Got wisdom?

Decisions, decisions. Most of us have had to make big ones, and it was often unclear what we should do; we felt the pressure of having to live with the consequences of whatever we decided. But even the little ones can stymie us, given too much of a choice. It’s like ordering off the dessert menu at The Cheesecake Factory. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter much, but we still feel torn: Oooh, three of these sound really good. If I order this one, can I have a bite of yours?

In such situations, a little wisdom might be nice. (Though if we had more than a little wisdom, maybe we wouldn’t be eating cheesecake in the first place. Just saying.)

In his letter to believers, the apostle James wants to teach us wisdom. Of course, his teaching has nothing to do with dessert menus, but it does have to do with being torn in different directions. And as we’ve seen in previous posts, what James wants is for us to develop a godly perspective. He opens his letter by encouraging believers to rejoice, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, because these are opportunities to grow in faith and maturity.

Rejoice? In the face of what feels like calamity? That may sound like a big ask: Okay, James, I get it, but I’m just not there yet.

As if anticipating that objection, however, James writes:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:5-8, NRSV)

We might think here of the story of Solomon, who as a young and inexperienced king asked God for the wisdom to govern the people well (1 Kings 3:1-15). God was pleased to grant such a selfless request, and Solomon was blessed with supernatural wisdom.

That wisdom is then immediately illustrated in the story of the two women who claimed the same child as their own, in a day when neither mother could produce a birth certificate or a family photo album as proof. Solomon called for a sword and threatened to give half the boy to each mother. “That’s fair — neither of us shall have him!” said one mother. The other, horrified, begged the king to give the child to the other woman and spare his life. Solomon then knew that the second woman was the child’s real mother, and the story of his unorthodox but brilliant intervention spread far and wide (vss. 16-28).

Who couldn’t use that kind of wisdom? It was clearly a gift from God.

James, too, believes that wisdom is a gift of God. In context, “If any of you lacks wisdom” seems to mean, “if you’re unable to see your troubles this way, as opportunities for you to grow in faith.” If that kind of wisdom seems like a lot for God to ask of you, James says, then you ask God instead! And rest assured, God is happy to oblige! He’s generous that way.

James, remember, was someone who seemed to wish his brother Jesus harm, not believing in him (John 7:5). Nevertheless, Jesus appeared to him personally after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:7). James, in other words, knew something about the generosity of God.

Verse 5 above thus declares that the wisdom we need is a free and generous gift of God — reason to rejoice indeed!

But then come verses 6 to 8, which can make it sound like the gift comes with strings attached. At first, James says, Ask God for the gift of wisdom, because he’ll give it freely! And then, the catch: But you’d better ask the right way, or all bets are off. Don’t screw it up by your lack of faith!

Is that really what he means?

I don’t think so, as we’ll explore.