If You Need, Ask (James 5:15) (A4A 5)
First published 24 January 2011
This is the fifth article in a series thinking through Bible passages that appear to promise that God will give us anything and everything that we ask for in prayer. It started, while I was having treatment for cancer, with tripping over a bold statement in my daily reading: “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” (James 5:15) As I studied more broadly in the Bible, I discovered almost twenty similarly bold statements in the New Testament relating to what can be achieved through faith and prayer. So this series of articles is really just sharing what I found when I studied each of these passages. Fittingly, I think, James 5:15 will be the last passage I will talk about in the series! I learnt a lot on the route back to that passage, and I hope I manage to get that over to you in a way that will spur us all on to greater faith and bolder prayer.
Today I will try to share what I found when I had a look at James 1:5-8. It reads:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
I think one of the most helpful things to get straight first with the book of James is the purpose of the letter. There are some very bold statements in the letter, somewhat startling in many cases, and they make a lot more sense when you understand what James was trying to achieve overall.
And you don’t have to look very far. Whereas some writers will work gently and diplomatically up to a point, James comes straight in with it at the beginning with characteristically blunt style: “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:1b-4) He was writing to Christians who were suffering for their faith, they had been scattered throughout the nations. How should they face their suffering, their “trials of many kinds”? With “pure joy”! PURE JOY!!!! Yeah right! Why? Because there was a good purpose in their suffering – so that through the testing of their faith they may persevere, and through perseverance become “mature and complete, not lacking anything”.
So the letter is really about how we should respond to suffering if we are to become “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” How are we to respond? To sum up in a sentence: We are to respond to suffering with faith, working itself out in obedience, love, humility and prayer. When we look at what read in James with that context in mind, it makes a lot more sense.
So, what’s the first thing we might lack if we are aiming to become “mature and complete, not lacking anything”? We probably wouldn’t know what to do. So James says straight away, “If any of you lacks wisdom…” (1:5) If any of us lacks wisdom and we don’t know how to respond in the face of suffering, so that we might move to greater maturity in Christ, what have we to do?
Ask God! The call to prayer begins and ends James’ letter (see 5:13) and crops up in the middle as well (4:2). There are many bad responses to suffering, dealt with later on by James: bitterness (1:13), anger (1:19), sucking up to rich people (2:1ff), cursing people (3:9), envy (3:16), fighting and quarrelling (4:1), slander (4:11), pride (4:13-16), greed (5:5). What should the first response to suffering be? Talk to the Lord about it! Pray!
This is so simple, but how often do we forget? I neglect prayer much too often. I often feel like I don’t know what to do in difficult situations. Why don’t I just pray? In the words of Joseph Scriven’s hymn (1855):
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
Here I learnt again what I mentioned in Part Three of this series, that the emphasis is on the asking, not on the receiving.
But why should we ask God for wisdom, or for anything else for that matter?
Ask God, because He gives generously and graciously to all who ask. And because He is gracious (He does not hold back good things because of our sinfulness, if we have faith in Christ) and generous (he “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20)), if we ask for wisdom it will be given to us. This is akin to the encouragement we found in Matthew 7 (see Part Three of this series), where we saw that God is our loving heavenly Father, and therefore will give good things to His children (us) when we ask.
So again I found that this passage does not promise to give us everything we ask God for simply because we ask. But it does encourage us to pray, and assure us that God is both generous and gracious. It also tells us that if we ask for wisdom, and whatever we need to deal with suffering to persevere and become “mature and complete” in our relationship with Him, and in His service, then He will surely give us what we need.
But there is one last thing to draw out of this passage.
Those without faith will not receive anything. “When he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:8)
As we saw last time, even a mustard seed faith, a faltering faith that says, “help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24), is a faith that God can bless with miracles. So the doubt that James speaks of is not the “faithful doubt” that I have spoken about in other articles (the lack of understanding or the confusion that is more than counterbalanced, if not underpinned, by clinging to absolutely certain promises). This is what James calls being “double-minded”, kind of hypocritical, claiming to be a Christian and yet never letting go of self-reliance. Since this double-minded, doubting person is not approaching prayer from the standpoint of faithful reliance on God, he cannot expect to receive anything from God.
So the challenge to us is do we really believe? Have we ditched our self-reliance and acknowledged that we are dependent on God for everything? Have we asked Jesus to be our Saviour, so that our relationship with God may be redeemed? Do we come to God as our heavenly Father, the one who is able and willing to give us wonderful things in Christ?
Regarding this faith, I like what George Stulac says in his commentary on James (IVP New Testament Commentary on James, IVP, 1993):
There are certain distortions of this teaching common today which should be recognised. The first distortion occurs within what is popularly known as the “name it and claim it” philosophy, when Christians are taught that they should name whatever they need in faith and so claim it as given to them. The dangers are the misplacing of faith and the raising of unbiblical expectations. Christians are sometimes led, in effect, to place their faith in the force of their own believing, and then to expect freedom from hardship or deprivation. What James is prescribing is something different: faith in the grace of God, which enables faith to be exercised even within hardship and deprivation.
A further distortion of the biblical teaching occurs when Christians treat James’s warning against doubt (and the similar teaching by Jesus in Mt 21:21) superficially, taking it to require a wilful suppression of mental doubts. This can become an unrecognised attempt to manipulate God by one’s own power of positive thinking. The error has left many in bondage to fear, afraid of their own thoughts and afraid of the God who might hold their doubts against them and therefore not grant the wisdom needed. The result is a crippling of people’s faith and a perversion of the very truth James is teaching: that God gives freely, without finding fault.
So pray, pray with faith in our generous, loving, gracious, Father. Ask for wisdom. Ask for whatever you need to become mature and complete in Christ, as you seek His kingdom and His righteousness. And He will give us “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”