A Difficult Spiritual Discipline – The Letter of James, Part Six

In previous posts for this series, we’ve considered variables that serve as evidence of the Christian faith. The Word of God tells us the marks of a true Christian, including love, repentance, humility, growth, and desire for obedience. As we move forward in the letter of James, readers are reminded once again that Christians will encounter challenges in our efforts of spiritual discipline, and yet we are expected to exhibit measures of self control (1:26; 3:2). The mere thought of possible outcomes of these challenges turns us on our heads and we become much like children while internally kicking and screaming. Can our prayers make any difference at all? What is impossible for man is gloriously possible for God.

James says we gain wisdom, true wisdom, from God Himself (3:15). Through Christ, we have access to the Creator of the universe who hears our prayers. That truth alone should drive us immediately to His throne in prayer. Instead, we often find ourselves starving for time to pray. It sometimes seems like we’re just too busy and have too much to do. In James 1:5 he writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God.” Christians know they ought to pray, but when facing obstacles, it doesn’t always come easy. Ideally, we should regularly petition God before facing life’s challenges. Nonetheless, believers often find routine times in prayer to be a difficult spiritual discipline.

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Pr 2:6). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Many things are laid out in Scripture as the will of God, but James insists that we begin our plans by saying, “if the Lord wills.” It is crucial that a believer have concern for the will of God so we might demonstrate our belief in His sovereignty. Nothing more clearly summarizes the character of a genuine believer than a desire to do the will of God. Throughout the Bible, faith and prayer are inseparable (John 15:7; Ps. 62:8; Eph. 6:18; John 14:1; Luke 11:9). Prayer is the primary exercise of faith. There are two kinds of sin: sins of commission and sins of omission. The Bible very clearly calls it a sin not to pray (1 Samuel 12:23). Sam Allberry writes:

Prayerlessness is a sign that someone is trying to run things in their own strength, for their own sake, and under their own authority. Prayerlessness arises from a sense of independence from God – so that instead of praying about our desires, we indulge them. Rather than trusting in the Father, who delights in giving good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:11), we ourselves decide what is good and seek to gain it through our own efforts.

James transitions to this section on prayer using a series of short questions and staccato imperatives. “Is anyone among you suffering?” asks James. “Let him pray.” The verb translated “suffering” (kakopatheō) is broad in meaning and encompasses any form of external or internal hardship. While believers may be tempted to react to difficulties with grumbling, anger, or discouragement, James reminds us there is one clear and proper Christian response: prayer. The second question stretches to the other end of human experience: “Is anyone cheerful?” He answers: “Let him sing praise.” A reader might have expected James to ask something like, “Are things going well?” (i.e., an inquiry about external realities). James, however, chooses a word that focuses on the internal disposition of cheerfulness/happiness (euthymeō). In referring to suffering and cheerfulness, James covers the broad swath of human experience in this beautiful but broken world. Whether we find happiness or pain in life, we should always go to the Lord. He is a loving heavenly Father who cares for us (Matt. 7:11). – Plummer, R. L. (2018). James. In I. M. Duguid, J. M. Hamilton Jr., & J. Sklar (Eds.), Hebrews–Revelation (Vol. XII, p. 282). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Pride and selfishness are the root cause of prayerlessness. The natural expression of our faith is prayer, yet our adulterous hearts are many times unwilling to submit to prayer that is God-honoring. We would do well to turn to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 with the understanding that Jesus taught his disciples to pray as a means of aligning themselves to God’s priorities. Prayer reminds us of who God is and who we are in him. The model prayer is the proper response to the selfish desires within our hearts.

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 6:9–13). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

James articulates principles that many times seem practically impossible to meet. He wants to convince people they cannot meet God’s standards, that they do need His grace, and that they should respond to His call to be more like Him. God wants people to be humble in spirit and gesture.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 4:1–9). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Ponder your approach to a typical day. How much of a priority is prayer in your daily life? Is it routinely practiced, or only when an emergency arises? How much does God (and His will) figure into your plans? May you choose today to align yourself with God’s priorities, both in thought and practice.

For further study: Read James 3:14-4:10.

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