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Sermon preached on James 1:5-8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/10/2021 in Novato, CA.
As Christians we often speak of how God gives us forgiveness of sins in Jesus. We highlight that fact in our teaching on justification. But we also reminded in passages like this that God’s gifts for us in Christ are not only in matters of our justification, but also in our sanctification. God’s gracious gifts to us in Jesus Christ include not only forgiveness of sins, but also include what we need to grow in holiness and righteousness. Here then, our passage speaks of God’s sincere offer of wisdom through the means of prayer.
Let’s begin in our first point in verse 5 and consider this call to ask for wisdom. James begins by writing, “If any of you lacks wisdom.” I remind you that the word “lacks” connects us with the previous verse. In last week’s passage we learned how God uses trial and tribulation to grow our faith. The final result will be a state of perfection and completeness in which we won’t lack anything, spiritually speaking. Last week, we acknowledge that such a state of perfection won’t be reached in this life, but it is the trajectory of God’s sanctification in our lives. So then, while in glory we will not lack anything, right now we will find ourselves lacking in things we need for our spiritual growth. One of those things is wisdom.
When you hear this language of “if” any of you lacks wisdom, I hope you will be wise enough to see that surely includes you! Generally speaking, it’s the wise who recognize the value of wisdom and who seek to get more of it. And it is the foolish who are wise in their own eyes and don’t think they are the ones who need more wisdom. Like Proverbs 1:7 says, it’s the fool who despises wisdom. And Proverbs 8:11 says that wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
Wisdom is often defined as the right use of knowledge. It’s knowing how to take what you know to be truth and apply it in a good way to your circumstances. Truth can be misused and misapplied, like how Proverbs 26:7 says that a proverb in the mouth of a fool is like the legs of a lame man – like the legs, a proverb won’t do anything for a fool! The Bible greatly exalts the value of wisdom. Because of this, some define wisdom in an even more exalted way as to find it as something in our hearts from whereby we inwardly know and practice righteousness. Certainly, as we think in the book of James of the connection of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, wisdom is a large part of how our faith will be put into practice.
So then, in the larger context of this section in James, we can especially appreciate why wisdom is mentioned here. Remember, last week’s passage in verses 2-4 spoke of trial and temptation. Trial and temptation is again brought up in verses 12-15. The verses in between are given in the context of dealing with trial and temptation. When we are going through some difficult trial that is testing our faith, we will need wisdom. Think about it. Think of what typically goes through your mind when you are really struggling under some trial or temptation. You probably are wrestling with questions like, “Why am I going through this?” Or, “How can I get out of this?” Or, “What is God trying to teach me through this?” You might be trying to figure out how to act or think or respond biblically in the trial you are going through. So then, when trials and temptations come, we need wisdom.
Likewise, we need to pray when such troubles comes. That’s what it’s saying with this need for wisdom. It says we need to ask for such wisdom. That’s talking about prayer. We need to pray to God when trial and temptation come. Surely, there is a lot to pray to God about when such comes. But verse 5 especially tells us to pray to God asking for wisdom.
And so, this is our faith at work amidst trial and tribulation. When such comes, we put our faith into practice by getting on our knees and praying to God for wisdom and help. That is a big part of exercising our faith in such hard times. We would be foolish to think our faith will grow under the hardest pressures that are coming upon us if we don’t pray in faith during such times. In fact, this is part of how God is growing us through the trial – by teaching us to depend upon him in prayer.
Note with me that verse 5 encourages us in our asking God for wisdom by saying that he gives “generously”. Let me note that while many translations use the word “generously”, that is arguably missing the nuance here. The Greek word is arguably more about how God will give the wisdom without any reservations or misgivings about doing so. We might translate it as God will “sincerely give” or “surely give” or “freely give”. As we’ll see in a moment, James will exhort us to not be double-minded when we ask. This word for “generous” in the Greek is almost a sort of opposite to that. It’s about how God will give just as he promises and not find any reason to withhold what he has promised. That complements with what verse 5 goes on to say, that he gives “to all without reproach.” In other words, he doesn’t come up with some technicality to get away with not giving you the wisdom. He’s not like some shady insurance company who promises you benefits but when the trouble comes and its time to collect they try to find any and every way out of paying you. No, God genuinely promises to give us wisdom when we his children ask him for it.
I remind you that James really likes to reference Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon of the Mount. Here, this language of asking is reminiscent of how Jesus taught on prayer during that sermon. Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.” Jesus goes on to explain why we can have such confidence in our prayer. He says that if we are God’s children, then he is our heavenly father who wants to give us good gifts. We who are in Christ, have been adopted into God’s household and adopted his children. So then, our faith teaches us what we read here in verse 5. Our heavenly father genuinely desires to give us wisdom when we ask for it. He won’t find some way to get out of that promise. He wants us to come to him and ask him for it, and he will give it!
Let us turn now to our second point and consider how God wants us to ask him for things. He wants us to ask him in faith. Verse 6, “But let him ask in faith with no doubting.” Let me note that while James was just specifically talking about asking for wisdom, verse 6 addresses how to ask in a more general way. What I mean is that what verse 6 is talking about would apply not only to asking for wisdom, but to prayer in general. It would apply to asking for wisdom but also to other prayer requests we might make too. He wants our prayer requests to be offered in faith.
Here in verse 6, the reference to faith is not specifically a reference to our Christian faith in general, but to our confidence in our prayer. It says the opposite is to doubt when we pray. When we think of faith versus doubting when it comes to prayer, we could think of various aspects. When we pray, we need to have faith and not doubt that God exists, certainly. We need to have faith and not doubt that God hears our prayers. We need to have faith and not doubt that God can answer our prayers. And we need to have faith and not doubt that God will answer our prayers. Jesus taught this same point in Matthew 21:21-22 when he said that we will receive whatever we ask in prayer, if we ask in faith and do not doubt. Surely, this cannot mean in some sovereign sense that we can wield the power of God to our own will and make God do our bidding, just because we ask in faith. Not in the least. For a prayer in faith must be about faith in God’s promises. God’s promise to give what we ask in prayer is in the context of what he promises to give. That’s implied in the sermon on the mount when he speaks by analogy of how earthly fathers will only give their children good gifts, not bad gifts. God won’t give us bad gifts. So too, our heavenly father sincerely holds out various good gifts for use in our sanctification. That is really what our faith in prayer must be about. That is surely why we shouldn’t doubt when we ask for something in prayer. If our prayer is asking for things God has promised to give us when we ask, then we have confidence to ask for them.
So let’s get practical for a moment. Practically speaking, what does it look like then to ask in faith? It means you actually spend time in prayer; that you devote yourself to bring your requests before the throne of grace through prayer. It also means you don’t give up in your prayers when at first you don’t see the answer in the time you expect. Instead, we remember that Jesus taught in that parable of the persistent widow to keep praying and to not lose heart. It also means that you when God does answer you, if he gives you something other than what you asked for, that by faith you trust that he knows what is best.
It also means you “put legs on your prayers”. What that means is that we should act in accordance with the faith of our prayers. I give the example of Luke 8:43 with the woman who had the discharge of blood for ten years. She sought out Jesus in a crowd and found him and touched the fringe of his garment from behind, believing Jesus could heal her. Jesus turned around and declared to her that her faith had made her well. Of course, it was Jesus who healed her, even while he credits her faith as the instrument to receive the healing. But her faith was acted out by her action to seek out and touch Jesus’s garment. That’s a sort of literal example of putting legs on your prayers – you act in accordance with what you are asking for because you believe God to grant it to you. So, take for example the prayer for wisdom in the midst of a trial. How do you put legs on such a prayer? Trying reading the book of Proverbs. Right? You pray for wisdom. If you are praying in faith, then believe God will give you wisdom and so go and read the book of Proverbs. Or meditate on Scripture passages that are relevant to your current trial. Or seek godly counsel from your pastor, your elders, and other mature Christian friends. Read solid Christian books on your area of need. That’s faith at work through your prayer for wisdom. You pursue wisdom in these ways when you pray for wisdom because you are trusting God to bring you wisdom through these ways; because you believe he will answer your prayer for wisdom, and he’s said these are ways he typically gives us wisdom.
Well, we’ve seen that the opposite of this faith in prayer is doubting. What we find in the rest of this passage is that James says that doubting in prayer shows that you are double-minded. Let’s turn now in our last point for today to consider this double-mindedness in prayer. That idea of being double-minded is just as it sounds. It means you are of two minds about something – literally “two-souled” in the Greek. You think two different things about something – things that are incompatible with each other. In terms of prayer and doubt, he’s saying you are asking God for something, which implies you believe he can and will answer you. But if you then doubt that he can or will answer you, your doubt shows you are of two minds. Prayer and such doubt are inherently in contradiction to each other.
James begins to describe the effects of this double-mindedness in the imagery given in verse 6 of a wave of the sea being driven and tossed by the wind. Imagine a little boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee and the wind and the waves keep rocking that boat back and forth. It gets pushed here, and then it gets pushed there. But it never really goes anywhere. It is just blown about, with no real progress every being made. Double-minded prayers full of doubt are akin to that.
James goes on in verse 8 to say that such a double-minded person is unstable in all his ways. That language of “unstable” fits well with the imagery of a ship being tossed to and fro on the sea by the wind and the waves. Think about what can end up happening if the ship is bounced around enough. Not only might it not get anywhere. It might also get capsized. It ends up destroyed. If I could change metaphors for a moment, we can think of the same outcome of building on the unstable foundation of shifting sand. We need instead to be founded upon the rock of Christ Jesus and his word. Our faith must be built upon the stable rock of Jesus Christ and the promises of God which are yes and amen in him. That’s what’s implied by the language of the instability of double-mindedness. We need to founded and rooted upon something which is stable. That is to be whole-hearted in our faith and trust in God.
As I describe this issue of doubt and double-mindedness, I imagine each of us can relate in one way or another. Such double-mindedness can express itself in our prayer life, as we read about here. It can also come in other aspects of our Christian faith. For example, part of us can want to follow the way of Christ while other parts of us can crave the ways of the world. Or, sometimes we can mentally struggle with wanting to do what is right in God’s eyes versus what is right in your own eyes. Sometimes we can feel like split-personalities when it comes to our Christian life.
In fact, if we stop and think about it, we can recognize that some degree of a struggle with double-mindedness is inherent for the Christian this side of glory. James will explicitly call his readers double-minded in 4:8 as he urges them to renewed repentance. We have that inner war between the old man and the new man as we seek to daily put on Christ. In faith, we acknowledge and believe the old man has been definitively beaten in our union with Christ. And yet, we know that before we reach glory there remains a battle with this defeated old man. That old man wants to keep speaking lies to us and get us to think non-Christianly. I might even say that this voice of the old man in our lives is even a trial that tests our faith. What then do with that? Bring it to the Lord in prayer. Pray for wisdom amidst such temptations. And keep speaking God’s truth into your heart to affirm that what God says is right and what the old man wants to tell you is not.
In fact, as we think of this theme throughout the Bible of wholehearted devotion to God, we realize how much we need to find this in God through Jesus Christ. I mentioned that verse 5 speaks to God’s singleness of purpose to give us good gifts like wisdom as a sort of the opposite of man’s struggle of double-mindedness. Indeed, God is single-minded. We know this in Jesus Christ, and in his wholehearted obedience to God on our behalf. Jesus is the only man ever to be perfectly wholehearted in his devotion to God. And this Jesus, who is not double-minded, right now sits at God’s right hand, asking him to give us Christians grace and help in this life as we fight to put to death that old man and put on Christ each day.
Brothers and sisters, let us be people of prayer. Let us be people of prayer because in Christ Jesus we have been made children of our heavenly father. Let us be people of prayer because Christ Jesus “asks” for us even now in heaven. And let us be people of prayer because God has promised it to be a means of his grace. That’s what this passage teaches us today. For us Christians, prayer is a means of grace. It is a God-given means for receiving things like wisdom for our souls. But that means we need to ask! True, God sometimes gives graces to our souls apart from our asking. But this passage reminds us that there are certain graces he will only give us when we ask. Let us rejoice again today that amidst the hard trials and temptations of life that we have the certainty that God will supply grace for us, even wisdom, as we ask him for it in prayer.
So then, today we learned a little bit more about what our Christian faith should look like. Today we learned that faith prays. Have you been putting your faith into such practice? Have you been praying? Let us do so now. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.