Friday, February 29, 2008

Wisdom - How to Get It

Top Twelve Scripture Texts: Number 2
James 1:5-8: Wisdom
Bob Rakestraw

God showed me very early in my Christian life the importance of James 1:5-8. This passage of scripture has been a powerful influence on me, guiding me and encouraging me in the biggest decisions of my life. God used it in guiding my choice of a college, leading me from the one I was attending. God used it in helping me know the woman I would marry—and have now been married to for over forty years. God used it in guiding my wife and me concerning major moves to Missouri, Alberta, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas, and Minnesota. Here is the scripture text I have come to love and highly value.

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).

I have used this Bible passage numerous times as I have sought for guidance, not only for the “big” decisions such as college, spouse, and major geographical moves involving education or employment, but also for hundreds—probably thousands—of less “dramatic” matters. I need God’s wisdom for the daily details and “business” of life as well as for the most serious decisions and crises.

All of us need wisdom many times a day. Whether we need direction in handling our money, help in preparing for an exam, or guidance in knowing what to say to someone we are trying to help, we need God’s wisdom. This scripture text from the book of James instructs us in our all-important quest for wisdom. It has been for years one of my “top twelve” all-time favorite Bible passages, because it has been so consistently encouraging and practically beneficial. I memorized it long ago, as I have all twelve of these texts. That way, I can pull it out of my memory as easily as I take a pen from my pocket.

Helpful Background

James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote this epistle about 50 AD. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church, and was writing to Jewish Christian congregations scattered outside of Palestine throughout the Roman Empire. The church was under pressure, suffering not martyrdom and physical persecution as such, but economic persecution and the oppression of the poor. Christians were beginning to break under the pressure, so James wrote to urge them to stay strong and persevere in trials. For this they would need much wisdom from God.

Here is the background to our text on wisdom from James 1:2-4:

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

These words are so startling—utterly amazing and contrary to our natural inclinations—that they cause us either to ponder them deeply or discard them quickly. I have studied and taught the book of James from the original Greek language for over thirty-five years. In terms of its practicality in my life it is my favorite New Testament book. I never fail to be stunned, however, by the words “consider it nothing but joy.” No amount of reworking or retranslating of the original text can dull the force of these words. When we embrace this attitude of considering our trials—whatever kind they are—as “nothing but joy,” we are surely ready to ask God for wisdom in the midst of these trials.

Many times I have lain upon a bed in severe physical pain, trying to think about God and the illness in such a way as to relieve the pain. It is clear to me that the suffering and distress of these moments is not “pure joy” in itself. In the new heaven and new earth, “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4), so pain itself is not a joyful thing. I hate the pain. The joy, I have discovered, is in the intensity and singularity of God’s presence in the moment of trial. No thought, measure or device resolves the issue other than the pure presence of God himself. Knowing that God loves me supremely and allows only what is of eternal benefit for his trusting children, I find that the experience itself is a kind of encounter with heaven. There comes an infusion of heaven’s presence that eclipses the agony of the moment. My favorite expression at such times is: “I trust you, Lord.” I repeat this over and over. Even though I “groan inwardly” at such times (Rom 8:23), I also find God very real, very near and very comforting. Other kinds of trials—relational, psychological, financial (the main category of trials experienced by James’ readers)—are included in this scripture: “whenever you face trials of any kind.” In the same way as with physical sufferings, we are to consider such difficulties as “pure joy” (Jas. 1:2, NIV).

The God we Address

And we are to come to God for wisdom. As remarkable as the previous thought is (“consider it nothing but joy”), these words are just as remarkable: “ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly (‘without finding fault,’ NIV), and it will be given you.” The invitation is open to everyone going through trials. The Greek word translated “generously” (haplos) is used only here in the New Testament. It may be rendered “generously,” “liberally,” “without reserve,” but there is also good support for the translation “simply,” “without mental reservation,” “sincerely,” “with an undivided mind.” One scholar, Peter H. Davids, leans toward the second meaning because, in part, “it prepares one for the description of the vacillating petitioner [in vss. 6-8], whose divided loyalty prevents his prayer from being heard” (The Epistle of James [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], p. 73). God truly does give to us liberally (2 Cor. 9:8), but he also gives to us without mental reservation. He is not double minded—wanting to give us wisdom but also wanting to hold back in some way. No, he gives to us with the purest of motives—to help us navigate the rocky shores and treacherous waves on the oceans of life. God’s pure, simple desire is to give us the wisdom we need to live well, as we consider our trials “pure joy.”

God is also said to give “ungrudgingly.” The idea here is “not reproaching,” “without finding fault,” “not insulting.” God does not feel any displeasure or regret after giving us the gift of wisdom. He gives freely and kindly, not looking down on us with disfavor or disappointment. The Bible could not give us more encouraging language about God’s amazing character then what we find here in James 1:5.

Coming to God

The final emphasis in this scripture passage is really a two-fold, double-sided statement: “it will be given you,” “but ask in faith, never doubting.” First of all, God assures us that the wisdom we are asking for will be given to us. This is one of the “sure promises” of God’s Word—a guarantee of answered prayer because God is both generous and ungrudging. When we come to God with the right heart-attitude, we can be sure that he will give us all the wisdom we need for whatever problem we have.

In his heavenly wisdom, however, God adds the exhortation to “ask in faith, never doubting.” James describes the doubter as “being double-minded and unstable in every way,” and states that this kind of person “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord (vss. 6-8). Such a condition attached to the gracious invitation just given may seem at first to be too difficult to meet. It is easier for us to accept the words, “ask in faith,” than the condition, “never doubting.” But both expressions are saying basically the same thing—one positively and one negatively: we are to come to God with confidence (trust, faith, belief, conviction) that he wants to help us. He delights in giving wisdom to those who seek it with an expectation that honors the One who is supremely wise.

When I first noticed this scripture many years ago I wondered about the asking “in faith, never doubting.” Does the Divine Author of the biblical text mean that we will never receive the wisdom we need if we have any doubts about the outcome of our prayers? To ask in faith means to believe. Obviously, we must believe in God, but something more is intended. The most convincing interpretation to me, in light of the immediate context and the overall biblical context (see, for example, Mark 11:24 and 1 John 5:14-15) is that we are to believe that God will surely give us the wisdom to do the right thing, say the right thing, and handle the overall situation well, as long as our motives are pure.

Two matters are involved here, and they are closely related. First, we are not to doubt that God will give us the wisdom we truly need, according to his own wisdom, and second, we are not to be double-minded. Verse eight says that “the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” Double-mindedness lies at the root of doubt. It has to do with purity of heart, as James indicates later: “purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). If you or I come to God wanting wisdom for a certain situation, yet with a wrong motive (or without the right motive—God’s holy will for our lives), we cannot expect to receive anything. This scripture may sound severe, but I have learned that God is always wise in everything he does and in everything he teaches. His ways are always for our good.

One crucial lesson I have learned over the years regarding this whole matter of asking for wisdom without doubting is that some times I will need to come right down to the time when I need to make a decision, and still not have a “clear as a bell” word from the Lord. In such cases, because I have asked God for wisdom, with the right intentions and with no doubt that he is in the situation guiding me, I then make the decision to the best of my ability, and believe that the decision I am making is the one that will honor him. Even if, after the decision, circumstances turn sour, I still remain confident, without doubting, that God has led me. He said he would give wisdom, and so I trust that he did.

Practical Examples

Many of you know that I had a heart transplant in 2003, and have had serious problems with rejection. My body has been working non-stop to shut down my new heart. While I have experienced considerable physical sufferings since the transplant, and for years before that, my major realm of suffering has been the psychological. We are, of course, wholistic beings, and our bodily, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual lives are closely intertwined. In my case, the bodily afflictions affected the other spheres of life significantly. The illnesses in the bodily realm resulted in major struggles within my mind and spirit. During the past month I have been using James 1:5 in a way that I had not done before. I am now asking God for wisdom to know how to think and live regarding my illness throughout each day. Whereas previously I used this text when I needed wisdom for decisions and/or tough situations concerning my body, I lately have been calling to God for wisdom to know how to handle battles of the mind, such as discouragement, anxiety, and mental fatigue. Much of the time God’s word to me is: “lie down and rest your body and soul.” Other times he teaches me or refreshes me with some biblical insight. Sometimes he gives me meaningful work that leaves me with a sense of satisfaction and deep gratitude.

Recently, my wife and I followed with prayer some friends of ours—we’ll call them Shawn and Grace—contemplating a major geographical move. Our friends—married with four children—are Christians who needed to change their circumstances for the sake of the family. Shawn had a job that took so much time that both his health and family were suffering. When he received a job offer out-of-state he became very excited and wanted to move. Grace had strong objections to the move. After a time of serious disagreement, Shawn and Grace came to the point of praying together—resolved that their overriding desire was to know God’s will and do it. We prayed with them about the decision, and finally they came to the conclusion that they should not move. They were at a standstill until they came to God in prayer and asked for wisdom in faith and purity of motive.

The case of Shawn and Grace is an excellent illustration of how God frequently works. After we cry to him for help, he often allows time—sometimes weeks, months or even years—to pass before he gives us a clear sense of direction. Sometimes the “direction” is that we have a sense of unease about making a change. In the case of our friends, they felt God was telling them to stay where they are for now, but to be open for a possible move in the near future.

Becoming Wise Persons

This leads to a very important truth: we do not first receive something called “wisdom” that is tangible or knowable by sense experience and then out of that quantity or deposit of wisdom we make periodic withdrawals. We are not given wisdom as a “thing” that we then use as needed. Rather, wisdom is a divinely-given quality of our personhood. It is part of our very being. God longs to shape us into wise persons. As we become more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, who is our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30), we become wise people. We grow in wisdom in proportion to our exercise of wisdom.

A helpful way to close this discussion is by simply listing several powerful scripture texts on the subject of wisdom as a foundational personal quality.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Ps. 111:10).

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:7).

“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (Ps. 51:5).

“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Ps. 90:12).

This article is one of a series of twelve blog postings—one for each month of 2008—presenting my all-time favorite Bible passages. My criterion for selecting these texts is the practical benefit/nourishment/help I have received from God through these scriptures over the four and one-half decades of my Christian life. I am who I am today because of some key people and because of the truths in these twelve scripture texts. There are many other Bible verses that could fit well in this series. The Word of God is a well-stocked gold mine of truth.
If you wish, start your own list, and share some of your stories on this blog—to help us all live well, help us all to serve others, and help us all to prepare well for the remainder of this life and for the next.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post I especially found this meaningful:
"I lately have been calling to God for wisdom to know how to handle battles of the mind, such as discouragement, anxiety, and mental fatigue.Much of the time God’s word to me is: “lie down and rest your body and soul.” Other times he teaches me or refreshes me with some biblical insight. Sometimes he gives me meaningful work that leaves me with a sense of satisfaction and deep gratitude."

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Dear friend,

Thank you for your comment about wisdom. It was good for me to re-read the words you quoted, because, even though I wrote them, they have taken on a "life of their own," and just now "preached" to me.

The last point challenges me, because of the word "meaningful." I need to maintain an optimistic mood when it comes to the limited service I can give to God and his people. God always takes our loaves and fish and multiplies them, even though we don't see spectacular results.

Thank you for writing and encouraging me. May our gracious Lord give you wisdom and peace always.