The last time we were studying this letter, we spent our time on verses 2 to 4 of chapter 1 and on what James wrote to us about trials. And what a surprising message he had for us, because whereas most people want to avoid trials, whereas most people complain about the trials and troubles they suffer, James wrote that we should consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of various kinds. Pure joy. Why? Not because the trials in themselves are good, but because the trials we go through can produce something good in us. Through undergoing trials of various kinds and all the sorrows of this troubled life our faith is tested and it’s strengthened and we develop perseverance. The person who works hard all summer on a building site becomes physically strong. And the believer, who faces all kinds of trials, becomes spiritually strong so that instead of giving up the faith easily, he’s able, she’s able, to keep going. And eventually, says James, we’ll become mature and complete, not lacking anything.
In the verses which follow James moves from talking about trials to talking about wisdom. And after talking about wisdom, he moves on to talk about riches and poverty. And after talking about riches and poverty, he goes back to trials. And then he moves on to temptation. And then he moves on to some instructions on living the righteous life. And then he goes on to talk about not only listening to God’s word, but putting it into practice. And he then goes on to tell us what true religion is. He mentions all these different topics. And that’s only the first chapter. And you see, one of the things that puzzles the Bible commentators is how all of these different topics fit together. We assume there must be some order to what James is saying, and some connection between all of these different subjects. It can’t be one random thought after another.
There are in fact two connections between what James writes in verses 5 to 8 about wisdom and what he said in verses 2 to 4 about trials. First of all, there’s a verbal connection. In verse 4, he wrote:
Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
And verse 5 begins:
If any of you lacks wisdom….
The word ‘lack’ comes up twice. And you know what happens sometimes. You’re talking to someone about something, and you say one word and it triggers something in your mind so that you think of something else you wanted to say. Well, James is talking about not lacking anything. And then he thinks of something which may be lacking from our lives.
There’s a verbal link. But there’s also another connection. James has just written about how we should consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds. But what does it take in order for us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds. Well, we need wisdom, don’t we? We need wisdom from God in order to see how the Lord is able to use the trials we face in order to strengthen our faith. Without wisdom from God, our trials will seem like an intruder, or an enemy. We’ll only resent them. But when we have wisdom from God, we’ll be able to see that God is able to bring good from them.
What is wisdom
James moves from trials to wisdom. What does he mean by ‘wisdom’? That’s the first thing we need to consider today. What is ‘wisdom’? Well, perhaps the best place to begin when thinking about what wisdom is is the story of King Solomon. Do you remember? He succeeded his father David as king over all of Israel. And the Lord appeared to him in a dream and invited him to ask for whatever he wanted. And Solomon replied and said that God had made him king in place of his father, David. But, he said:
I’m only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. So, give me a discerning heart to distinguish between right and wrong.
And the Lord was pleased with his request and assured him that he would give Solomon a wise and discerning heart. And that’s helpful because it shows us that wisdom is about being discerning. It’s about being able to discern right from wrong. And it’s about knowing how to carry out our duties before God. Wisdom is about how to live in the right way and not the wrong way.
You perhaps know that the word ‘philosopher’ comes from two Greek words which mean ‘the love of wisdom’. Now, philosophy today is very esoteric and theoretical. This is what Wikipedia says about philosophy:
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language.
As I say, it’s all very esoteric and theoretical and often doesn’t appear to have much to say about every day life. That’s what philosophy is today. But in the past it was about knowing the good and living a good life. And that’s the emphasis in the Bible. It’s about knowing how to live. Knowing how to live a good life. It’s about doing what’s right and not what’s wrong.
Solomon wanted wisdom to know how best to govern God’s people. Joseph in the Old Testament was also known for his wisdom and the Pharaoh put him in charge of everything because he knew what to do in the face of the approaching famine. And later, in the New Testament book of Acts, when the Apostles decided they needed deacons to look after the distribution of food to the widows, they sought out men who were full of the Spirit and who were full of wisdom. They wanted people who would know the best way to handle this problem in the church.
Wisdom is a practical thing. It’s about knowing how to live a good life. It’s about knowing what’s the best thing to do. And, of course, it’s about knowing how to use God’s word to guide us in our every day lives. You know, one person knows their Bible really well. They’ve won trophies because of all their Bible knowledge. But it’s one thing to know what the Bible says, and it’s another thing entirely to know how to use God’s word in our every day lives and to be able to discern what’s the best thing to do, the right thing to do, in every situation.
If you’re in school or college: you want to be friendly to all, but you need wisdom to know that sometimes there are people you must say ‘no’ to. And when you begin to think about boyfriends and girlfriends, you need wisdom to discern who is the right kind of person to go out with. And, when we’re older, it’s not much different, because we still need wisdom to know when to say ‘no’ to people. And we need wisdom to know how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. Parents want to bring up their children in the right way; and we have God’s word to guide us. But we need wisdom from God to know how to apply God’s word to each new challenge. And for those who are older, and who are retired, you also need wisdom from God to know how best to live your life for God’s glory now that you’ve got more time on your hands. You need wisdom from God to set the rest of us a good example and to be able to offer us good and godly advice. All through our lives, we need wisdom from God to know how to apply his word to our lives.
Or think of all the different roles in your life. You need wisdom to be a good child. You need wisdom to be a good husband or wife. You need wisdom to be a good parent. You need wisdom to be a good friend. You need wisdom to be a good church member. You need wisdom to be a good leader in the church. You need wisdom for whatever job you do. We need wisdom from God for all of the different roles and responsibilities we have in life.
Well, here’s James saying to us:
If any of you lacks wisdom.
People say about money that they never have enough of it and they could always do with more of it. Whether that’s true or not, it is true when it comes to wisdom. We can never have enough wisdom and we could always do with more of it. As we grow up, and as we encounter new situations, and new challenges, and new temptations, we need more and more wisdom to be able to discern right from wrong to be able to work out how to apply God’s word to our lives.
How to get wisdom
How do we get this wisdom? What do we have to do in order to get it? James tells us how to get wisdom and it’s really very simple: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God.’ That’s it. Very simple. Ask God for it. Pray to God for it.
And we’re to ask God for it, because look what James says about the Lord. Verse 5 again:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
God is the one who gives generously. The word which is translated ‘generously’ comes for a word which means ‘simple’ or ‘single’ or ‘undivided’. And the idea, you see, is that God’s single intention, his simple and straightforward intention, is to give his children the good gifts we need. You know, someone else agrees to give us something; but they only agree because there’s something in it for them. You know, the bank offers to give you a car loan; but it’s not because they’re generous, but because they’ll make money on the interest they can charge for the loan. But when God gives, he gives generously because his single, simple, straightforward desire is to give us what we need, with no strings attached.
And look. He gives generously without finding fault. Now, I’m sure teachers are different today compared to when I was in school. But in my day, sometimes when you asked a teacher a question, or asked a teacher to explain something, sometimes the teacher — depending on which one it was — sometimes the teacher would give off to you. He’d complain and criticise you, because you ought to have learnt this by now.
Why are you asking me that! We covered this two weeks ago. Why are you so slow?
I’m sure it’s different now.
Or, perhaps the children will know what parents are sometimes like. You ask Dad for something and he starts to complain:
Why are you asking me for that again. You’re always asking me for that. Every time I sit down, you come along and ask me for that.
That’s what we do. We give off. We complain. We scold. But what about the Lord? Well, when his people ask him for wisdom, we should remember and believe that he gives generously to all without finding fault. He doesn’t scold us:
Why are you asking for this again? You asked me for this yesterday.
No, he’s always ready to hear and to answer the prayers of his people.
And did you notice? James said that he gives generously to all. The children are talking among themselves. They want to ask Mum for something. And one child says to her brother:
You ask her. She always gives you what you want.
Isn’t that the way we are? But the Lord does not show favouritism; he’s willing to give wisdom to every one of his children who asks him for it.
Often people want practical sermons. They want to leave church, knowing here’s something I must do. Having heard this sermon, here a little to-do list for me to complete. So, if you’ve never asked God for wisdom — and I wonder, have you ever asked God for wisdom? — but if you’ve never asked God for wisdom, here’s a little to-do for you. You can write it down if you’re likely to forget, but it’s really very simple. Write down:
To-do: Ask God for wisdom.
And if you put it into your to-do app on your phone, you can set it to repeat, every day if you like, because God will not find fault with you for asking for it every day. So, every day:
To do: Ask God for wisdom.
Ask God for wisdom, because you need wisdom to be able to discern how to put God’s word into practice in your life.
How we should ask
However, here’s the thing; There’s a right way to ask and there’s a wrong way to ask. When we ask our Heavenly Father for wisdom, we need to ask him in the proper way. And that’s what James goes on to explain. Look at verse 6:
But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the sea.
The picture here is not of the kind of wave a surfer might ride. You know, one that’s moving quickly towards the shore and which crashes on to the beach. We’re not thinking of the kind of wave which comes along when you’re paddling in the sea and knocks you off your feet. No, we’re to think of the swell of the open sea. If you’ve ever gone out in a small boat or a yacht, you’ll know that the boat never really rests or sits still, because the water is constantly moving. The waves are going up and down and side to side. That’s the picture James is using: the swell of the ocean which is always moving, turning this way and that way, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Well, that’s what the person who doubts is like.
The same word is used in Acts 10 when the Lord wanted the Apostle Peter to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman centurion. The Lord said to Peter:
Get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them.
It’s the same word. The Lord was saying to Peter:
Don’t hesitate to go with them. Don’t have any doubts about it. Commit yourself to going to his house and don’t turn back.
In the same way, we’re not to hesitate in our relationship to the Lord. We’re to commit ourselves to him. Instead of our commitment going up and down like a wave, we’re to commit ourselves unreservedly to him.
And you see, that’s what James is talking about here. He’s not referring to uncertainty about whether or not God will give us what we ask for. He’s talking about something deeper than that. He’s talking about someone who hasn’t really made up their mind about the Lord. And you see, it’s possible that James had in mind the kind of person in his day who wanted to follow the Lord, and who was prepared to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, but who also wanted to keep worshipping their pagan gods at the same time. Another minister suggests that if you were to draw this person, if you wanted to illustrate what this kind of doubter was like, you’d have to draw someone with two heads, or two faces, and one face is looking one way, and the other face is looking the other way. One face is directed towards God; and the other face is directed away from God. And perhaps this person is looking at a false god, because he’s still relying on an idol to help him. Or perhaps she’s looking at the world, because she wants to follow the Lord, but she also wants to enjoy all the things the world offers.
So, we might draw this person with two heads, or two faces. James in fact describes this person as someone with two minds. Look what he says in verse 8. He refers to someone who is double-minded. Instead of committing himself wholeheartedly to the Lord, his commitment is divided.
he’s unstable in all he does.
Or more literally:
he’s unstable in all his ways.
Like a drunkard, walking down the road, staggering from one side to the other, so the double-minded person is staggering from side to side: one day he’s committed to the Lord; the next he’s not. One day he’s full of zeal; the next day his zeal has grown cold. One day he’s ready to give up everything for the Lord; the next day he’s back to his old sinful ways. Or like a wave, which is blown here and there and which is never stable, so this person is never stable in what he believes. His commitment is up and down. There’s no stability. There’s no consistency. There’s no reliability. You don’t know what this person will be doing or saying or thinking from one day to the next.
Such a person, says James in verse 7, should not think he will get anything from the Lord. Such a person may be able to fool us, but they can’t fool the Lord. We might only see their good side. We see what they’re like here on a Sunday, when they’re at church, and they seem so devoted to the Lord, singing his praises. We see them during the week, serving as a leader in one of our organisations. They seem great to us. But we may not know what they’re like on a Saturday night when they’re out with their friends; or what they’re like on a Monday morning, when they’re at work. And, of course, we can’t see into their hearts to see whether this person really believes or whether this person has never really made up their mind that they’re going to forsake all others and follow the Lord.
We don’t see that, so we may not realise that they’re double-minded and unstable in all their ways. But they can’t fool the Lord. They can’t hide themselves from him. And if that’s what they’re like — and if that’s what anyone here is like — then the Lord knows all about it. And you shouldn’t expect anything from the Lord.
Now, isn’t this a great tragedy? We want to be wise. We want to live a good life, knowing what’s the right and best thing to do. And in order to get wisdom, all we need to do is to ask God for it, because he gives generously to all without finding fault. He’s prepared to give us the wisdom we need to live a good life. However, the only thing that will stop him from giving us the wisdom we need is our own double-mindedness. And so, we all need to make up our mind that we’re going to follow the Lord and serve him only.
The Lord’s Supper
As we turn to the Lord’s Table in a few minutes, we’ll be reminded once again of who we’re being asked to trust and to follow. The one we’re to trust and follow is the one who loved us so much that he gave up his life for us. His body was broken for us; and his blood was shed for us and for our salvation. He died for us. He rose again afterwards. He’s coming again one day. And in the meantime, he calls to us and says:
Come to me. Come to me and I will give you rest. Come to me and I will give you everlasting life. Come to me.
Why would we not all come? Why would any of us hesitate? Why would you not come to him, because he’s able to give you the hope of everlasting life. And while we wait for it, he’s able to give you the wisdom you need to know how to live your life now.