Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reflections on the Book of James

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

I used to have a limited understanding of this text. In my mind, what James meant by asking for wisdom, was that whenever you had a decision to make and you couldn’t clearly figure out on your own what to do, you should ask God for direction. I believed wisdom here was synonymous with making good choices. Where should I send my kids to school, should we move, what house should we buy, what activities should I get involved in this fall? “Well, ask God for wisdom,” I believed James was saying.

But recently, I’ve come to understand a bigger meaning. In chapter 3, James tells us clearly what Biblical wisdom looks like:

James 3:17-18 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
It’s not that making wise decisions is excluded, it’s that something more fundamental is being spoken of. James is pleading with us to ask more of God than we naturally would. We may be comfortable asking of God a small thing like a subtle sign or nudge in the right direction when we are at a crossroads. But James is encouraging us to ask for much more from God than that. He wants us to ask for heart change.

Each time our conscience is pained at the realization that we are being contentious, James is saying, “Ask God for the wisdom that makes you peaceable.” When we are harsh with those under us, we are encouraged, “Plead to God for gentleness.” When we see a tendency in ourselves to be entirely unreasonable, the Holy Spirit is saying through James, “Ask God to change your heart that you may be open to reason.” When we show favoritism, or are insincere, or struggle to show mercy to those we dislike, the Word of the Lord to us is: “Ask God for the wisdom that will make you full of mercy, good fruits, impartial and sincere.”

Why does James have to tell us to ask for wisdom from God? The end of verse 5 gives us a clue, where James tells us that God gives without reproach. Because we are constantly aware of our sin, we are hesitant to ask for help from God because we are afraid of reproach from Him. “YOU!? How dare YOU ask for anything from me? You who keep committing the same sins over and over?”

And yet James tells us that God is not that sort of Father, who reproaches those who ask for help. He is a generous Father who delights to give us wisdom, but he wants us to ask.

But when we ask for help, we must ask with trust that God is a good father who loves to give good gifts to his children. Otherwise, verse 8 tells us we are double-minded. To be double-minded is to ask for something good from God while saying to ourselves, “I know he’s not going to help me with my anger problem. He never helps me. The only way I’m ever going to get better is if I do this myself. I don’t even know why I’m praying this, it’s not going to work.” James doesn’t know why we would even bother praying that way either: James 1:7-8 “For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” It would be similar to my saying to my husband, “Could you take out the garbage for me—Never mind (before he has a chance to answer), I’ll just do it myself, you never help with anything anyway.” That woman should not expect to receive any help from her husband.

The way James is encouraging us to ask is with a belief that God wants to give his children the best gifts in life that there are. The wisdom from above is a gift that no circumstance, tragedy or relationship can ever take away. What good is wealth, family, friends, health, if it is littered with strife, impurity, unreasonableness, partiality, insincerity, mercilessness, and rotten fruit? But with purity, sincerity in our hearts, gentleness, good fruits, not even poverty, sickness, or loss of friends and family can take away our peace.

God does not always answer our prayers for worldly requests in the way we hope. This is because he is a good father who will not give a snake or a scorpion to his children, as Jesus explains:

Luke 11:11-13 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?

Some things we ask for may turn to poison to us, lead our hearts astray. God will not gives us those things. However, it always possible that our sinful hearts will demand them anyway. In that case, we can not say that God gave it to us.

But what God always does answer is the prayer for wisdom: the moment by moment plea for help from a soul that feels his own helplessness and rests on the goodness of God.

“But wait!” one could object. I prayed that prayer for help back in 2002. I asked God to help me with my irritablity problem, but I still struggle with it. Why wasn’t I cured for life? I believed God would heal me; where’s this generous gift of wisdom?

In the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus was exceedingly generous as the disciples picked up 12 basketfuls of leftover bread and fish. And yet, those people had to eat again the next morning. Could Jesus have fed them special food on that hillside, where, once they ate it, they would never have had to eat again in there lives? Of course he could have but he didn’t.

Could God have ordered the world in such a way that one day we are reading James chapter 1, we identify every place where we lack wisdom, we ask Him for it, and BAM! we never struggle with those sins again? Later we realize we missed a few, and then we ask for wisdom in those areas as well? Eventually, though, we cover everything and continue on in our life full of wisdom forevermore? Of course he could have ordered the world that way, but he didn’t.

The 5,000 who were fed that day, they still had to look to God for sustenance everyday for the rest of their lives. And still, it is accurate to say that Jesus was very generous to them that day on the hill. He gave them more than they could eat; they were stuffed. For many of them, the day on the hillside may have served as a morale booster whenever they didn’t know where their next meal would come from, and they asked for their daily bread with a newfound confidence.

We will need to continue to ask for wisdom everyday for the rest of our lives. But James wants us to understand that each time we ask in faith, we will find him generous.

The Word of God places our feet firmly on the ground by instructing us of the goodness of God towards us. Without a constant reliance on God’s goodness, we are tossed about endlessly, as James says:

James 1:6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.


When doubting God, we start moving towards shore on the wave of Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You. Next we find ourselves being carried out to sea on the Oprah wave. Not long after that, we find ourselves riding the social gospel version 8.0 (and now, new and improved and more subtle in its undermining of the real gospel than ever before) and next find pop psychology giving us a bumpy ride.

But when in faith we put our feet down and stand on the promises of a good God, we find that the bottom was there all along. Then we can stand unmoved, while the self-help, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps fads come and go, swirling around our ankles, and leading nowhere.

And so, in encouragement to ask for good gifts from God, the best of which is wisdom from the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us:

Luke 11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

1 comment:

Amy Phelps said...

Loved this Leslie. I love to read other's "deep thoughts" on God's Word, and how you (and me) wrestle with it. I appreciate your heart my friend!! ~ A