Living Theology | James 1:5–8
Living Theology is a blog series that draws out the theological principles of each week's sermon text and thinks through how we can apply them to our personal lives. In other words, this series asks how we can live out the theology of Scripture each day.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. -- James 1:5–8 (NIV)
You can listen to Pastor Brian's sermon on James 1:5–8 here.
I mean, you can almost hear the prosperity preachers thumping their Bibles in the background, right?
"You must be-lieeeeve and not doubt! You say God didn't get you that raise at work? You must not have enough faith!"
"What's that? God didn't take away your cancer? You got to believe for a miracle! Faith of a mustard seed, and all that."
Well, James isn't a prosperity preacher (take a look at verse 10). He's not talking about asking God for cars or mansions or money or even for healing. James is talking about asking God for wisdom. This whole passage is governed by the word wisdom in verse 5. So it's important to understand what James means by "wisdom." In the ancient Israelite and Judean culture where James lived, wisdom wasn't as much about intelligence and abstract information as it was about good judgment and practical know-how. In fact, the Hebrew word for wisdom can even be translated as "skill" (see Exodus 36:1–2; 1 Kings 7:14; 1 Chronicles 28:21). Wisdom is knowing what to do and how to handle yourself in various situations. And if we remember the previous passage, James is talking about knowing what to do and how to handle yourself whenever you face trials of many kinds. He's talking to believers who are facing all kinds of trials, trials that may test their loyalty to Jesus. James is talking to the believer whose faith is being tested and who is asking themselves "What should I do?" This is what he means when he says, "If any of you lacks wisdom...." If any of you is being tested and you don't know what to do, you don't know how to respond, you don't know how to handle yourself, then ask God.
When we find ourselves in a difficult spot, when our trust—our dependence upon God—is tested, when we don't know what we're supposed to do and how we're supposed to respond, James reminds us to ask God.
It's important to notice the two comments that James makes about our response to trials. James tells us who we should ask and how we should ask.
Theological Principle #1:
When we're not sure how to respond to trials, we should ask God.
If the trials we face have the effect of strengthening our faith, then one of the ways they do so is by driving us to prayer. God doesn't expect us to face our trials alone. He wants us to depend on His strength rather than our own. When we ask God for wisdom in how to respond to our trials, when we cry out to Him, "God, what am I supposed to do?" we demonstrate our dependence on Him. God is not going to leave us hanging when we come to Him in these times. He hears our prayer, and he will give us wisdom for how to respond.
The world is happy to tell us how to respond. When we face oppression, the world tells us to fight back! When we face temptation, the world tells us to get all we can! When we face despair, the world tells us to give up on God. But we don't ask the world for wisdom; we ask God.
Theological Principle #2:
When we're not sure how to respond to trials, we should ask confidently.
While verse 5 tells us who to ask for wisdom, verses 6–8 tell us how to ask for wisdom. James tells us that when we ask God for wisdom we must believe and not doubt.
This raises an important question: why do we doubt that God will give us what we ask for?
The simple answer is that we doubt because we have asked God for things before and we didn't get what we asked for (or at least, we don't think we did). But remember, James isn't talking about us asking God for what we want. He's talking about us asking God for wisdom about how to respond to the trials we are facing. When passages like this (including Matthew 7:7–8) are separated from their context, it's easy to make them say things they were never meant to say. And for some people, the false promise of being able to get anything they want if they can just figure out how to ask "with faith" compels them to ignore the larger context of the passage.
We also need to understand the relationship between faith and doubt. We often view faith as the absence of doubt. If we were to put 'faith' and 'doubt' on a spectrum, then we might say that faith is limited to one extreme and the rest of the spectrum represents various levels of doubt, as if we can't claim to have faith until we have freed ourselves from all doubt.
But this just isn't the case. Faith is not the same thing as certainty. Faith is not the absence of questions or doubt. Christian faith is continuing to trust in and maintain our loyalty to Jesus in the midst of questions, doubts, and uncertainties. The biblical concept of faith is actually more closely related to obedience than it is to certainty.
Listen to this brief illustration from D. A. Carson on what real faith often looks like for many of us.
When James tells us that the one who asks God for wisdom must believe and not doubt, he's not saying that belief and doubt are mutually exclusive. He's saying that asking with doubt is self-defeating. The word here for doubt is the same word that is used for "evaluate" or "dispute" and can mean "differentiate," "decide," "take issue with," "waver," and "hesitate" (among others) depending on the context in which it's used. To be sure, James is not praising doubt or saying that doubt is a good thing. He doesn't want us to doubt. But he also knows that God's generosity is not based on our faith or our doubt. How else could he say that God gives "to all without finding fault"?
The 'doubt' in this passage isn't really about doubting whether or not God will give us what we ask for. The doubt in this passage is about doubting whether or not God really "gives generously to all without finding fault." If we don't believe that God "gives generously to all without finding fault," then what grounds do we have for expecting "to receive anything from God"? Verse 8 sums it all up quite nicely. If, on the one hand, we're asking God for wisdom about how to respond to the trials we face, but on the other hand, we don't believe that God "gives generously to all without finding fault," then why in the world are we asking for wisdom in the first place? We are conflicted; we are a self-contradiction. Or, in James' words, we are "double-minded" and "unstable."
Applying God's Truth
So how can we live out the truth of these theological principles today?
Pray. I know, but it's right there in the text. "If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God." How quick is your prayer response when your faith is tested? For a lot of us, prayer isn't a reflex. But in this passage, God is using James' exhortation to show us that it should be. Let's think of the trials that we face not only as opportunities for joy and opportunities for God to demonstrate his faithfulness to us, let's also think of them as opportunities for us to learn how to prioritize prayer. When we pray to God for wisdom about how to respond to our trials, we are acknowledging that we need Him and we are demonstrating that we trust Him.
Remind ourselves that God is good and that he "gives generously to all without finding fault." This is the source of our confidence—not our own belief or doubt, but God’s goodness and generosity. Our confidence is not in ourselves, but in Him.
Do the same thing for others who are facing trials. Praying with others and reminding them of God's generosity is a powerful way for us to serve those around us whose faith is being tested. This could even create an opportunity for us to share the Gospel by explaining how God showed the extent of his generosity by offering Himself for us in Jesus Christ.
Decide to trust God despite your questions, your fear, and your uncertainty. Salvation is a free gift from God that we cannot earn. And our faith in God would not be possible apart from His grace. But we who have been redeemed by God can actively decide that we are going to trust God more than ourselves, more than our fear, and more than our doubts. We don't need to pretend that fears and doubts don't exist. We just need to make the decision that they will not keep us from staying loyal to God. Even when we're scared, we will trust in Him. Even when we aren't sure what to do, we will not waver from our commitment to Him.
[All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV.]