Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:5-8 Becoming Wise

James 1:5-8 “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. But when he asks, he 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.”

Most of us long to be wise, and want our children to be wise, and themselves marry wise people. We don’t mean by that being stuffy, and lacking in any sense of humour. We don’t equate being wise with being interested only in religion, or in going to university and getting a Ph.D. There are hosts of religious fools both in the church and in the world, and having a doctorate is not the sign of wisdom – though many a Ph.D. would like to think it is. Wisdom is more than an interest in religion, or academic prowess. Wisdom is the affectionate application of truth to every situation and relationship of our life.

For example, the context of these words is the trial that comes at times into our lives, and James addresses his advice to both mind and affections – “Consider it pure joy … it’s the testing of your faith … a trial will develop perseverance and maturity.” Wisdom is not simply being able to memorise and quote James 1:2-4, or understanding what James is saying, or even agreeing with the fact that that is the way to respond to a trial. Being wise is actually considering any trial pure joy, and developing perseverance and maturity from it. Wisdom is applying the knowledge found in the Bible to our daily lives. It’s more than an intellectual or even a moral response, it is an emotional response to the Scriptures, a trembling at the Word and also a delight in it. The fear of the God of the Word is the beginning of wisdom. We can also say that delight in the God of the Word the beginning of wisdom. So wisdom is true Christianity lived out day by day.

We must have the knowledge of the Bible, and have it preached to us, but being wise is our applying that knowledge to all the interfaces of human experience. That is what people lack, and James is particularly concerned here with Christians who are unwise. They had the apostles’ ministry, some of them had been converted under Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. They had fled from Jerusalem during the first great persecution, but they were not responding wisely to this trial. They were getting depressed, or hysterical, or falling away from the church, or compromising their convictions. They were lacking wisdom and James tells them here what they must do.

There is nothing more important for us than that we become wise men and women, and James is going to tell us how. Isn’t that remarkable ? I went to church one Sunday evening and I learned how to become wise. “How much did they charge you ?” “Without money and without price.” Remember how it was with young king Solomon – “Ask for whatever you want me to give you,” said the Lord (I Kings 3:5). “Give your servant a discerning heart,” answered the monarch (I Kings 3:9). The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom. What would your reply be if you were given that option – ask for whatever you want ? The future stretches out, the rest of your life and all the choices and decisions that you have to take. Can you see the importance of a life characterised by wisdom ? James is going to tell us how we can be wise.

1] ASK GOD FOR WISDOM

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (v.5). That is the basic Christian position. In other words, wisdom comes from above. It’s a matter of pure vertical sovereign grace. It is a gift of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and no one else. He alone is the source of wisdom, not the philosophers, nor the scientists, nor all the supremos of 20th century culture. Wisdom is found only in God, but he does not keep it to himself. He gives his wisdom to others, to those who ask him. You see the context of this advice ? Christians are wilting under terrible persecution. People are stoning followers of the Lord Jesus Christ to death. It is a fearful time, and when James writes to them his counsel is that they count all this pure joy, that their faith is being tested, and that the result will be endurance and maturity. It all seems hopelessly unreal and idealistic. “It’s all right for him. Preachers are supposed to say things like that. He doesn’t know what we are going through – ‘count it pure joy indeed !!!'” James replies, “Ask God about it. Don’t dismiss my words out of hand. Ask God for wisdom. Ask God ! Ask !”

You remember a similar situation when the young disciples were listening to Jesus preach to them the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount. He, very logically and powerfully, opens up to them the blessedness of the Christian life, being poor in spirit, and mourning, and being meek, pure in heart, hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Then he shows them the inwardness of the law of God and exhorts them to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek and go the second mile. After that he talks to them about true piety, secret prayer and fasting and almsgiving. Then he turns to the subject of trusting God. They are not to worry about what they are going to eat or drink or wear, nor about the future because their heavenly Father will look after them.

You can imagine these young men looking at one another. This was all crushingly new for them. How different from their view of the kingdom of God. Their hearts began to sink. How could they possibly live like that ? It seemed a fantasy. Then Jesus, knowing their inmost hearts, said to them, “Ask !” (Matthew 7:7) “Don’t give up immediately. Ask God to help you to live like this.” Christ promises them, “and it will be given to you.” Then he returns to this theme because it is so important: “Seek” the strength to live like this, and then he promises them, “and you will find.” Again he urges them, “knock, and the door will be opened to you.” He presents these waverers with the possibility that from now on their way can be this new way of life, if they ask and seek for God’s help. But the Lord Jesus has not finished with them. This point is so very important. He adds, “For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:8). The required answer will come to every single person who asks, Jesus assures them. But he still has not finished urging upon them the importance of asking. He uses the analogy of their own dear children coming to them and asking them for food. They are not perfect men, but they are kind and loving to their asking children. “How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11). “Ask !” he is saying. Don’t dismiss this beautiful life as wholly impossible for you. Ask for God to give it to us.

The greatest human barrier to people becoming wise is their refusal to take seriously the possibility that they can change, that God will help them to overcome the folly of the past and present, and that they can become wise – just as long as they ask him for it. James says to these wilting Christians, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (v.5). James does not say, “Agonise for it ! Wrestle in frustration and roll on the floor for it !” Just ask God day by day for wisdom. Don’t face a day without asking the Lord to make you wise in all sorts of circumstances. Ask God !

Then like the Lord Christ on the Mount James in this letter gives them great encouragements to ask God. The command has prescribed the duty. These promises declare its realisation:- 1] One. Ask because he is a God who gives. It is written twice in v.5 as if to underline it: “God who gives” … “and it will be given”. God is a giving God. That is the theme of the most well-known verse in the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). The New Testament is full of references to the giving of God. Paul says – “he’s given the very greatest gift of all to us – his only begotten Son. Think of it ! Will he not with him freely give us all things ?” Every day we come to this God. He is never someone who intends to be generous .tomorrow. He is always the God who gives and gives and gives again.

2] Two. Ask because he is a God “who gives generously” (v.5). Solomon asked for a discerning heart. God gave him that, plus what he had not asked for, “both riches and honour” (I Kings 3:13). The prodigal son asked, “Make me like one of your hired men” but the father gave him the best robe, a ring, sandals – all the ensignia of sonship – and a feast (Luke 15:22). The debtor of Matthew 18 asked the king for patience so that he could pay him back what he owed. The king did much more than that, he took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go (Matthew 18:26&27). Those pictures are of the generosity of a God who gives us all things richly to enjoy. Every good and perfect gift any man has known comes to us from the Lord. Paul speaks about God’s giving in terms of “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:30). When Paul describes how we should give, he tells a Christian in Rome “let him give generously” (Roms.12:8), because God does behave like that every day to all men.

3. Three. Ask because he is a God “who gives generously to all” (v.5). One man has been such a fool in the past, so surely he wont be made wise ? “To all” says the Holy Spirit. Another is so fearful, a real Mr Timorous – can a trembling uncertain Christian like him become wise ? “To all” says the Word. Another is a novice in the faith, a real beginner, his foot is on the first rung of the Christina ladder. Can he expect to become wise ? “To all” says James. Let none disqualify themselves when God refuses to do so. All may be the beneficiaries of his free grace.

4. Four. Ask because he is a God “who gives generously to all without finding fault” (v.5). Men can find a reason for not giving. John Calvin saw it in the city of Geneva in his day. He says concerning this verse, “Miserly and grudging men scowl and shuffle over every meagre payment, and even hold back part of what they were to give, or have a long debate with themselves whether to give or not.” They find some fault to justify their meanness.

There is the story told of the Welsh village flooded in heavy rain, and the Red Cross personnel coming up the main street in an inflatable boat in the darkness looking for survivors. One man clambered out of the boat and walked gingerly up the roof of the submerged house and shouted down a chimney forlornly, “Red Cross !” A thin Welsh voice echoed back up the chimney, “We gave last week !” Men can always find a fault for not giving, but God never finds fault. John Calvin observes, “the most open-handed men remember their previous donations, even if a man approaches them for aid repeatedly, and makes excuse for another time; so we grow ashamed to bother our fellow men, however generous, with too much asking. But with God, says James, there is no comparison. He is prepared to heap new benefits on top of the old, with neither limit nor calculation.” God doesn’t say, “But I gave you wisdom three months ago. What have you done with that ?” God does not find fault.

This word, translated ‘generously’ is found only here in the New Testament. Scholars love to debate with themselves and one another as to the best English word to translate it. Its root is the word ‘single’ or ‘simple’ and that root word is used in the context of having a single eye, or being single-minded. In other words, God is absolutely undivided and unwavering in his intention to simply give wisdom to whoever asks for it. He looks at you. He knows all about you, and when you come to him and ask him, “Please give me wisdom,” it is as if there were only yourself and himself in the entire universe. God wants you to know that he is utterly committed to making you wise. Ask him for wisdom, and never stop asking him. James explains why some Christians chug along on a virtually sub-Christian level, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (4:2).

2. ASK GOD FOR WISDOM IN THE RIGHT WAY

You see James’ logic ? There are Christians who are lacking wisdom. But the problem does not lie with God. We know that he “gives generously to all, without finding fault.” So the problem lies in us, that we are not asking for wisdom with an attitude that pleases God. We have to ask God for wisdom in two ways, [1] believingly, and [2] single-mindedly. Let’s examine both of these in turn.

1. THE CHRISTIAN MUST ASK BELIEVINGLY AND NOT DOUBT (v.6).

James is talking about praying, and he says that in real prayer we are confident that God is hearing us and able to answer our requests. Consider the Lord Jesus and the people who constantly came to him for help. They believed that he was the only one who could do anything, and they came in faith just to him. For example, four of them brought a paralysed friend to him, but they could not get to Jesus because of the crowd. They had to bring their friend to the Lord because who else could help him ? So they dismantle the roof and let him down on ropes to Jesus’s feet. They had no doubt that Christ was able and willing to heal their friend. You meet that confidence in all those who benefited from Jesus. You hear it in the shrewd arguments of the Canaanite woman that the Lord would heal her daughter. “Woman you have great faith ! Your request is granted” (Matthew 15:28). You see it in the whole military posture of the centurion that Jesus heal his servant. “You have the authority to transform him at this moment. No need for you to move an inch and walk to my house.” The centurion did not doubt that Christ could heal his servant at that moment, and in fact that is what happened.

What the centurion, and the Canaanite woman, and the four friends of the paralysed man were all declaring in their hearts was, “How great a being you are, Sovereign Lord.” Their whole posture before the Lord Jesus Christ was one of worship and hope. They had heard about him, and then they had seen for themselves his power over sickness. They had listened to his teaching, and seen the beauty of his character. All this had created in them a trust in his power and willingness to help them. So they sought him out, asked him to help them and their friends. That is what James is talking about here when he says, “he must believe.”.

There were others who had no such regard for the Saviour. They were hostile, cool, disputing with him, and Christ did no miracles where such people were. James says, “He must believe and not doubt,” in order to receive blessings from the Lord. King Herod was pleased when Pilate sent Christ to be examined by him because he had heard much about the Nazarene and wanted to see a sign. “Perform a miracle for me,” asked Herod. The Lord Jesus never said a word or did a thing before such a person – “that man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord” (v.7). Herod and the Pharisees had the doubts of hostility.

But there are other doubts that stem from the lack of assurance. These words of James are a little intimidating for some of you, where he says in verse 6, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” The fact is that all of us are periodically assaulted by doubts, and it is this fact that Satan latches onto. Satan defines faith as “a sustained and full assurance of the love of God in our souls.” Satan defines it as “a continual full persuasion that our sins are forgiven.” Then he points out to us the times in which this is absent from our lives. “How can you be a Christian ?” he asks. “How can you ask God for wisdom when you have these doubts ?”

Satan is like a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ who defines for us what a man is and chooses to do so in terms of an Olympic athlete – “see his muscles, co-ordination, speed, energy and endurance – now that is a man.” Millions of men are not like that, nor ever will be. They cannot run a mile in four minutes, or break 10 seconds for the hundred meters. They could not possibly run a marathon, but aren’t they men ? Of course they are. What else are they ? The definition is false.

If faith is life, then assurance is vitality. How great a blessing is blessing ! Who can tell the great gulf between life and death ? Yet a man may be weak, sickly, worn, joyless, and yet be a living man. But assurance is more than life. It is health, vitality, power, vigour and a sense of well-being.

When James urges us to believe and not doubt he is not insisting that the grace of full assurance of faith be ours before we can ask God for anything. The man in Mark 9:24 asked the Lord for help. He cried, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Because he came to the Lord and said to him, “I believe” his prayers were heard and he received what he longed for, but when he said, “help me overcome my unbelief” he indicated his doubts. There may be true faith, yes, great faith, where there is no assurance. Don’t allow your lack of assurance prevent your asking God for wisdom.

Remember that the God of Scripture defines saving faith more accurately than Satan, and he does so in terms of receiving Christ, as believing on his name, as coming to God in Christ, and resting upon all that Jesus has done, the benefits of which he invites us to take. False definitions of faith will anchor it to strong joy, assurance and that we know 100% that we are Christians. True faith will simply look to this extraordinary great and beautiful Redeemer of whom we might say on some days, “I don’t know if I have him, but I know that if I had him I would be saved.” Such lack of assurance is not what James is talking about when he says we must not doubt. How often did Jesus say to his disciples, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith ?” (Matthew 6:30, 14:31, 16:8. Luke 12:28). Christians may be true believers who nevertheless suffer periods of doubt.

When the Puritan preacher, Thomas Brooks, handles this problem with Christian doubts in his “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices” he says, “Since assurance is an effect of faith therefore it cannot be faith” (p.150). Faith is the root, and assurance is the flower. Doubtless you can never have the flower without the root; but you can have the root without the flower. “The cause cannot be the effect, nor the root the fruit. As the effect flows from the cause, the fruit from the root, the stream from the fountain, so does assurance flow from faith.” Faith is the anaemic woman who came upon our Lord when his back was turned to her and who touched the hem of his garment. Assurance is Stephen in the midst of his executioners calmly saying, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Faith is the penitent thief crying, “Jesus, remember me.” Assurance is Job in his broken health saying, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Faith cannot be lost, but assurance may, so assurance is not faith. James does not say, “But when he asks he must believe and have full assurance of faith.” James says, “and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” James is describing a person who doubts the most basic religious realities, whether God is a God of wisdom, whether God will grant such wisdom to him. His mind is so full of indecision and uncertainty that after saying a prayer to the Lord for wisdom he will read his horoscope for tips, or go to the fortune-teller for counsel, or look for signs in the physical world. A.W.Tozer’s grandmother kept a ‘dream book.’ All her confidence was in this. The first thing she did in the morning before breakfast was to take the book up and turn to the subject of the previous night’s dream and then her patterns of behaviour for the day would be determined by the interpretation the book gave to her dreams.

Those are the sorts of doubts in the supreme wisdom of the Lord that James is referring to. Think of the contrast with a Christian who begins each day reading, not a ‘dream book’ but that wisdom which is found in the Bible. A man full of doubts may look, for example, at the sea to decide on his actions for the day. What is its colour ? Is it calm or choppy ? Are the currents coming from the north or south ? Is the tide going out or coming in ? Are the waves foaming or gentle ? He may make his choices for the day based on his interpretation of these phenomena. James describes such a man, “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” (vv. 6&7). We pray for wisdom correctly when we believe in the Lord only, and ask him, the giving God, for this grace, and never stop asking him for it. God is honest, frank and sincere with us. Let us be honest, frank and sincere with him. So let us ask God believingly, trusting that he is wise and generous to give us what we ask from him.

2] THE CHRISTIAN MUST ASK SINGLE-MINDEDLY AND NOT BE UNSTABLE (V.8)

James describes this man who does not receive wisdom from the Lord as “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” It would have been damning enough if James had stopped at the phrase ‘double-minded.’ The word may be his own invention; it occurs only in this letter in the New Testament. It is in fact the first time for the word to appear in Greek literature, but certainly not the last. It means, literally ‘double-souled.’ Here is a deeply divided person. Thomas Manton says, “I have read of a profane wretch that bragged he had two souls in one body, one for God and the other for anything” (Commentary on James, p.55). That is exactly James’s concern. That is bad enough but James goes on to add the words, “unstable in all his ways.” It is not that double-minded people may go one of just two ways. They are utterly unpredictable in everything they do. They have no foundation at all and so there is no knowing in what direction they are going to fall. It is virtually a state of spiritual schizophrenia.

It is a remarkable description of the culture we live in. It was erected on the foundation of the Bible’s view of God, man and morality. That has been destroyed, but nothing has been built, or can be built, to replace it because there are no foundations to erect anything. We are living in a double-minded civilisation unstable in all its ways. For example, this very week the papers reported that “An Australian court found a divorced mother’s friends had, between them, anorexia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, depression and an obsessive love of cats, and so gave custody of her seven-year-old boy to his father, a homosexual” (The Spectator, 20 June, 1998, p.6). That supports James’s analysis of the human condition perfectly, communities without any foundations at all, desperately unstable, double minded people, and the result is many people getting hurt. The psalmist asks, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do ?” (Psalm 11:8) Ask God for wisdom ! This is James’s great message.

In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus Christ speaks about the value of life with a single vision. He says, as the King James Version translates it, “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones speaking on this verse, says, “Man is always trying to mix things up that cannot be mixed. Still worse is the fact that he persuades himself that he can do it successfully. He is quite sure this compromise is a possibility, and yet our Lord tells us it is not. If you want it stated philosophically, you have but to turn to Aristotle and his axiom to the effect that ‘there is no mean between two opposites’. Opposites are opposites, and you will never get a mean between them. Here is it is. There is no possible mixing of light and darkness. It is no longer light if you do, and it is no longer darkness. Neither can you mix God and mammon, for no man can serve two masters. It is one or the other, ‘for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.’ These are absolutes, and if we were capable of thinking clearly we should recognise them as such. They are both totalitarian. Both demand our entire allegiance, and therefore they cannot be mixed. But man in sin and in his supposed cleverness sees two things at one and the same time; and he glories in this double vision. Our Lord, however, tells us here that it cannot be done. We cannot love two opposite things at the same time. Love is exclusive; it is demanding, and always insists upon the absolute. It is either one or the other; it must be light or darkness. The eye is single or not single; it is either God or mammon” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 2, p.102). “A double-minded man is unstable in all he does.” In the diaries of Jim Elliot he writes of his longing as a student that his life should be characterised by “a single eye.” How triumphantly that prayer was answered.

The prophet Elijah was facing an unstable nation of double-minded people. They worshipped the Lord, but they also worshipped the Baals. They might keep a shelf of small icons of Baal before the front door, and as they went out and in they repeated a prayer to Baal, but they also prayed to the Lord. Elijah confronts them on Mount Carmel, and he tells them this cannot go on. “How long will you waver between two opinions ? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (I Kings 18:212). They are in a condition of total indecision. They are not wholly for God. They are not wholly for Baal. They are hopping between two opinions, and Elijah says that this is utterly impossible. They were trying to be double-souled men wanting to give one soul to each god.

Time and again the Christian church faces that peril of so-called ‘broad-minded’ members trying to combine a unique and uncompromising religion – because that is what the Christian faith is – with other religions. Some members are drawn towards the Lord God and also towards man. They are drawn to Jesus Christ and also to so much of what this world has to offer. They can appreciate a salvation which is all of grace, but also they have some sneaking use of the engineering of men. And the word of God is challenging them: are we going to be Christians or not ? Are we going to follow Christ or the world ? Are we going to count it all joy in our trials or are we going to grumble and complain and rage against God ? The eye must be single; the heart one.

How long will there be this lukewarm commitment to God ? In Elijah’s generation they were not ardent believers in Baal. Their heart wasn’t in it, yet equally they were not zealous for the Lord. Their hearts were not there either. That state of affairs is impossible. The Christian faith involves a commitment that says, “For me to live is Christ.” That is my meat and drink, the air I breathe, my purpose in living. Where is that commitment ? Are we not challenged by this warning of becoming double-minded men and women ? Why are there present in our congregations those who are neither hot nor cold, those who are hopping between two opinions ? Are you Christians or not ? There is a presence in church on Sundays, and yet there is such admiration of the world and excitement at what it appears to offer, and the heart is not yielded to Jesus.

You take that great solemn word of our Lord, “He that is not with me is against me.” If we say that we are making no decision then that is the decision. It is a refusal to give up a double-mindedness. Is Jesus Christ God ? Does he reign over our hearts and souls ? “If the Lord is God, follow him.” You say, you cannot make that kind of decision, because of the bondage of your wills. Then why does God challenge double-mindedness ? Why does he say ‘Follow !’ ? Have we tried to respond ? Have you asked God for wisdom to understand and grace to respond ? Are you saying that you can’t ? Are you honestly maintaining that you have tried all you can, and that you have failed ? Have we eliminated sinful indulgences, and have we done simple positive things ? Have we searched the Word of God ? Do we attend morning and evening service ? These are simple things. They are not salvation, but can we say that we have tried them ?

Can we say that we have pleaded with God for a single eye and a new heart ? Can we say that ? Have we cried to God from the depth for the wisdom we feel we cannot create in ourselves ? Have we done that ? Or isn’t it possible that in the bottom of our hearts there is a fear of our being converted ? We are afraid of being saved ? We are afraid of the implications ? And it is that fear that makes us double-minded men. There is so much that we look back to over our shoulders, things we miss, and fear we might regret losing if we began to follow the Lord. Remember Lot’s wife ! I am simply asking you are you going to continue being double-minded men ?

Let me remind you what the issue is. It is not who is the best God in the universe, or, who is the greatest, most glorious God. That is not the issue. The issue is this: Who is the only God ? The issue is not if Jesus Christ is a better teacher than any other religious leader, but whether he alone has the words of eternal life. The issue is not how many other lords rose from the dead, but that no one but Jesus Christ rose on the third day. He is the only God, the only burning one, the reigning one, the Lord God omnipotent. God is one God and his name is Jehovah Jesus. That is the issue.

That requires one heart, a single eye, and stability in all our ways. God’s uniqueness requires it. Then there follows a life of plenty, of cups overflowing of green pastures and still waters, and tables spread in the presence of our enemies. It is divine wisdom to see this, and requires wisdom to retain it.

Geoff Thomas June 21 1998