Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 1:5-8

James 1:5-8 

1:5 – But James isn’t really interested in spinning out some good, old-fashioned Stoic moral philosophy for his hearers. James’ message isn’t about individual improvement, as important as that might be, but about the response of the community of faith in a world that is characterized both by the presence of suffering and by the good, gift-giving grace of God. Thus James’ first practical application for how to live this life of “joy-in-trials” is to pray. Gaining the virtue of perseverance isn’t about finding some secret well of strength deep within you; it’s about receiving its strength as a blessing from God. Ask God for wisdom, because he is a good giver, who loves to bless his people with all the depth of insight and virtue they can manage, if only they are serious about pursuing it. “Wisdom” here doesn’t just mean abstract moral or theological knowledge; rather, it refers to the grace-given capacity to see the events of one’s life, in the moments in which they happen, through the big-picture perspective of God’s ultimate goals for his creation. Thus, when trials come upon us, it is this wisdom that reminds us of what the end goal of our suffering could be, and which inspires us to pursue that goal with joy. So pray, and pray especially for your growth in grace and virtue—wisdom, love, peace, patience, and so on. Those are the sorts of prayers that God loves to answer.
1:6-8 – These verses have, unfortunately, been often misunderstood and misapplied, with the end result that sincere and faithful Christians are bullied into feeling like they are not permitted the sensible act of servant-hearted humility in their prayers. Poor teachers of Scripture have tried to make these verses bear the weight of a whole system of practice that demands entire confidence for every single thing requested in prayer; and if God does not clearly answer those prayers, the fault must lie with the person’s corrupt and doubting faith. Fortunately for all those of us who are human beings and not supernatural paragons of certitude, that’s not what these verses are saying. Now, certainly, it is important to have a measure of confidence in prayer, because it reflects our faith in God: we believe that God is omnipotent, and able to grant any prayer we might ask, and we believe that he is good and loving, and will want to answer all such prayers that are prayed in accordance with his glory and will. Thus we can be certain that God hears us, that he cares about us, and that he uses our sincere prayers to accomplish great things for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. But the plain fact of the matter is, even the best of us sometimes pray for things that are not granted to us, and I’m not convinced that the fault lies with our failure to have absolute certainty. When I lift up specific supplications before God—for someone’s miraculous healing, for example—I have absolute confidence that God is powerful enough and loving enough to accomplish this miracle. But I am merely a servant, and God is God, and the truth is that I do not know for certain that he will choose to answer my prayer with exactly the miraculous healing that I am praying for. Does that mean that I am, in James’ words, “double-minded and unstable” in all that I do? I don’t think so. The vast majority of the Christian tradition regards it as proper to pray such prayers with an acknowledgement that it is God who is sovereign, not I, and that he might have a different plan in motion than the one I’m praying for. I’ve no doubt that he still uses my prayer, however, even if he doesn’t answer it in the exact terms that I formulate—prayers for healings certainly bring the power of God’s good work to bear on the person’s life, even if they are not miraculously healed of their ailment. But, if James isn’t talking about any and all kinds of prayer, what is he talking about here? Because, clearly, he has very strong words for those who have doubts when they pray. Here we must remember that James is speaking in the particular context of praying for wisdom (v. 5). If you pray for something like wisdom (or greater love, or humility, or goodness), then you have no cause for doubt that God will answer your prayer. We already know, through the unshakeable testimony of Scripture, that it is God’s intention and desire to give us these things. He may choose to give them to us in a way other than what we might prefer (say, through suffering), but we can rest assured that he will give us the object of our prayers. We are praying for what God has already promised to give us, so we need not doubt God’s intention or power to deliver it. But it’s important to recognize, in the context of this kind of prayer, that we’re not just talking about intellectual doubts. If you pray for wisdom and then get up and start living according to every folly of sin that the world throws your way, then it is clear that you are not serious about your prayer—you doubt the importance of wisdom, even while you are asking for it. We Christians are called to live in the manner of our prayers, and this means that if we pray for wisdom, then we have to live like we really want it. Otherwise, we truly are simply “a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”