Intro: Trials (last week's sermon) form the laboratory for growth in wisdom (this week's sermon)
Last week we began to look at God's purposes in trials. And I love the book of James. It is such a down to earth, rubber-meets-the-road book. One author called the book, "Faith in Work Clothes." And I think that's an appropriate title. And last week we looked at seven steps for maintaining joy in the midst of trials. And that is so important because the joy of the Lord is our strength.
One of the steps was understanding that God has good purposes when He allows trials in our lives. And one of the many purposes of trials is to develop wisdom in the believer. Wisdom often comes out of the laboratory of affliction.
Proverbs 29:15 The rod and rebuke give wisdom… He is saying that even in your homes, there are from time to time artificially induced trials designed to promote wisdom, and the verse goes on to say that the child if left to himself will not gain wisdom, but will bring shame to his parents. And we want to make sure that we are not bringing shame to our father in heaven by failing to grow in wisdom when He brings trials into our lives.
A young businessman went to an executive one day and asked for his secret of success. And the executive said, "Wise decisions." "How can I learn to make wise decisions?" "Experience." "How do you get experience?" "Dumb decisions!" There is a place for book knowledge, but some things only seemed to be learned as you do them. And you ought not to be discouraged if you have made a pile of dumb decisions. Just make sure that you are learning from them. But the International Standard Bible Dictionary says of wisdom, "Predominantly the "wisdom" thought of is that which comes through experience, and the "wise man" is at his best in old age (Job 12:12; Job 15:10; Proverbs 16:31; etc)"
We will be seeing in this passage that wisdom does not automatically come from experience. But those experiences give us the opportunity to grow in wisdom. So let's look at the subject of wisdom in the midst of trials.
What is wisdom?
Difference between knowledge, understanding, wisdom and prudence. All four are needed
And I think it would help if we first of all define our terms. I've given four terms in your outline that are often used interchangeably, but which are treated as being quite different concepts in the Bible.
Knowledge refers to the accumulation of information or facts. So it's opening up your head and pouring in information. That's knowledge. It includes memorization, though I think it is more than just that. It's gaining information about God and His world through reading, study and experience. But unfortunately, some Christians have a great deal of knowledge, but no understanding of that knowledge. You shake your head at how much they know, and yet how little they really understand. People who are good at trivia have a lot of knowledge, not necessarily understanding. But they do have knowledge.
Understanding is seeing how the facts of the bible, or of the economy, or of any field of study fit together with meaning. It sees how the information relates, and why it is important. I think most people have experienced the lights going on, and they now recognize what you are talking about. That is an understanding. Systematic Theology is understanding how the facts relate to each other.
Wisdom goes one step beyond this. It is the ability to apply that knowledge and understanding to the circumstances that arise in life in a way that pleases God. Let me just give an example. If you read a book on child rearing you are going to get a lot of facts (or knowledge) put together in a systematic fashion related to this subject (that's understanding), and then wisely applied to difficult areas of parenting (that's wisdom). It's the application where people frequently pull their hair out. They have the knowledge, and they even have an understanding of how it theoretically works, but when it comes to the practical-rubber-meets-the-road situations that the book hasn't told them about that they just don't seem to know how to live it out. James 3 says that such wisdom comes from above. It is supernatural. It cannot be manufactured. Now there is a worldly wisdom that James 3 talks about, but the wisdom from above cannot be gained apart from the Holy Spirit.
But there's one more word. Prudence is the willingness to do the wise thing even in a tough moment. There are a lot of people who have wisdom, but they just don't have the prudence to apply it. Their sinful emotions and desires get in the way. Solomon was that way. He was the wisest man, yet he chose to do folly because of the strong pull of his flesh. In his case it was a deliberate going against wisdom. On the back of your worship notes are a few quotes on wisdom, and I like the one by Spurgeon. He said, ""If we are called on to select a man who, as to his life as a whole, perpetrated the greatest folly [folly is foolishness], we should mention Solomon. Yet he was the wisest of men. Yes, the cream of wisdom, when curdled, makes the worst of folly." And lack of prudence will curdle, will make sour any wisdom that God may give. And James addresses that problem in chapter 3.
But in any case, those are the distinctions between the four words. While I have given a number of definitions in your outline, the one that I like the best is by John Blanchard. He says that wisdom is "the God-given insight into our human circumstances and situations that enables man to see God's will…" I think that nails it.
Other definitions of wisdom:
"The art of learning how to succeed in life [and] the exercise of sound judgment either in avoiding evils or attempting good." (David Brown)
"Wisdom is INSIGHT into the underlying causes and significance or consequence of things, which INSIGHT enables one to apply to the best end the knowledge which he has." (unknown) "Wisdom is seeing things the way God sees them." (David DePra)
"The God-given insight into our human circumstances and situations that enables man to see God's will…" (John Blanchard)
Who qualifies to get it? – those who lack it (v. 5a)
Now here is the coolest point. Point II asks, "Who qualifies to get this wisdom?" You might think that wisdom is an attribute that only brilliant people have. "I'm not Solomon. I'm no David. Maybe I'm stuck forever without wisdom." But James does not agree. James says that this wisdom can be received by any believer. Verse 5 says, If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God [etc.] and it will be given to him.
Take heart brothers and sisters. Take heart children. Don't be discouraged that you don't have the wisdom of Solomon – you aren't in His position, and don't have his responsibilities, and you don't need his wisdom. But God will give to you everything that you need as you seek wisdom for the responsibilities that you do have. In fact, some of the most foolish people I have met when it came to Christian living have been brilliant people who depended on their brilliance rather than on the wisdom of God. I think many of you have met brilliant people who don't know which end of the hammer to use, and really aren't very practical in any area of life. On the other hand I have known of retarded Christians who knew they didn't have what it took to make decisions in an emergency, yet they trusted God and asked for wisdom and God brought them through.
In fact, for our family story time we recently finished a neat story of a Protestant minister in Holland during the Roman Catholic Inquisition. And this minister had been hunted down and had eventually been captured on the day that his son had died. He was sent to the Holy Cross Tower – an incredibly secure fortress where Protestants were tortured to extract information about the whereabouts of other Protestants, and then they were killed. And this one retarded man felt called of God to travel to this prison and to bring this minister his Bible and to get him out of the prison somehow. He didn't have a plan. He just felt prompted by the Lord to it. And interestingly, Bouke (this retarded gentleman) felt led of the Lord to cut a lock of hair from the son who had died, and to give it to Harm Hiddesz the minister. And everyone said that there was no way he was getting in there and if he did get in, he would be tortured and killed himself. It was a stupid plan. But as it turns out, even the hair was key to the minister's escape. This Bouke was often treated as the village idiot. Everyone tried to convince him that this was absolute foolishness. But he insisted. Somebody took him close to the prison, and then hightailed it back. But once there, he didn't know what to do. Let me read from the story at that point.
There he stood in the afternoon in front of the guardhouse – in which a few soldiers sat around – undecided and hesitant. He looked around; finally, he wondered if he ever would get inside.
"Lord," Bouke whispered, "Thou knowest that I have a message for Thy servant who is sighing in there in bondage for Thy Name's sakes; wilt Though help now to carry out my task!"
Suddenly Bouke got an idea when he saw the pewter mugs standing on the table in the guardhouse. Boldly he walked into the room, sat down on the wooden bench, put his stick and bundle on the table, and picking up an empty beer mug, pounded it on the table as if he were in a tavern.
The three soldiers first looked at each other and then at Bouke, and at last they burst out laughing.
"Well, your lordship, what is it you desire?" one of them asked mockingly, turning to Bouke.
"A pint of good beer and a place to sleep!" Bouke replied, and with his one eye he looked so stupidly at the man that the latter really thought he was dealing with someone who was not in his right mind.
"But where is the castellan?" Bouke asked, looking around.
"We shall get him for you in a minute," the solider replied and turning to his friends, he said, "Let's play a joke on him!"
In the days of our story the man in charge of a castle or fortress was called a castellan, but so was an innkeeper, and so the man in charge of the Holy Cross Tower could be addressed by that name as well.
The soldier rang the big bell on the door through which Harm Hiddesz … had entered and whispered something in the guard's ear. The latter left, laughing, and soon returned with the jailer.
"Here's the castellan," one of the soldiers snapped at Bouke.
"What do you want?" the jailer asked in surprise, turning to Bouke.
The farmhand looked from the jailer to the laughing soldiers like someone who had just discovered that he had made a mistake.
"Oh, excuse me, sir!" Bouke said bashfully, and bared his head, nervously fumbling with the hat in his hands. "I thought that this was an inn when I saw these mugs on the table and the doors open, and that's why I asked for the castellan. But I can tell that you are no innkeeper!"
"What's the meaning of this misplaced joke?" the jailer asked, annoyed, turning to the guard and the soldiers. "Do you know, little peasant, where you are? Do you know what kind of an inn this is?"
Bouke shrugged his shoulders.
"This place is an inn where it is best never to enter as a guest, because the chances of every getting out again are little indeed! This is the tower in which heretics and similar criminals are locked up!"
Startled, Bouke reached for his stick and bundle as if to leave in a hurry.
"Take it easy!" the jailer said, now also laughing on account of Bouke's hasty and awkward movements. "You don't have to run off like that! Tell me, where do you come from, and what are you doing here in town?"
"I used to live with a farmer near Leyden," Bouke answered, "and I have been told that here in Amsterdam I can find work and that the pay is good."
"And where do you think you will find work?"
"That I don't know," Bouke said.
"Have you ever seen such a dumb goose in your life!" the jailer cried. Then he was quiet as if he were thinking about something. "Are you strong?" he asked Bouke after a while.
The farmhand smiled, which made his face even uglier instead of more attractive. He then picked up one of the pewter mugs and crushed it in one hand as if it were paper.
"I don't mean it that way!" the jailer cried. "Anyway, I see, fellow, that you have a couple of strong hands on your body, and I can use someone like that. Do ou want to come into my service?"
Bouke acted as if the idea to work in a jail horrified him. To the jailer this was all the more reason to urge him to stay, and the reader can well imagine that Bouke needed little coaxing. From that moment on Hannes's servant ate in company of the prison guards and slept in a small room above the entrance of the building.
Though he ends up losing his own life, he does enable the minister to escape from the jail. He was a simple man with a simple faith, and all the way through God gave him wisdom. If any of you lacks wisdom. If you sense your need, you are qualified.
How do you get it? – ask God (v. 5b)
But point III is also a cool point. It asks the question, "How do you get it?" Frequently we scramble with human resources desperately trying to come up with some answer. Maybe we ask our neighbor, or our pastor, or a book. But have you ever stopped to think that you could just ask God? Asking God seems too simple. But verse 17 says, Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights… Chapter 3:17 says that the wisdom we are talking about here comes from above. If you don't ask for it, you won't get it.
Admit your need for wisdom
And I have put down five steps in this asking. First, admit your need for wisdom. We don't like people to think poorly of us, so rather than saying, "I'm at a loss. Let's stop and ask God for wisdom," we try to buffalo our way through and pretend that we know. We need the humility to ask. Proverbs 11:2 "When pride comes then comes disgrace. But with humility comes wisdom." Did you get that? With humility comes wisdom. Wisdom only comes to those who are humble enough to admit their need. Solomon cried out to God and said that he felt like a child and didn't know how to rule his country. God honored that. So simple, yet so hard.
Long for wisdom
The second step is to long for wisdom. The word that is used by James in verse 5 for "ask" is not the ordinary word for ask. This one means to desire or to crave something. But it carries especially the idea of longing. There is nothing that God appreciates more than a person who longs to be more wise; but more specifically, who longs to do the wise thing at any given moment. God rewarded Solomon for longing for wisdom more than riches and power. And if you long (to paraphrase John Blanchard's definition – if you long) for the God-given insight into your human situation that will enable you to see God's will, God will delight in giving you that insight. So the second step is to long.
Ask for wisdom
The third step is to ask. Later James is going to rebuke the congregation by saying, "You have not because you ask not." It doesn't have to be a long drawn out prayer. It simply needs to be a heartfelt asking for wisdom so that you can do the right thing.
Gain more knowledge and understanding by reading the Bible (James has given this book, after all)
The fourth step may not be immediately obvious, but it says, gain more knowledge and understanding by reading the Bible. The reason I place this as one of James points flows from two considerations. First, it flows from the definition of wisdom – that wisdom is the insight on how to apply knowledge and understanding. Well, you've got to have the knowledge and understanding first to do that. Secondly, these readers couldn't know anything about wisdom if they hadn't gotten this book from James and read about wisdom. So even though it isn't a point on the surface that is obvious, I think you can see that it is critical.
Anticipate the gift of wisdom
By thanking God for the wisdom
The fifth step is to anticipate the gift of wisdom. That's an act of faith. I've listed two ways that you can anticipate God's answer. After you have prayed for wisdom, you can thank God that He has already granted your request since He has promised and is a God who cannot lie. And tell him that you will now joyfully tackle the problem with thankfulness for His provision. You may not feel any different, but you know that you will have the wisdom needed.
By exercising prudence and making the decision that best glorifies God.
The second way to anticipate the gift of wisdom is to act in faith. You see, God does not make our decisions for us. He gives us the wisdom to be able to make the decision. This is the step of prudence. Frequently what we thought was lack of wisdom was really lack of prudence. In other words, deep down we knew all along what the right decision was, but we didn't want to take the heat for it. But usually decisions cannot be put off for a week while you mull things over. Businesses would falter if they were run that way. You make the decision (sometimes on a minute's notice) as an act of faith that God has given you the wisdom needed, and you seek to make the move that you believe will best glorify God. But Hebrews 11 and James 1:27 and following makes clear that without action there is no faith; without action there is no prudence. So anticipate God's answer by thanking Him in faith and be exercising prudent decisions in faith.
Does God always come through? – yes (v. 5c)
He is a giving God
But the thought might come, "I've had so many failures that I am afraid to trust God on this one." Or, "I've tried that, and the Lord let me down." But if there is a failure, verses 6-8 addresses why that failure has come about. We will get to that, but we can rest assured that it isn't because God fails to come through. James emphasizes in five ways that God delights to come through. …let him ask of God, [here comes the first assurance] who gives… Our God is a giving God. Verse 17 – everything good you have ever experienced has come from Him. He is a giving God.
He doesn't play favoritism
Second, He is a God who doesn't play favoritism. It says, who gives to all…
He is a generous God
Thirdly, He is a generous God. …who gives to all liberally… That word means sincerely, straightforwardly or openly. In otherwords, He has no strings attached – you know – "I'll do this for you if you do this for me." God doesn't do that. And that's why this word is translated liberally or generously. He is a generous God.
He is a gracious God
Fourth, He is a gracious God. He says that He will do it without reproach… He's not going to chew you out for bothering Him. He's gracious.
He is a God who does what He promises
And then, finally, He is a God who does what He promises. …and it will be give to him. Now if those five descriptions of God are not an encouragement to faith, I don't know what is. God wants us to trust Him on this issue of wisdom.
Is there a condition? – yes: faith
The fifth question asks if there is a condition. And there is. The condition is that we must honor God by having faith. But let him ask in faith… God is not honored when we express doubt in His willingness, His ability, His generosity or in any other way ascribe a defect to His character. And lack of faith is always thinking poorly of God's character. It ascribes a defect to God. It treats God as if He is a liar who won't come through, or as impotent, or unwilling, etc. That's why Hebrews 11:6 says, But without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. He doesn't say that faith is a nice thing to have, but an option. He says, without faith, it is impossible to please Him…
How Do We Refuse Wisdom? (vv. 6-8)
By denying we lack wisdom (v. 5)
The bottom line is (and this is point VI) that if you lack wisdom in this coming week, it is because you have refused God's wisdom. It isn't because God has held out on you. And I have put into your outline a number of different ways in which we tend to refuse wisdom. Backing up a bit, we are refusing wisdom if we deny that we need it. Pride affirms that I can do it. And if we think we can do it, or at least boast with our lips that we can do it, why would God give us something we have said we don't need? Be careful about boasting before others of what you do not have. That boast could be an explicit denial of your lack of wisdom, and in the process be a refusal of wisdom.
By failing to pray (v. 5)
The second way we refuse wisdom is by failing to pray for it. James directive is not, "When all else fails, pray." Our first immediate response should be to pray for wisdom. And it boggles my mind how frequently Christians fail to do that when they are dealing with perplexing conflicts between Johnny and Silvester who both claim to be right, or when they are dealing with their insurance company. We have a source of wisdom that is there for the asking, but we refuse wisdom by failing to pray.
By thinking of God as ungiving, biased, holding out on us, ungracious and unreliable (v. 5)
Thirdly, we refuse wisdom when insult God in any of the ways mentioned in point C – by thinking that God is a taker rather than a giver; thinking that He is biased against us and playing favorites; when we think He is holding out on us, or is ungracious and unreliable. You can see why such dishonoring thoughts should not be rewarded by God.
What is doubt? - Illustration
But the last way in which we refuse wisdom from His hand is by doubting. And we will end with this. James says, But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. He describes doubt as being double-minded. And I think that is such a helpful description because we have all witnessed people who are double minded on tasks.
And since I don't want to point any fingers, let me just use an illustration from my own life. People who have gotten to know me fairly well know that I can be directionally challenged. And some of it has to do with the fact that I do not think in pictures. And I can get lost very easily. So Kathy is my navigator in the car.
But on this example, I don't have Kathy along. I'm driving by myself, and I am lost, as usual. But, not to be worried. I can speak the language. I get out of the car at a gas station and ask the person for directions. And I know that I can't carry stuff like that in my head, so I write them down. I'm learning in my old age to compensate for my weaknesses.
And the gas station attendant is a very helpful older man. And he says, "It's not hard to find. Just keep going on this road. You'll see a water tower. Take a left at the next road. Go one mile and take a right. The place you are looking for is the second driveway on the left." Now that's so easy, that I could have been tempted not to write them down. But I wrote them down anyway. And with relief that I'm not going to be late after all, I start down the road.
I've driven three miles, and there is no water tower. Five miles later, I am beginning to be double minded. One part of me tells me to keep driving. Another mind in me tells me to go back, because I must have missed something. And of course, by this time, I'm chewing myself out for not asking how far the water tower was. I got the impression it was close, but impressions don't count. And the further I travel, the stronger my two-mindedness grows. Maybe that guy didn't know what he was talking about? Maybe he deliberately gave me bad directions. And then I think, "No. He seemed too nice to do that." You are way out in the country. Do you turn around and go back, and waste another 15 minutes, when it may be just another minute ahead? On the other hand, I've been known to have driven way past a landmark that I totally missed.
That's double mindedness. I don't know whether to trust him or trust myself. One mind says go ahead. Another says go back. And its stressful – especially since you are now five minutes late for your appointment, and forgot your cell phone – something I have also been known to do. If I go back, I may end up being 45 minutes late.
So let's review our dilemma. I needed wisdom. I sought directions. I got them, and they seemed fine at the time. But now I am having a hard time following them because they don't match my expectations. So I doubt; I am double minded.
But let's say that I see another gas station, and stop in to ask if that man gave me good directions. And these people confirm the total accuracy of the directions, and add that the water tower is 1 mile ahead. Suddenly, you feel the stress subsiding because you know you will only be 7 minutes late. You relax because you now know that the directions were accurate and totally to be trusted.
Faith in God's directions means that we keep driving, even when we don't know how long it will be, even when there is adversity, with the confidence that God will come through. But doubt is the opposite. Doubt is what makes us turn around, and to refuse to keep going. Doubt perpetually refuses God's wisdom. It says, "yes, but. Do I go back? Do I go forward?" So doubt is the last way that refuses wisdom.
How is doubt toxic?
Doubt makes us fear
But I added a final thought. And that is, that it not only fails to get wisdom, but in the process proves to be toxic to us. Doubt is toxic for a number of reasons. The first is that it makes us fear. And fear is toxic to us emotionally. It adds unneeded stress.
In contrast, God's wisdom gives a sense of security. When you can develop a total trust in God's Word, it drives out fear. That's why the Bible says that the righteous are bold as a lion. I think of Bouke boldy walking into that tavern and trusting God to open up the next step.
Doubt makes us unstable
The second reason doubt is toxic is that it makes us unstable. And what an image of instability James gives. …he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. If you have ever been out on the ocean in a storm, the waves look so unpredictable. One minute they are hammering you from this side, and the next moment they are hammering you from another side. You don't know where they are coming and going. And people who lack faith are just as unstable as those waters.
Doubt keeps us from the miraculous
Doubt is also toxic because it keeps us from the miraculous. Where faith stands on Scripture to receive from the Lord supernatural insight, doubt vacillates between the Scriptures and our own wisdom and ends up failing to claim the miraculous. The miraculous simply doesn't fit into man's wisdom. Man's wisdom is limited by what is possible.
Doubt fails to please God
But the greatest reason that doubt is toxic is because it fails to please God. Hebrews 11 says that without faith it is impossible to please God. So I hope this little passage has encouraged you to study the Scriptures for knowledge and understanding, and to ask God to take the theoretically and by His wisdom to help you live it out day by day. Rather than refusing wisdom, may we ask for it many times a day as we face new situations that call for new insight.
Now James will have much more to say about wisdom later. But this section is designed to encourage you to believe that you can have it any time you need it. May each of you seek God's wisdom and have the prudence to walk in His wisdom. Amen.