Pastor Chris Tweitmann
As we return to our series of reflections on the book of James,
on the one hand, this letter is very pastoral.
Skimming the content of what James has written, it’s not hard to pick up on the fact that James is addressing specific concerns – concerns about certain attitudes and behaviors that are creeping the life and way into the Church. And so, James writes seeking to address the difficult issues that all of us face as we seek to follow Jesus.
On the other hand, what James delivers to us is a different kind of letter than we might read from say, Paul or Peter. Unlike Paul or Peter, James offers few if any new theological insights – thoughts about Jesus – in his writing. What James does seem to be providing is a summary of all his collective wisdom from his many years in leadership in the Church.
Over these next few weeks, we can’t help but notice how James moves around a lot from topic to topic. And the various topics he’ll be dealing with include:
• facing trials and suffering,
• dealing with poverty and riches,
• confronting materialism and favoritism,
• living justly with others,
• how we talk to and about each other,
• how we should make plans,
• how we should praying,
• and how we should ask for physical healing.
So, as much as we ought to approach James as a letter, we ought to view it also like a wisdom book – say like the book of Proverbs. I’d encourage you to read through this letter side by side with Proverbs – specifically chapters 1 -9 – and you’ll soon start to recognize some common language and imagery between them.
The other source of teaching that clearly echoes throughout James is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Mind you, there are no direct quotes from Jesus by James here. But again, if you reread the Sermon on the Mount each week before we dive into the book of James, you’ll notice with every paragraph James writes, he sounds a lot like Jesus. You might even notice that trend with today’s passage – a passage that ironically, in light of what I just shared, is about wisdom. Let’s hear from James, chapter 1, verses 5 – 8.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God…”
What is James inviting us to ask God for that we might be lacking?
What is wisdom? Is wisdom the same thing as knowledge?
They are not the same things.
Knowledge is the mental possession of basic facts, truths, and information.
Wisdom is the insight into the actual nature of things, the ability to discern and judge what is true, right, or lasting so as to make good decisions.
There also is a difference between human wisdom and divine wisdom.
Human wisdom is the wisdom we glean from three different but related sources:
the knowledge we acquire, the perspective we have, and the experience we gain.
Since our humanity is broken and flawed – none of us is perfect, we are limited in our knowledge, we are limited in our perspective, and we are limited in our experience. Being limited in these three areas means our wisdom, human wisdom is limited.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that James’ invitation to seek wisdom from God
comes right on the heels of what we looked at last week,
his encouragement about how we face trials.
Life’s hardships have a way of exposing the limitations of human wisdom
– our limited knowledge – that we don’t know all that is going on,
our limited perspective – that we can’t perceive all that is happening,
and our limited experience – we struggle with what to do
because we’ve never been here before.
So, James is not telling us to ask for human wisdom,
he is directing us to seek divine wisdom.
Divine wisdom is revelation from God – insight into God’s will and purposes for all life.
Divine wisdom is awareness we are given from our Creator
into the nature of how God created things to be and to work together.
Divine wisdom is not acquired by the limitations of
our knowledge, our perspective, or our experience.
Divine wisdom, like everything else that is good,
is given and received by the grace of God.
Unlike us – we who, in our desire for autonomy, have separated ourselves from God and thus confront limits in terms of what we know, what we perceive,
and what we can experience, God possesses all knowledge.
God has the eternal perspective.
And as our Creator, God is not lacking any experience
for God makes all our experiences possible.
Our God has even fully entered into the human experience – of what it is to be us
– through the Incarnation – coming to be with us in Jesus Christ.
The wisdom then that James is calling for us to seek is the wisdom by which
we can discern and carry out the will and purposes of God for our life and this world.
Such wisdom answers questions like,
“What does my Heavenly Father want in this situation?”
“How is Jesus calling me/us to think, speak, and to act in this moment?”
“Which way is the Holy Spirit directing and guiding me/us?”
The answers to questions like these are true wisdom.
Of course, the next question naturally becomes how do we gain such wisdom?
James tells us directly. We just have to ask for it.
God offers wisdom but it must be asked for – meaning it must be sought and claimed.
This sounds easy enough but it is harder in practice. Why is this?
Because let’s be honest. Most of us prefer to work alone.
Deep down, all of us in some way or another, think we are smarter than God.
There is this nagging tendency in us – the seed of an inclination going all the way back to our first conundrum in the Garden – to eat or not to eat the forbidden fruit – a nagging tendency to try and figure things out without God – sometimes despite God – and then, only after we’ll fallen and we can’t get up – to cry out to the Lord, “Help!”
And then think about it.
When we finally pray, most of us come, not asking but telling God what to do.
Why? Because we know better. Because we think we see everything clearly.
Because we think our experience trumps God’s rules for living.
Sure, we’ll let Jesus forgive us. We’ll let Jesus save us, in the end, when death comes.
But in the meantime, we pride ourselves
on being strong enough to carry take of ourselves.
We look down on those who are not self-reliant – who can’t fix their own problems, who aren’t smart or driven enough to stake their claim in this world.
We teach our children, if you put your mind to it, if your heart is in it, if you just believe in yourself, YOU (not God) can do anything you want to with your life.
The greatest obstacle to our asking for wisdom from God is not our weaknesses;
it is our delusions of our strength – of self-determination and self-reliance.
Beloved – and this might come as a shock to those of us
who think we’ve got it all together, for those of us who proudly refuse to be a victim, the Gospel is for the weak, not the strong.
The Gospel is for the unable, not the capable.
The Gospel is for one who recognizes his or her foolishness,
not for the one who fancies him or herself an expert or a genius.
The Gospel is good news only for those who admit “I can’t”
and then run towards the One, our Lord, our Savior, who can.
As we hear James say, “If any of you lack wisdom,”
we should immediately raise our hand and say, “That’s me!”
And part of the good news of the Gospel,
James goes to share with us here, is that when we ask God for wisdom,
God will answer – generously and without finding fault.
Our Heavenly Father longs to give us by His truth.
God experiences joy in liberally, lovingly, and faithfully
offering us the insight and guidance that we need.
In fact, we worship a God of grace
– the God who purposes both to provide for and to protect us
– even despite ourselves – despite the fact we are our own biggest obstacle
and worst enemy.
God is in the business of rescuing people from bad choices and foolish decisions.
However, let’s be clear about something.
Yes, God is in the business of rescuing, redeeming, reconciling, and resurrecting us from bad choices and foolish decisions but not just by swooping in
and parting the waters, calming the storm, or even dying on a Cross.
We’re always looking for, some of us even demanding, God prove Himself,
His faithfulness, His power through big and dramatic signs and wonders.
“If God is real, if God is there, if God cares, then where’s my burning bush?”
God can and does provide signs and wonders but we ought not to undervalue
and as result completely miss the ordinary sign, the everyday wonder of the wisdom the Lord actively seeks to give to us through His Word and by His Spirit.
Also, God does not give us wisdom as a means of avoiding the consequences
of our bad choices or frankly, even the foolish decisions of others.
God’s wisdom is rarely the easy answer or the quick fix we so often desire.
The wisdom God delivers to us is about enhancing and deepening our knowledge,
our perspective, and our experience – not for our will to be done but His
– for what the Lord wills and purposes for this world.
It is only when confess the limitations of our knowledge, our perspective, our experience, and yes, our wisdom, — it is only when we reach the end of ourselves,
that we will ask, that we have room for the wisdom of God.
But keep in mind, there’s a short distance between
not coming to the end of yourself and being full of yourself.
Wisdom from God must be asked for, James tells us, and we ask God for wisdom
when we are no longer relying on ourselves but are solely relying on Him.
What James says next reinforcing this point
but not in the way we initially tend to hear it. He writes,
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt,
because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea,
blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything
from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”
Is James saying what we initially think he is saying here,
what too many in the Church have taken these verses to mean,
an interpretation that some have used to abuse and profit of others
in the name of Jesus?
Is James telling us that if we ever have any doubts, God won’t answer our prayers?
Is James directing us to “will away” even the tiniest bit of reservation or hesitancy in the back of our minds or else the Lord will turn His back on us and walk away?
Certainly not! There is a place for doubt in the midst of our faith in God.
Our entire relationship with the Lord is founded and grounded
not on our belief in Him but His belief in us – God’s initiative in coming to us in Jesus
– living among us, dying for us, and rising victoriously from death
– not in the midst of our belief but in the face of our denial, our disbelief and doubt.
James isn’t telling us that we can never have any uncertainty in our walk with God.
If we knew everything about God and about how the Lord was going to answer our prayers, wouldn’t that make faith completely unnecessary?
Wouldn’t this defeat the whole purpose of humbly asking the Lord for His wisdom?
And if our asking, if our prayers depend on our having perfect confidence
and absolute certainty all the time, wouldn’t this just turn our prayers
into a way of relying on not on God but on our own efforts?
I don’t know about you but my faith exists in the midst of my doubts.
The wisdom of the grace of God taught me a long time ago
to stop being preoccupied with constantly taking my spiritual temperature,
with evaluating my faith in God and instead to abide every more deeply,
despite my reservations, in His faith in me.
The Lord makes room for our doubts in the midst of our faith.
In following Jesus, we’re all like the man who asked Jesus to heal his epileptic son,
who prayed that simple but honest prayer, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”
Jesus answered that prayer btw.
And Jesus still answers prayers offered in the midst of doubt.
James’ warning here is not about intellectual or theological doubt.
How do we know this?
We know this because the word James uses translated into English
as “doubt” in our Bibles has more to do with wavering between two options
rather than uncertainty or disbelief.
In fact, it’s the same word James uses in the next chapter of this letter,
in the fourth verse, to describe the distinctions Christians are making
between the poor and the rich.
As a community, these believers are making the choice to ignore the poor
who come into their services of worship to instead show favoritism towards the rich.
For James, the issue is not about having intellectual uncertainty;
it is about having a divided allegiance.
Or as he phrases it in our passage, in verse 8, it is about being “double-minded.”
Being double-minded is related to hypocrisy, to insincerity.
Being double-minded is about claiming to rely, to trust God
but at the same time, keeping one’s options open.
What James is acknowledging and warning us against is not disbelief but dishonesty.
Again, some degree of doubt is inevitable in our present state of weakness
– we remain work in progress – learning as we go.
The point is asking God for wisdom with the right attitude.
Just as God generously gives us His wisdom with singleness of intent
– without finding fault or giving reproach. The Lord doesn’t mock us for our need of wisdom. The Lord doesn’t throw our failures in our face.
Just as God generously gives us His wisdom singleness of intent
we are to ask and to receive the wisdom of God gives
with the same singleness of intent.
What does singleness of intent mean?
It means not playing games with God.
It means if you’re asking God a question, you better be prepared for the answer.
It means if you’re coming to the Lord for advice, are you willing to actually take it?
In all of us, brothers and sisters, there is a tug of loyalty between God’s will
and our will, God’s way and our way. God’s Kingdom and our kingdom
– the temptation of that pull is in every situation and every location of human life.
James warns us that it’s a mistake to ask for God’s wisdom
when we have no intention of heeding it.
To live as a double-minded person is to live a life not of security – assurance and confidence in who we are and where we are going – but a life of continued instability.
As we pick and choose the wisdom we will receive from the Lord
and the wisdom we will ignore, we end up not getting life right some of the time
but finding ourselves adrift and lost all of the time
– blown and tossed by every wind of desire; by every wave of emotion;
blown and tossed by every wind of temptation;
by every wave of the wisdom of the age.
James is echoing Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount.
We cannot serve two masters.
Either you will seek God’s wisdom or trust in your wisdom.
We can’t live between two worlds
– the one we are seeking to make on our own terms
and the Kingdom of God which is overtaking and remaking
this world on earth as it is in heaven.
The house you built on the foundation of your wisdom
will fall apart when the storms of this life come.
Only the house that the Lord builds
– on the foundation of God’s wisdom – can stand the test of time.
God isn’t going to look down on us for having honest questions or concerns.
The Lord would rather we are honest about our doubts while continuing to seek Him, than to pretend like we have it all figured out and reduce our prayers to a formula.
Beloved, an instability in our lives has nothing whatsoever
to do with God’s distance from us, it has everything to do
with claiming to believe in Jesus but not actually following Him.
I’m going to let all of us in on not a little but a big secret. Here it is.
The wisdom that James is telling us to ask for is a person.
Wisdom is a person – Jesus Christ.
I mentioned at the start of this message how in writing this letter
James sounds a lot like Jesus.
I don’t think this is a coincidence or intentional creativity on James’ part.
No, I believe as we keep reading this letter,
we are going to witness that the words that came out of James
were actually more of an unconscious, instinctive expression by James
of the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ.
What I am saying is what James models for us not only through this passage
but this whole letter is that wisdom is not just sounding like Jesus; it is following Jesus.
To put this another way,
the wisdom the Lord offers to us is not so
we can eventually reach some level of righteousness and perfection
and graduate to where God’s grace is no longer necessary in our lives.
The ultimate wisdom the Lord seeks to give to us
– the very reason God came down to be with us and for us in Christ
– is to make it clear we can’t live without Him
– that life isn’t worth living without Him,
that the kind of life, the good life,
the best life we all long for is only possible with and in Him.
Study, perspective, and experience by themselves do not give us lasting wisdom.
True wisdom is like all good things a gift of grace.
True and lasting wisdom comes by way of a relationship
– a relationship we don’t initiate,
a relationship we are brought into through the Holy Spirit
– a relationship of shared communion with the One
who is the ultimate source and definition of everything that’s true and noble, everything that’s right and pure, everything that’s lovely and admirable,
everything that is excellent and praiseworthy.
Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present in the details of our everyday lives.
Jesus offers Himself – His brilliance, His insight, His direction
— in the encounters and decisions of our everyday experience
so that every step along the way, we can focus our attention of Him
and receive the wisdom we need.
If you just believe in Jesus, you may be smart but not necessarily wise.
True and lasting wisdom comes by way relationship of discipleship, of studying and learning from, of experiencing and gaining understanding from following Jesus.
Wisdom comes from following Jesus because wisdom is a person – God in Christ.
The starting point of finding true wisdom is
reaching the end of ourselves and recognizing God in Christ.
The reason most people are lacking wisdom
and don’t know Jesus is because they haven’t yet come to the end of themselves.
Let’s stop playing games with God.
There’s nowhere to run.
There’s nowhere to hide.
Let’s ask the Lord for wisdom and be prepared to receive it
– to be taken into deeper and wider places with Jesus
– knowledge, perspective, and experience
that will be more than we could ever imagine or hope for.