Chapter 1 of the “Letter from James” deals with trials and attitude. Thus far we have looked at verses 1:1-4. In verses 1:2-11 James identifies four principles of which we have previously identified three. These principles are keys to steadfast endurance during trials. Such endurance produces life benefits through lessons learned: Right attitude (count or evaluate– James 1:2), understanding how character develops (know – James 1:3), having a yielded will (let – James 1:4), and praying and seeking wisdom (ask – James 1:5-11). Next, acquiring wisdom.
“ If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”James 1:5-8
Pray for Wisdom (Ask)
Having just written about growing in steadfastness to the point of standing fast in faith, James now says if you lack wisdom – ask God. Wisdom is vital. It is not a substitute for steadfastness, but then steadfastness is not a substitute for wisdom. Both are necessary in order to stand fast during trials. In facing trials, as in all things, choose an attitude of steadfastness in the faith, and pray for wisdom. Wisdom is much more than factual knowledge and understanding. Someone has remarked that knowledge is the ability to take things apart, while wisdom is the ability to put things together. That is part of it but there is more. Godly wisdom is the godly use of knowledge. It is a quality and level of understanding enabling apprehension of eternal truths, discernment of moral obligation, and discernment of the path of righteousness in life. Wisdom enables believers to both endure and benefit from trials.
God freely gives wisdom to believers who ask. He gives without reservation, generously, and without finding fault or counting the cost. The one thing He requires is a single-minded commitment to Him, a sincere committed trust in who He is and in His overruling sovereignty no matter what the outward circumstances. We often hear about the danger of putting all our eggs in one basket. But there is this one exception. It is OK to “put all your eggs in God’s basket!
James compares a doubting believer to the waves of the sea, up one moment and down the next. Paul uses a similar notion in Ephesians 4:14 where he urges believers to become mature in the faith “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” In Matthew 14:22-23 we are told Peter walked on the water until doubts caused him to sink.
An individual who is double-minded toward God should not expect to receive what is asked. That person may indeed receive from our gracious God exactly what is asked for, but as a double-minded person there is no basis for expecting anything. By double-minded, James means a wobbling commitment, one moment turning to God, the next moment turning back to the world – no patience, no endurance, no steadfastness in faith.
Augustine once prayed “O God, make me pure – but not now.” That was a double-minded prayer. Just so, we might be inclined to pray “Save me O God, but don’t change me.” This too is double-minded. A believer is to strive for unreserved commitment to God and to living the way God intends us to live. Being two-faced with God, e.g., turning to Him in need but turning back to the attractions of the world when everything is rosy, is a losing proposition.
Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge
Wisdom, understanding, and knowledge are forms of knowing. All knowing is the consequence of accumulating facts in our minds and mentally manipulating them in a search for meaning. Understanding necessarily includes knowledge. Wisdom necessarily includes both knowledge and understanding.
Knowledge is the result of gathering and accumulating facts in our minds through various types of experience including observation, listening to others, reading and study, actively doing things. There are different types of knowledge. For example, consider the huge difference between the theoretical knowledge which allows you to write a descriptive article on how to milk a cow and the practical knowledge of being able to go to the barn and milk a cow and come back with a bucket of milk. Most people have the practical knowledge to punch the right buttons in the right order on a calculator to add and subtract, but most don’t have the necessary theoretical or practical knowledge of mathematical and physical principles to design and make a calculator.
Understanding is a higher level of knowing which includes the ability to see how individual things connect with one another and fit into a larger picture. With understanding we are able to synthesize new knowledge from bits and pieces we already know. Understanding allows knowledge to be organized and structured so that it has functional utility. As with knowledge, there are both theoretical and practical aspects of understanding. Understanding theoretically how a diesel engine operates is quite different from practical understanding that enables diagnosing an engine problem and fixing it.
Wisdom deals especially with diagnosing problems and making decisions. Given knowledge and understanding about a situation, wisdom is able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Wisdom can identify points of leverage, pivot or tipping points, draw accurate conclusions, and make good decisions. Wisdom discerns significance, value, and worthiness. Wisdom is able to put bits and pieces of knowledge and understanding together to form new insights. Wisdom finds the knot in a tangled mess which allows a complex situation to be unraveled. Wisdom provides the foundation for godly decisions. Hence, James says if you need wisdom, ask God.
It is sad, but true, that it is possible to have knowledge in abundance, yet never have the understanding and wisdom to apply that knowledge to living a godly life. It is possible to be wise in the ways of the world, but never have insight into the truths of God. Godly wisdom and insight enable us to see beyond trials of life or the pleasures of worldly wealth to the true riches found only in Christ. If you need wisdom for life’s issues, ask God.
“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. 12Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”James 1:9-12
In the Bible you are much more likely to hear about being humble than being told to boast, but here is an example of OK boasting. That which is permitted to be boasted about is severely limited. In Jeremiah 9:23-24 we read: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.’” In Galatians 6:14 Paul says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Is James statement about boasting consistent with God’s instruction in Jeremiah? Yes, knowing our God, who practices steadfast love and knowing His wonderful promises, enables one who is poor in worldly goods to count their riches in Christ as greater than all of earth’s trials. Likewise, knowing God and His promises, enables wealthy believers to see that their only lasting security is through their relationship with Christ. Like a materially poor believer, a materially wealthy believer’s true wealth is his riches in Christ.
Pitfalls of Wealth and Poverty
Neither wealth nor poverty in worldly goods can, in and of themselves, keep a person on the straight path of godliness. Nor are they necessarily spiritually bad. Spiritual resources, not material resources, are needed to remain steadfast in the faith through trials and suffering. Wealth, power, and pleasure can bring about difficult trials. The extreme circumstances of both severe poverty and great wealth can divert a believer from the path of obedience. Both “too much” and “too little” tend to bring problems. Sufficient is best!
A strong desire for the things of the world coupled with poverty can create grievances against God in a poor believer’s mind. On the other hand, pleasures associated with things of the world can detract a wealthy believer from their obedient walk with God. Lust, greed, covetousness, anger, and other sins are universal problems for both the poor and the wealthy.
A wealth of spiritual maturity is the best safeguard. Both poor and wealthy face the same future of death and judgment. It is not the world’s view of us but God’s view that is important. If God grants wealth it is to be used in a godly manner. If God decrees poverty it is to be faced in a godly manner. God’s wisdom, which He gives generously to the committed believer who asks, enables walking in obedience in all circumstances – wealth, poverty, and all positions in between. God, who gave us both physical and spiritual life, is the One who overrules all our circumstances. Where does temptation come from?
“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”James 1:13-16:
The Trajectory of Temptation
The key idea is that “temptation is a slippery slope” originating from within, and driven by our own desires. Having dealt with the kind of “trials of life” that arise from external circumstances, and recognizing that such trials test a believer’s mental and physical ability to stand fast in the face of extreme pressure, James changes direction. He examines moral endurance when tested by temptation. As he does, he answers the question “what are the inner workings of temptation?”
His first point comes from the phrase “when he is tempted.” The point is that the threat of temptation “not if” but “when.” Temptation is always a threat for everyone. Temptations are inevitable. The second point is that God never prompts temptation not even indirectly. That this is true is obvious from God’s absolute goodness and holiness. Holiness is not only unable to be affected by evil but also cannot cause evil. God cannot be tempted with evil and tempts no one.
The third point is temptation proceeds systematically, developing step-by-step. God is never the source of temptation. Temptation originates in the inner person when an external object of lust or desire is presented to the senses. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”
Temptation is not sin, but enticement to sin. Temptation arises in our inner person and is driven by lust and/or desire for something we don’t yet have. When strong enough, lust and desire change from desire to action and gives birth to sin. When sin becomes lifestyle, it leads to death. At times people physically die from the consequences of sin. But that isn’t James’ primary meaning. Neither can he mean eternal spiritual death. Good works don’t save, but neither do bad works permanently condemn.
In 1 Corinthians 10:13 believers are assured “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Saved by God’s Grace Apart from Works
Thanks be to God, we are saved by God’s grace through faith apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1). If James’ reference to “fully grown sin leading to death” is not about physical death or eternal spiritual death, what is his point?
In Jewish thought, death can and often does refer to severe degradation quality of life rather than termination of life. Deuteronomy 30:15 (NASB) says, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.” Death and adversity are in contrast to life and prosperity. Clearly, the death referred to is not mortal death. Worldly adversity is not a threat to the dead but to the living. A similar choice is seen between a “death-like life” and “life as God intends” in Proverbs 12:28 – “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death,” and Proverbs 13:14 – “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life that one may turn away from the snares of death.” By the power of the Spirit, people walk with Christ on the path of life, or they walk apart from Christ in a form of “living death.”
One who lives apart from Christ cannot live a true life enabled by the Spirit, a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That kind of life is possible only in Christ. Love for God provides the spiritual motivation for choosing to trust and obey even in dreadful circumstances. A believer must practice “steadfastness” in obedience in order to be able to stand fast during difficult trials. The reward for persevering is the crown of life. As Jesus says in Revelation a believer’s crown for spiritual success is life eternal. In Revelation 2:10 Jesus says, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Temptation a Permanent Threat to Everyone
Temptation is always a present threat for everyone. Temptation is never prompted by God or to be attributed to Him. Temptation follows a pattern – an object of lust or desire is presented to our senses. Desire increases internally. If sufficiently powerful, desire gives birth to sin. James last phrase in these verses is “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”The lures of temptation are powerful and come in many forms. They are especially effective in times of spiritual weakness. Do not be deceived. Keep your focus on the truths of God. Stay in tune with the Holy Spirit. Temptation thrives on deceptive thoughts filled with empty promises. Stand fast! Resist!
Some Fail the Test when Trials Come
Not everyone who undergoes trials will remain steadfast in the faith. Some will fail, even true believers will sometimes fail. Those who fail are often tempted to blame God. Israel had a history of blaming God for their problems, a well-known example being their problems in the wilderness (Exodus 17:2, 7).
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”James 1:17-18
All God’s Gifts are Good
In stark contrast to the evil things brought by wrong desire, God gives only good gifts. Spiritual birth into the family of God was no accident. God of His own will brought us into His family through His word of truth. God is pictured as the Father of the heavenly lights or creator of the universe. Unlike what He created, God Himself does not change. All good and perfect gifts are from God. In His loving hands, even the evil done to us is shaped to our benefit. All of life’s trials are used by God to grow us spiritually – provided we meet them in the light of God-given wisdom, standing fast in faith.
One of God’s good and perfect gifts is the wisdom mentioned in verse 5. But God’s greatest gift is life eternal in Him. His goodness is seen in that He chose to give us new birth through the truth of the gospel. It was no accident and He was under no compulsion. As He created light in the beginning through His creative Word, so He creates new life in believers. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. There is no gift greater than the gift of eternal life in Christ. Our new life is given with purpose – that we might be holy as He is holy, that we might be transformed into a likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Principles and Practices
James encourages believers to know “godly principles” and steadfastly “practice them.” The new life of rebirth, given by God, is to be one in which we are quick to hear and understand, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We are to put away all wickedness. We are to do what God’s Word tells us to do. The importance of the will in controlling thoughts and emotions has already been mentioned. “The will” is that faculty or aspect of mind enabling us to make voluntary choices.
Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom
James emphasizes the need for wisdom and says if we lack wisdom, we should ask God for the wisdom we need. Wisdom is a degree or level of knowing enabling righteous use of knowledge. A godly wisdom identifies righteous choices for the will to make.
Understanding is the ability to correctly interpret knowledge and use it in making choices. Wisdom discerns significance, value, and worthiness. Wisdom is able to put bits and pieces of knowledge and understanding together to form new insights. Knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are all forms of knowing. As we increase ability to know, we move from able to use “knowledge” to able to use “understanding” to able to use “wisdom.”
Feelings, Moods, and Attitudes
Emotions include feelings, moods, and attitudes. Feelings are responses to particular situations. Moods are broader than feelings. Moods establish a trend for experiencing feelings of a particular type – happy or sad, mad or glad. Attitudes are broader than moods. In a sense moods are a willful choice of mood and feelings. Temperament is broader than attitude and establishes an emotional direction in life. We increase control of emotions step-by-step by learning to control “feelings,” then “moods,” and then “attitudes.”
Choice, Umbrella Decisions, and Self-control
There is a hierarchy of levels in making decisions. Corresponding to knowledge there is “choice,” corresponding to understanding there are “umbrella-decisions,” and corresponding to wisdom there is “self-control.” Choice deals with a single decisions – choosing between alternatives. “Umbrella-decisions” deal with an area of life, establishing a pattern for which there can be rare exceptions, but the rule is fixed. Self-control is the highest level of decision making and establishes guidelines for life. Making good “choices” is the first level, then controlling “attitudes,” and then establishing “self-control.”
Here are some examples of umbrella decisions from my own life. Many years ago my wife and I realized that when we waited until Sunday morning to decide whether or not we would go to church and Sunday school, we often found reasons or emotions that encouraged us to not go that day. So, we made the umbrella decision that we would go every Sunday unless illness or travel kept us away. October 1959 I made the umbrella decision (covenant) that to love, honor, and be faithful to my wife. I have since made an umbrella decision to live a life that sets a good example for my children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren. An umbrella decision establishes precedent for all decisions in an area of life.
Self-control is the highest level of decision-making and involves our entire life. Self-control is an overarching set of decisions establishing guidelines for all of life and establishes criteria for umbrella decisions and choices. As a Christian, self-control involves a broad decision to live life according to the code of principles given in God’s Word. Intellect, emotions, and will mutually interact, but the will has the final say.
In His written Word God gives us many “principles” to show us the way to discipline the various areas of our life. James gives several of them. A scriptural principle is a fundamental truth or proposition telling what is required to discipline some area of our life. Wisdom is obedience to God’s principles. As James make clear, knowing and understanding a principle is of value only if there is corresponding “practice” or obedience that makes the principle real in our life.
The 10 Commandments are God-given principles. To be of value, people must obediently practice what the commandments require – not stealing, not murdering, etc. In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” The principle is demonstrate that you love Jesus by obedience to His commandments. The corresponding “practice” is actually obeying His commandments. I know of no other way given in Scripture to gauge love for Christ except obedience to His commands. Practice and principle interact. For a principle to be of functional value, the corresponding practice must be possible and practices.