March 30, 2008

Favoritism: James 2:1-9

Do you ever watch the Academy Awards? I admit I am not a fan of almost anyone from Hollywood. Maybe I am too judgmental. I watch the correspondents from the various networks “ooh”ing and “ah”ing about the stars parading one-by-one down the red carpet. The correspondents vie for a word or two from them, and all the while I am thinking, “Why don’t you get a life instead of idolizing these rich and arrogant druggies?”

Like I said, maybe I’m too judgmental, but when I see the stars walking by and tend to remember things I’ve read in newspapers and watched on news broadcasts about them, such as, he’s the one who is anti-Semitic, or that one is walking with her 4th husband (or is it the 5th?), or the last picture I saw of him was a mug shot.

Well, I guess I need to work on my attitude, but the fact is we live in a culture that pays a whole lot of attention to wealth and celebrity. A lot of people like to have pictures taken of themselves with famous people. I read last year that during the 2004 presidential campaign, the fee was $4,000 to stand next to President Bush at a fund-raising event to have your picture taken. Late last year, as the current presidential campaign was heating up, the price had risen to a reported $10,000 for a picture with Sen. Clinton at a fund-raising party in California.

In our culture—in fact, in almost every culture—wealth and position matter. It’s true even in small communities. For example, do you ever have to wait in your doctor’s waiting room? One wealthy man I know of never has to wait. The office staff always takes him in immediately, even when the waiting room is full, because that’s how he insists he be treated, and he is wealthy.

I’ll never forget Ted Turner’s quip a few years ago. He said “Christianity is for losers.” The irony of that statement is that he is right in a way. Christianity is for losers. Without Christ we were all losers in eternity. We were lost, every one of us. The difference is that Christians recognize that we once were all losers in eternity but Christ alone makes us winners. It is this realization that must govern the way we treat other people.

People are all equal in the eyes of God: equally in need of salvation, equally undeserving of the grace He offers to everyone, and equally standing before Him once we accept His grace and become His child.

This is something especially the earliest Christians needed to hear. They came from a socially stratified society dominated by the rich and powerful, even more so than our western culture is today. But in the church, even in its earliest days when James wrote his letter, people needed to be reminded that there is no favoritism in God.

The example James uses in chapter 2:1-9 involved the meeting together of the local church and how people are to be treated. In the passage, he makes five points:

There is no room for favoritism among Christians (1-2)

Verses 1 and 2 caution us not to judge people by qualities such as appearance, achievement, or family background. His example is that of two people entering the local church meeting, one in fine clothes and the other in poor, dirty clothes. One man appeared to have achieved nothing, and the other was obviously wealthy. There also was a cultural bias involved, because in first-century Middle Eastern culture a poor person did not have the opportunity to start a business and become rich. He was from a poor family, he would always have that stigma, and he would always be poor and common. Wealth, businesses, position, and standing in the community were all inherited. A comparatively few people came from wealthy families and had all the power and position. They were the ones always walking down the red carpet, expecting accolades, parading their status. The majority were what we would call blue-collar working families.

The point is, none of these means anything to God. Nor should they make a difference to us. We are not God’s children because of our looks, what we do, the color of our skin or place of birth, or how much money we have. We are His people because of His grace and mercy.

Showing favoritism is ungodly (vv.3-4)

Showing partiality is just not compatible with the heart of God. We read in Romans 2:11 that every human being will stand in judgment before God. And attributes such as personal beauty, achievements, and ancestry will not matter at all. What matters is whether or not you are one of His children. He will judge everyone by that standard. Writing about the day of God’s righteous judgment, Paul points this out in Romans 2:11: “For there is no partiality with God.” He makes a similar point in Ephesians 6, exhorting masters and servants to treat each other fairly and advising masters to “give up threatening (the servants), knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9).

In His time on earth, Jesus played no favorites. He ignored status symbols. He chastened the most powerful—the scribes and Pharisees—and He welcomed beggars and paupers. He ignored social divisions by touching Nicodemus and a Samaritan woman.

The lowest to the highest people in our eyes are all equal in God’s sight.

As Christians, we are expected to see others the same way God sees them: equal in His sight. Paul explains in Colossians 3:10-11 that we have “put on a the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, servant and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”

Note in verse 4 that James makes a pretty profound statement: when we show favoritism to others (because of their appearance, wealth, etc.), it is not with godly motives, but with evil motives. Often, we are kind of jealous and just wish for what they have or are interested in what they can do for us or how we might profit from being associated with them. In the immediate context of James’ letter, perhaps he knew those early Christians were showing partiality because the wealthier Christians might be motivated to put more in the offering to the church or perhaps elevate the status of Christianity in the community because of their association with it. So they were deferred to. The poorer Christians could be ignored because they didn’t have much to offer. That can be true today, too. God wanted them—and He wants us—to remember we were all equally lost, and now we are equally His children.

Showing favoritism is unreasonable (5-7)

Remember how the social structure of 1st century Israel worked. To be from a wealthy family meant you had it easy. Then, as it is today, even the wealthy and powerful were not satisfied; they wanted more and more. The social practices were always in their favor. When they wanted the smaller parcel of land owned by a poorer neighbor, they could find a means to get it through corrupt judges. It was a system of justice not of laws, but of men.

In addition, in the history of the Israelites, giving to support the poor had become not an act of mercy, but one of pride. The wealthier people made sure their gifts were given in public, and giving alms sometimes was kind of a competition. James is telling them to think about what they do when they show favoritism to the wealthy. It is the wealthy who have historically treated the common people with disrespect and have oppressed them and taken them to court, so it didn’t even make sense to treat them with favoritism because of this history. And it did not make sense for another reason, too: God does not show favoritism. In fact, while the world chose to honor the rich and powerful, God chose to honor even the poor of this world to be rich in faith.

Favoritism is unloving (v.8)

When the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus, they asked Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). Jesus answered (Matthew 22:37-40): “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, You shall you’re your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.'"

In other words, Jesus is saying that if God’s people had shown this kind of love, they wouldn’t need any other guidelines about how to behave toward others. Paul put it even more succinctly: “All the law is summed up in one sentence, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).

James, in verse 8, calls this the “royal” (“supreme”) law: to love your neighbor as yourself. That means loving impartially, completely, without regard to our brother’s or sister’s race, national origin, economic circumstances, or whether he or she sits in the highest office or cleans it.

March 28, 2008

Our Identity with Christ: James 1:26-27

What do you think of when you hear the term “religion”? Or what do you think of when you hear the characterizations “true” and “false” religion”? We tend to throw those terms around a lot, and the basic question I suppose is, what makes you a religious person?

Ask the question of people in the U.S. and you’ll hear responses such as: a religious person is someone who believes in God or a religious person goes to church. Perhaps from some you would hear that a religious person is someone who reads the Bible or gives money to the church and other worthy causes.

James has shown us in the first 25 verses of the book of James that Christians can be recognized for certain behaviors. He sums it up by telling his readers they should be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” So we will use that as one of our working definitions as we take a look at the last part of chapter 1, where he gives us some illustrations of how to be doers of the word and some examples of true and false religion. James writes in verses 26 and 27: “If anyone among you things he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Now that’s a tall order! But let’s take a look at what he is telling us and break it down into some basic, commonsense Christian ideals.

Our identity with Christ comes from within (26)

“Religious” and “religion” in verse 26 refer specifically to external worship and ceremony. Remember that the book of James is the New Testament’s earliest book (written about 45 A.D.). James was a key leader in the Jerusalem church, a leader whom Paul later called a pillar of the church (Galatians 2:9). The church at Jerusalem was our first large local church and was made up almost entirely of Jewish converts. Many Jewish Christians had fled Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen and increasing persecution from Herod, and James still felt a connection to them. He wrote his letter with the intent that it be copied and read in church meetings among the dispersed Christians.

To these early Jewish Christians, public ceremony and religious rites were very important. This was their religious heritage, which involved centuries of their forefathers worshiping at the Temple ceremonies in Jerusalem before the advent of the Messiah, families with the rich religious and cultural heritage of celebrating holy days, such as the Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, etc. This was their mindset, and they tended to be formal and ceremonial as the new faith grew.

Consequently, Christian ceremonies to them were highly important and occasions to ceremonially proclaim their faith. The Lord’s Supper, for example, was part of every worship service, where they not only remembered their Savior until He would come again, but also as a rite to affirm their faith to each other.

James wanted to make the point strongly that faith comes from within, and not from ceremonial rites. That, in fact, could easily be called the theme of the letter. Our faith does not consist of mere outward conformance and ceremony. No doubt James remembered this was one of Jesus’ most forceful messages to a people who had in recent centuries lost that truth under the leadership of the scribes and Pharisees, who stressed ceremonial obedience to the law and the Temple observances, while even they, themselves, lived sinful lives. Hardly a stronger condemnation of this can be found than Jesus’ charge against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

So it would be accurate to observe that the entire message from James is designed to help these Christians from Jewish background to realize that our faith comes from within and does not consist of outward ceremony, as their culture had practiced. It was a message the earliest Christians needed to understand and one which we, in our secular and universalist culture, should know also.

Nowhere does God, in this letter written by James, ban public ceremonial worship, but He wants Christians to understand that it is not the worship practices that define us to the people around us as children of God. Rather, what defines us as Christians to the people around us is the evidence of a changed life.

The example he gives is the tongue. It’s a great example, because it’s not our ceremonial worship, but what we say and how we say it, that reveals what is really going on inside us. What we say reveals love, hatred, racism, anger, doubt, forgiveness, faith, etc. Perhaps another way to look at it is that heartfelt faith in our Lord and Savior controls every part of our life; not just how we conduct ourselves, but even down to what we think and say.

James is talking here about the ongoing or consistent quality of a Christian’s life, not an occasional slip. What comes out of our mouths tells us and everyone around us what is inside our hearts. Almost 20 years later, Paul gave a more specific example in his letter to the Ephesians. In Ephesians 4, he cites a list of dos and don’ts in Christian relationships, not as means to qualify for God’s favor, but simply as signs to each other and to unbelievers of how one who has been saved and sanctified will naturally behave.

Paul includes in his list basic qualities and behaviors that arise from the inner transformation God does in the Christian: speak the truth, don’t steal, work to provide for your needs, share with others, don’t be angry or bitter, forgive one another. While it may sound like that well-known “All I Ever Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” list (share everything, play fair, don't hit people . . .), the lesson still is one that is important for Christians who contend daily as they struggle with the temptations and sin of their cultures.

In Ephesians 4:29, Paul, like James in James 1:26, mentions Christians’ manner of speaking: “Let no unwholesome (literally, foul, rotten, or putrid) word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Paul doesn’t give details or examples about what is and is not an unwholesome word, but he does tell us with the contrast he draws. It is the opposite of “a word that is good for edification.” The meaning of the term he uses, edification, is “the act of one who promotes another's growth in Christian wisdom, piety, happiness, holiness” (from Strong’s Concordance).

I think that is consistent with what God is telling us through James: what is inside us as Christians is positive, uplifting, builds up each other, and demonstrates our faith to the world, because it will be evident in whatever the authentic Christian says and does.

Our identity with Christ shows in our care for others (27)

James tells his readers that true and undefiled religion is to help those in need. In the first century, the poorest and neediest were orphans and widows. Culturally, the role of leader and provider fell to the husband or father, making the example of widows and orphans the strongest example James could give his readers of people who were poor and needy. His point is that the real Christian will naturally care about, and care for, the needy.

The English translation of the term “visit” in verse 27 is inadequate. The Greek term used here means to go to someone in order to help or take care of their needs. Jesus used the same language in Matthew 26 of those who will inherit the kingdom: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; . . .” (Matthew 26:35-36).

We should see James’ reference to orphans and widows as meaning people who need us to care about them and the Christian’s responsibility to care for their needs. He does not see this as a mere outward obligation, the context of James’ entire message is that the Christian, born of the Spirit, has the inner characteristic of naturally wanting to do this and the will to follow through. John makes this point very clearly in 1 John 3:17-18: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” Note what John is saying: one who is well off and does not care about the needs of the poor is not truly a believer. Why? Not because he or she did not help the poor, but because he or she isn’t naturally driven to help those in need. Neither James nor John is referring to behavior per se, but to the inner drive that results in the behavior.

Our identity with Christ shows in our relationship with the world (27)

God tells us in James’ writing in verse 27 that “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: . . . to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The meaning of the term is pretty clear. The term James used,“unstained,” means irreproachable or free from vice.

God is telling us in verse 27 that we are different; anyone should be able to pick us out of the crowd, not because of the way we look or the cross pendants we may be wearing, but by the way we act, our concern for others, and all the other characteristics one will naturally exhibit when he or she is dedicated to serving the Creator and not the self-centeredness of the world.

James is not the only biblical author to address this subject. The Bible contains lots of descriptions of what a Christian is like. Many of the passages describe how Christians live, what we say, how we worship and praise God. But I think James hits the nail squarely on the head: “Pure and undefiled religion (that is, authentic or real belief and trust in the Savior) in the sight of our God and Father is this: . . . to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Being stained by the world is not a behavior that separates someone from God; it is a behavior that demonstrates that someone is not a believer.

Paul talks about this by calling us “ambassadors for Christ.” Here is what he says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, 20: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Then in v. 20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ . . .” Christians literally are citizens of the kingdom of our Lord who are residing in a foreign land and serving Him, just as any ambassador is on assignment in a foreign culture. His or her purpose is not to assimilate into that culture, but to represent his or her own country’s welfare and interests to that foreign culture.

Paul tended to be pretty wordy, kind of drawing a picture for us as foreign ambassadors. But James gets to the point. Instead of a picture of an ambassador, he simply says we are to be unstained by the world: free from its sin and evil practices, free from its lusts and self-centeredness, and focused on our Lord and Savior.

Isaiah gives a good summary of the differences in his warnings in Isaiah 5. In 5:20-21, he warns those who buy into the evils of the world: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!” James just puts it more simply: the characteristic of God’s people is that they are unstained by the world.

Let me close with three other short passages from scripture addressing the subject:

James 4:4: “. . . do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”

Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

So there we have it. I think if James were here today, he would probably close by saying something like this: Being a Christian isn’t just attending church, studying the Bible, reading Christian books, and voting for the anti-abortion politicians. Being a Christian means we are different from the inside out. We care about each other. We are citizens of God’s kingdom and act like it. People see us as we really are. And they can easily pick us out of the crowd.

March 27, 2008

Be Doers of the Word: James 1:22-25

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

James addresses the crux of the issue in Christian living in verses 22-25: the difference between hearing and doing God’s Word.

All of us know examples of Christians who know the Bible a lot better than most of us know it, but who don’t do what it says and suffer so many negative consequences of guilt, depression, a broken marriage, financial setbacks, loss of a job, etc.

But James isn’t just referencing here those obvious cases. He is talking about you and me and the dozens of little choices and not-so-little choices we make every day. And James is not writing here about whether or not we are saved and secure in Christ, but how we should live in light of the fact we are saved and secure.

We Christians can be peculiar when it comes to talking one game and living another, especially in the western culture, where Christians so often know the truth but just don’t always do it. One of my favorite Bible passages is the one I sometimes need to read again and again as I struggle with the lure of this world: “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:15).

For that reason, as a pastor I don’t pretend to stand in a position of perfect holiness and sermonize self-righteously, because there are times I struggle just like every other Christian.

James points out that hearing God’s word without doing what it says leads to self-deception. It’s a reminder of his earlier admonition in verse 14: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” The term “enticed” is a fishing term that literally means “to lure with bait.” Bait is something the fish sees as good, but it is a deception. Buried in the bait or the fishing lure is the hook. In the same way, Satan entices us with something that looks good and appeals to our desires, but buried in the promised pleasure and fulfillment can be a disaster for us. Simply hearing the truth is not enough. For every Christian, from the one who has just professes his or her faith to the most mature, knowing the truth must be accompanied by living it.

Remember the context of the book of James. It is the earliest writing of the New Testament (about 45 A.D.) and thus gives us not complicated doctrinal teaching, but, rather, practical instruction for daily life. So he reminds his readers that merely hearing, but not doing, leads to self-deception.

Then he adds that the very act of looking into God’s Word will reveal our true condition, as a mirror shows our true physical appearance. It is as though he is asking the question, “When you look at the truth of God, do you see yourself living the life of righteousness it describes?”

Studying the principles of the word of God shows where things are right as well as where things are out of order, just like a mirror shows us messy hair, a 5 o’clock shadow, or a smudge on our nose. A mirror does not distort, but gives us an accurate reflection. It shows us what we look like for real, not what we might think we look like.

The literal translation of verse 24 is “he beheld himself and went his way, and immediately forgot what he was.” The Holy Spirit is telling us through the pen of James that if we study and know the word of God and then walk away, ignore what we see in ourselves, and do not take steps to conform our thoughts and actions to the revealed will of God, then we are self-deceived.

God wants us to know that His word, is not just about knowledge and revelation, but it is also about accountability. In James’ day, the Scriptures those early Christians had available to them was what we know as the Old Testament. It details the creation, the history of God’s chosen people, and, most important, the character of God as holy and righteousness and the will of God that His people be holy and righteous also. The New Testament, which was to be written over the 55 years following James’ letter, deals with different times and different issues, but is remarkable in that it sort of completes the thought of the Old Testament, confirming those character qualities of God through Jesus, who repeated again and again the Father’s desire that His people live pure and righteous lives of faith and dependence on Him.

After 20 centuries, however, various views of biblical truth still exist, as mankind—both Christians and unbelievers—struggle to reconcile biblical truth to the cultural pressures that lure them. People regard the truths of the Bible in a number of ways today. Some see the Bible as relative truth—“it may be true for you but it’s not true for me.” One youth pastor put it this way when interviewed about the Bible’s teaching about sexual sin: “Times have changed and that’s no longer applicable.”

Some people might be seen as superstitious about the Bible, believing there is something magical in having a Bible around, sort of a good luck charm on the coffee table that is good for an automatic blessing. It doesn’t need to be opened, just there.

James seems to address what we might call “theoretical hearers.” Those are people who may have a great religious education and lot of knowledge about the teachings of scripture but lack in personal godliness.

I know we could probably come up with some other categories. The Holy Spirit is making the point in this passage from James that people who read the word but who neglect doing what it says are self-deceived. The term “deceiving yourselves” in verse 22 is not the idea of being uninformed. It means choosing false or corrupt reasoning. When I read this passage, I always think of rationalizing, the thought process we use to try to convince ourselves that a wrong attitude or a wrong actions just may be righteous after all.

An appropriate example might be the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan. They were religious leaders (people who knew the word!),but they were comfortable in not showing mercy to the injured traveler. Samaritans were despised by the Israelites as unclean and impure. These Jewish religious leaders in the parable seem to rationalize that not stopping and helping this unbeliever was justified, the right thing to do, even though they knew God wants His people to show mercy.

In verse 25, James tells us that hearing and doing the truth God’s word reveals to us leads to blessedness (happiness). In making this point, James contrasts the doer with the hearer, describing the doer of the word in four important phrases:

The doer looks intently into the word. The term “looks into,” which James uses in verse 25, pictures a person who stoops down to examine something closely, with an intent to see and understand in detail. We can conclude from this term alone that God’s intent is for us to develop deep understanding of Him through His word. That doesn’t mean we have to learn Hebrew and Greek and all the history of the Bible. Whatever language the Bible has been translated into, it clearly conveys Who God is, what He has done for us, and how we should respond.

The doer is liberated by the word of God. It is the perfect law, and it gives the doer freedom. It is liberating. Paul explains this concept in great detail in his letters, showing Christians that they are no longer servants of their sinful nature, but free to choose not to sin. As God’s people, Christians are free to choose righteousness. Those who have not been reborn by the Spirit of God are not. They are servants of their sinful, self-centered nature.

The doer is a lifelong learner of the word. Notice in verse 25 that God does not want us to be content just read the word, but to continue to closely and intently examine and understand it. Knowing God and His will is a lifelong learning process. Understanding and doing His will is the sure sign of Christian maturity.

The doer does not forget what he or she learns. Unlike the person who looks into the mirror and promptly forgets what it revealed about the appearance of the person he or she saw, the doer does not forget what the word reveals about himself or herself. In other words, the doer lets the word of God change him or her by doing what the word says.

In closing, we should remember that James was writing to a very young church. Christians could read the Old Testament scriptures. They met as a church to hear teachings from an apostle or teachers sent by the apostles. The letter from James was meant to be copied and read in the various congregations of the growing church as it spread from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and further abroad. It was meant to be basic, focusing on the foundational aspects of our faith: persevering in suffering as persecution grew in intensity, resisting temptations to live like the self-centered people that made up the culture; loving one another and showing that love unselfishly; acquiring not just knowledge, but wisdom; avoiding worldly indulgence; and living a life of practical faith.

Most of the book of James can be directly related to specific teachings of Jesus. In many cases, James elaborates and gives specific applications. We might ask where James got the idea of emphasizing hearing and doing? Why is he so insistent on putting the word of God into practice? This passage in the book of James seems to be a direct reflection of the teaching of Jesus at the end of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore, whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house: and it fell. And great was its fall.”

The foundation of a godly and blessed life is not just hearing God’s word. It is doing God’s word, living according to His character and His will.

When we look into the mirror of God’s word, what do we see? We see that Jesus died for our sins, so it would be possible for us to be reconciled to God. We see that by believing in Jesus Christ, we can be His forever and walk in newness of life. And as we constantly dig deeper, we see our flaws. We see that we are sinners. We see how the world affects us. And we see where we can change.

March 24, 2008

Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, and Slow to Anger: James 1:18-20

In our text today, James directly relates who we are with how we must show it as mature Christians, not just for others to see, but purely because (v.18) “He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” In other words, there will be a natural resemblance between the Father and His children—His characteristics will show themselves in us as we mature in the faith.

In v. 19, James lists three characteristics of the mature Christian: quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. These are the first of several “spiritual litmus tests” James lays out for us to strive toward if we are to learn to live as God would have us live.

Remember the background of the book of James. It is most likely the first New Testament scripture written, around 45 A.D., just a few years after Jesus time on earth. The book of James is most likely a sermon that was copied and distributed to the growing church. The church did not yet have the doctrinal writings of Paul or even the written gospels. James is chock full not of doctrine or philosophy, but mostly of how Christians should live and act.

Therefore, there is a lot in the book about relationships—how we should treat each other.

After dealing briefly in the opening verses with how to respond to trials and temptations (verses 1-18), he turns to a really basic issue in human relationships for the child of God: “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”

Christians must be quick to hear (19)

The phrase is better translated “let everyone be quick to listen.” That is decidedly not a quality of modern-day western culture. We tend not to listen, but to formulate our next point in conversations. All we need to do is to watch Bill O’Reilly or Nancy Grace or Chris Matthews to see this in the extreme. The format of such talking-heads fare is not to engage in productive conversation, but rather is to interrupt, make one’s own points rather than responding to questions and arguments, a kind of faux debate, with each speaker relentlessly pursuing his or her own agenda and mostly ignoring the opportunity for meaningful exchange of information.

But while that is symptomatic, it is the extreme. For an everyday example, I need to look no further than my own household. One of the questions I tend to hear from my wife with a certain measure of frequency is “Were you listening?” Sometimes, I, a consummate multi-tasker, have to answer in the negative.

For James, the immediate context of “let everyone be quick to listen” is to listen to the “word of truth” (verse 18). He goes on to tell them, “This you know, my beloved brethren” (19). The gospel and the salvation of His people were well understood by the young church. God, through James, wants His people to listen and internalize the truth they have heard.

James is making the point that there are characteristics Christians should have because we were brought forth to become children of God by the will of God, characteristics that should be seen in the behavior and manner of life of the Christian. First among these characteristics in this passage is that the Christian must be quick to listen. Notice that he relates this listening not just to the word that brought us forth (verse 18) and “implanted” in us (verse 21), but also in connection with human relationships by the list of three qualities: quick to listen (to the word and in human interactions), slow to speak, and slow to anger (both of these refer to human interactions).

We can conclude this because James specifically identifies “anger” here as “the anger of man” in (verse 20).

Being “quick to listen” is not a new theme. Jesus constantly rebuked the religious leaders of his day for their unwillingness to “hear” (i.e., listen to) him. They heard the truth with their ears, but Jesus’ point was that they had never learned to listen with their hearts. Likewise, a major theme of the book of Proverbs is that the willingness to hear instruction from God and parents is the path to wisdom (For example, see Proverbs 1:5,8; 4:1,10; 23:19). By linking this characteristic to being slow to speak and slow to anger, James makes the point that being quick to hear also is a Godly quality in human interactions.

Christians must be slow to speak (19)

In making this point, the text is directly addressing a characteristic Christians should show in interacting with other people. It is a call for us to be cautious, to think before speaking.

I think all of us can think of embarrassing examples in our past when we were too quick to speak, and it got us in trouble. We didn’t have all the facts, or it just came out wrong, or we didn’t stop to think that what we were about to say was gossip or something said from anger or self-centeredness. Once again, we can turn to the book of Proverbs and find this is not a new theme for the children of God. For example, “he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). And Proverbs 17:27-28 advises us: “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.”

I find truth in another proverbial saying, but it is not found in scripture: “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact (a quotation from George Eliot, 19th century English novelist). I fondly remember my father quoting that in response to my own teenage propensity to state my opinions about . . . well, about almost everything.

So the simple lesson of being “slow to speak” is this: God wants us to learn to consider carefully our words before we share them out loud. That calls on us to exhibit other qualities of a maturing Christian: humility, patience, self-control, and concern for others.

James makes an important point. Our words have the power to build people up or tear them down. And once the words are spoken, we can’t take them back.

Christians must be slow to anger (19, 20)

James contrasts human anger with a characteristic of God in verse 20: “for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”

Once again, I imagine all of us can think of examples from our past when an angry outburst did not exactly achieve the righteousness of God. There is an often-quoted story about Winston Churchill and his quick temper when arguing with Lady Astor, who expressed the desire to become the first female Member of Parliament. Churchill led the opposition to her election. On one occasion, the two engaged in a protracted angry debate, and she finally told him “Winston, if I were married to you, I’d put poison in your tea.” Equally angry and frustrated, Churchill responded, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it!” It’s a humorous example, to be sure. But it illustrates one of the points I believe James is trying to make. Nothing in that exchange accomplished any good, and certainly, whether the two were serious or not, neither was a statement arising from righteousness.

Don’t misunderstand James here. He is not saying that all anger is always wrong. Jesus expressed righteous anger, and righteous anger is not the problem. The problem is that sometimes we don’t see clearly the difference between righteous anger and our pride and self-centeredness. When pride and self-centeredness are the motives, then we can be sure we are expressing unrighteous anger, the kind of anger that injures rather than correcting or edifying. As James says, it “does not achieve the righteousness of God.”

Let’s be even more personal. Whenever I give way to improper anger, I do not achieve the righteousness that I profess as a Christian. Once more, we find this is not a new concept for the people of God. Proverbs 29:11 tells us “A fool always loses his temper, but a wise man holds it back.”

Some Strategies for Becoming
Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, and Slow to Anger

So how, on a practical level, does the Christian in our culture deal with the issue of being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

First, we must try to choose our words carefully before we react. Solomon wrote, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27). Restraint is a godly quality and therefore a discipline that is especially important in our conversations and our interactions with others.

Another excellent bit of advice I attribute to my father is that not all battles are worth fighting, not all arguments worth pursuing, and not all points are worth voicing. For the Christian, that means we should choose God’s greater purposes rather settling for small (and often harmful and bitter) victories. Many words said in anger are zingers that can bring short-term gain, but long-term pain.

It also can sometimes be a good idea to choose to hold our tongue until we have received godly counsel. I don’t know everything about everything. In fact, it’s probably more accurate that I don’t know a whole lot about many things. It has never hurt me to get a second opinion before deciding about an issue or responding to a problem.

Another strategy is that we can choose to pray about the response before speaking off the top of our head. Solomon wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). The Spirit of God, Who dwells in every authentic Christian, will give us wisdom in every situation if we open ourselves to His direction. All we need to do is quit arguing, quit strategizing, and ask Him. And by acknowledging Him in all my ways, I also effectively eliminate pride and self-centeredness in my response.

I also find it valuable to choose to think about my decision or response for a day or two, in combination with seeking the Holy Spirit’s direction. Many wise people have chosen to spend a day considering all of the alternatives, implications, and costs of a decision before committing themselves prematurely. Solomon wrote, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5). I apply that not just to business decisions, but also to avoid hasty reactions (which often are ill-considered and uninformed overreactions) and poor decisions made prematurely.

Finally, remember this principle from Proverbs 12:18: “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Perhaps that is the most important lesson of all relating to the advice we receive from James in this passage. I can choose to contribute to adversity, make my argument, and win the short-term battle, or I can be a healer of relationships and in doing so demonstrate one of the righteous qualities of God’s character in me.

March 23, 2008

Handling Temptation: James 1:12-18

Do you struggle with temptation?

Several years ago, a popular Christian magazine conducted a survey of its readers, asking them to rank the areas of greatest spiritual challenge. The top 5 answers were materialism, pride, self-centeredness, laziness, and (tie) anger/bitterness and sexual lust. The respondents also noted that temptations are stronger when they had neglected their time with God (four out of five) and when they were physically tired (more than half).

There isn’t a day that goes by that we are not tempted in some way. Temptation comes in many forms. We are tempted not to tell the truth, to take something that does not belong to us, to take advantage of someone, to gossip, to hold a grudge, to feel superior and look down on others, or to give in to that part of us that constantly wants more money and things.

So how do you handle temptations? Do you struggle a little. Do you struggle a lot? The good news is that the Bible tells us it is possible to resist temptation.

In the first message in our series in James we learned that we are to count it all joy when we fall into trials. It is not difficult to see a connection between adversity and temptation. In the midst of adversity, we may be tempted to think or act in a sinful manner. Many people wrongly conclude that times of stress somehow justify ungodly responses. We are tempted to strike out or strike back, to feel resentment, or to respond in other ways that are harmful to us or to others.

James deals with temptation in James 1:12-19. Interpreting this passage is made difficult by the fact that the word for trials (verse 2) and temptations (verses 12-18.) is the same word in Koine Greek, the original language in which James wrote this letter. But a trial is not the same experience as a temptation. The word can refer to external stresses that press us, or it can refer to internal attractions that tempt us. It is the context that determines the proper translation and application, and the context of our passage today is the matter of the temptations with which we are faced.

There is not always a connection between trials and temptations, but often the trials on the outside can become temptations on the inside. In the midst of adversity we may be tempted to think or act in a sinful manner—to respond selfishly, lash out, complain, question God’s love, and resist His will. In our trials and difficulties, Satan loves to show us the opportunity to escape the difficulty in a sinful manner, and we are tempted to take the bait. The point of the 1:1-11 is that trials can help us grow. But the point James makes in verses 12-18 is that we can recognize and respond in a righteous manner to temptations.

Temptation is inevitable and we can be victorious over it (12-13)

James presents the first truth in verse 12: it is, indeed, possible to endure temptations. The word “endure” relates back to verse 3, in which he teaches that patience or endurance results from successfully facing trials. The sense in that verse and in verse 12 is that we can experience a victorious outcome or success when facing temptation. He tells us that the person who endures temptation is blessed, because he or she has “been approved.” That term might better be understood as “passed the test” or “faced the test with success.” James further writes that the person who has faced the test with success will receive the “crown of life,” which might be better translated “the crown which is life”; that is, eternal life.

James is not saying that God tests us, but his assumption is God allows trials and temptations, and it is those trials and temptations that test us. He elaborates in the verses that follow.

James leaves no question that temptation’s assault will come. Notice in verse 14: he states “when” one is tempted,” not “if” one is tempted. As Christians, we are not exempt from temptation. The fact is, we will never be without temptation until we are with Christ. That is because as Christians we are in a spiritual battle. There are opposing forces constantly trying to draw us away from God. Even though people around us may not appear to be doing so, everyone is wrestling with temptation just like you and I are.

Verse 13 almost goes without saying. Temptation does not come from God. He does not put our favorite vice in front of us to help our endurance grow. He does not test our faith with the invitation to sin. Temptation comes from Satan, who puts some very alluring choices before us to try to attract us to the pleasures he offers.

Remember, too, that temptation itself is not a sin. The writer of Hebrews points out that Jesus Himself was tempted: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Temptation is simply the invitation to sin. We sin when we decide to accept the invitation.

There's no excuse for giving in to temptation (13-15)

By “no excuse,” I don’t mean unforgivable. I mean there just isn’t a good excuse for it, because as Christians we know about the spiritual battle that is going on and which choices are the righteous choices.

James points out that we have personal responsibility for handling temptation. We can’t blame God when we are faced with temptations, we can’t blame God or someone else when we give in. We are responsible. Temptation is not from God, and God is not the one responsible when we give into it. And yet, sometimes people point an accusing finger at God when looking for an excuse. It is true today and it was true when Solomon wrote the proverb: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the Lord” (Proverbs 19:3).

God allows temptations, but he does not send them. He is never involved in tempting anyone to do evil.

But we have always had the tendency to want to find someone to blame. When I was growing up, a comedian named Flip Wilson was popular. He had comedy routines based on the famous line people sometimes use to excuse bad behavior: “The devil made me do it.” The point of the comedy routine was that his character tried to excuse bad choices by blaming it on the tempter. Satan is, indeed, responsible for the temptation, but not for our yielding to it.

Trying to avoid accountability for yielding to temptation is almost as old as creation itself. When Adam and Eve gave in to temptation in the Garden of Eden, and God confronted them, and asked “What have you done?,” do you remember what they said? Adam said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Notice that this is not what God asked. Adam was saying, in effect, “God, it’s her fault, and You are the one Who brought her here.” Eve then said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). In other words, like Flip Wilson’s signature line, “The devil made me do it.”

The truth is, we sometimes think that way, too: “I just couldn’t help it” . . . “It’s not my fault.” . . . “He made me so angry” . . . “He knows not to say something like that, because I always react that way” . . . or my own favorite, “That’s just the way I am.”

But the fact is, God puts before us righteous alternatives when we are tempted. Paul tells us in the book of 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In verses 14 and 15, James describes the process that leads to sin. First, he writes, comes our own desires. That’s pretty clear to me. We want something we don’t have. We see a way to experience pleasure, satisfaction, or fulfillment. Temptation may involve anything—a material possession, a man or woman not our spouse, a promotion on the job, the satisfaction of vengeance, or anger that just feels righteous. Temptation can be anything that offers short-term satisfaction in an unrighteous way.

James writes in verse 14 that temptation is enticing. The term “enticing” to us might be a positive term. A new car is enticing, that outfit at Macy’s is enticing, a nice vacation can be enticing. But that is not exactly what James is communicating here. The term “enticing” he uses is a fishing term that literally means “to lure with bait.” Bait is something the fish sees as good—a satisfying meal—but it is a deception. Buried in the bait or the fishing lure is the hook. In the same way, Satan entices us with something that looks good and appeals to our desires, but buried in the promised pleasure and fulfillment can be a disaster for us.

James adds in verse 15, “Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; . . .” Once we let desire to sin grow strong enough, it will give birth to the act of sin. James adds to the progression: “. . . when it (sin) is full-grown, brings forth death.” Even though sin sometimes brings a temporary period of pleasure, it always leads to negative consequences, even though this may not be immediately apparent.

Now obviously we have all sinned, and God did not strike us dead that very moment. But we must not be misled about the ultimate result of sin because of God’s mercy. If we continue to sin and do not respond to God’s mercy by forsaking our sins, James says the sin “brings forth death.”

This has been a difficult verse for theologians to reconcile with the promises of the Bible that Jesus paid once and for all time for our sins. His death is our atonement for sin. Literally, sin, which is giving in to temptation to act unrighteously, made necessary Jesus’ death as our atonement. It can be a difficult concept to accept. God wants a relationship with us, but He cannot abide evil in His presence, and our sins are acts of evil. So Jesus became the atonement for our sin so that we can commune with God.

The process James describes—desire, sin, death—is the same as in Genesis 3. The desire to be like God led to the sin of Adam and Eve, and both their separation from God (spiritual death) and the institution of physical death. David longed for restoration of his relationship with God after his long period of sin with Bathsheba, which included continuing adultery as well as arranging the death of her husband. In Psalm 51:12, David prayed “Lord restore unto me the joy of my salvation,” because until he repented and turned back to God, he lived a death-like spiritual existence—no joy in the salvation God had given him.

Charles Swindoll, in his book James, Practical and Authentic Living, offers a good explanation of verse 15: “James is not referring here to physical death, for then none of us would be alive. Nor is he referring to spiritual death, for then no one could be saved. The fulfillment of our lust brings about in the believer’s life a death-like existence.” I would add, however, that James would, indeed, mean physical and spiritual death had it not been for the atonement, in which Jesus sacrificed His own life so that we might be saved and spend eternity with Him.

We should not allow ourselves to be deceived by temptation (16-18)

James tells us in verse 16: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.” In other words, don’t see a temptation as something good and rewarding. I am reminded of his earlier use of the word “entice,” the fishing term referring to the bait. Don’t be fooled by the bait of sin, he is telling us, but realize the hook is buried in it, waiting to pierce you and pull you in. Reject the temptations that you experience, because you have the ability to see evil for what it is.

That is the key: seeing evil for what it is, even though it lures us like the bait lures the fish. We need to see our world through eyes that are spiritually mature, firmly rooted in God’s truth, and then we are able to realize that the things that tempt us are evil and do not lead to any good, no matter how great they appear to be.

In verse 17, he draws a contrast with the preceding verses about temptation and what it can lead to. His point is that Satan does not give good gifts. Only God gives good gifts. Remember that James began by saying that God did not cause temptation to come to us. God is not the source of our temptation. Temptation is not a good thing. It is a bad thing. And God does not give bad things to us. Satan would like for temptation to look like a good thing. Don’t be fooled. Reject that lie outright. Every good gift comes from above, from our Father. In Him there is “no variation or shadow of turning,” that is, we judge for sure between His gifts, which are pure and good and without a doubt from Him, and Satan’s temptations, which offer fleeting pleasure and fulfillment but at a terrible price. Peter elaborates on this idea in 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue.”

Finally, in verse 18 James tells us that we are different. We are born again into a new spiritual existence entirely separate from the spiritual nature of those who are not born again. The good news is that those who are born of God can resist temptation. We no longer have to be servants of sin and sinful human nature. We have the ability to see that what Satan tempts us with is a baited hook trying to separate us from the righteousness of God.

And when we waver in the face of temptation, we can fall back on the promise of 1Cor 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” And we can fall back on the promise James gives a little later in his letter: “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

Responding to Trials-James 1:1-8

The book of James has been one of the most intriguing to me since I first became a Christian three decades ago. For the Christian searching for God’s will, James is crystal clear in providing a record of God’s standards and expectations of how Christians should conduct themselves, how we should treat others, how we should respond to trials and temptations, and a host of other very real situations of life.

The letter of James is thought to be the earliest document in the New Testament, written about 44-49 A.D., as soon as a decade after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The letter came at a time when a great number of Christians had fled Jerusalem and Judea after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 11:19) and at the time of Herod’s ever-increasing persecution of Christians (Acts 12). James addresses his letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). By comparison, the earliest gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—were written in the 50s and 60s A.D., while the gospel of John is dated to about 80 A.D.

The author is James the half-brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3) and brother of Jude (Matthew 13:55). Very early after the death and resurrection of Jesus, James became a leader in the church at Jerusalem. Paul referred to James, Peter, and John as “pillars” of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:9). James also was called “James the Just” due to his focus on righteous living. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, reports that James was martyred about 62 A.D.

One of the most outstanding indicators of the early date for the letter from James is the fact that he deals with none of the doctrinal disputes we read about in many of Paul’s letters, written in the 50s and 60s. The church was still young and had not been embroiled in doctrinal arguments to any degree at the time of James’ writing. So we find the letter of James deals with basic issues: responding to trials and temptations, equality of rich and poor, faith and works, responding to worldliness and strife, facing hostility, and prayer for the sick.

Throughout the letter, James emphasizes the practical aspects of Christian commitment. His purpose is to show our faith should show itself through godly living.

In Chapter 1, he writes about our attitude toward trials that will face each of us from time to time throughout our lives, giving a decidedly different view of trials than we receive from our 21st century western culture.

Count the experience of trials to be joy (1:2)

The first aspect of verse 2 we need to recognize is that the same Koine Greek root word is used for “trials” here in verse 2 and “temptations” in verse 12. By itself, the word can mean (1) adversity, affliction, trouble, that tests or proves one's character and faith; (2) an enticement to sin or a temptation, whether it arises from sinful inner desires or from outward circumstances; (3) a general term applying to any trial of person's fidelity, integrity, or virtue. Paul even uses the term to refer to a physical illness or disability in Galatians 4:14.

So we need to rely on the context to correctly translate James’ thoughts here. In verses 2-8, the context emphasizes what we might best call external trials—situations we face in the course of life. James writes that these trials are something we “fall into” or “encounter” (verse 2). There is no mention in verses 2-8 of personal accountability for the circumstances of the trial, sinful desires producing the conflict, etc., but merely that they happen and how we should respond. The term “fall into” or “encounter” is used in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:30: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves . . .” This is as opposed to the context in verses 12 and following, where James describes a different circumstance. Here, he refers to the experience of trials or temptations not as something that just happen to us, but something that entices us, when we are drawn away by our own desires (verse 14).

From the context, then, there is a little room for debate on the meaning of the word in verses 2-8. There is near-universal agreement among translators that what is in view in verses 2-8 are trials, not temptations. James calls them “various sorts” of trials, which we know from first century history of the Christian church included persecution, poverty, injustice, as well as illnesses. We also can rule out the idea of temptation here, I believe, because James calls it a “testing” (verse 3), and we know from verse 13 that temptation is not from God.

James writes in verse 2 that we should “count it all joy” when trials face us (or “consider it an occasion for joy”), an odd-sounding piece of advice for us today. Since we know trials are not pleasant, we can see that James is calling for a purposeful, intelligent, faithful response, not an emotional reaction. Following this standard, James tells us we are to regard trials not as negative events, but see them from God’s perspective: painful circumstances can produce something valuable for and in us.

Recognize the good results of trials (1:3-4)

In verses 3-4, he elaborates, telling his readers that trials, though unpleasant to experience, can produce good results. As believers, we are called on to rise above the immediate unpleasantness of a difficulty we encounter and find joy in what God will accomplish by leading us through the trial. We can know, James writes in verse 3, that trials are a “testing” of our faith that produces patience.

Testing is the method by which something is tried or proved. For example, gold has a relatively low melting point and can be “tested” for impurities by being melted. Impurities would separate and sink to the bottom of the crucible or float to the top. This word “test” is used only one other place in the N.T. (1 Peter 1:7), in which it is used to refer to gold being tested by fire (melted in the crucible). Therefore, James is making the point that the presence of trials in our lives refines our faith, strips away what is false and purifies our trust in God, makes us stronger, and gives us the positive experience of a purer, more experienced faith and better understanding of God and His purposes.

Testing produces patience. A better translation of this word would be “steadfastness” or “endurance.” In the New Testament, we find that this is a characteristic of the person who is not swerved from his or her loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings. A bit later in history, this term “endurance” was used to describe those Christians who were martyred by the Romans rather than to deny their faith and worship the Roman gods. Endurance also is a character quality of Christ, as we read in 2 Thessalonians 3:5: “Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience (endurance) of Christ.” Finally, James uses the word again in 5:11, to describe the perseverance of Job, referring Job’s continuing faith in God despite his terrible troubles.

James tells us in verse that the experience of endurance can make us “perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” The term “perfect” does not mean absolute perfection, but “full grown, adult, of full age, mature.” The word “complete” means “whole” and “without blemish or defect” and lacking nothing. Perhaps none of us feels like our faith is completely mature and lacking nothing when we are enduring a trial. James deals with this in verses 5-8.

Ask God for wisdom to deal with trials (1:5-8)

James singles out “wisdom” as the quality that may be lacking when we face trials. He uses the same term “lacking” in verse 4 and “lacks” in verse 5. The thought is connected. What is lacking in our faith as we face trials and do not persevere is wisdom.

Wisdom is more than knowledge. It is knowledge plus moral discernment, the ability to make choices and respond to the pressures and negative circumstances in ways that are not just righteous, but also right. James further portrays godly wisdom in 3:17 as being “from above,” describing it as pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, and without partiality or hypocrisy. Notice how he contrasts these qualities with human wisdom in 3:14-15: human wisdom arises from bitter envy, self-seeking character, and it is earthly, sensual, and demonic . . . as opposed to wisdom “from above.”

The contrast is to the wisdom of the unbeliever—that is, human wisdom—which, faced with trials, tends to choose the expedient or self-serving solution. But the wisdom of a mature believer will tend to reflect godly qualities: mercy, good fruits, purity, etc.

So, assuming I am not perfect and complete yet, I need wisdom “from above.” James writes that if we lack wisdom, we should ask of God, who always can be counted on to give liberally and without reproach, and wisdom will be given to us. Why “without reproach”? One possible explanation is that James never even hints that trials are punishment, as we sometimes might imagine. We should therefore be assured that God would not reprimand us for asking help in knowing how to respond to our trials.

The promise to us is that if we pray for wisdom, God will give it to us. There is a condition, however. We must ask in faith, with no doubt; faith that believes God is hearing and will answer. Remember that the biblical concept of “faith” includes trust. We can trust God to provide wisdom and trust that God’s way is best. This narrows our options. We are to pray for wisdom, not to complain to God about the trial. We are to therefore be open to the wisdom He provides.

Look back at 3:17: the wisdom God supplies in answer to our prayer will lead us to pure, peaceful, gentle solutions. It may mean we see the godly way to handle a trial is yielding, showing mercy, acting without partiality or hypocrisy.

It is possible for the Christian, especially the less-mature Christian, to go through the motions of prayer, all the while having doubts about whether God will provide wisdom, or doubting whether the wisdom from God is better than our own human wisdom. Such a Christian, James writes (verses 6-8), is like a wave of the sea driven by the wind. That is, he or she has no self direction, no faith in God to provide the solution and either ease the trial or provide the patience to endure it. That person, James tells us, is “double-minded,” that is, doubting, hesitant, with divided allegiance, unsettled, restless, vacillating in what to do in the face of the trial, sometimes thinking God may supply wisdom and other times giving into discouragement, abandoning the hope of enduring.

During trials, the mature Christian is driven to God in prayer. He or she feels encouraged to ask God and then trust Him for the answer, knowing it will come at the time God chooses. Sometimes, we must admit to ourselves, facing a trial seems to be the only way God can get us to talk to Him.