After James in 1:4 promises the person/community who endures trials with endurance will be completed, he jumps to the one who is deficient in completeness, and that deficiency is defined as lacking “wisdom”.
Wisdom can be a difficult word because it can be too non-specific. I’ve also wondered at what seems an abrupt transition from verse 4 with the emphasis on maturity through enduring trials straight into wisdom.
As I usually do when I work through a series I’ll be spending time with one particular commentary on my way through the book and for James I have chosen Scot McKnight’s work on James.
Endurance is what Christians must seek from God to face their trials (both individual and communal trials) and wisdom is close what is meant by completeness and maturity.
1:5 The most prized attribute, we are suggesting, of the messianic community as it faces tests is “wisdom,” and that is why James brings it up in 1:5–8.85 To anticipate what James will say, “wisdom” is supernatural in origin (3:15), is manifested through deeds of mercy and holiness (3:17), and leads toward a community noted by “peace” (3:18), perhaps the most important virtue/gift James could want for a community tempted by oppression to violence.
This suggests, as our exegesis in 1:2–27 will show, that “wisdom” here is not just the wisdom of the grey-haired sage who spins riddles and attracts intellectual guests, but the wisdom that manifests itself in a certain kind of community life (see especially 1:19–21; 3:13–18; 4:1–12).
Wisdom is for James, at least in part, what faith is for Paul, what love or life is for John, and what hope is for Peter. It is, as Ropes states, “the supreme and divine quality of the soul whereby man knows and practices righteousness.”
McKnight, S. (2011). The Letter of James. The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (p. 86). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Wisdom as God’s Gift Through Suffering
If we understand wisdom in this way, and understand the role of suffering and endurance in trials, we begin to see the fuller vision of how James imagines the community of Jesus followers endures and overcomes in this world. This of course puts it in resonance with the strong themes of the book of Revelation.
I found McKnight’s insight into James fascinating given the posture that many American evangelicals have seemed to assume today while they face losing a position of privilege in the culture they once enjoyed.
The community that James is writing too of course didn’t share that history. The early messianic Jewish community had difficulty both with the dominant, pagan, Hellenistic or Roman cultures as well as facing persecution from the Jewish communities that did not profess Jesus as Lord. There are multiple stories from the book of Acts where the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys faced trouble either from the dominant culture (in Ephesus for example from the makers of the Artemis statues) as well as from leaders of the synagogue who were not persuaded by his proclamation that Jesus was Lord. Again, this is consistent with the picture we have from the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the book of Revelation.
James’ message is to NOT respond to hardship as the world does, with violent, angry retribution, but to embrace wisdom which is what he calls the way of Jesus.
Christian Reactivity in Post-Christendom America
Part of our difficulty is that we’ve got a filter issue with the little mirror we use to see our selves in our context. Commercial news tends to accentuate the contrasts in order to portray a polarized narrative, the shrillest voices, the most outlandish positions, if it bleeds it leads. This does not help.
The problem does remain, however, that the instinctive grasping at outrage and angry protest seems to dominate not only the culture’s voice of complaint but also the church’s.
Many in the church decry the invasion of “the culture” or “the world”, usually defined along certain predictable lines of moral performance or embracing vices while not critiquing the world’s manner of protest or grabbing power.
What we are beginning to see is that James is offering us a different way to live in a world where we don’t have privilege or controlling power. Angry protestations, outrage promotion or fear mongering are the tools by which “the world” attempts to gain control of the agenda or the culture.
The church’s posture begins with a prayer for wisdom in the firm trust that God will give it to those who ask. Prayer to God not primarily to change our circumstances but mostly to give us “wisdom” as defined above, to give us the faith, love, hope, way of righteousness embodied in daily life, so that we can endure to our completion is our primary desire.
James calls someone who prays for this but does not think they will receive it someone who is two-souled or two-selved.
Again, my instinctive reading of this passage was a sort of a “do mental gymnastics to try hard not to doubt so that God will give you want you want” was ridiculously off.
First, remember, we’re not praying primarily for God to change circumstances. We’re asking that God changes our entire approach to life from one that is addicted to dependence on circumstance for one’s self, to one dependent on God’s identity given to us to define us and move us forward.
The person who “doubts” is the person who tries to live “two selves” and James calls this person “unstable”.
Again, this is completely consistent with the Old Testament understanding of a person without “guile” or a person who is one self, always living in dependent focus upon the LORD for his/her orientation and path.
Is this conditional giving?
If you look at how the whole package is put together you begin to understand the strange things that James says that sound out of character with God.
Again, I used to read the passage in terms of things like:
- We suffer because of our circumstances so we need to beg God to change our circumstances to our liking so that we’re not suffering.
- In order to get God to do this we must be totally pure (moralism) or totally committed (loyalism) and we must play games of mental gymnastics to make sure we don’t harbor any doubt (like cancelling health insurance because we’re sure God will heal us…)
- So work really hard at screwing up your confidence in the formula otherwise you won’t qualify.
This reading completely destroys the picture of James 1:2-8. The picture looks more like this.
- You will suffer, but receive the suffering that comes your way with joy, rather than reactive resentment or anger.
- Receiving suffering with joy is not some sort of mental gymnastics in denial, but rather understanding it in the light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If received in that way your suffering can make you perfect, complete and mature both for this world and the next.
- Finding yourself not very capable in pulling this off? Prayer is the way you move forward. This is not primarily praying to change your circumstance (you may pray for this but if you dwell on dependence for changing circumstances you simply fuel the self that is a reflection of their circumstance) but praying that the whole life of Christ, wisdom, will inhabit your self and your community (because are selves are always deeply tied to our community). This is God’s work in us and among us and he will surely bring it to fruition.
- In order for any of this to work on you, (you may kick against the goads like Paul) you will need to lean increasingly be the one-self you are becoming from God through prayer. Trying to live both ways (using worldly means (anger, violence, coercion, manipulation) to shape circumstances will bring you absolutely no progress towards wisdom. The one self, which stays locked onto the path of Christ’s life, death and resurrection moves you towards “wisdom” that is characterized by justice, love and peace even while you suffer.
- This sort of wisdom pursues “justice” (1:20), “love” (2:8–11), and “peace” (3:18) in ways consistent with the path walked by Jesus. The unstable person abandons these very things in the heat of opposition, perhaps becoming the oppressor (cf. 5:1–6). McKnight, S. (2011). The Letter of James. The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (p. 93). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
As Christians chafe at loosing their position of power and privilege in our context, we might look to the book of James as offering wisdom for our path forward.