How to Receive God’s Wisdom

James 1:5-8

November 4, 2014 | Ray Pritchard

“Too soon old, too late smart.”

I first ran into that proverb when I read Tom Klobucher’s fine book The Tailor’s Son. According to one source on the Internet, it is variously identified as being Yiddish, Dutch, German, Amish, Chinese, or Swedish in origin. It hits such a deep chord that people all over the world say it in their own way.

The first part is certainly true. We are too soon old. The young folks don’t understand this, but they will. Nothing is more certain than the passage of time. Yesterday we were born, today we live, tomorrow we die. Life rushes on for all of us.

How much do you want God’s wisdom?

The second part is equally true. We are “too late smart.” Most of us learn the important stuff the hard way. We take a long time to “wise up” about what matters most. No man on his death bed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office,” but many a man has wished he had spent more time with his family.

We would all like to get smarter about the things that matter most. In James 1:5-8 we discover that God is ready and willing to give us the wisdom we need if we will ask him for it. But there is a condition. We must truly want the wisdom God gives.

If we want it, we can have it.
How much do you want God’s wisdom?

Our Condition: Desperately Needing Wisdom

“Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (v. 5a).

Let’s start with the “if.” “If any of you lacks wisdom.” That’s a perfectly good translation that I would like to change to something like “when you lack wisdom” or “since you lack wisdom.” It’s not as if James is saying, “Well, you’re smart enough to handle most of life on you own, but now and then you’ll face a problem. Be sure and ask God for help.” That’s true in one sense, but it’s misleading.

We’re not as smart as we think we are.
We’re not as clever as we think we are.
We’re not as wise as we think we are.

We always need God’s help

We always need God’s help. We don’t need God’s wisdom some of the time. We desperately need God’s wisdom all the time. I was in a church not long ago and noticed that their purpose statement included a phrase I don’t recall seeking anywhere else. It went something like this: “Helping people discover the unexpected joy of desperate dependence on Jesus.” I really like that idea of “desperate dependence” because it puts us in our place. Most of us feel like we can handle the “moderate” problems of life. We can deal with cranky children or a prickly boss or a bad case of the flu or a pile of work that gets dumped on our desk. We understand normal pressures and we learn how to deal with them. But sometimes things happen that “strip the gears” of life so that we are flat on the ground. At that point, when all human options are foreclosed, our only hope is the Lord. We cry out to God in desperation, knowing that if he doesn’t help us, we’re sunk. That’s a lesson we have to learn over and over again.

Life: that awkward period between birth and death

This morning I saw a Facebook picture of a man with a puzzled look on his face. Underneath was the caption, “I’m in that awkward period between birth and death.” I smiled as I read those words because it is so totally true. Life really is a long, hard, unpredictable and awkward period that fills our days from the time we are born until the day we die.

Last week we had dinner with some dear friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. As soon as we sat down, we asked about their children who are now grown with families of their own. There was a quick recital about work and education and where they might be moving and how often they see their grandkids and future career plans and the churches they attend. It was the usual stuff parents talk about. Then the husband said, “They’re all doing good,” to which his wife added, “Right now.” And we all laughed at that.

We all need God’s wisdom, all the time

Do you ever stop being a parent?
Do you ever stop praying for your children?
Do you ever stop worrying about them?

The line between joy and sorrow is thin indeed. Just one phone call can change everything. It’s amazing how life can turn on a dime. Everything can be going well, you can be rising in your career, your marriage can be happy, your children and grandchildren can succeed, you can be happy in your church, your life may be filled with friends, you may have money in the bank, and your biopsy may turn out to be negative, which means you don’t have cancer. And then, just like that, your life changes. You hit a bump in the road and your car swerves into a ditch, and there you are, bruised and bleeding and dazed.

We never know when we are going to hit one of those bumps. I was asked to write an endorsement for Andy McQuitty’s new book Notes from the Valley, a chronicle of his journey through Stage 4 Colon Cancer. Andy is a longtime friend and a gifted writer so I knew the book would be good. It turned out to be more than that. Andy walked us through the valley of cancer and told us what it was like and what to expect if we ever have to go there ourselves. When I wrote my endorsement, this was my first sentence: “Andy McQuitty has written a book for those of us who don’t have cancer (as far as we know) to help us understand others who are on that journey.” When I wrote the endorsement, I threw in that phrase about not having cancer “as far as we know” more or less on the spur of the moment. It just came to me. But that’s how life is. It’s not as if you have cancer or you don’t. It’s not that simple. You might have cancer at this moment and not know it. A physician friend commented that we all have a few cancer cells floating around in our body at any given moment. The body disposes of most of them, but now and then they begin to multiply and take over, and suddenly you’re waiting for surgery or for chemotherapy or for both.

Life can change on a dime

So we don’t know, do we?
The future is uncertain for all of us.
And no matter how smart we are, we aren’t as smart as we think we are.

That’s why we all need God’s wisdom, all the time.
It’s too bad that often it takes a crisis to make us wake up and cry out to God.

Our Hope: God’s gracious character

“Who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him” (v. 5b).

This is the reason we cry out, this is our hope.

I’ve been thinking lately about how “absurd” the Christian faith is, at least from the world’s point of view. We’re asked to believe that a God we cannot see has spoken in a book written thousands of years ago in languages most of us can’t read. That book tells of miracles God wrought long ago, in a land far away, to ancient people whose lives are remote from ours in the 21st-century. Most of all, we’re asked to believe that God himself came to our planet in the person of His Son who lived, died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. We entrust our whole future to that Person whom (as 1 Peter 1:8 reminds us) having not seen, we love. Through faith, Hebrews 11:27 says, we “see” him who is invisible. We bury our loved ones and then say, “They are not here. They are in heaven with the Lord.” We believe that in Christ, they aren’t really dead at all. Finally, we believe that the Jesus who walked on this earth 2000 years ago is coming again. We wouldn’t say that about any other historical figure, but we do say that about Jesus. When we pray, we say words to a God who is absolutely invisible to us. We believe that somehow those words make a difference, not only to us but those we love. And we believe that one day when we die and are buried, we will be with the Lord in heaven.

There’s more but you get the drift.

Fundamentally we believe that this world is not the only world there is. To say it another way, we believe that this world we call the “real world” is not the real world at all. We say that there is another realm, another world we have not seen, and that what happens in that “other world” matters just as much as what happens in this world. And we say that what happens in that “other world” gives us a new perspective on the trials and sorrows of this life.

We believe the “other world” is the “real world”

The world simply doesn’t get that.
They don’t “see” the other world the way we do.
They don’t even know it’s there.
So they don’t understand how we can rejoice in suffering and not become bitter when hard things happen to us.

Thinking about it this way helps me understand what James is saying. Our whole view of that “other world” where God dwells in glorious light impacts how we respond to all the pains and travails of this life. The secularist simply pooh-poohs all I have just written as irrational nonsense and foolish superstition. As I have pondered the matter, I think I understand why my Greek professor Dr. S. Lewis Johnson used to say that if you could believe the first verse of the Bible, you wouldn’t have any trouble with the rest of it. If there is a God who created the heavens and the earth, then I can easily believe that he parted the Red Sea and that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. If I can believe the first verse, then I can believe my prayers are not in vain.

We have a friend in high places

That’s where the last part of James 1:5 becomes so crucial. Why do we cry out to God for wisdom to face all the problems of life? We do it not only because we lack wisdom, but because we believe there is a God in heaven who loves us deeply and stands ready to help us in the moment of our need.

I got a note from a friend who has been praying for years for certain requests involving a desire for a specific career and for a marriage partner. To the best of my knowledge, this person is honorable and truly wants God’s will. One particular sentence struck me:

“Because God has delayed or denied my requests, I wonder if I’m doing something wrong.”

That’s a common thought when our prayers seem to go unanswered. I wrote back and told my friend that in the last month I’ve taken part in two funerals for people who died younger than expected. That does make you stop and think about why things happen the way they do. I have finally settled on the fact that most things simply won’t be explained in this life—either good or bad. We just won’t know.

I read an article about Moses interceding with God for Israel in Exodus 32. Because he was the “friend of God,” God heard and answered him. The writer called Abraham’s bold prayers a kind of chutzpah—godly chutzpah. God answered Abraham because he liked him!

The double-minded man is a walking civil war

Now does that mean if your answers are delayed that God doesn’t like you? No, that can’t be right. But if we are truly the children of God, then God likes us, adores us, is crazy about us, and thinks of us constantly. If that is true (and it is), then we ought not to come to God timidly. He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing (Ephesian 1:3), poured out his grace on us (Ephesians 1:6) and called us his children (Galatians 3:26) so that we are already seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). Let us do as the Bible says and come boldly to God’s throne, knowing that there we will find grace to help “in the nick of time” (Hebrews 4:16).

James says God gives us wisdom without criticizing us. I like that. We pray in our desperation, knowing God will not say, “What’s wrong with you? You ought to be stronger than that. You should handle this better.” He never says, “You again? Why can’t you learn the lesson the first time?” Praying to God is not like going to the principal’s office. When you are in trouble, you need a friend, not a judge!

Thank God, we have a friend in high places.
He will not turn us away when we need him most.

Our Challenge: To Want God’s Best

“But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind” (v. 6).

The text says, “But let him ask in faith without doubting.” If we read that one way, it sounds like he is talking about mental doubt, or doubts about God’s character or whether or not God will come through for us. That’s probably not what James has in mind. The word “doubt” comes from a Greek word that means to discriminate. It can have a neutral meaning, such as a judge deciding a case, or it can have a negative connotation, to discriminate unfairly. James uses this word in 2:4 to describe how the early Christians were favoring the rich over the poor. Paul Tripp catches the meaning when he says, “That word ‘doubt’ is not about intellectual struggle; it’s about being torn between two choices.” (From the sermon “Wisdom is a Person.”).

James was a good “surgeon of the soul” in that he understood the conflicts inside all of us. Later on in chapter 3 he comments about the tongue:

“We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it” (James 3:9).

Then he adds:

“Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way” (James 3:10).

We are all a bundle of conflicting desires. We want to serve God, but we have our own plans. We want to be gracious, but we trample on anyone who gets in our way. We save our money only to spend it on foolish things.

There is no wisdom apart from God

We all understand that it is hypocritical to sing, “Holy , Holy, Holy” on Sunday and then to curse at someone who makes us angry on Monday. But it happens. We cannot expect to receive God’s wisdom when we pursue a double-minded way of life. In fact, that’s exactly what James says in verse 7:

“That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

And why is that? Verse 8 gives us the answer:

“An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.”

The word “indecisive” translates an unusual Greek word that means “double-souled.” We should pause and think about that. A double-souled person lives in perpetual ambivalence. He is walking civil war, never able to commit to anything. He flits from one relationship to another, from one job to another, from one friendship to another, from one church to another, from one promise to another, never staying in one place long enough to make anything stick. He’s here today and gone tomorrow. He promises and then makes excuses. He says, “I’ll call you tomorrow,” and then forgets and apologizes later. Or maybe he never remembers at all. He dates one girl after another, never able to pop the question because he’s so easily distracted and because he deeply fears making a commitment that will require him to stay married for the rest of his life.

Over a century ago a man named C. F. Deems wrote a description of this “double-minded” man. I reproduce it here because it seems so on point:

A two-souled man is unsettled; “unstable in all ways.”

His opinions are fluctuating; and so are his sentiments.

Sometimes he is repenting of his sins, and sometimes he is repenting of his repentance.

Sometimes the importance of the future overwhelms him, and sometimes he feels theft nothing is worth thinking of but the present.

Such instability of sentiment must unsettle the believer. The man is sometimes as serene as a May morning, and sometimes as sweeping as a cyclone. You can never know how he will receive you, or how he will behave under certain circumstances. His instability imparts its changefulness to his countenance; while he is looking one way, his soul has gone another.

His speech is ambiguous, his tone of voice wavering, his utterance now very rapid and now very slow.

Sometimes he answers offhand and without reflection, and then he requires so much time to consider that the opportunity for speech has passed.

He is untrustworthy in every department of life. That man cannot receive anything of the Lord. He cannot hold his hand long enough to have anything placed therein.

I was struck by one fact. When this was published in the Biblical Illustrator, only one word was highlighted: the word “cannot,” as in “That man cannot receive anything of the Lord.” This is the tragedy of double-minded Christians. God will never give wisdom to the double-minded because they will not stand still long enough to receive it. They would not appreciate if God did give it, and they will not act on it in any case.

So we go after wisdom apart from God. That’s what finally tricked Eve in the Garden of Eden:

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6).

She thought she could obtain wisdom apart from God! But there is no such thing. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). It’s like saying, “I want sunlight without the sun.”

Here is the truth. We are all double-minded people at some level and to some degree. There is in all of us the pull that says, “I can do this myself.” Eve wasn’t some terrible person who had been conditioned to do wrong. She simply talked herself into the idea that taking a shortcut would make her smarter or wiser or more beautiful or more fulfilled or happier or less frustrated or somehow fill the void she felt within.

It’s not like she’s worse than us.
She’s just like us and we’re just like her.

We all want what we don’t have

She lived in paradise but somehow that wasn’t enough.
It never is.
We always want something we don’t have.

Enter the serpent and cue the ominous music. It’s the story of the whole human race repeated over and over again. Ever since Eden, we have been a double-minded race, with high hopes and low desires fighting against each other. It would be good if we would admit that fact.

Just now these words from the hymn Come Thou Fount came to mind:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.

The last few lines offer us the only hope:

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

He already knows your heart—divided and pulled in a thousand directions

Left to ourselves, we will be like those sheep going astray, going our own way, turning aside, running away, always looking for greener pastures. Left to our own devices, and to our own wisdom, we will always leave the God we love.

How strange, how sad, how fearful.

The good news is, we don’t have to hide from the Lord. He already knows your heart—divided and pulled in a thousand directions. He knows the conflicting desires. He knows how much you want to do right and how quickly you do wrong. The only hope we have is to return to the God who loves us so much that he will not let us go even when we run from him.

We all need Jesus, and we need him more than we know

The wisdom we need is not an answer or a formula or a plan for tomorrow. We are told that Christ himself is our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30). If you are not a Christian, what you need is Christ. And if you are a Christian, what you need is Christ. The need of the whole world is the same. We all need Jesus, and we need him more than we know.

We all need a “come to Jesus” meeting now and then. Perhaps for you, this is the moment. Do not be afraid to say, “Lord Jesus, take the broken pieces of my life and put them back together again. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”

Lord Jesus, help us to run to you so that our hearts may be healed and we may receive the wisdom that comes only from you. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?