Themes in James: Wisdom, Wealth, and Wonder at the Bigger Picture

“If any of you lacks wisdom,” James writes, “let him ask God,
who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be
given him” (1:5, English Standard Version). Here’s one of the
most direct and wonderfully encouraging promises in the Bible. And God always keeps his promises. If we lack wisdom, we’re to ask God for it, and he’ll grant our request. Can anything be more encouragingly plain?

It’s no accident that this teaching follows immediately after James tells his readers to count it all joy when trials come their way. That’s a hard pill to swallow, as noted last time, even though the benefit of the trial is profitably real, and even if we believe that it will be. To appreciate this, we’ll need wisdom, not the world’s wisdom, but God’s. Don’t have it? No problem, James writes. Ask God, and he’ll grant it to you—wisdom to appreciate the benefit of trials in the Christian life, but also to appreciate so much more of who God is and what he’s doing.

The best-known example of asking God for wisdom is Solomon in 2 Chronicles 1. His father, David, now gone, Solomon inherits Israel’s throne. He’s nervous. God comes to him at night and tells him to ask for what he wants, and Solomon asks not for wealth, honor, long life, or that God rout his enemies, but for wisdom. You’ll remember God’s response: because Solomon asked for wisdom to rule Israel and not for his own comforts, God gave him both, wisdom and all the benefits he didn’t ask for.

First things first. If God in Christ is at the radiating center of our lives, then everything will line up. But if we choose to pursue and run after the benefits, putting God to one side, we’ll be running around in circles. Solomon demonstrated the wisdom bestowed on him in the Proverbs. In Proverbs 3 he writes that we should trust in the Lord with all our hearts, not lean on our own understanding, acknowledging him in all our ways, and he’ll do what? He’ll make our paths straight. He’ll give us direction and sure footing.

Not So Easy

But this is so often just where the problem is for us, isn’t it? We do lean on our own understanding, we trust the Lord but often only so much, we do acknowledge him in that way or issue over there, but maybe not so much for this one over here. And then we wonder why things aren’t working out. James has his own way of dealing with this. The promise is there, and God always keeps his promises, but if we ask him for wisdom, we must ask in faith, believing him and believing that he’ll answer. Otherwise, James writes, we shouldn’t expect anything from God. Double-mindedness before God is not a posture of faith. Perhaps our first prayer, then, shouldn’t be for wisdom, but David’s prayer in Psalm 86, to ask God for an undivided heart.

Often to cure us of our double-mindedness, God places us in a hot situation, whether bad or good, as was true for Solomon. Once we’re there, we realize that we simply don’t have the resources in ourselves to manage and come through it on our own steam. If we think we can without him, we’re in for a nasty surprise. But even that’s beneficial, since we’ll learn from that for next time.

A hot situation is often needed for us to see that we need to ask God for wisdom. Otherwise, our tendency is to rely on our own or on only what other people are telling us. God hears us when we come to him in such situations, in faith, and grants our requests, and note, as James writes, without reproach. What a terrific promise! Where we’ll want to get to, however, is not having to move from one hot situation to another in order to be moved to ask for wisdom, but learn not to lean on our own understanding in all situations, to acknowledge God in all our ways, for that one issue over there, but also for this one right here. Then we’ll get into the habit of asking God for wisdom and will begin to know it as we walk the straight paths that he’s laid out for us.

There are many peddlers of wisdom today, religious, relational, consumerist, wealth-building. Some may be worth our attention, but none are worthy of our devotion, the place where we’re to drop anchor. Wisdom resides with God. That’s why we need to always go to the source, and believingly when we do.

Bigger Picture

Understanding trials in the Christian life is to take in the bigger picture of what God is doing. Simply asking for wisdom, in faith, is what James tells us to do in order to gain an appreciation of that bigger picture. As he moves onward in his epistle, James next pulls back the camera, as it were, and pans the bigger picture for us.

We’re focused on the now, and that’s good and necessary. We have responsibilities, work to do, things to accomplish—all fine and good. The problem is that our workaday lives can easily capture not only all of our attention, but our affections as well. We sometimes can’t see beyond our own noses and checkbooks. That’s why James pulls back the camera to show that what’s often urgently important to us right now—though part of God’s plan to be sure—is really a tiny thing in the scheme of things.

Our lives are like a wild flower in the grass. Such a flower arises beautifully, and that should be appreciated; it’s something to be thankful for. But we know that as soon as it’s in full bloom, decline is around the corner. There’s a vast eternity before that flower’s stem even nudged itself through the earth, as there’s also a vast eternity after that flower withers and dies, to be seen no more. That’s not to discourage us. It’s to educate us so we anchor our affections not in the daily hustle and bustle of life and what seem their all-important outcomes, but in what will outlast these.

If we learn how to do this, a part of wisdom which James earlier references, we’ll have an appreciation for the temporary nature of the things of life while also being able to enjoy them—realizing they’re not everything to us, not even among the most important things. That’s why James says if God has blessed you with wealth, you should be humble. After all, it’s temporary, and it’s God who has orchestrated that life for you. By contrast, if you’re economically poor, James says, you need to come to appreciate how wealthy you really are in Christ. Even if almost everyone seems to have more than you, you should be able to say, The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

New Creation

This is a call to a radical reorientation, isn’t it? Societies throughout history have expected the wealthy to be arrogant and prideful, and the poor to be self-effacing, shuffling their feet with hat in hand, humbly retiring before them. Not you, James says. Not Christians in communion with Christ and one another. There’s a different axiom among you, a different dynamic from the regular expectations of the world. Live according to that dynamic, not the world’s way of doing things.

This can be appreciated only if that bigger picture James is laying out for us is apprehended by faith. If we’re steadfast through the daily, workaday grind of life—laying our hands to what’s before us while living in appreciation of that bigger picture—we have a promise that we can count on: the crown of life. Wealth has its trials, as does poverty. Having more means having more to do to manage it, guard it, account for it, give it and save it. There are a vast number of laws and regulations governing all of this. Managing wealth can become a job in and of itself, fraught with concern and worry which, if we’re not careful, will rob us our joy in Christ, and eventually, it could even replace him in our affections.

Poverty has trials of its own, certainly. The poor often juggle bills, deciding which to pay this month. At stake are not only their livelihood and economic future, but their independence and dignity. James calls both rich and poor to live beyond their immediate circumstances, not anchoring in something that’s passing, lest one get swept away in its passing, or to define oneself entirely by one’s less-than-optimal economic circumstances—which the workaday world encourages—but to live beyond both. If we do that, we’ll learn how to manage wealth while holding onto it loosely, and how to build wealth without making that project the be-all and end-all of life.

Do you want the crown of life? I do. That means learning to remain steadfast under trial, not as a Stoic, but as a Christian. We remain steadfast not by inuring ourselves from trial or adversity, as though constructing a shell around ourselves, but by relying on Christ, taking in that bigger picture of his eternal kingdom of which the circumstances of life, as important as they are—not only to us but, yes, to God—are in another, larger sense, that is, in the bigger scheme of things, really a tiny speck. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of God—that lasts, forever.

 

Mr. Gerry Wisz
is writer, college instructor, and semi-retired public relations professional who, with his family, is a member of Preakness Valley URC in Wayne, NJ.

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