November 19, 2017

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Six

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So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

• Luke 11:9-13 (NRSV)

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Wednesdays with James
Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom

We are taking an adaptation of Peter Davids’s outline as our “big picture” of the Epistle of James.

Outline of James

Today we look at the second paragraph in James, summarized in the outline as “Wisdom comes through prayer.”

If any one of you falls short in wisdom, they should ask God for it, and it will be given them. God, after all, gives generously and ungrudgingly to all people. But they should ask in faith, with no doubts. A person who doubts is like a wave of the sea which the wind blows and tosses about. Someone like that should not suppose they will receive anything from the Lord, since they are double-minded and unstable in everything they do.

• James 1:5-8, The Kingdom New Testament

Remember the context. The paragraph preceding these words encourages James’s readers to find eschatological joy in the various troubles they are facing, knowing they are designed in the end to bring them to the place of “perfection” in the new creation. They are to recognize that the ups and downs of life are the very process by which we grow and mature. In particular he notes that trouble can work “patience” (endurance) in us. As we said in the last study,

We grow by living, and that means we grow through suffering. We become mature by gaining experience and perspective, and though books (including the Bible) can help us conceptualize some of what that means, experience and perspective must be worked into us. Maturity can’t be taught, only developed. The “patience” James commends is the outworking of real life processes in real life settings with real life choices and adaptations. God does not give us patience, he works it into us through life experience. Virtue is not the result of education in the narrow sense of academic achievement but in the broad sense of letting life and our responses to it (the arena in which God works) form us.

This is the life God is in. He is leading us to the age to come, in which all will be made new. But until then, we who follow Jesus can (and must) participate in the daily process, anticipate the end result, and learn to practice the patience of hope.

On the basis of that passage and this week’s text, as a pastor I learned to tell myself and my parishioners, “We shouldn’t pray for patience or any other virtue. God doesn’t ‘give’ patience or moral character. Instead, those things are ‘worked into’ us through the experiences of life and how we respond to those experiences. However, God does invite us to pray for one particular blessing in the midst of life’s trials.”

That “one particular blessing” is the focus of James 1:5-8, where the author encourages us to pray for wisdom.

What we need when we are “facing various trials” is wisdom. But a wise perspective is often the hardest thing to have when the pressure’s on. It’s hard to think clearly, to see the big picture, to consider the situation from various points of view, and to defer foolish thoughts, words, or decisions that will only make the situation worse. James seems to understand this, and therefore he urges us to pray.

But what are we to pray? And how are we to pray? What does it look like to ask God for wisdom in the midst of stress and trouble?

He doesn’t say here, but if I were to imagine his answer to that question, I would think that James might point us to the Psalms and perhaps to some of the prophets as examples of how to pray when under duress. As a Jewish Christian, James’s own prayer life and the prayer habits of his faith community would have been formed through praying the Psalms and other liturgical prayers. I don’t think he would fully understand or appreciate the emphasis on spontaneous, self-directed prayer that many of us are familiar with today. Instead, he would point us to the practice of praying the scriptures, meditating on them day and night, using forms of lament, petition, wisdom, thanksgiving, and praise that would lead the pray-ers through the process of crying out to God and seeking divine understanding and solace.

This is a process Pastor David Hansen called “Long, Wandering Prayer.” In a post about this I wrote:

The world is obviously no friend to grace when it comes to prayer and contemplation like this. It requires that we let go of deeply ingrained cultural biases toward activism, self-management, productivity, and efficiency. We must refuse to short-circuit the process of relating to God through extended, in-depth conversation that involves listening, questioning, pondering, wondering, speculating, expressing opinions and feelings, arguing, confessing, disputing, and coming to agreement.

In other words, I don’t think James is saying, “Here are the steps to gaining wisdom in your trials. Step one: Pray and ask for wisdom. Step two: God will give you wisdom. Step three: There, now you have it, use it.” No! He is inviting us into a process of relating to God that will lead to us becoming more wise. It’s couched in wisdom-teaching language, so the instruction is concise and punchy, however the process is anything but.

Please note that James gives us something else besides this invitation to prayer. He also gives us encouragement reminiscent of Jesus’ words, reminding us that God is not a stingy or begrudging giver when it comes to answering our requests. God is good, generous, and wants us to be wise. He will surely grant answers to our prayers. It’s just that the process is not a simple transaction: I put down my prayer voucher — God gives me a commodity called wisdom.

Likewise, I think we must read the second part of this text carefully: “But they should ask in faith, with no doubts. A person who doubts is like a wave of the sea which the wind blows and tosses about. Someone like that should not suppose they will receive anything from the Lord, since they are double-minded and unstable in everything they do.”

If you’re anything like me, well that counts us out here at the start, right?

The only way I can grasp this and not be completely discouraged by it is to remember that James is passing along traditional teaching, wisdom teaching that is couched in short, pithy, black and white ways of communication. In wisdom teaching, you’re either in or out, wise or foolish, righteous or wicked, blessed or cursed. That’s how wisdom teachers talk. James says here you either believe or doubt; it’s all or nothing, you’re either single-mindedly trusting God or you’re double-minded and no soup for you! No nuance, no gray areas, no wiggle room.

Okay, wisdom teacher, but what about the man who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”?

We all know that actual life is more like that, right?

I think we should probably cut James (and ourselves) some slack here and recognize the form of teaching he is using. Like a coach challenging his team to overcome an insurmountable deficit, it’s not realistic, but aspirational. This is James’s halftime talk when the team is struggling and he is giving them something higher (though realistically unachievable) to shoot for.

The Bible’s full of this kind of teaching. That’s why there are so many legalists and moralists in our midst. And that’s why the generous and ungrudging Father sent Jesus and why he still answers our imperfect prayers through his grace and mercy.

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Wednesdays with James
Previous Studies

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    Can you really place so much weight on this text as to have it disallow prayer for patience, or any other virtue except wisdom? That seems to me to place too much weight on it. These things may be worked into our lives, but it is God doing the working, isn’t it? I don’t see the problem with people praying for what they need and have been unable so far to attain by their own actions. I don’t think God holds it against us if we don’t pray in exactly the right way or for the right things; as you say in your last sentence, God answers our imperfect prayers through his grace and mercy. It can be a hedge against despair to pray for food, or courage and patience, when we are unable to find these things in the world or in ourselves; and who’s to say, really, that God in his grace doesn’t respond to such prayers? It’s a matter of balance, which is where the wisdom comes in, for counselor and counselee alike.

    • Of course you’re right, Robert. I’m speaking pastorally here. People, including myself, so often want to shortcut the process of becoming mature and I hope to help them be more realistic about how God usually “gives” to us.

  2. James was basically a monk without a monastery. His knees were so calloused from kneeling in prayer that he was called Old Camelknees. His highly disciplined lifestyle and mental outlook were probably similar to that of John the Baptist and the Essenes. I believe it is important to keep this in mind when listening to James. There is a certain translation process needed. Not everyone is cut out to be a monk, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need discipline in one measure or another.

    The first quote above from Jesus speaks of asking God for the Holy Spirit just as James speaks of asking God for wisdom. Perhaps the two are two different ways of saying the same thing. We tend to equate wisdom with intellectualism, which may be an exercise in futility. When James answered Paul’s request for a ruling on whether Jewish distinctives were necessary for non-Jewish Christians, he said that it seemed good to them, the council, and the Holy Spirit to do thus and so.

    We don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the Holy Spirit other than to sneer at Pentecostals and demand lip service in the Nicene Creed. We don’t pay much attention to James either. I’m disappointed in the dwindling interest in this study but I guess not surprised. James was a strict taskmaster with himself and set the bar a bit beyond our comfort zone. It’s one thing to say don’t be double-minded, it’s a lot harder to figure out how you do that, and James isn’t a big help there because it came natural to him and he thought it should be natural to everyone else. But it is a key concept and needs understanding.

  3. Peter T says:

    I like the reference to a halftime talk. The clock is running and we have to get back out there to finish the game, and hopefully win. It seems that so much of our present day teaching and advise is also like that. Short little sound byte kind of moralism and motivation, and very little sympathy, like the kind Jesus actually showed for women,Samaritans,lepers,drunks,prostitutes,the poor,and ignorant. He was not in the wall building business seeking to show off how great things would be,like some snake oil salesman. In fact he said, if you follow me most people will reject you, and you may not even have a pot to pee in. Can you imagine one of our leaders saying that to their followers? People would laugh, just like they do today, except for those that can truly hear his voice.