James 1:5-11


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James 1:5-11

One thing that any interested reader of commentaries on the letter of James immediately notices is the widespread frustration of scholars who have looked long and hard to find some principle of organization in the letter. The Gospels are organized in a largely chronological way, the report of the Lord’s ministry unfolding as it happened. Or, in the Gospel of Matthew we find that chronology interrupted with sections of teaching. There is an obvious organization to the material and it’s easy to understand why one thing follows another. In the letters of Paul we are well used to his way of building an argument, piece by piece and to his pattern, such as we find it in Romans, Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians, of following his theological exposition of salvation with its ethical implications, a “therefore” beginning the second part of each letter. “This is what Christ has done for you. Now, therefore, in gratitude do this for him.” Even Revelation has its recapitulations: the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven plagues. There is in all of the other books of the New Testament a beginning, a middle, and an end with some connection between them.

But not so with James. But, as we said, this is the New Testament’s book of wisdom, and we are used to the same problem in the OT’s principal book of wisdom, the book of Proverbs. Modern scholarship has invested ever increasing effort to discover some principle of organization of the Proverbs from their beginning in chapter 10, and perhaps some minor advances have been made. But we all know from our reading of the book that the proverbs are jumbled together, one subject following another with no obvious connection between them. It would be so much simpler if all the proverbs having to do with money or with speech or with parents and children were placed together in a single section, but they are not. When, not so long ago, I was working my way through Proverbs in a series of evening sermons, I color-coded the proverbs that belonged to nine of the principal subjects: parents and children, marriage, work, speaking and listening, money, controversy and so on. Each color is found repeatedly throughout the book and each color is found next to each of the other colors at some point. Speech is next to money in one case, next to parents and children in another, next to work in still another. The proverbs simply don’t seem to have been organized. They are simply listed in, what I suppose, was the order in which they were found in the document from which they were taken, the Proverbs of Solomon, or the Sayings of the Wise, or whatever. And why do the words of Lemuel and the account of the virtuous woman come last? Is there some significance to their placement? Perhaps someday some brilliant OT scholar will discover a principle of organization in the book of Proverbs that no one detected before, but I’m not holding my breath.

Well, precisely the same question confronts us in reading James. Why does verse 5 follow verse 4 and why does verse 9 follow verse 8? No one seems to know and you have only to read through the first chapter yourself to feel the force of the question. I’ve read up on the question and I certainly don’t know the answer. Most commentators don’t put things as tartly as Martin Luther, who characterized James as “thrown together” quite “chaotically,” but that is their conclusion as well. [cf. Krabbendam, I, 100]

A former professor of mine and of some of you, Henry Krabbendam of Covenant College, in a major work on James proposed to do better and says some helpful things about the overarching theme of James and how various parts of the letter contribute to the theme, but for all of his work, he has not persuaded me that he has located an internal logic or structure to the organization of the material. We are still wondering why James wrote vv. 5-8 after vv. 2-4 and not after vv. 9-11 and so on. [Krabbendam, 100-130] So, like it or not, I am compelled to take James, as we take Proverbs, in small sections, dealing with the individual subject under discussion and making little effort to relate it to what has come before or what comes after. Not ideal, but there it is. As one fine commentator on James says of chapter one, “Only by reading into the text considerably more than James says can a single topic be imposed on the section as a whole.” [Moo, PNTC, 51-52]

Text Comment

v.5       Once again remember what “wisdom” is in the Bible. It is the skill of living well, of practicing holiness in an unholy world and with one’s own unholy heart! It is “practical sagacity,” the ability to apply the truth of God to the practical issues of life. [Motyer, 37] Having said all that I have said about James’ lack of an obvious structure, we can say at least this about the connection between v. 4 and 4.5. In verse 4 James spoke of how our trials can lead us to perfection and completeness, to our lacking nothing. But he begins v. 5 by saying “If any of you lacks wisdom…” Perhaps the thought runs like this, “In the midst of trouble, as we so often are, it is hard to see how these trials can possibly serve our spiritual growth and development. To see that connection and then to apply it to your situation you need wisdom. So pray for it.”

James certainly doesn’t mean that if one prays for wisdom he or she need do nothing else. Nor does he mean that in answer to one prayer God will give us all the wisdom we will ever need in life. But the first thing any Christian should always do when confronted with a need is to seek help from God, particularly given God’s generous and faithful nature and his commitment to the welfare of his children. James here is echoing the Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask and it will be given to you.” [Matt. 7:7] Hence also James’ “without reproach.” Our fear, of course, is that our sins will have worn out our welcome with our heavenly Father, but it is not so.

v.7       Verse 5 raised the question whether God would always welcome our prayers for wisdom. Verses 6 and 7 raise the question of our own sincerity. I once heard a sermon by a television preacher in which he said that we are never to pray for anything more than once. Because if we pray for it a second time, that indicates that we didn’t really believe that God would hear us the first time. And so we cancel out our first prayer with the second. That is absurd. The Bible encourages us to pray continuously, even relentlessly for the same thing. That is not what James means by saying that we must have faith when we pray. He is not saying that the prayers we pray when our faith is weak or when we are struggling to believe that God will really hear us are null and void.

His concern is of an entirely different sort, but it is put in that dramatic and absolute way so characteristic of the Hebrew Bible. And remember James was a Jew, and he wrote according to the thought world of the Old Testament. He is not saying that we must always have a faith devoid of any doubt. He is saying rather that our lives must betray a true commitment to the Lord. The question he is asking of us is: are we really committed to the way of wisdom, do we really want that way of life; and so when we ask God for it, are we genuine in our desire that God should hear and answer our prayer? Are we simply wanting God’s help while we keep one foot firmly planted in the world? “Double-minded” describes a person whose commitment is half-hearted, who is not committed to living for God. Like Janus, the Roman God who had two faces looking in opposite directions, such a person wants to be a Christian, he looks to God, but he also wants to live as a non-Christian and continues to look with longing at the world. We have this same distinction in the OT, for example in Ps. 119:2 we read that God blesses those who pursue God with a whole heart, but in Psalm 12:2 the person who exhibits a divided heart is condemned. [Moo, 63] This is James’ way of talking about the man the Lord Jesus described as wanting to serve two masters. And remember his conclusion: “You cannot serve both God and money.” Such people find their prayers for wisdom vitiated and bereft of power because they are insincere, hypocritical. Jesus said a similar thing, for example, when he said that a person who forgives others will have his or her own sins forgiven, but that a person who is unforgiving will not (Mt. 6:14-15). [Motyer, 40]

Such people are unstable because they are always swinging between two opinions, two commitments, never able to make up his or her mind as to whether he will follow the Lord or the world. One cannot live skillfully in this world unless and until he makes up his mind: am I a Christian in truth, or not? Am I going to live as a Christian or am I not? Is my commitment to Christ or is it to something else?

v.11     Verse 11, of course, reminds us of many such statements in the Bible where the transitory existence of vegetation is used as a simile or metaphor for the brevity of human life, perhaps most famously in Psalm 103:15-16:

“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like the flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

We said last time that half of biblical wisdom was perspective, an outlook on life, an understanding of the way of life in this world. That is what we find here. Riches are one thing to someone who knows that they are not the measure of his life; that he will have very soon to leave them behind. They are something else entirely for someone who imagines that his or happiness, that the meaning of his or her life depends on them. In a similar way, the poor man who realizes that he is a prince and is very soon to enjoy pleasures and wealth that no one in this world has ever enjoyed, thinks very differently about his poverty. It is inevitable that it should be so, is it not? But, of course, such a perspective must be retained, must be a living power in the mind and heart. Living sub specie aeternitatis [under the prospect of eternity] is half of biblical wisdom!

So far the Word of God. We have said already that however James organized his material, the book as a whole is a book of wisdom. And these two paragraphs are a wonderful example of what the Bible means by wisdom.

The other day someone put on my desk a copy of an article taken from the church news and opinion web site, The Aquila Report, a site run by some PCA men. The article alerted me to something I had never known before and I suspected you hadn’t either. The first successful daylight bank robbery in the United States occurred in Liberty, MO on February 13th, 1866. One young man – a passerby – was killed and the bank robbers got away and were never caught. However locals knew that the perpetrators were the members of Jesse James’ gang. Here is where the story gets interesting.

At the time of the robbery, Jesse James was a member in good standing of the First Baptist Church of nearby Kearney, MO. The church minutes record that deliberations to impose ecclesiastical discipline on Jesse were complicated by the fear that he might burn down the church in retaliation! Everyone in the community, so it says in this report, knew Jesse was staying at his mother’s farm (she was herself a Sunday School teacher), so two deacons – the Baptist equivalent of elders – were deputed to confront Jesse according to the Lord’s instructions in Matthew 18. However, perhaps not surprisingly, the next minutes report that, for one reason or another, the deacons were unable to find a convenient time to visit the farm and have their conversation with Jesse James. Perhaps they were remembering that the teller of the bank in Liberty had been pistol whipped by the bandits. The minutes then report that Jesse himself arrived at the meeting and, wishing to cause no embarrassment to the congregation, requested that his name be removed from the roll. The church obliged.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that report, but given the widespread religious profession of Americans in the mid-19th century, it is not hard to believe that such a thing happened. Most Mafiosi – I didn’t know until I checked that the plural of Mafioso is Mafiosi! – are Roman Catholics. It is possible to be a professional criminal and a member of a Christian church. But, James reminds us, let’s not kid ourselves. A man who professes to be a Christian but lives as an unbeliever or makes his living in ways that betray a profession of loyalty to Jesus Christ will receive nothing from the Lord, certainly not salvation. He is double-minded. Now perhaps a Christian bank-robber is such an oxymoron that it doesn’t help us to grasp James’ point; but, then, perhaps the more outrageous the example the more obvious the lesson. You know Jesse James was a double-minded man. You know that a Mafioso is a double-minded man. But surely the Lord is not just talking about people who profess to be Christians and happen to make their living as professional criminals.

A man who asks God for wisdom – for the practical sagacity to work out a holy life in the fear and love of God in the daily grind of human experience – but otherwise demonstrates indifference to the will of God and shows no practical gratitude for the grace of God is fooling himself, not God. God knows a hypocrite when he sees one! He sees into the heart and knows what a man really wants and really thinks.

Now you may think that perfectly obvious, that anyone would know that. But the fact of the matter is vast multitudes have lived such a double-minded life. Monday through Saturday they sow their wild oats and come to church on Sunday to pray for crop failure! They pose as Christians, no doubt believing themselves to be Christians, but it would never occur to them to rejoice in their trials or to boast in their poverty, because they do not see themselves, the world, or life as a real Christian must and will. They do not have a biblically informed perspective on life, a large part of what the Bible means by wisdom.

It is Reformation Sunday. I have told you before that if the typical priest in Europe in the early 16th century, the time of Martin Luther, had frequently and sincerely warned his congregation of only this and then backed it up with his own life: that real Christians and that true and living and saving faith are known by their fruits; that you cannot love God and money at the same time; that faith without works is dead – what James will tell us in chapter 2 – I say, if a regular message of the Christian pulpit in those days had been that those who want the blessings of Christ in their lives must submit their lives to Christ and live in wisdom, there never would have been a Protestant Reformation. The errors of the church would have been discussed and corrected from within. But it was precisely the Church’s failure to assert clearly and persuasively what James is saying here that made the Reformation so necessary. Indeed, the double-mindedness of the Christian clergy as a class was an open secret. Everybody knew their priests were by and large double-minded men: having taken a vow of celibacy but keeping mistresses, a vow of poverty but looking for money at every turn, a vow of spiritual responsibility but generally unconcerned about and uninvolved in the spiritual lives of those in their care. Real faith is tested by one’s practical, daily loyalty to Jesus Christ and by a person’s living with eyes wide open to the theological realities of human life.

That is biblical wisdom: the deep understanding that life is serious business, that what finally matters, and all that finally matters is our faithfulness to God, and that we are susceptible to temptations at every turn to care about a host of other things than the things that matter for eternity, together with the thousand and one implications of that understanding.

Listen to this from Alex Motyer, the English evangelical biblical scholar.

“One of the frightening features of the present day is the widespread dependence on sedatives to cope with situations which our grandparents would not have seen as a problem – ordinary factors like bringing up children, facing a tomorrow which is essentially the same as today; problems of feeling trapped and bored [here we are in Washington with legalized marijuana, recreational marijuana they call it]; problems of having time and not knowing how to fill it. The cynic would say that the problem whether there is a life after death has been replaced with the problem of whether there is a life before death. But essentially it is the problem of finding meaning; which James says can be answered by a gift of wisdom from God given to those whose personalities are integrated around him.… granted to those whose hearts confess a sole loyalty to him. James’ diagnosis does not find expression in many consulting rooms, but that does not affect its truth as an acute diagnosis. [41-42]

Think of these three pieces of true wisdom that James refers to here.

  1. In God’s world we need God’s help to handle the trials and the demands of life. Prayer is not simply a duty, a religious activity, it is an essential instrument of skillful, godly living. We need day after day and all through the day what only God can give us.
  1. At every turn in our lives – remember, James is writing to Christians – we are beset with the temptation to parcel out our loyalty between God, our own flesh, and the world. Real wisdom begins with the recognition of this battle, this constant, relentless struggle that is required in order to offer our hearts and lives without reservation to God day after day after day. The man or woman who knows very well that he or she is in an endless battle, approaches life in a very different way: more seriously, more intentionally, more consciously dependent upon the grace of God, more sympathetically in his or her relationships with others, more phlegmatically, honestly recognizing and constantly realizing that this and nothing else is a Christian’s calling and destiny.
  1. The perpetual temptation is to forget what really matters and to be beguiled by what one can see and feel at the expense of what God has revealed in his Word.

Now ask yourselves if that is not precisely the wisdom you need every single day. Aren’t those insights the practical sagacity out of which a faithful, fruitful Christian life could be lived day after day? Is not our problem, in some way, always and only this double-mindedness, this serving of two masters: God on the one hand, and, on the other, money or pleasure or recognition or comfort and ease, or our fears or worries or concerns or whatever else?

Now, to be sure, James is writing to Christians. In the tradition of biblical wisdom literature the contrast drawn is absolute, as if there were only the faithful and the double-minded. James certainly knows that there is double-mindedness in every Christian heart. His exhortations throughout the book are going to feature admonitions to Christians to stop behaving like non-Christians. For example, in chapter 3, he is going to admit that we all stumble in many ways (v. 2) before going on to describe our typical sins of the tongue. He concludes that depressing description by saying in v. 10:

“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” [3:10]

James knows that the Christian often has a weak faith and that he or she often struggles with double-mindedness, even if in a typically biblical fashion he draws the comparison absolutely in v. 6 of chapter 1. It is wisdom again that must apply that absolute contrast to the mixture of faith and worldliness that every Christian finds within himself or herself. Wisdom knows the difference between genuine and perfect, between true love and perfect love, between loyalty and perfect loyalty. True enough, in some cases, only time proves whether the love and loyalty were genuine, but no one doubts that Paul was a loyal servant of Jesus even though he himself confessed to many failures of loyalty.

So it is possible to say that we genuinely believe in the Lord Jesus, we trust him to be true to the promises he made to those who pray to him, even as we struggle against the double-mindedness we find in ourselves. Indeed, this is the way the Bible always speaks about the Christian. It can call him or her blameless or righteous even as it acknowledges the believer’s many sins.

So when we come to the first example James gives us, in vv. 9-11, we recognize that, of course, we struggle to maintain this eternal perspective, but our struggle to do so doesn’t mean that this is not our view of life. We know it is right, we want always to think that way and live that way, we admire it when we see it in others, we pray for it for ourselves, some of the time we really do practice this wisdom in our lives, and when we don’t we regret our failure. It is our view of things, even if we struggle always to think and act in consistency with it. We know that poverty soon to be followed by unimagined wealth is poverty in name only just as we know that earthly wealth is not only temporary but even in many cases a positive hindrance.

Dr. Krabbendam of Covenant College recollects saying in a sermon or lesson that both poverty and riches, of whatever sort they may be, are both equally trials. He was relating vv. 9-11 to vv. 2-3. A young man in the audience quickly raised his hand to ask the question: “Are they equally trials?” “Yes, equally,” Prof. Krabbendam replied. “In that case,” the young man, smiling, said, “I prefer to be rich.” But Dr. K was quick on his feet and reminded the man that while it is said that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, that is never said of a poor man! [Krabbendam, 262-263] And a man who values eternity over time, as any wise person will, will not think that distinction unimportant to remember. If poverty has slain its thousands, prosperity has slain its tens of thousands!

On April 21st 2012 Pastor DeMass and I used some tickets that belonged to Jim and Paige Price to go to the Mariners’ game against the Chicago White Sox. The Prices were in Florida for the funeral of Jim’s father. It was a lovely sunny Saturday afternoon, a perfect day for a baseball game and we had great seats, only ten rows from the field directly opposite first base. Unbeknownst to us it was to prove a memorable day. Philip Humber, pitching for the Chicago White Sox, threw the 21st perfect game in baseball history, twenty-seven Mariners up, twenty-seven down. There are baseball fans who have gone to thousands of games and never seen a perfect game. We have only gone to a few and yet we saw one of the rarest events in major league baseball.

Now I mention this because Philip Humber is a an earnest Christian man and a wise man. After his accomplishment, one for which he will be long remembered by baseball fans, he tweeted:

“…nothing to be compared to knowing God. And then added the reference, Jeremiah 9:23-24, which, as you may remember, reads:

“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, 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.”

Exactly what James was saying, though James also reminds us of the fleeting quality of our lives in this world and how foolish it is, for that reason also, to devote one’s heart and to find one’s meaning in something so soon to be lost. Philip Humber knows about that too.

Since his perfect game in 2012, he lost his position with the White Sox – he simply didn’t pitch well enough – was picked up by the Houston Astros, soon lost his position with them, played 2013 in the Oakland A’s minor league system, in 2014 was playing in South Korea and was finally cut by that Korean team. His major league totals are 16 wins and 23 losses, with an earned run average of 5.31; not a performance likely to keep anyone in the show. Philip Humber, quite literally, had his one day in the sun! He didn’t have to wait until his death to lose what he had; he’s still a young man and has already lost it. So far as fame and fortune and boatloads of money are concerned, his grass has already withered, his flower has already fallen, and his beauty has already perished. As a rich man – so far as the world measures wealth – he has already faded away in the midst of his pursuits. But, I suspect, Philip Humber is someone who understands very well that what he has lost is a mere bagatelle in comparison to what is his in Christ. When he was rich he boasted in his humiliation – that he was a sinner saved by grace – and now that he is poor – at least relatively so – he can very happily boast in his exaltation!

It isn’t hard to see, is it, how differently we must think about our lives, how different our priorities must be, what different decisions we will make, how differently we will spend our time and our money, if we treasure a godly life and the wisdom it takes to live one above all things, if we are constantly in conversation with the Lord about wanting to live such a life, and if we always keep our mind’s eye on the world to come, rushing toward us as it is at breakneck speed.

I don’t know why James put vv. 5-11 where he did, but I know this. If you and I embrace this wisdom, if we work these convictions into our hearts and lives, if we evaluate our living by these principles, if we aspire to throw off all double-mindedness and live at all times by faith in God, and if we evaluate everything with reference to our salvation and the prospect of eternal life, we are not only going to live a very different life, we will live a very much better life, indeed, the very life any real Christian desperately wants to live and will so much want to have lived.

James is not loading us down with duties. He’s reminding us how things actually are in this world and what it takes to live the life we Christians want to live. How good of God to give us this help, this encouragement, this kick in the pants.