James : Heads and Tails
Let perseverance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. James 1:4-5.
Reading these verses I think of the many times that, when counselling or praying for someone, I have quoted the second of these verses – ‘if any of you lacks wisdom…’ – while ignoring the first. James has argued that spiritual maturity is gained through perseverance, with no short cuts. But wisdom cannot be acquired by training alone. Life’s dilemmas demand both.
Our temperament, or the theological tradition in which we have been trained, may incline us to adopt one perspective and overlook the other. My endurance, faithfulness and self-discipline, I may believe, train me to be self-reliant, to trust my own experience, my instincts, my judgment. Or – it is the Holy Spirit who fills me, who enlightens and enables me, and I cannot make a right judgment unless he shows me the way.
Paul makes this paradox explicit in his letter to the Philippians. ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, he writes, ‘for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (2:12-13).
Every day – in matters large and small, in the workplace, in the home, in our social lives – we have to form an opinion, to make decisions, to take responsibility. In some cases experience and common sense may be all we need. In others, there may be a clear Scriptural principle that determines the issue. I don’t, for example, need to pray for guidance as to whether to have an affair with my brother-in-law, or to omit an item from my income tax return.
But in the many cases where neither Christian maturity nor biblical precept gives a clear answer, we are to pray for wisdom. In the hurly burly of professional or domestic life it may be easy to forget this. But God doesn’t expect us to do it on our own – he gives generously without finding fault.