During times of trial, it is crucial that we ask for wisdom. The Book of James touches on how we should be praying, asking for wisdom, and that He will be faithful in giving it to us. Read through this excerpt from the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary for in-depth learning of this lesson.
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do. — James 1:5-8
THE PROBLEM OF TRIALS
James uses a “chain-argument” utilizing catchwords (“need,” 1:4b, 5a; “faith,” 1:3, 6) to bring together the problem of trials and their solution (wisdom and prayer). When faith is tested by times of affliction and suffering, the Christian must turn to God in prayer and find the wisdom to turn the trial situation into a time of growing faith and ongoing endurance. As God’s people realize that they lack wisdom to handle their trials, they must find that essential resource by turning to God and accepting that wisdom as a gift from him.
YOUR TRIAL SURVIVAL GUIDE
James begins by expressing the one need everyone has in difficult times: wisdom to endure trials. The word “if” (ei [TG1487, ZG1623]) in the phrase “If you need wisdom” is a first-class condition assuming the reality of the situation—virtually, “Since you need wisdom.” In the Old Testament wisdom is an attribute of God (Dan 2:20-23) given to chosen leaders like Solomon (1 Kgs 10:23-24); it was also available to those who fear God (Prov 1:7; 9:10; 15:33). In the Wisdom Literature (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach) wisdom means to live in God’s world by his rules, with two foci, its practical orientation (embracing every area of life and conduct) and its dependence on God (reverence and submission to his dictates).
Often wisdom was personified as a life-giving force in this world (see Osborne 2006:242-254; Patzia 2000:1200-1203). Jesus was a teacher of eschatological wisdom (Matt 11:2-19, 25-30; 23:34-39; et al.), and Paul speaks of “God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge” (Rom 11:33), as well as “wisdom in its rich variety” (Eph 3:10).
THE JEWISH UNDERSTANDING OF WISDOM
James, building on the Jewish understanding of wisdom, saw it primarily as a gift from God (1:6-8) available only to those who ask him for it (1:5; see Gowan 1993, who points to 4 Maccabees as an example of this theme).
In 3:13-18 it is called a “wisdom from above” that anchors the Christian virtues that control the tongue. Most recognize that in James wisdom functions in ways similar to the Holy Spirit. Yet at the same time the two “cannot be entirely equated, because believers could not lack the Holy Spirit,” while they could lack wisdom (Blomberg and Kamell 2008:51). It is best to see the Spirit as mediating this gift from God.
Since the reality is that everyone lacks this wisdom, there is only one answer. One must turn to God and “ask” (a present imperative indicating ongoing prayer) for it. Then begins an incredible meditation on the kind of God we have—a God who responds to our prayers in love.
The Greco-Romans had capricious gods who were disinterested in humanity’s plight and whose involvement in people’s lives often had to be bought (or bought off). The Old Testament paints quite a different picture; there we see a covenant God who loved his people and was constantly involved in their needs, who even in his judgment of their foolish wanderings from him acted redemptively to bring them back to himself.
THE GOD WHO GIVES…
Here in James he is described as “the giving God” (tou didontos [TG1325, ZG1443] theou), with the present tense participle referring to a loving God “who never stops giving.” In Matthew 7:7 Jesus says,
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for.”
Both aspects of this challenge are found here as well. Our responsibility is to bring our needs to God, and his promise is that he will respond. This is as it says in 1 Peter 5:7,
“Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”
God’s free and continuous giving has two characteristics. First, it is “generous” (haplōs [TG574, ZG607]), a word that James uses dynamically (see note on 1:5) to connote not just the gracious extent of his liberality but also his single-minded focus and the unhesitating nature of his response to his children’s needs. When we lack the basic wisdom to handle and overcome our trials, we can place ourselves in the hands of a Father whose constant vigilance over us and empowering presence in our lives mean we can find the strength and understanding to withstand all difficulties.
Second, God “will not rebuke you for asking,” meaning that God does not give grudgingly or with a great deal of reproach for his children’s inadequacies and lack of wisdom. There is no need to hesitate in prayer, as if one’s finite, sinful condition will bring about only anger and recrimination from God. God does not belittle his people for their failures but forgives them when they come to him in repentance; he responds immediately to their prayers. James says simply that instead of mockery and condemnation, “he will give it to you” (this phrase occurs last in the sentence for emphasis).
ASKING FOR WISDOM
It is important to note what this doesn’t say: It does not promise that believers can get anything they want from God. That will be addressed in 4:3; when we ask for “only what will give [us] pleasure,” we will not get it. John 14:13 promises, “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it,” but “in my name” means “in union with me and my purposes” (Osborne 2007:214). God will not give us what we want but rather what is best for us. Here the prayer is for wisdom, and that will always be given. Martin (1988:19) has a fine summary:
“James has painted in some bold strokes the scope of such praying: It is universal (God gives to all who petition him), it is beneficent, it is without regard to merit, and it is a response with no equivocations.”
FAITH OVER DOUBT
The rest of this passage (1:6-8) centers on the importance of faith over doubting when coming to God in prayer. Petitions to God must be done “in faith,” that is, with a total trust and dependence on God, taking him at his word. Many commentators (Adamson, Dibelius, Martin) see this as a complete confidence and certitude that God will answer. This is correct, but I also agree with those scholars (Blomberg and Kamell, Ropes) who say that the thrust is wider, referring to the basic reliance on God in every area of life, a God-centeredness that defines the Christian walk.
Mainly, this confidence does not mean we are certain that we will receive whatever we ask for but rather that God will act in the way that is best in every situation. This does not teach a “name it and claim it” theology; such is utterly wrong because it teaches that we control God, while in reality only God is sovereign over every situation!
WHAT IS WAVERING?
“Do not waver” is literally “not doubting” (mēden diakrinomenos [TG1252A, ZG1359]). The verb does not really mean to “doubt” that God is going to act but rather to have a divided mind that keeps one from trusting God in the first place. Moo (2000:60) says its basic meaning is “differentiate,” often used in the sense of “create distinctions” (2:4), “judge” (1 Cor 14:29; NLT, “evaluate”), or “dispute” (Acts 11:2; NLT, “criticize”).
In the middle voice, as here, this “doubt” means to “dispute with oneself.” So the idea is that the person is internally divided, “wavering” between trusting God and trusting self. Nystrom (1997:61-62) notes that the duplicity or dishonest doubt James addresses here is different from honest doubt, which has “healthy and even helpful effects.”
Noting the honest emotions, even anger, of the psalmists directed at God (e.g., Pss 13:1; 39:1-3), he points out how “in the press of life, we, like the psalmist, often wonder where God is, whether he really cares, and why he waits.” Such doubts force us to recall God’s faithful character and all he has done. Moreover, God responds to such doubts and meets us in the midst of our human weakness.
WHO IS WAVERING?
In the next verses (1:6b-8) James describes those who “waver.” Since they have a “divided loyalty” between God and this world, they are “as unsettled as a wave of the sea.” The two participles, “blown and tossed,” are virtual synonyms put together for poetic effect rather than to emphasize a violent force. Thus, they do not connote a typhoon or waves crashing on the shore, but rather the unsettled, ever-changing sea, driven by the wind. One moment such people are up (centered on God), the next moment they are down (centered on this world). You might call them spiritually “seasick”!
The emphasis is on the instability of this kind of Christian life, which “oscillates between faith and skepticism, unwilling to trust in Christ once for all and to stay the course in allegiance to him” (Blomberg and Kamell 2008:53). The need is for perseverance in faith (1:3-4), a constancy of walk in which God and Christ are ever uppermost in facing the vicissitudes of life. We live in a fallen world, and in this world bad things happen to good people. Moreover, as Christians we must face the possibility of persecution, and this is a theme of James as well as of 1 Peter. There is only one way to handle such ups and downs in life, and that is by an unwavering trust in the providential care of God.
CORNERSTONE BIBLICAL COMMENTARY
This excerpt is adapted from the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. This series provides up-to-date, evangelical scholarship on the Old and New Testaments. Each volume is designed to equip pastors and Christian leaders with exegetical and theological knowledge to better understand and apply God’s Word.
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