A Believing Heart
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. 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. (1:5–8)
A fourth means to perseverance in trials is a believing heart, a comprehensive phrase that summarizes these four verses.
The first requirement for such belief is godly understanding. Especially when they are going through trials, believers need a special measure of understanding to help them through, and that need should drive them to ask of God to supply that understanding and wisdom. Strong, sound faith is not based on feelings but on knowledge and understanding of the promises of God’s truth, which is spiritual wisdom.
When believers face times of testing—whether physical, emotional, moral, or spiritual—they have special need of God’s wisdom. At such times one should remember the words of Solomon: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:5–7). He goes on to say of godly wisdom that “her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace” (v. 17). Later in the epistle of James, God’s heavenly wisdom will be described as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (3:17).
In Job’s final response to his friends and would-be counselors, who had given him much foolish advice, he comments:
But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its value, nor is it found in the land of the living. The deep says, “It is not in me”; and the sea says, “It is not with me.” Pure gold cannot be given in exchange for it, nor can silver be weighed as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx, or sapphire. Gold or glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for articles of fine gold. Coral and crystal are not to be mentioned; and the acquisition of wisdom is above that of pearls. The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it, nor can it be valued in pure gold. Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? Thus it is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the sky. Abaddon and Death say, “With our ears we have heard a report of it.” (Job 28:12–22)
Then, after discounting all of those false and futile sources of wisdom, Job says simply, “God understands its way, and He knows its place” (v. 23). God, and God alone, is the source of wisdom. It was this truth that caused Paul to pray to God for believers to be granted wisdom, knowledge, and enlightenment (Eph. 1:17–18), as well as discernment (Phil. 1:9; cf. Col. 1:9–10). That is also James’s point.
It should go without saying that trials should enhance our prayer life, as we turn to the Lord for guidance, strength, patience, and wisdom. And when we ask of God, our heavenly Father, for His wisdom, James assures us that, far from being miserly in dispensing that gracious gift to His children, He gives to all generously and without reproach. It is the Lord’s loving desire to impart divine understanding abundantly to His faithful saints. That is surely one of the most beautiful and encouraging promises in all of Scripture.
Let him ask translates an imperative verb in the Greek. James is not giving personal advice but a divine command, and therefore our calling on the Lord for wisdom is not an option. It is mandatory. And if a believer who is being tested is not driven to the Lord and does not develop a deeper prayer life, the Lord is likely to keep the test active and even intensify it until His child comes to the throne of grace—until he makes his “ear attentive to wisdom,” and inclines his “heart to understanding” (Prov. 2:2). And “if you cry for discernment,” Solomon continues, “if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God” (vv. 3–5; cf. Job 28:12–23; Matt. 13:44–46).
Although God has wisdom in abundance (Rom. 11:33) and is infinitely more willing to impart His wisdom than we are to ask for it, He nevertheless expects us to ask Him for it. It is not something that the Lord will impress on an unwilling heart and mind. “ ‘I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart’ ” (Jer. 29:11–13). Jesus calls on us to call on Him, promising that “whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). To reinforce the promise, He says again, “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (v. 14).
Generously translates haplōs, which carries the idea of singleness of heart, of doing something unconditionally, without bargaining. The only condition is that we ask. When we simply come in our trials to God asking for His help and wisdom, He immediately and single-mindedly gives it to us generously. That divine liberality is expressed in Jesus’ beautiful promise:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (Matt. 7:7–11)
Reproach translates a participial form of a verb that means “to upbraid, to severely reprimand.” In Matthew 5:11 it is rendered “cast insults,” or “revile” (kjv). The term is used in Matthew 11:20 of the Lord’s reproach of the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, of whom He said, “It will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you” (v. 22); and of Capernaum, who, He warned, “will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day” (v. 23).
But the Lord will never cast even the mildest reproach on a child of His who comes seeking wisdom in time of trouble and testing. He will not remind us of how undeserving and unworthy we are, obvious as that might be. Nor will He chide us for not asking sooner, fully understanding that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Without hesitation, reluctance, or reservation, His divine wisdom will be given to us in generous abundance. He will say to us, in effect, what He said to His people Israel through the psalmist, “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt; open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (Ps. 81:10).
James next turns from the willing Father to the waiting child, making clear that the Lord requires the right kind of asking, which must be in faith without any doubting (cf. v. 8). In other words, it must be a request backed by genuine trust in God’s character, purpose, and promises.
Some Christians simply doubt that God will give them what they need, and rationalize their doubt in countless ways. They believe they are undeserving, which is true, but, as already pointed out, irrelevant. Or they may think their needs are not worthy of God’s attention, which also is true but irrelevant, for, in His boundless grace and love, He sovereignly chooses to take great interest in things that, in the grand scheme of things, seem utterly insignificant. Other Christians are inclined to dispute with God, wondering why He allowed a calamity to come upon them in the first place or why He doesn’t provide them a way out.
A request that does not take God at His word, that doubts either His ability or His trustworthiness, is presumptuous and worthless and is an affront. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him,” the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). As Paul admonishes, we are “to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Tim. 2:8). We are to remember Jesus’ promise: “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:21–22). Reinforcing those words of Jesus, Paul assures us that “my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
The believer who doubts, however, is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. His request is not really a request at all, because he foolishly and disdainfully does not believe it will be honored by God. Among other things, such a person is terribly immature, like a child, “tossed here and there by waves.” Tragically, that immaturity leads to the even greater danger of being “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). When God is not trusted, the only course is to go from bad to worse to worse still.
Such a person cannot expect that he will receive anything from the Lord. He is like ancient Israel, whom Elijah rebuked, saying, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). He becomes a Laodicean, a sham Christian who is “neither hot nor cold,” whom the Lord “will spit … out of [His] mouth” (Rev. 3:16).
Simply put, he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. Although he claims to be a believer, his action reveals he is an unbeliever. When he goes through a severe trial, he turns to human resources rather than singularly trusting the Lord for answers and for help. Or he becomes bitter and resentful and seeks no help at all. He does not renounce God, but he acts as if God doesn’t exist, doesn’t care, or isn’t capable of delivering him from trouble. He knows something of God’s Word and of God’s love, grace, and providence; but he refuses to avail himself of those divine resources. As James points out later in the letter, that person’s problem, of course, is sin. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you,” he admonishes. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). There the “double-minded” are called “sinners,” a term used only for unbelievers (see comments on 4:8).
Regardless of how he may view himself, the double-minded person is trying to serve two gods, which, as the Lord declares, is impossible. “Either [you] will hate the one and love the other, or [you] will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). In his classic allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan calls such a man Mister Facing Both Ways. That feat is just as impossible spiritually as it is physically. “A friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4); and, conversely, a person who is truly a friend of God is an enemy of the world. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5, emphasis added). There is no other way to truly love Him, trust Him, or serve Him.
5 In v. 4, James has just provided a portrait of fully developed Christian character. The fully mature believer is one who is “lacking in nothing.” Yet alas, most of us are still on the path, not having arrived at that level of maturity. Therefore, James makes a transition to this next passage by pointing to a possible need among his readers: “If any of you lacks wisdom …” It is vital to grasp what James means by “wisdom.” Wisdom here connotes an understanding of the ways of God and a readiness to act according to those ways. This close connection between wisdom and righteousness can be seen in James 3:13–18:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
Thus, true wisdom issues forth in living according to the ways of the Lord, and if anyone lacks this understanding of and commitment to the ways of God, God himself—wisdom’s true and only source who gives “to all”—may be approached. In other words, God has shown himself to have issued an open invitation to people to come and find in him the wisdom they need to approach life righteously. This thought echoes Wisdom passages in Proverbs, such as the following (Pr 2:1–7):
1 My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, 2 turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, 3 and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, 4 and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, 5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. 6 For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. 7 He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless.
Furthermore, James expresses the manner in which God gives wisdom as “generously” and “without finding fault.” The first suggests that God is not stingy with wisdom but rather eager to provide guidance for how life should be approached. That he gives “without finding fault” means he does not insult or put down those who come to him with their deficiency. Unlike the father who slaps the hand of a child reaching up for a desired item, God eagerly gives wisdom to the person desiring his perspective on life.
5 Whatever the doubtful meaning of Gen. 2:17 and 3:22 may be, it is clear that in the antecedents of the cult of Yahweh knowledge is often a jealously monopolized attribute of divinity: in later Hebrew religion, however, the bond of wisdom between God and his believers plays a part analogous to that of faith in Christianity. Sometimes “Wisdom means Law (Torah),” says an old commentary on Ps. 99:4 (Midr. Ps. on 99:4). This Wisdom/Law was needed for defeating the wiles of the Evil Spirit in man; but wisdom is a gift, from on high, which cannot be bought by man; its sole source is God: so OT Wisdom literature, Philo, and the rabbis. “Blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast imparted of Thy wisdom to flesh and blood.”
In all Christian temptation wisdom is to be had “just for the asking,” a gift here described by James with an adverb etymologically meaning “simply,” a word often used in Greek in contrast to another Greek word connoting complex variety, in nature or art, from a patchwork quilt to an elaborate financial fraud. For the mind of such a giver we confess that no single sufficient word occurs to us: “kind,” “generous,” “wholehearted,”29 are neither inapposite nor completely adequate. KJV has “liberally” for the Greek here,32 and this suits the equivalent Greek noun as “generosity.” “Liberally” would be the best translation if we could confine it to its ethical signification (Hort, p. 9); as it is, “liberally” smacks too much of “profusely.” “Graciously,” says Hort (against Mayor), “is perhaps the best word for it,” since it recalls the OT ḥesed (Gen. 24:49) and NT “kindness” (Rom. 2:4), i.e., benevolent goodness or grace of God. But even that has unfortunate overtones. We think that of the possible variants, “freely” has the fewest and least defects.
God gives his wisdom to men not only just for the asking but also without chiding a man for his previous sins, many of which the man may not even know he has committed. In this context the paramount function of wisdom is to keep a man from otherwise scarcely avoidable sin; hence we prefer our present explanation to other suggestions, such as that of Ropes (p. 140)—namely, James is thinking of human beings who are apt to keep casting up to a man any good turn they may have done him: see Tyndale, “God casteth no man in his teeth” (Moffatt, p. 12). Bunyan is right: referring to Jas. 1:15, he writes: “It appeareth that He (Christ) is free, because he giveth without twitting” (i.e., “rebuking” or “taunting”). See Ps. 19:12, “Who can be aware each time he offends? O cleanse thou me of my unconscious sins.” Here in vv. 7–11 the psalmist praises the law of the Lord; he then very naturally proceeds to ask pardon for any offenses he may have committed against it, either unconsciously (v. 12) or “presumptuously,” that is at least, “knowingly” (v. 13a): only thus could he hope for remission in both classes of offense (v. 13b). In essence Ps. 19:12f. is a typical Hebrew prayer for wisdom in righteousness, and here in 1:5 James voices the characteristic Jewish faith in God as its source.
1:5 The most prized attribute, we are suggesting, of the messianic community as it faces tests is “wisdom,” and that is why James brings it up in 1:5–8. To anticipate what James will say, “wisdom” is supernatural in origin (3:15), is manifested through deeds of mercy and holiness (3:17), and leads toward a community noted by “peace” (3:18), perhaps the most important virtue/gift James could want for a community tempted by oppression to violence. The supernatural origin is thought of now as James urges the messianic community to ask God for wisdom. This invokes the timeless theme of wisdom from Proverbs (1:1–7 and 2:6–8):
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
Let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice
and preserving the way of his faithful ones.
And Wisdom 8:21:
But I perceived that I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me.
To thus set wisdom in James in context means that we see him more along the lines of Proverbs (e.g., 9:1–6), Sirach (e.g., 4:17), Wisdom (e.g., 6:12–14; 7:15, 23–26; 8–9), and Job and less along the lines drawn at Qumran, where wisdom is esoteric and eschatological revelation. Wisdom is for James, at least in part, what faith is for Paul, what love or life is for John, and what hope is for Peter.88 It is, as Ropes states, “the supreme and divine quality of the soul whereby man knows and practices righteousness.” While I cannot agree completely with the eschatological emphasis of Davids on 1:2–4 or 1:5–8, that the Holy Spirit is involved in the reception of wisdom nonetheless deserves consideration: 1:18 speaks of a “new birth” of sorts that gives rise to a community that practices the will of God, and this thought is not far from a Pauline doctrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit. When this wisdom dawns on the messianic community, it will see through the tests to the formative influence of the tests.
There is yet more to this sense of “wisdom” in James. It will become clear in this letter that a pressing issue was the hotheaded reactions of some in the messianic community. This occurs first most clearly in 1:19–21, though it is also present in 1:13–15 and perhaps in 1:2–4; it then occurs in full force in 3:13–4:12. In both 1:5–8 and 3:13–18 James is an advocate for “wisdom.” And in both contexts it can be discerned that “wisdom” is more than an intellectual sagaciousness that has the capacity to spin out potent proverbs for specific situations: it is a kind of life that pursues “justice” (1:20), “love” (2:8–11), and “peace” (3:18) along properly moral lines—that is, without resorting to violence or volatile language. To ask for “wisdom” is almost to ask for an ability to “endure” with the ethic of Jesus (justice, love, and peace) when pressure is put on people to live otherwise.
The narrative flow suggests that for James “endurance,” being “mature” (1:4), and having “wisdom” are nearly synonymous: the mature community member is the one that both endures and has wisdom. That both wisdom and maturity manifest themselves in community virtue (cf. 3:13–18 with 1:25 and 3:2) suggests the same conclusion. To come around the circle, then, one might say that the supposed disconnection of themes between 1:2–4 and 1:5–8 may in fact be a connection. An identical synonymity is found in 1 Corinthians 2:6 and Colossians 1:28:
Yet among the mature (teleios) we do speak wisdom (sophia).
… teaching everyone in all wisdom (sophia), so that we may present everyone mature (teleios) in Christ.
And in Wisdom 9:6 we see “mature” (or “perfect”) transcended by “wisdom”:
for even one who is perfect (teleios) among human beings will be regarded as nothing without the wisdom (sophia) that comes from you.
The evidence then is solid enough to permit an interpretation that finds the “wisdom” of 1:5–8 to be the same goal that James has in mind with “mature” in 1:2–4.
Those who want to pursue the path of perfection discover their need and are told to “ask God.”93 Request is an inherent attribute of prayer in the Bible, and includes noteworthy examples in Abraham interceding for Sodom (Genesis 19), David praying for his child with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:16–23) and for forgiveness (Psalm 51), and Solomon’s global prayer for wisdom (1 Kgs 3:1–14; 2 Chron 1:7–13). And the reason the messianic Jewish community is to “ask” is that God is the one “who gives.” James continues that, if you ask, “it will be given you.”
For James, prayer is rooted in theology proper: God is “generous” or, as we will now argue, gives “singlemindedly.” God is ready to give because he “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly.” As Ralph Martin has put it: prayer 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.”96 Prayer that is confident (cf. 5:15–16) receives what it asks because of who God is.
Behind “generously” is a debate: does the adverb haplōs mean “generously” (NRSV) or “simply” (BDAG)? The word occurs only here in the New Testament, but two cognates, the adjective haplous and the noun haplotēs, occur ten times and can mean either “generous/generosity” or “simply/simplicity, (with) singleness of intention or integrity.” The noun clearly means “generosity” in Rom 12:8 and 2 Cor 8:2; 9:11, 13, but elsewhere “simplicity” or “with integrity” seems more likely (2 Cor 1:12; 11:3; Eph 6:5; Col 3:22). Because James is connected to the teachings of Jesus, one needs to bring the use of the adjective in Matt 6:22 par. Luke 11:34 into account, and there the sense of “single-minded” is clear. When one factors in the wisdom literature of the LXX (e.g., Prov 10:9; Wis 1:1–2), the balance shifts toward James 1:5 saying that God gives with “simplicity” or “integrity” or “single-mindedness.” And, since James will quickly speak of the “double-minded” doubter, it is quite possible that the single-mindedly generous God drawing from the community a single-minded trust is in view (cf. 1:6–8).
So if someone asks of God in faith, God responds simply, with integrity, and with the single-minded intent of answering that request. Or, as James goes on to say negatively, “ungrudgingly,” taking haplōs partly as the positive equivalent of mē oneidizontos. Once again, one thinks of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 7:7–11:
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Or of Jeremiah 29:12–14:
When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
And of Sirach 20:14–15:
A fool’s gift will profit you nothing,
for he looks for recompense sevenfold.
He gives little and upbraids much;
he opens his mouth like a town crier.
Today he lends and tomorrow he asks it back;
such a one is hateful to God and humans.
Humans may give grudgingly, either wishing they had not or only because they feel obliged, but God’s grace flows in one direction. There is no backtracking or second-guessing in God, nor is there any criticism or backstabbing after giving.
Wisdom to Learn from Trials (1:5–8)
James says the goal of trials is “that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (1:4–5). The goal, says James, is that we “lack nothing” spiritually. But to turn tests into maturity, the one thing you must not lack is wisdom. God intends trials to produce endurance and maturity. But trials do not always lead to spiritual growth. Suffering can create fear, despair, a determination to “look out for number one,” or anger toward God. Abundance (which is also a trial) can lead to selfish indulgence. Therefore, James now says, we need to ask God for wisdom, so we can gain from trials. In James’s words, “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” (1:5).
James encourages prayer with four successive phrases in verse 5. He says we should ask God (1) who gives (2) generously (3) to all (4) without finding fault. Each element merits our consideration.
First, James 1:5 literally reads, “Let him ask the giving God.” It matches the final statement “and it will be given to him.” James labels the Lord “the giving God.” When God gives, he acts according to his nature or character.
Second, James says God gives to all “generously.” The word literally means “simply.” Simplicity is generous in this sense: the simple gift is a pure gift. It neither returns a favor previously given nor expects a favor in return. The simple gift neither pays back nor expects a payback. That is, God’s gifts do not become debts. He delights in giving; it is his nature to give without calculating the return.
Third, the Lord gives “to all.” That is, he does not play favorites. God is generous to all his children.
Fourth, God gives “without finding fault” (niv) or, better, “without reproach” (esv). It is possible, even easy, to give and to add a reproach. We can say, “Yes, I can loan you more money, but what happened to the money I gave you last month?” We can say, “Yes, I will help you get ready for your trip, but you should have started preparing two weeks ago.” That is giving with reproach. But God gives without adding a rebuke; he simply gives.
Asking in Faith
Still, when we seek God’s gifts, we must ask in faith, wholeheartedly seeking God, fully expecting to receive wisdom from him. James says that anyone who asks “must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” As James does so often, here he harkens to a teaching from Jesus, who says, “If you have faith and do not doubt … you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matt. 21:21–22; cf. Mark 11:22–24).
God does give some gifts to his enemies (Matt. 5:45), but James promises nothing to the man who doubts even as he asks. The doubter asks God for aid, but before he finishes his prayer, he thinks, “This will never work.” He vacillates, tossing from one idea to the next, with no more stability of direction or purpose than a wind-whipped wave.
James sees doubt as the opposite of faith: “He must believe and not doubt.” The doubter is called double-minded and unstable, and he should expect to receive nothing. Like unbelievers, doubters cannot assume God will give them anything.
Our culture often views doubt as a noble thing. Philosophers such as Descartes use doubt as an organizing principle for their investigations, and popular culture often views doubters as courageous loners. But the Bible never views doubt as an activity or condition that is good in itself. Certainly, the Psalms encourage believers to take their questions to God when he is hidden or when evil seems stronger than good (Pss. 22; 73). And we must admit our doubts in order to seek the truth. Further, Jesus was always tender with doubters: he was patient with John the Baptist, when he asked if Jesus was indeed the Messiah (Matt. 11:1–12); he was forbearing with “doubting Thomas” (John 20:24–29); and he showed mercy to the father who said, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24 esv). Still, doubt is never intrinsically good. If doubt leads to a blessing, it is the result of the honesty of the doubter and his or her willingness to accept God’s answers. Doubters must be willing to leave their questions behind and trust God with a whole heart.
But the book of Acts commends Peter for refusing to hesitate or doubt when God gave him a hard command (10:20; 11:12). More to our point, Paul (like James) contrasts faith and doubt (using the same term, diakrinō) in Romans 4:20 (cf. Rom. 14:23). He says Abraham “did not waver [same word] through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith … being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (4:20–21). Clearly, Abraham had some moments of doubt (Gen. 12:2–3; 17:17–18), but over the years, he displayed a consistent faith in God. James is not teaching that only perfectly confident prayers will be answered. But God does want us to trust him consistently. We do not shift ceaselessly, like the swells of waves out in the ocean. We seek God for wisdom every day.
After James exhorts the church to view trials as a blessing and to seek wisdom to make them so, he briefly addresses the trials of riches and poverty. We have already made a few comments on James 1:9–11, but a point or two remains.
Trials demand wisdom (v. 5)
It is legitimate to ask God for wisdom in each and every circumstance of life. How often we find ourselves lacking it! But we never need wisdom more urgently than when we are facing difficulties.
First, a word about wisdom. What is it? We must not confuse it with knowledge. Knowledge is information; wisdom is application. Knowledge is comprehending facts; wisdom is handling life. Knowledge is theoretical; wisdom is practical.
We can think of it in terms of driving a car. We can have very good knowledge of a car and not drive very well at all! Conversely, we can have little knowledge of how a car operates and still expertly handle it.
Life is a lot like driving a car. We are tooling along, and suddenly someone darts out in front of us, or a huge pothole appears. In those situations, we must know how to respond in such a way that we are able to preserve our lives and the lives of others.
The trials and difficulties of life are much like the driver who pulls in front of us or the potholes in the road. We are driving along the roadway of life, and suddenly a trial comes. We need wisdom to respond to that trial. We need to know how to respond in such a way that we do not encourage a mistaken notion about what Christianity is. We need to know how to respond in such a way that we do not dishonour God. We need to respond in such a way that we do not discourage our fellow-Christians.
How often Christians drive the car of faith into the ditch when a trial pops up in the road!
Wisdom demands prayer (v. 5)
But how do we find wisdom for the facing of trials? James provides the answer: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God …’
‘If any of you lacks wisdom …’! That includes all of us! No one is sufficient in and of himself to face the trials of life, but the Lord is sufficient for his people.
We are once again face to face with the importance of prayer. How much the Bible makes of it! And how very poor we are at practising it!
Prayer is such a wonderful resource. It connects our poor, feeble little lives with the almighty God. It constructs a pipeline from his sufficiency to our inadequacy.
I do not doubt for a moment that most of us pray when we face trials. The question James puts before us has to do with that for which we are praying.
We pray for the trial to be lifted, and there is nothing wrong with that. But has it occurred to us to pray for wisdom in the trial? Have we asked God to help us handle it in such a way that we bring glory to him and leave a positive impression on those around us?
James attaches a glorious promise to his plea for prayer. He says that God ‘gives to all liberally and without reproach’ (v. 5). To say that God gives ‘liberally’ is to say that God is generous. He is not a miserly God who delights in withholding blessings from his people. John Calvin says the Lord is ready ‘to add new blessings to former ones, without any end or limitation’. Someone has suggested that we should think of God’s liberality in giving in terms of a pitcher always tilted and ready to pour. God’s pitcher of blessing is always tilted to fill the cups of his people.
That phrase ‘without reproach’ means that God gives without finding fault. One of the great things about God is that he knows of what we are made. He knows we are mere dust. He knows how very weak we are. He knows how difficult life is for us. He understands why we struggle so. He does not find fault with us for being what we are.
King David put it wonderfully:
As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
So let us be about the business of praying! We often vex ourselves with the matter of why our prayers are not answered. James would have us understand that the unanswered prayer is not our main problem in praying. It is rather the unasked prayer (4:2)!
1:5 / James now turns to his second theme and what appears to be a totally new topic, that of wisdom and prayer. It is indeed a major theme of the letter, but it is not unrelated to what goes before. If person hears a call to be perfect, he or she would certainly cry, “Help! Who can do it?” (like Paul’s “Who is sufficient for these things?” 2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5–6). Divine help is necessary, and divine help in James comes in the form of wisdom (cf. 3:13 ff.). Christians should indeed lack nothing, but in order to do this they need divine wisdom.
James shares this recognition. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God. He can do this with full confidence that God gives generously to all. Here James draws on the Jesus tradition (the yet unwritten sayings of Jesus that later formed the Gospels), for Jesus promised God would give his children what they ask (Matt. 7:7–11; Mark 11:24; Luke 11:9–13; John 15:7). What better gift could they request than the wisdom needed to withstand the trials they face. God gives it, for God is a good giver; God gives generously, which means that he gives without mental reservations, that he gives simply, with a single heart. He is not looking for some hidden return from believers; he does not have mixed motives or grudging feelings. In fact, he gives not just generously but without finding fault. That is, he does not complain about the gift or its cost. He is not a “fool,” who “has many eyes instead of one. He gives little and upbraids much, he opens his mouth like a herald; today he lends and tomorrow he asks back” (Sirach 20:14–15). No, God gives true gifts: no complaining, no criticizing (What? You need help again?), no mixed motives, no reluctance. Free, generous, even spendthrift giving characterizes the Christian’s God.
And what a gift he gives! He gives wisdom, which in this letter is the equivalent of the Holy Spirit, a gift that James’ readers, as former Jews, would recognize (as the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls did) as one of the gifts of the age to come. Wisdom comes to the Christian through Christ (1 Cor. 1:24; 2:4–6). This surely is what is needed to withstand trials and come to perfection.
1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God. The word “lacks” picks up the mention of “lacking” in 1:4, and so in this context 1:5 instructs the reader to ask God for wisdom for dealing with trials of life, something that even the most mature still need.
What kind of wisdom does James have in mind? James is writing to “the twelve tribes” (1:1) and has peppered his letter with examples of Old Testament people (Rahab, Abraham, Job, Elijah), so the first place to look for examples of God’s wisdom for the trials of life is the narrative portions of the Old Testament. Many Old Testament characters inquire of God seeking guidance from the Lord, something to make sense of what is happening to them or how to best respond. Rebekah asking God why her pregnancy is so difficult (Gen. 25:22), David wanting to know what is causing the famine in Israel (2 Sam. 21:1), and Jeroboam needing wisdom about whether or not his son will live (1 Kings 14:2–3) are a few of the many examples. In addition, perhaps James is thinking of Jesus asking the Father for guidance in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36–46) as to whether there is another way other than the cross, or his own situation from Acts 15 where the early church needed counsel from God to help settle the dispute regarding gentile inclusion.
who gives generously to all without finding fault. James is anticipating the two most likely objections to the idea of asking for wisdom from God. The first objection is that God gives wisdom only to people like Rebekah, David, or James—those who seem special or important in salvation history. But James says, God “gives generously to all.” This is reinforced in chapter 5 when James insists that Elijah is no different than we are—his prayers were answered, and ours will be answered too (5:17–18). The second objection is that God will be angry, annoyed, or disappointed with believers who seek wisdom in the midst of trials. James wants to reassure his readers that this could not possibly be the case (see also Matt. 7:9–11).
5. 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.
James demonstrates the art of writing by linking key words and phrases. In verse 3 he stresses the word perseverance; he puts it last in the sentence to give it emphasis. In verse 4, “perseverance” is the first expression he uses. The last phrase in verse 4 is “not lacking anything”; the first clause of the next phrase repeats this verb, “If any of you lacks wisdom.” The writer knows how to communicate effectively in simple, direct prose.
Note these points:
The clause if any of you lacks wisdom is the first part of a factual statement in a conditional sentence. The author is saying to the reader: “I know you will not admit it, but you need wisdom.” James tackles a delicate problem, for no person wants to hear that he is stupid, that he makes mistakes, and that he needs help. By nature man is independent. He wants to solve his own problems and make his own decisions. Eighteenth-century German theologian John Albert Bengel put it rather succinctly: “Patience is more in the power of a good man than wisdom; the former is to be exercised, the latter is to be asked for.” Man has to overcome pride to admit that he needs wisdom. But wisdom is not something he possesses. Wisdom belongs to God, for it is his divine virtue. Anyone who admits the need for wisdom must go to God and ask him. James appeals to the individual reader and hearer. He writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom” (italics added). This approach is tactful, for he could have said, “Everyone lacks wisdom.” But by saying “any of you,” James gives the reader a chance to examine himself, to come to the conclusion that he needs wisdom, and to follow James’s advice to ask God.
The believer must ask God for wisdom. James implies that God is the source of wisdom. It belongs to him.
What is wisdom? Both the Old and the New Testaments seek to explain this term. Solomon expresses it in typical Hebraic parallelism. Says he, “For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). Solomon equates wisdom with knowledge and understanding.
Also, the New Testament states that the Christian receives wisdom and that knowledge comes from God (see, for instance, 1 Cor. 1:30). True, we make a distinction between wisdom and knowledge when we say that knowledge devoid of wisdom is of little value. Observes Donald Guthrie, “If wisdom is the right use of knowledge, perfect wisdom presupposes perfect knowledge.” To become mature and complete, the believer must go to God for wisdom. God is willing to impart wisdom to anyone who asks humbly. God’s storehouse of wisdom is infinite, and he will give this gift “generously to all without finding fault.”
God is not partial. He gives to everyone, no matter who he is, because God wants to give. Giving is a characteristic of God. He keeps on giving. Every time someone comes to him with a request, he opens his treasury and freely distributes wisdom. Just as the sun continues to give light, so God keeps on giving wisdom. We cannot imagine a sun that fails to give light; much less can we think of God failing to give wisdom. God’s gift is free, without interest, and without the request to pay it back. It is gratis.
Moreover, God gives “without finding fault.” When we ask God for wisdom, we need not be afraid that he will express displeasure or will utter reproach. When we come to him in childlike faith, he will never send us away empty. We have the assurance that when we ask for wisdom, it “will be given” to us. God never fails the one who asks in faith.