character of God whose generosity is universal, indiscriminate and inclusive (“to all”; cf. Matthew 5:45 where God gives sunshine and rain to all indiscriminately). This generosity is underlined in James’ use of haplōs, which appears in this form only here in the New Testament. The word is usually translated in English versions as “generously” which is an appropriate translation. But it also means “singly” or “simply” in the sense of being undivided, wholehearted, or perhaps best, given the thought James will develop in verses 6-8, “single-mindedly.” That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous. Or as Vlachos (25) so nicely states it, “God’s giving is as wholehearted as it is universal.” To emphasise the point James also notes that God gives freely and without reproach, without demeaning the recipient or showering them with shame. God is no “fool” who gives with one hand and takes back with another, generous with nothing except criticism (cf. Sirach 20:14-15). Those who come to God in prayer will find that God gives sincerely and without reserve or criticism. God’s commitment to his people is total and unreserved, and so they may expect to receive (Davids, 73). How, then, can we be double-minded toward a God who is so single-mindedly generous?