As noted recently, from time to time over the next several weeks on this site I intend to "dig into" the letter that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to first century Christians.
Thought to be among the earliest, extant Christian writings, the brief letter addresses the challenges facing Jewish believers located primarily in the area around Jerusalem. Clearly, these early devotees of Jesus experienced suffering, systemic economic oppression and some forms of persecution--possibly because of their opinions about the identity of Jesus and certainly due to the social and status implications of those strongly held opinions and life perspectives.
James 1:5-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):
5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
Everyone needs "wisdom" for the journey taken through life.
This is especially true for those who suffer.
Wisdom turns out to be even more essential for those who suffer unfairly.
If you read ahead in the letter of James (cheating like this is encouraged!), you'll see that the readers of this letter endured painful injustices, primarily perpetrated by the minority rich against the majority poor in the same communities. The rich and powerful exerted their influence in such a way that suffering and unfair economic practices/realities resulted. James possesses enough wisdom himself to realize just how important wisdom, sometimes "other worldly" wisdom really can be.
Knowledge coupled with experience and common sense about action forms the heart of wisdom. Among suffering poor, few commodities are as important as robust, time-tested wisdom. James counsels his readers that this sort of wisdom comes from God and is sustained by faith or trust.
James urges his readers to seek this special, practical wisdom from God. This is true implicitly for these early readers who considered God the source of all wisdom and truth. The Hebrew conception of wisdom involved enlightenment flowing from truth that could be counted on to define right actions, even under pressure, when facing grave difficulty. God is in the business of dispensing wisdom to genuine seekers freely, without any sense of imposition or bother whatsoever.
People shackled by poverty need wisdom to negotiate a life with numerous imposed limits. Poor folks need extra measures of insight, good judgment and decision making strategies to make it through a life lived at the margins of society. Sourcing wisdom, James maintains, means turning to God for "other-worldly" wisdom.
The only requirement for receiving the wisdom that God freely gives is faith. But a special sort of faith: faith that never doubts.
"Faith that never doubts" seems a tall order.
But consider, a doubting faith in a context of trouble, suffering and oppression soon feels like being caught in a storm at sea. Doubt creates a storm in the soul and spirit. Doubt throws a person off, around, back, up and down! Doubt in the face of great stress can seem like a gale force wind that only adds more difficulty, danger and risk to already confusing dilemmas and circumstances.
The fact is, in the midst of trouble--trouble that reaches deep down into a person's life to spread darkness and despair, trouble that makes a wreck out of life--we don't need more instability. There is enough of that in the present circumstances we face!
Doubters cannot gain stability in the midst of trial.
Beyond this, the harsh reality is that doubters don't receive any help or support from God. Strong statement. Why is this true?
Doubt forces any thought of God to the edges of a life. God won't force wisdom on anyone. For God and for God's wisdom to arrive in a troubled life, God must be placed at the center, not along the edges.
Doubt causes suffering people to lose focus. When focus departs, vision can be bifurcated and footing is lost in the storm. Instability piles on top of fear and all is lost.
Over the next few installments of this reflection I intend to point out how many of my extremely poor friends embrace the counsel of James. Their lives, like the lives of those who first read these words from the brother of Jesus, are defined by a "surround" of poverty and oppression. Those who keep the faith, those who battle on, inspire me because I've noticed they never, ever, ever doubt as they seek the wisdom they need to survive in the harshness of deep, unforgiving poverty.
The faith I observe among the poor and the marginalized on the streets of Dallas, Texas inspires a hopefulness about what good thing is just ahead. The poor who possess faith always seem to expect better of the future.
Where doubt has a way of overwhelming me with instability, undoubting faith sustains them.