Our Need for Wisdom & the God Who Gives It
Passage: James 1:5–8
Sermon from James 1:5-8 by Bret Rogers
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word (Part 2)
Delivered on April 10, 2016
We started our study in James last Sunday. You can find that on page 1011, if you’re using the pew Bibles. We’re looking at verses 5-8 this morning, which focus on our need for wisdom and then point us to the God who gives that wisdom. Let’s pick it up in verse 5…
5If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6But 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. 7For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Connecting Our Lack to Our Prayers
Sometimes when you read James, it feels disjointed—a bunch of commands and sayings with no particular order. But the various points James raises, actually fit together like links on a chain. He often does this with connecting words that interlock each section to the other. And we find one of those connecting words between verses 4 and 5. It’s the word “lack”—verse 4, “that you may be perfect, complete, lacking in nothing;” and then verse 5, “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God.”
James is helping us make an important connection. We need to connect our lacking in Christ-likeness to our praying for Christ-likeness. Being “perfect, complete, lacking in nothing” in verse 4 is basically James’ way of talking about Christ-likeness. The wise person in verses 2-4 is the person who endures various trials like Jesus—or better, whose steadfastness through trial ends up making him more and more like Jesus.
Our Need for Righteous Wisdom
But now James points out that such a wise, Christ-like life is impossible by your own doing? You and I lack wisdom for living such a life. You see, we hear James say, “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds…let steadfastness have its full effect.” This is the wise, Christ-like life that James wants us to live. Wisdom views life and acts in life as Christ viewed and acted in life.
But then we find ourselves in the middle of our trials—our trials start bringing the heat to our faith—and we’re going, “How could such an outlook on life really be possible right now? Do you really know what I’m going through? How can somebody endure what I’m going through, James, with such a deep, settled contentment in God? How’s it even possible to remain steadfast, when everything about this pain makes me want to give up?”
Or maybe it’s not pain that you’re experiencing, but plenty. God is prospering you, filling your plate so full that you can’t handle it all, and you’re about to break under the pressure. And you’re likewise asking, “What am I supposed to do with all this? How’s it possibly going to be taken care of? How do I not snap under the stress of all these people? How do I not make shipwreck of my faith for another master like money?”
Our various trials expose that we lack the wisdom necessary for the trials to produce Christ-likeness. It shouldn’t surprise us that James follows trials with prayer. Our trials expose our feebleness, our neediness, our desperate condition. They humble us. They break us. They bring us to our knees, till all that’s left is a cry to God, “Help!” Sometimes that’s all we can say, “Help! Save me! Do something!” James wants us to make the connection: if we’re going to grow in Christ-likeness, then we need God’s wisdom in all our various trials.
What is this wisdom, though? Perhaps, a definition of wisdom will help us as we move forward in our passage—especially since wisdom is sometimes misunderstood as the mere accumulation of knowledge, or just being old and smart.
James mentions wisdom explicitly only two places in his letter. That doesn’t mean that’s all he says about wisdom. In fact, I’d say that the wise life in James is very comparable to the Spirit-filled life in Paul, and that’ll become more apparent as we progress through the letter. But as far as explicitly mentioning the word “wisdom,” all we get is right here and in 3:13-18.
And when you read about wisdom in both of these places, you can make several observations about it. It comes from above, from God (Jas 1:5; 3:15, 17). It’s very practical; it’s not just head knowledge (Jas 3:17). It produces good works; there’s an ethical and moral component to it, especially in how it affects our actions and our speech toward others (Jas 3:13). And it also fosters peace in relationships (Jas 3:13, 18).
So, from those observations, we might define wisdom like this, according to James: wisdom is the God-given ability/skill to act and speak according to God’s word and thereby reflect God’s character in every situation. This complements the Old Testament’s teaching that the fear of the Lord is wisdom. So it’s not mere head-knowledge. It’s also not mere life-experience. It’s also not a look into your future, as if God always gives certainty of what that should look like. Rather, it’s the skills you need to reflect God’s character in all that he brings into your life.
Created to depend on God for wisdom
If you think about it, we were created to depend on God for this wisdom. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is the tree God told them not to eat from. But it wasn’t that God was withholding something by telling them not to eat. He was teaching them to delight in the wisdom of their Creator. By telling them not to eat from that particular tree, he was helping them see that they didn’t have the ability to determine good from evil. Only God had that ability.
They had to trust fully in their Creator’s wisdom. Instead, Adam and Eve chose to live independent of God’s wisdom. And what a tragedy that was. Choosing to live a life independent of God’s wisdom—and instead, embracing a kind of self-fabricated and satanic wisdom—they plunged humanity into death and chaos. And so there’s many exhortations in the Bible that humanity return to God for wisdom, that humanity once again delight in the way that their Maker set things up, that humanity fear the Lord, for this is the beginning of wisdom (e.g., Prov 1:7; Job 28:12, 22-28), and so on.
And we do get a few glimmers of hope, like with Solomon, of what humanity could be if they were filled with God’s wisdom. But none of them have any permanence. They all keep forsaking God’s wisdom just like Adam and Eve. Our only hope, the Bible tells us, was that God raise up a Savior, who himself would possess God’s wisdom and who would undo the chaos that Adam caused. Isaiah promised that “the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isa 11:2-4).
Jesus is the embodiment of God’s wisdom
This, of course, is Jesus Christ. The Spirit filled Jesus without measure (John 1:32; 3:34). Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s own wisdom (John 1:1-18; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-4). Colossians 2:3 says that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of God’s wisdom (Col 2:3). Everything Jesus does is the way of wisdom itself (Matt 11:18-19). Jesus acted and spoke according to God’s word and thereby reflected God’s character in every situation. And through Jesus’ cross and resurrection he becomes our wisdom, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30. What was lost by Adam is now found in Christ.
And his wisdom often surprises us, doesn’t it? The way down as a slave is the way up in God’s kingdom (Mark 10:45). The last is the one who becomes first (Mark 9:35). God’s power is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9-10). We have to become fools in the world’s eyes to become wise (1 Cor 3:18). We have to die to ourselves in order to truly live (Matt 8:34-38). Who has this kind of wisdom, naturally speaking? Nobody. It’s only gained through a union with Jesus.
And it’s within this broader framework that James comes in, practically speaking, and says, “Hey, if you lack the wisdom that we see exhibited in Christ, and all of you do, then ask God for it.” So, wisdom is the God-given ability/skill to act and speak according to God’s word and thereby reflect God’s character in every situation. It’s the wisdom we need to act and speak like Jesus in every situation, especially in our trials.
Our God Who Gives Wisdom
Where, then, do we get this wisdom? James says it comes from God. We have to ask God for it: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God.” Wisdom is always a gift from God in Scripture (cf. Prov 2:6-8; Job 28:12, 23). But that doesn’t mean it’s automatic. We must ask God for it. Like Proverbs tells us, we must call out to the Lord for insight and raise our voice for understanding (Prov 2:3). And when we do, God is pleased to give it to his people.
Look at the extravagance of the promise here: “let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” The promise isn’t that he gives you everything and anything you want, but that he will give you wisdom. You can bank on it. It’s God’s word to you. And notice four things about this God who makes such a promise. Number one, God is a giving God. It’s part of who he is to give. He lacks nothing. He needs nothing. He is absolute source of all things. He is by his very nature, the giving God. He loves giving.
And when he gives, number two, he gives generously. The word more literally carries the idea of God giving “simply” or “single-mindedly.” That is, his giving isn’t like human giving, which often has all kinds of strings attached—“I’ll give you this, if you give me that;” or, “Since you paid me this favor, I’ll pay you back.” God gives without reservation to his children, without calculating all that they owe him. He’s not dishing it out to collect interest. It’s pure gift.
Number three, he also gives without reproach. This is the flip-side of the generosity. There’s no reluctance in the gift, as if to say, “Well, it’s about time you asked for wisdom! Don’t you know any better?” or “What are you going to do with it? Waste it like you did last time?” That’s not how God gives to his children. He’s not frustrated when we come to him with our needs. Even though we might deserve rebuke sometimes, God’s giving is without reproach, without accusation, without adding insult to our coming to him. He simply gives to us.
And, finally, number four: God gives to all his people. In one sense, God gives to all people in general—like when he causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. But here we’re dealing with the gift of wisdom to believers in particular. So the “all” are Christians. It means that God doesn’t show favorites inside the church. He doesn’t favor pastors over laypeople, or scholars over the less educated, or the older over the younger, or men over women, or the rich over the poor, or one ethnicity over another. He doesn’t give to seasoned believers any more than new believers. He gives to all in his church without distinction when they ask him. Every child that comes to their heavenly Father, he delights to give them whatever they need to follow him.
Friends, this is the basis for your prayer life. This is the motivation for prayer. I wonder how many Christians don’t pray much, because they don’t know God’s generosity. God is generous beyond our wildest dreams. He loves giving good things to his children. “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:9-11). That’s how Jesus lays it out.
We have a generous Father. How generous is he? He gave up his only Son for you. That’s how generous he is. There’s no gift superior to the gift of God’s only Son. There’s no one of higher value, no one more treasured by God, no one more loved by the Father, nothing possessing greater riches. And God gave him up freely to die for our sins. To put Jesus on a cross under his wrath in your place and mine. We have a generous Father. If he didn’t spare his only Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things—including things like wisdom?
A rich prayer life doesn’t grow merely by adding prayer to your daily spiritual disciplines—though such means of grace are necessary and good. A rich prayer life grows when you truly embrace your Father’s generosity. Some of you didn’t grow up with a daddy, who was all that generous toward you. Perhaps it was more difficult for you to ask him for anything out of fear of being berated instead, out of fear that he’d complain even more. Maybe you didn’t grow up with a daddy at all, and so it’s harder for you to imagine a generous father. You circumstances never allowed you to experience your earthly father’s generosity. But no matter what history you have here on earth, when you believe in Jesus, you’ve been adopted by a generous Father in heaven. He lavishes wisdom on you when you ask him for it. The more you see of God’s generosity, the more you will pray. God’s generosity should motivate us to come and ask him.
Our Asking for Wisdom
But James goes on. There’s more to this picture. We’ve looked at our need for wisdom. We’ve looked at our God who gives wisdom. Now let’s look at our asking for wisdom. There’s a way to ask and a way not to ask.
Verse 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. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” The way to ask is what James calls “in faith;” the way not to ask is what James calls “with doubting.” What can we make of these two kinds of asking?
The wrong way to ask: with doubting
Let’s begin with the doubting one: “let him ask in faith, with no doubting.” It’s very common for the Bible to contrast faith with doubting. Jesus does this in the context of prayer (Matt 21:21; Mark 11:23). We also see it with the life of Abraham in Romans 4:20, “No unbelief made him waver [same word as in James] concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” Romans 14:23, “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Doubting is faith’s opposite.
Let’s be clear, though. Yes, we should bring our questions to God—the Psalms are filled with such questions. Yes, we should confess our doubts to God, much like the man in Mark 9:24—“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” And yes, the Bible also encourages us to show mercy to those who doubt—Jude 22. James doesn’t have in mind the honest questioning we might encounter as we bring our uncertainties to God.
Rather, the doubting he has in mind speaks to a divided loyalty. Even the Psalmist who brings his questions before God still shows loyalty to God and his kingdom. But the man who doubts here is one with divided loyalties. He’s not committed one way or the other. Look how he describes the person who doubts. He’s like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. No stability in his convictions. Isaiah uses the same imagery to speak of the wicked (Isa 57:20; cf. Eph 4:14).
James also calls him “double-minded,” which goes along with the wave-of-the-sea illustration. He wavers between the wisdom of God and the folly of the world. He’s like the man who tries to serve two masters, which Jesus said was impossible (Matt 6:24). He’s like Mr. Facing-both-ways in Pilgrim’s Progress—you remember him? He hung out with Mr. Smooth-man and Mr. Two-tongues. His life shows no integrity, no single-minded commitment to God. He asks from a heart that wants God’s wisdom, but not if that wisdom interrupts his plans and his desires and his worldly pursuits.
And it affects more than just his prayer life; it affects everything in his life. James says that he’s “unstable in all his ways.” We are fools if we think that our view of God is just a private matter. It affects everything in our lives. We become unstable people in all our relationships with others. Why? Because what the double-minded man really wants isn’t what God gives. God gives wisdom to reflect his character, and that’s what faith wants. Faith wants God; the doubter still questions whether God is worth it.
When we ask from the place of doubting and double-mindedness, prayer malfunctions. If we ask God for wisdom from a place of divided loyalty, then we ought not to suppose that we will receive anything from him.
James 4:3 will say it again in a different way: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” And then he goes on to talk once again about the double-minded person, who wants friendship with the world and God at the same time. Not possible. Or Psalm 66:18, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” If you’re divided in your loyalties—if that’s the general pattern of your life—then prayer malfunctions. We shouldn’t presume that we’ll receive our requests. We also shouldn’t charge God with fault in not granting our requests, if that’s how we want to live.
Now, is it true that God, in his kindness, sometimes answers prayers despite someone’s double-mindedness? Sure. But let’s not presume upon his kindness; let his kindness lead us to repentance. How about you? Do you ask God for wisdom—maybe you even ask him for other things—but all the while clutching to other allegiances? Do you ask with divided loyalties?
The right way to ask: “in faith”
In contrast to this kind of asking with doubt is asking “in faith.” What does he mean by asking “in faith”? Obviously, it’s the opposite of doubting and being double-minded. It’s coming to God with a single-minded commitment to his revealed will in Scripture. James uses the expression “in faith” again in 2:5, where it says that the poor are rich in faith. They have a personal trust in Christ (cf. Jas 2:1). They have confidence that he will fulfill his promises and make them heirs of the kingdom (cf. Jas 1:12; 2:5).
James will also go on to say that faith in Christ produces good works. Faith not only says that Jesus is Lord, it shows that Jesus is Lord (Jas 2:14, 17-20, 22, 24, 26). And then in 5:15, James says that it’s the “prayer of faith” that God uses to save the sick man. The emphasis is different there, since the “prayer of faith” suggests some level of God-given assurance that God will perform the healing. But there’s overlap in that faith is always submitting itself to the revealed will of God in every situation.
So, when I put these things together, asking “in faith” means to ask with this single-minded commitment to God. It means to ask trusting in God’s character with a willingness to obey him with all that he gives us. When we confidently and quietly rest in the character of our generous God, when we take that other foot out of the world and plant both feet in his kingdom, and seek to obey him with all he gives us, he will give us the wisdom we need. The promise is ours. We can trust him to provide.
So the question at this point becomes, how are you asking God? Are you only turning to God for wisdom once you’ve exhausted all the other options? Are you single-minded in your prayers to him? Does he have your whole heart, or are you still trying to serve two masters? Are we wanting his gifts while still loving the world? Do we really want what his wisdom will mean for our lives?
Think back to our definition of wisdom: the God-given ability/skill to act and speak according to God’s word and thereby reflect God’s character in every situation. If that’s really what we want, then such wisdom will regularly call us to radical sacrifice—radical peace in relationships; radical patience with other people’s sins; radical love toward the lost people in your life; radical compassion for the poor in our area; radical stand for the truth at work; radical gentleness when others revile you.
Such wisdom will regularly make us out of step with this world. You may recall that Stephen was a man full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3). His life was spent pouring himself out in service to widows in the church. And it ended with his opponents not being able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking to them (Acts 6:10). They finally became so angry with Stephen, that they all stoned him to death (Acts 7:55, 59-60). Wisdom is costly—it won’t always end in martyrdom like with Stephen; but it’ll be costly.
Wisdom is costly, because our salvation was costly. It cost God his only Son. But it was a cost he was willing to pay to see you and I redeemed. I mention that so that you see the fuller picture of what you’re asking God to give you. You’re asking God to give you a wisdom that makes you more like Jesus. And it’s a wisdom that’s worth having. After all, our hope is that others see him in all that we encounter. More than that, we want to see him too!—just like Stephen did as he was being stoned, gazing into heaven and seeing the glory of God and Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand.
Our Response: Humility, Thanksgiving, Dependence
So how is James calling us to live this week? He’s calling us to live in humility before God, in thanksgiving to God, and in dependence on God. In humility, we must admit that we have a need for righteous wisdom. When your trials expose your lack of wisdom, the place to begin is humble confession of your need. The church isn’t a people who think they have it all together. The church is a people who humbly admit they don’t have it all together. That their words and deeds don’t reflect Jesus in every situation like they should. And that we need more and more wisdom.
But the church is also a people who live in thanksgiving to God. In the midst of our lack, we can still be thankful because we have such a generous Father. God is the one who possesses all wisdom. He has revealed that wisdom in his Son, Jesus Christ. And he loves to share that wisdom with his children. He gives generously to all without reproach. He never gets frustrated with our requests. He delights to hear from us. Even in the midst of trials, we can be thankful that we serve such a generous God. We can help each other remember his generosity and together thank him for his generosity.
And finally, the church lives in dependence on God. We ask. We pray. We cry out for God to give us his wisdom. A person who doesn’t pray much can’t expect to be very wise. As James also says, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jas 4:2). Growth in wisdom happens through our praying, not apart from it. This is where you and I need to live, in prayerful dependence on God. Asking throughout our day. Asking in our scheduled quiet times and asking spontaneously as the trials come. God is with us in everything; and in Christ he has opened a way for us to the throne of grace. Draw near to him in time of need. Ask in faith. And our Father will be pleased to give wisdom.
More in James: Living the Implanted Word
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October 2, 2016A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
August 28, 2016The Need for Patient Endurance