Following God’s Wisdom
Sunday School Lesson for July 27, 2003
Background Passage: James 1:1-18
Focal Teaching Passage: James 1:1-8, 12-17
The Reality and Purpose of Trials (1:1-4, 12)
"James," our Lord’s brother, penned his letter to believers "dispersed" throughout the Roman Empire. The addressees were composed of both Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ whom James identified metaphorically as "the twelve tribes." This choice of designations is very significant in that it displays the essential unity of all men, regardless of ethnicity, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this way, James "affirmed the closest connection between Jewish and Gentile Christians" and confirmed that the Church is, indeed, the new Israel of God [Kurt A. Richardson, James, TNAC, 54].
The letter begins with a call to face the reality of "trials" and difficulties in the triumphant spirit of "joy." James wasted no time in convincing his readers—who knew quite well the pain of suffering for their faith—that their difficulties were not the product of random events. Rather, the "various trials"—or outward difficulties of assorted types and degrees—being experienced by them were sent, controlled, and designed by the sovereign God who had called them to faith. Since God is fully in control of all things, James enjoined his readers to see such difficulties from an eternal perspective. That is, they were called to "consider it all joy" when God brought times of testing upon them.
To "consider" joyfully such times of persecution, pain and distress requires the knowledge of a profound truth—"knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (v. 3). This statement implies several facts about the Christian life that every believer should be convinced of:
Verse 3, therefore, makes it abundantly clear that no Christian is at the mercy of impersonal forces (like chance or luck), or the whims of evil men. Rather, God is Lord of all things and has specifically designed the events and circumstances of our lives to bring about a deeper experience of purity and perseverance. "Endurance," then, is not "infused immediately in a moment of conversion. Only through great ardor and the stumbling pursuit of the goal laid before it and only through sustained service in spite of opposition does perseverance come" [Richardson, 62].
In verse 4, James indicated that there is a goal even beyond endurance or steadfastness in the faith. The "prefect result" of perseverance is comprehensive spiritual maturity—"that you may be complete, lacking in nothing." Tasker refers to this virtue as the "complete and fully-balanced life of holiness" .
Here James pronounces a blessing upon the one who "perseveres under trial." The word "blessed" is frequently used in the Scripture to describe the person who finds complete happiness and fulfillment in God alone [Simon Kistemaker, James, Epistles of John, Peter and Jude, NTC, 46]. James declared that after one’s faith has been "approved," or tested in the fires of adversity and found true and strong, he will "receive the crown of life." This approval does not imply "a faultless endurance, as if sinlessness were expected (cf. 3:2a). Rather, it acknowledges a faith that perseveres in the love of God, who promises life" [Richardson, 76]. The promise, then, is that outward trials prepare the believer to receive the ultimate prize or "crown"—eternal life in the presence of God. This in no way suggests that endurance under trial merits salvation. On the contrary, it indicates that endurance is the distinguishing characteristic of those who really are the children of God. Thus, God’s children display the genuineness of their faith by patiently enduring difficulties in the hope of eternal life "which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."
The Need for Wisdom (1:5-8)
To face trials and hardships triumphantly requires the acquisition of divine "wisdom." In the Bible, "wisdom" characterizes the person who understands and obeys God’s will. The wise person sees earthly things from the divine perspective and manifests a keen sense of spiritual insight. However, wisdom is also a divine gift and must be humbly requested from God with the assurance that He "gives to all men generously and without reproach." In other words, the believer who is undergoing a trial must seek wisdom from above (in contrast to earthly ‘wisdom’) in order to faithfully endure. In seeking this supernatural wisdom through fervent supplication, he is to be confident in the gracious, loving, and generous character of God who delights to hear and answer the prayers of His children. Furthermore, in coming to God in prayer for wisdom, the believer should never fear that God would find fault or send His child away empty-handed.
Next, James challenged his readers to pray, "without any doubting. Immediately one can see the essential relationship between wisdom, prayer, and faith. Kurt Richardson explains this connection:
The one who asks for wisdom asks in faith; asking in faith requires divine wisdom; to ask for wisdom is itself wise and is part and parcel of persevering in faith and growing in wisdom. Growth in wisdom is to understand that everything of faith is from God .
Note how James described the doubting believer as a "double-minded" and "unstable" person (v. 8). In other words, doubt causes the believer to become imbalanced and leaves him spiritually adrift without purpose and meaning—much like the "wind" which drives and tosses the "surf of the sea" (v. 6). In such a case, the believer, "no longer suffers the trial of faith but rather the excruciating instability of a life torn by two loyalties" [Richardson, 67].
Note also that doubt has a direct impact upon the believer’s life of prayer. James emphatically declared that the doubter should "not expect that he will receive anything from the Lord" (v. 7). This parallels Jesus’ teaching on the relationship between faith and answered prayer (see Matt. 21:21-22; Mark 11:24). The point is that all prayer, especially the request for wisdom, must be uttered in the spirit of child-like trust in the goodness and power of God. When supplication is made while doubting the character and sovereignty of God it will be thoroughly ineffectual.
The Truth About Temptation (1:13-17)
In these verses James set forth a distinctly Christian view of temptation. The connection this section shares with what has gone before is that both outward trials and inner temptations serve as tests of one’s faith and Christian character. In addition, both require the wisdom of God in order to triumphantly face them in the spirit of joy.
James’ theology of temptation may be distilled to three critical truths. Each builds on the other, and together they form the heart of the biblical doctrine of sin.
One: Temptation does not have its source in God (vv. 13, 17). No one has the right to claim, "I am being tempted by God." That is, when temptation comes, the blame may not be placed upon God the Father. The reasons for this are spelled out below:
Two: Temptation is a matter of the heart (v. 14)
Three: Yielding to temptation unleashes severe consequences (vv. 15-16)
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: Joy and happiness—Consider the differences between being happy and being joyful. How would you define "joy"? What are its distinguishing traits or characteristics? Hint: Remember that joy is listed as a fruit of the Holy Spirit Galatians 5: 22.
Two: Meaning in the madness—This passage challenges believers to find the sovereign hand of God at work in all of life’s ups and downs. Why is this so difficult, particularly when we are facing adversity? How does the fact that God sends trials to us relate to James’ insistence that God does not tempt us? Is there a contradiction here?
Three: The blame game—How does James’ theology of temptation challenge popular notions of temptation and sin?