James is full of these pithy passages which some have called imperatives of the faith. And it’s tempting to take these simple imperatives at face value but somewhat superficially and usually out of context, and expect to use them sort of like a formula, whereby if we do x plus y, we will get z. And perhaps that is possible, on occasion. But I don’t think that is James’ intention.
I imagine that I am not alone in applying such a template to this passage before us today. There have been a few situations in my life where I have had to take a test of some sort, and was perhaps unprepared. And this verse would come to my mind as I was beginning the test. “If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God, who gives to all men liberally and upbraideth not.” So I would dutifully pray for wisdom as I took the test, and try my best to have faith that God would give me the wisdom needed. I needed the answers, and I was hoping He would give them to me. And the verse seemed to indicate that He didn’t care that I hadn’t studied for the test- “He upbraideth not.” However, I can’t say that I ever remember acing any of my tests, or that it was evident that God had given me wisdom to know the answers.
But James lends itself to that kind of formula approach because James writes in such a way as to present a series of doctrinal, or behavioral statements that he gives as absolute imperatives for the Christian life, and we, failing to understand the context, and accepting them almost superficially, tend to apply them as a formula expecting dramatic results.
For example, there is the well known imperative he gives in chapter 5. I have heard this one quoted to me dozens and dozens of times in regards to a desire to be healed of some illness. He says in chapter 5 vs 14; “Is anyone among you sick? [Then] he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.”
There you go. That’s a formula for being healed of any sickness. Guaranteed success if you follow that formula exactly. I’ve heard messages from many faith healers on these verses who insist that if you follow the formula exactly, then you will be healed. Well, I hate to be the one to burst your bubble on that one, but when we get to chapter five I will show you that’s not a formula for physical healing as much as it’s a formula for spiritual healing. The word rendered restore in English is translated from the Greek word sozo. Sozo is translated as “save” 93 times in the KJV, and only 3 times it’s translated as healed. For some unknown reason they translate it as healed in this case. But I don’t think that the translators necessarily made the right choice. But I don’t want to go into that now, other than to use it as an illustration of how we like to apply these imperatives to suit our desires, rather than try to understand the context in which it is given.
So then we need to consider these verses in context. And the context for this passage about wisdom comes from the verses directly before. Starting in vs 2, James talks about trials of our faith, and God’s purpose in them. We learned last week that trials come from God, and we are to endure in them, so that God may complete our faith in us. God uses trials as a means of maturing us in our faith. And note how James ends that passage, he says, “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Lacking in nothing. That’s a key to understanding vs 5.
Because in vs 5, James says, “If you lack wisdom, ask of God.” Notice the repetition of the word “lack.” So we go through trials that God may mature our faith, that we would be complete and not lacking in anything. Then immediately, he tells us something that we may be lacking. That’s the connection that gives vs 5 and following the proper context.
If you remember we talked about Job last week as an example of suffering trials. James himself in chapter 5 vs 11 gives us the example of Job as a man who endured under trials. I think God arranged it so that we would study Job on Wednesdays prior to this study of James, because so much of what we learned about Job’s trials and his understanding of all that helps us to better understand James.
But if you remember, what was Job’s biggest concern during his trials? He had all these terrible things happen to him and to his family. His friends came and tried to give him counsel. But Job’s biggest complaint was “what is going on? I have lived a godly life. I have trusted in God with my whole heart. I have done acts of righteousness showing pity on others not so fortunate. But where is God now? Why has He allowed me to suffer like this? I am being judged by my friends as a vile sinner who deserves all that has happened to me. Where is my God? What is He doing? Why won’t He answer me?”
So the thing that Job most desired as He endured the trials that he suffered was wisdom from God. In chapter 28 of Job we hear the cry of Job for wisdom. He cries out in vs12 “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” And he gives a long soliloquy about the search for wisdom which is more desirable than gold or silver. Wisdom is the most precious thing.
And then Job says that God has wisdom. Wisdom comes from God. And he ends by saying, “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.” So the great need of Job during his trials was to know the wisdom of God. He wanted to know what God was doing. He needed wisdom to endure.
And in that context, James says that if we are to be complete in our faith, nothing lacking, then we need the wisdom of God. We need to know the plan of God, and how we fit in that plan. We need to know His plans are for us. We need to know His will, that we may be obedient to it.
So James isn’t talking here about receiving divine cliff notes that will help us get good grades on tests so we don’t have to study. He’s not speaking of having wisdom to make a bridge or a building and not have the proper education for it. He’s definitely not talking about having supernatural knowledge whereby we know mysteries about other people’s lives and we can dispense our own pithy statements about what we think God told us so that we can prophesy to other people about events in their life.
No, it’s much more practical than that. It’s knowing God’s will, knowing God’s plan, knowing what God’s purposes are for our lives, and for the world. And how do we gain that knowledge? Well, James says, God gives it to us. “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.” Twice in that verse, James says God gives wisdom to those who ask Him.
I think the idea of asking God incorporates more of the idea of seeking God. Jesus said in Matt. 7:7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” The key is to realize that you need what only God has, and to ask God, to seek God’s wisdom. It’s recognizing that truth is from God. The answers to life come from God. Direction in how to live comes from God. Life comes from God. Salvation is of the Lord.
So when we turn to God, to seek His wisdom, He will give us His wisdom. Wisdom is really a synonym for the gospel. Jesus said concerning Himself and His gospel, in Matt. 12:42 “[The] Queen of [the] South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”
Solomon of course, was the human author of Proverbs. And the whole book of Proverbs is about the wisdom of God in contrast to the fool who does not have that wisdom. The one who listens to wisdom, who acquires wisdom, will be blessed, but the one who disdains wisdom will be destroyed.
So the truth of the gospel is the wisdom of God. And we find wisdom when we turn to God’s word. When we read God’s word we ask Him for wisdom to understand what He is saying. James is going to address the idea of wisdom again when we get to chapter 3. But let’s take an advance peek at a couple of verses which I think will help us as we consider this passage.
He gives a contrast between earthly wisdom and divine wisdom starting in chapter 3 vs 15 “This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. … So there is a wisdom that is not from God, but is earthly and actually demonic. It’s wisdom which has as it’s origin the doctrine of demons. Then look at vs 17 “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.” So there is another wisdom which is from God. In fact, it is the only true wisdom. And it only can come from God.
I think it’s also important to make a distinction between wisdom and knowledge. James speaks in chapter three of wisdom as being wise and understanding. Solomon speaks of wisdom as knowledge and understanding. Understanding I think is the idea of application of knowledge. Like I understand how to drive a car. I don’t just know certain facts about it. But I understand how those facts are to be utilized. One theologian said that wisdom is the right use of knowledge. So wisdom is tied to deeds. James said in chapter 3:13 “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.” Behavior and deeds are the proof of wisdom.
Now to the point that wisdom is really speaking of the gospel, we know that salvation is by grace. It’s a gift of God. And in the same way, God gives wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of God. James says, He gives without reproach, or without finding fault, or as the KJV says, He upbraideth not. In other words, God wants you to have His wisdom. God isn’t going to give you a lecture where He says, “This is the last time I’m going to give you wisdom. Last time you didn’t act on it right – you didn’t handle it correctly. So you better make sure you get it right this time, cause this is the last time.” That may be the way we speak to our kids, but that’s not the way God treats us. When we turn to God, when we seek Him, and seek His wisdom, His truth, He will answer us.
Then James adds in vs 6, “But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, [being] a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Now let’s not forget the context as we try to understand this verse. James isn’t saying here that if you ask God for a new car, and you ask in faith and don’t let any doubt creep into your mind that God may not give you that car, then you will receive what you ask for. He’s not saying that the secret to getting your prayers answered the way you want them to be answered is to conjure up a lot of faith, don’t let any doubt that you may not get it enter your mind, and then God will give you what you want.
No, this is not a blanket formula for getting your prayers answered. James is talking specifically about getting wisdom from God. The wisdom from God. The answers to life. The way to live. The will of God, the plan of God. In short, the gospel of salvation. When you ask for this wisdom, then you need to come to God without any doubt. You have to believe in Him with your whole heart. You need to believe in who God is, that He is, that He has a plan and a purpose for you, and He will accomplish it. You need to believe His word, His promises.
So James says that when he asks, he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. When I read that about being tossed about by the wind and waves in regards to your faith, I am reminded of Ephesians 4:14 which says, “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” We are not to be like children in our faith. Remember the whole point of trials was to mature you in your faith. So a mature faith in God is believing the truth about God. Faith is not believing in a false knowledge of God. Faith is founded on sound doctrine, not on false doctrine. Faith is not a blind believism that is not concerned with truth.
Jude uses that imagery of waves begin tossed here and there to speak of those who were in the church, and yet who really were not saved. He says in Jude vs 12 “These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.” That’s a picture of the unsaved who have no fruit in their life, who have not the fear of God in their life, and consequently they do not have the wisdom of God. They are destined for eternal black darkness.
Those that seek wisdom without faith in God are like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord. But rather we should ask for wisdom with faith in who God is and what He has said He will do. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please [Him,] for he who comes to God must believe that He is and [that] He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
James is saying that it’s possible for people to come to religion, sort of with their fingers crossed behind their back. They want answers to life, they know they need help, and they’re not really sure about God, but they are willing to claim faith in God, if it might help them out of the crisis that they are in. They are willing to say the prayer, say the right things, go to church, try to follow the teachings of the Bible. They are willing to do all those things for a while to see if God will help them out of their crisis. But after a while, when the crisis is still there, their wife has now filed for divorce, the business had to declare bankruptcy, whatever the crisis may be is still there, they lose interest in God and go back to human wisdom.
James says they never were given wisdom to begin with. They had an unstable faith. They had two minds. They were double minded. They thought they could get wisdom from God on the one hand, but still hold onto the wisdom of the world just in case it didn’t work out. Bottom line, they probably were never saved to begin with. They went through the motions, hoping that if there is a God He might help them. He never received anything from the Lord.
That man who doubts, James says, he asks God for wisdom but doubts that what God gives is actually wisdom. They really have never given up their earthly wisdom. The things of God seem like foolishness to them. Paul speaks of how the gospel seems like foolishness to them in 1Co 1:18, 21, 23 “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not [come to] know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. … 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.”
That reveals the difference between asking for wisdom from God and not really having faith in God but actually doubting God. I can’t help but wonder about even some people here in our church, if they have really believed in God by faith without doubting, or they have just gone through the motions of religion, but inwardly they doubt the wisdom of God and still hold onto to the wisdom of the world. I think it’s very possible to come to church, to profess you have faith, but actually to still live in the world, think like the world, and you have never received the wisdom from above.
The double minded man shouldn’t deceive himself into thinking that God will bless him, when he lives like he wants, makes his own decisions, and lives apart from the wisdom of God. If he has not come to God with a child like faith, believing that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, then God will not grant him the wisdom which is from above. The problem is not that God doesn’t give wisdom in answer to his prayers, but that the man’s doubt prevents God from giving.
James will address that double minded man again in chapter 4:8-10 which says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.”
James speaks there of the need for the double minded man to repent before the Lord. And He will forgive you. Your lack of complete faith in God and in His Son Jesus Christ as Lord is a sin that must be confessed and repented of. And that prayer of repentance is a prayer that God always hears, and always answers. The prayer of repentance is always answered, and God will always forgive on the basis of that prayer of faith. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Then when you have humbled yourself before God, He will raise you up. He will give you the wisdom from above. He will give you life, even everlasting life.