Thursday, April 11, 2013

Difficult Passages: Asking for Wisdom (Jam 1:5)

One day recently I was listening to Family Talk Radio and heard a preacher (I didn't catch his name). The preacher was teaching on the verse of James 1:5:

"If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like the wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind." (Jam 1:5, NIV)
The preacher then proceeded to give the most mind-blowingly absurd interpretation of this passage I have ever heard. I was driving so all I can do is paraphrase rather than quote, but basically what he said was: "We must focus our whole heart on what we believe we are supposed to do, so that God can help you achieve it."

Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is so wrong (and so typically twenty-first century American) that I'm not even sure how to address it. We pick what we are supposed to do and then--if we focus hard enough--God helps us achieve it?? Are we really embracing the New Age absurdity that if we put enough 'good energy' on something it will come to reality? How can I even repack this?

First, of course, you must read the passage in its context. James--the leader of the church of Jerusalem--is writing to Jewish Christians who have been spread by the persecution of Herod and the sect of the Pharisees. (Ironically, this persection spread Christianity like wildfire, changing it from a local Jewish sect into a worldwide phenomenon.)

He opens the letter by, of course, addressing their persecution: James 1:2-18 are all about avoiding the temptations. He encourages people to embrace their sufferings and know that God will use them for good, to stand tough during the trials, and to avoid the temptations that might come their way during such persecution. In verse 5, as part of this discussion, James says that anyone who asks God for wisdom during this time will get it, as long as he is a believer.

That is the direct interpretation of the verse in context: when you are struggling with persecution and temptation and you don't know how to survive it, pray to God and if you are a believer you are promised that you will receive wisdom. This is what James meant, and what his readers needed to hear. And it is valuable to us as well to hear: when you feel like you are overwhelmed by the temptations and persecutions in our world, reinforce your beliefs in Jesus and pray for wisdom, and you will be given it.

But preachers seem to hate to let this verse speak for itself. Instead, they wish to expand it into something larger--such as above, where the radio preacher takes the verse, rips it from its context, and basically turns it into a "name it and claim it" verse, where God is a business partner just waiting to see which direction you'll go so He can back you if you believe in your vision/business plan/whatever strongly enough.

Even if you don't go off the reservation as far as that preacher, though, you have probably generally heard this verse expanded to apply not just to "wisdom during temptation-and-persecution" but rather to wisdom in general: that is, you have probably been told that if you ask anything at any time and have the proper belief, then the Bible promises that God will give you the wisdom you seek.  (Such people, though, have trouble explaining one thing: if this is true, how come so many Christians make such terrible decisions after claiming that God was leading them?)

No, what this verse is trying to tell you is that when times are tough and you don't know what the wise thing is to do, you should ask God and believe Him that He will lead you through it and give you the answer! So what about all the other times, when times are not hard? Well, in those times it is actually quite easy to know what to do! The Bible is chock-full of wisdom, which if you are studying and living in a Biblical manner, you cannot help but live in your lives.

The problem is not generally that we do not know the wise thing to do: it is that we do not want to do it! We know it is unwise to go out to an expensive dinner with friends if we are struggling to make our mortgage payment: we don't have to ask God for this wisdom, we already have it! But generally we justify the unwise decision: we haven't seen them in a while, or we never do anything for ourselves, or it's ministry/relationship building, etc. When in reality what it comes down to is that staying home and eating leftovers is just less fun than going out to eat. We know the wise thing...we just choose not to follow it.

But no, this verse does not say that people with true faith will somehow always have God's wisdom for every minute of every day and every situation. Nor does it let you off the hook for using your brain: God wants you to live wisely and purely at all times, walking as children of the light. This verse simply promises that when you are struggling to discern wisdom in tough times, God will give it to you--so have faith!

Be careful adding to God's word...just let Him tell you what He wants to tell you.