The Dark Night of the Soul

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I’ve heard various people state that most Christians, especially maturing Christians, will experience a time of trouble unlike any other, often called the “dark night of the soul.” Yes it will involve a form of suffering, which typically lasts for an extended period of time. But to understand the traditional view of the “dark night of the soul” as famously rendered by St. John of the Cross in the 16th Century, one crucial ingredient is missing.

What makes the dark night of the soul so horrific? It’s not only the suffering or the trials you go through, but during those struggles, you experience the silence of God. Even though you cry out to God, plead for a response during one of the toughest struggles of your life, it’s as if God’s not there.

Silence.

I think all of us would agree with Martin Luther, that German Protestant Reformer who boldly stood before the political and religious rulers to declare he would stand only on the Word of God, who also experienced a dark night of the soul and in the midst of it cried out, “Bless us, Lord, even curse us! But don’t remain silent!”

So what should you do if or when you are in the midst of that “dark night”? Here are a few encouragements to ponder:

  • You are not alone because as mentioned above, this has happened to many others. In fact, some great people of faith have experienced this! Marvel at the incredible people of faith on this list: the great prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and even Jesus as we see during his prayer at Gethsemane, and modern Christians such as Martin Luther and even Mother Teresa.
  • The silence of God does not mean the absence of God. Numerous theologians have stated this point, and it’s crucial to bear in mind. Our faith is not based on hearing God, but trusting in his Word daily.
  • And lastly, during this agonizing time, obedience is more important than ever! We have a saying at our church: “You don’t have to completely understand to completely obey.” All of the above people would testify to the truth of this statement, but an illustration may be even better. C.S. Lewis in his classic book The Screwtape Letters has the mentor demon Wormwood advising his underling about such a situation:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

If or when you find yourself in such a time, may your obedience lead and sustain you during your dark night of the soul, and then the words of 2 Corinthians 5:7 will become more true than ever – “For we walk by faith, not by sight (or sound)”.

RA

The Secret Things of God

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A few weeks ago I started teaching a summer session of my Old Testament class. One of my personal resolutions during that class is to read as much of the Old Testament to them as possible, and not just tell them about the Old Testament. This past weekend, as we were completing our study of the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament, I read Deuteronomy 29:29 (here it is in both the New American Standard and the Holman Christian Standard Bible):

 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” (NASB)

 “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law.” (HCSB)

I love this verse, but also marvel at it for a variety of reasons. For instance, it declares:

  • We serve an infinite, awesome God whom we approach with our limited, finite minds.
  • We will never fully understand God or all of his ways.
  • We are expected to understand and obey what has been “revealed”.

Take a moment to dwell on those statements! I don’t know about you, but I’ve stumbled over these truths and failed to comprehend them too many times to mention. For starters, I want to know the “secret things”! At times, if I’m being honest, my questions for God (“Why this? Why that?”) are more numerous than my praises!

And not only that, but I’ve also noticed another curious fact about those “secret things.” For the longest time, I used to think that as I drew closer to God and meditated on his word more and more, I expected the “secret things” of God to decrease in size, but I’ve since learned collectively it actually enlarges! Why?

But as I slow down and truly reflect on all that God has revealed to me, I’m humbled and incredibly embarrassed by what I still don’t understand and fail to obey consistently. As an example, I know 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 by heart (the famous “Love Chapter”), but I’m still not always “patient” with my loved ones, or as “kind” to them as I should be, and so on as the rest of vv.4-8 unfolds.

All of this reminds me of a comment I came across by pastor and author Pete Wilson. In his book What Keeps You Up At Night? How to Find Peace While Chasing Your Dreams, he wisely says:

“We think the more spiritually mature we are the more clarity we should have. The fact is, the more spiritually mature we are the less clarity we need.”    

 Why? Because as Deuteronomy 29:29 helps us to understand, the more mature we become and closer we draw to God, we discover how great and magnificent he truly is, and the tremendous task before us of being accountable simply for all he has already revealed! That should consume us, and not the “secret things”, for while that may enlarge as we truly comprehend how great and profound God is, so should our love and trust for God, as we marvel at how much he has already revealed and the manner in which he has loved us!

And that’s what people of faith should be occupied with.

RA

A Brief Analysis of Some Myths about Temptation from James 1:13-15

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13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. (NET)

 Here are some myths I’ve heard people say about temptation and sin in general:

  • “The Devil made me do it!”
  • “Why is God tempting me so much?”
  • “I can’t control myself! I am what I am.”
  • “It can’t be wrong because it feels so good!”

In short, all of these are false statements and enormously detrimental to your spiritual life!

In contrast, James has done a remarkable job explaining how God does “test” us with trials, trying times and even persecution, so that we can develop perseverance, or as I earlier called it “a willingness to cling to God no matter what” faith (James 1:1-12). In the process, we become “perfect” and “complete”, and consequently lacking nothing good whatsoever!

Then, using the same Greek word as he did for “test”, James begins 1:13 declaring when (not “if”) we are “tempted” from within by our desires, we should be aware of these facts, and not believe the above popular myths. Let’s examine them briefly against what Scripture says.

  • “The Devil made me do it!”
  • “Why is God tempting me so much?”

If I may, let me dispense with this first and foremost: Temptation is because of me, not God! (V. 13)

James helps us to see that obviously we don’t understand the nature of temptation when we say things like, “The Devil made me do it” or “Why is God tempting me so much?”.

As James expressed earlier in 1:3-7, God certainly does and will “test” us for the reasons previously stated. But now, in v. 13ff, James unequivocally proclaims that God does not “tempt” us or seek to “lure” us and “entice” us with evil! To make such a statement is ludicrous for one simple reason: if we as Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us, why would God seek to tempt us with evil? As v. 13 literally says, God is “untemptable”! How could he tempt himself, and even more, why would he “lure” and “entice” his children with evil?

If we struggle with temptation, and we all do in one way or another, we need to place the blame somewhere else – not on God!

  • “I can’t control myself! I am what I am.”

So where do my temptations originate? Look in the mirror.

Our temptations come from our own desires that literally seek immediate gratification but in ungodly ways. Ironically, what makes the whole process even more exacting is that we live in a world that incessantly provokes those desires, and incites us to instantaneously fulfill them in a host of unsavory ways.

Now, many people have thought since desires can seem out of control and can bring harm, it’s best to ignore them, or suppress them. In fact, Buddhists believe, generally speaking, that desires must be extinguished and rid from the body because it is the source of all our problems. The mistake with this view is that we were made to desire: to love and be loved, to serve, to hunger, to worship, and a variety of other good desires. Since we were created to desire, and our creation was deemed “very good” (Gen. 1:31), something else must be the problem.

Consequently our challenge is not to ignore or extinguish our desires, but to learn to express them in godly ways, by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5:16).

  • “It can’t be wrong because it feels so good!”

Unfortunately, it can be wrong and extremely detrimental to our health – both physically and spiritually. As James states in v. 15: “Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death.”

As illogical as it is to blame God for the temptations that come from our own desires, notice the logic of what James says, using the language of reproduction, regarding inappropriately expressed desires: once conceived, they are the “mother” of sin, and the “grandmother” of death!

While it can’t be denied that sin brings momentary pleasure, it must be affirmed that sin will also bring momentous consequences, based on the act committed. This is why it’s so important that a believer lives not based solely on feelings but faith. And faith dictates that one way we attack temptation is not by blaming, but recognizing the role desire plays in temptation, and seeking to express them in godly ways.

Finally, may we never forget that we are not alone as we face temptations because God is always with us, ready to guide and strengthen us. And C. S. Lewis aptly, but also stunningly, summarizes the situation:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

Let’s be who we were created to be: desirous people yearning for our Creator and the wisdom to express our desires in the proper way.

RA

Bragging and Lessons on Life and Sin, Part 2

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Bragging and Lessons on Life and Sin (Pt. 2)

As we conclude this brief study in James 4, let’s recap what James has previous said (and if you missed my former post, click here). First, please read the passage again:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (NIV)

As he wraps this chapter up, James is speaking to Christian businessmen who have compartmentalized their faith. In other words they were presumptuously making plans for tomorrow, and even a year in advance, in order to have profitable businesses, without any regard for God whatsoever, and in the midst of it all, boasting about their successes. A shameful yet accurate summary of this can be seen in v. 16: “but now you boast in your arrogances . . .” This piercing indictment demonstrates these Christian men were glorying in their own greatness, and James appropriately concludes in v. 16 that all such boasting is evil.

Consequently, after James first reminds the people that Jesus is Lord – over all (see previous blog), he then proceeds to remind them of two more indispensable truths.

Second, in the grand scheme of things, life is short and of little consequence! (V. 14)

 In many ways, in vv. 13-14, James could be restating Proverbs 27:1 – “Do not boast about tomorrow, because you do not know what a day may bring.” (NIV). But James goes further with v. 14. He reminds the businessmen that life, especially a life that fails to acknowledge God, is fleeting, and ultimately inconsequential.

In v. 14, James declares, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” In the original language this rare word for “mist” can also mean “vapor” or “smoke”, therefore the image should be of something that is fleeting and yes, as a whole, of no consequence: here for one moment, and gone the next.

Yet observe that James isn’t reprimanding the people, but simply reminding them of a fact they were failing to heed: although they were bragging about all there great achievements, in reality, all their trifling successes were nothing compared to the actions of an eternal God on a mission to save humanity for eternity!

And, as a corollary, what makes life “consequential”? It’s true that running a profitable business can be good, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with planning and devoting time to that, but better as a Christian businessman is not to be presumptuous and arrogant but to involve Jesus in your plans and business, and give all glory to him for the successes.

Furthermore, as to what is truly consequential, Jesus taught to seek the things of his kingdom and his righteousness, or in the context of this passage – the good (see Matthew 6:33). While life may be fleeting, it is in pursuing these two noble goals, that it will be of substantial consequence as eternity is changed.

Third, sin is both the wrong you do, and the good you don’t do! (V. 17)

This might be one of the most ignored verses in all of Scripture. To begin, read this enigmatic verse one more time:

“ If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

What a bold conclusion to James’ discussion! In essence he reiterates, “Now that you know, do it!” But let’s further investigate this telling verse. There are three points to discern in this verse:

  • If you know (the truth, or in this context the good to do) then go and do it!

This is obvious when you see this sentence in the original language because the first word is “to the one knowing”. In short, James asserts once you know something, then you should go and do it!

  • We are meant to do good acts and/or works!

I love how Paul expresses this later in Ephesians 2:10:

“For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (HCSB)

Notice what this verse, as well as James 4:17, does not say: “For you were created to not do this, not do that, not say this, not say that . . .”

Often, it seems Christians think Christianity is nothing but “don’t do this” and “don’t do that.” As Paul and James remind us, true Christianity is unequivocally concerned with being free to do the good we were created to do! Anything less is not Christianity but legalism!

  • If you fail to do the good you know, it’s sin

Behold the logic: once you know, you’re expected to go and do the good you know. If you don’t, then you’re held accountable, and since you failed to do the good you know, logic dictates that it is sin.

Another way to express this is in The Book of Common Prayers. It beautifully summarizes this thought:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

As stated in the previous point, we have to stop thinking that sin is only the wrong we do; it’s also the good we fail to do!

What a way to close Chapter four! If I may, let me leave you with two thoughts to pray about and to dwell on as you go through your day:

  • Do I truly understand Christianity has liberated me to do good (works), rather than hindering me with a list of things I can’t do?
  • Is there a good I know I need to do today?

To God be the glory!

RA

The Almighty God: A Brief Study of Ephesians 3:20-21

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Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (NET)

I love this passage of Scripture, but it also disturbs me, or maybe I should say greatly concerns me.

Here’s why.

Paul has just concluded his prayer to God for the Ephesians, asking specifically for a variety of things (as recorded in Ephesians 3:14-19, which is a bountiful study within itself!), and then he closes that prayer with this “hymn of praise” or as it’s commonly called a doxology.

This particular doxology is essentially a celebration that God is a God of power – Almighty! Here are some or its rugged truths to heed:

  • In verse 20 alone, Paul uses three terms to describe God’s power: He is “able” or maybe better to say “powerful” to do according to the “power”, which is “working” (and means “presently exerting energy”) in us now!
  • This powerful God can do “far beyond “ or a better translation is “exceedingly in excess” of what we could ever “ask or think of”. That word “far beyond” is a word created by Paul to be a “super-superlative” attempting to describe all that God is capable of doing. Another intriguing translation of this word and phrase is by the NASB: “far more abundantly beyond what we could ask or imagine.”
  • God chooses to accomplish these immeasurable feats “according to the power presently working in us”.
  • Since God blesses us in this incredible manner, all the glory belongs to Him.

What is the proper response to such a description of our God? Obviously with praise and adoration for a God who is so described, but for me, it also raises troubling and piercing questions as I wrestle to understand and apply these truths to my life.

According to this passage:

  • Powerlessness should never be a trait of a Christian. Never!
  • We do not ask or dream big enough for God – He desires and is able to do so much more!
  • The power of God is experienced in proportion to the power already at work in us! Notice this is the only limitation on God’s power, other than what is accomplished and done must be according to His will!
  • Have we ever been guilty of robbing God of His due glory?

Do you see what I mean? I once heard a sermon on this passage, and the messenger said this: “This passage describes the potential of every Christian.”

I haven’t come close to achieving my potential yet. Have you?

As I read and study this passage, I confess:

  • There are a multitude of times I feel powerless.
  • I rarely ask God for great things anymore, oftentimes because I’m mired in the muck of today’s challenges, but also because at times I get frustrated by the unanswered prayers from all the previous yesterdays.
  • I know God is working “in” me, but am I hindering him from the powerful work He really wants to do “in” me?
  • And lastly, I have taken credit for things I know only God could’ve done.

Consequently, this is truly a passage that brings a response of awe from me as I reflect on the greatness and power of our God, but now do you see why this passage also greatly concerns me?

Maybe, especially during this week – holy week – instead of wallowing in the past and being greatly concerned, it’s time to remain rooted in God’s love, be filled with His Spirit (see v. 14-19 for this and more!) and begin to live again knowing that:

  • He is able (powerfully able!);
  • Start asking for the impossible from an able God;
  • Live in a manner knowing truly the only limitation is God’s will!

And then maybe we could truly marvel as the power of God works through us.

And most of all, since all power is His, be ready to give all glory to Him.

Are you ready? I sure am. Amen!

RA

Advent Season: Now the Wait!

 

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It seems recently everyone I speak to is waiting on God for something.

One person is waiting for a desperate prayer request to be answered.

One person is waiting for career guidance as they discern God’s will for his life.

Another person is waiting for that right man to come into her life so they can get married and start a family.

Tis the season!

What I mean by that glib comment is it’s Advent season. The word Advent literally means “coming” or “arrival” and it refers to the coming or the arrival of the Messiah Jesus Christ. The surprising thing to remember is that by the arrival of the first Advent, waiting had been a major part of the experience because it had been over 400 years since a word, or a “coming” and “arrival” of God had appeared to the Jewish people! Consequently, one could say the Advent season embodies waiting.

As for me and I’m sure my friends mentioned above, there’s one problem – I despise waiting!

I despise waiting in line at the store.

I despise waiting at traffic lights.

I even despise waiting for my popcorn to pop in the microwave (How spoiled are we?).

I could go on, but you get the point. We are a culture that expects things instantaneously. Technology has spoiled us and we take that expectation into relationships, even our relationship with God.

In all honestly, there are times I don’t even like waiting on God! That is a significant problem for two reasons: Waiting as I just described it is foreign to the Scriptures; and waiting is not just part of Advent season, but it’s an essential part of the life of faith!

First, a cursory look at what the Scriptures say about waiting reveals it’s not like the waiting we commonly think of. If I wait for something today, I think of it as a passive experience, just killing time, and usually accompanied with bellyaching and whining at some point too.

But according to the Scriptures this type of “waiting” is not waiting; that’s impatience and immaturity!

Ouch!

On the other hand, the Scriptures teach that while waiting, we should wait:

Expectantly

“In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” Psalms 5:3 (NIV)

Patiently

But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:25 (HCSB)

Blessed

“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” Isaiah 30:18 (NIV)

Faithfully

“Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” Isaiah 26:8 (NIV)

Renewing our Strength

“Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31 (NASB)

Scripture teaches that waiting is not a passive activity we endure, or a waste of time. Waiting is, in the words of theologian Walter Grundmann, a “burning expectation” in which we exhibit all the characteristics above, and more! In his new Advent book Waiting Here For You: An Advent Journey of Hope, Louie Giglio says while we are waiting, God is with us, and working; and I would add so are we as we become more expectant, more patient, acknowledge how blessed we are, stay faithful, and gain needed strength through the waiting.

That doesn’t sound like a passive “just-killing-time experience” to me.

Secondly, Scripture teaches that ultimately this biblical waiting, described as a “burning expectation” is not only a part of Advent, but also the entire Christian experience. Read this passage in Hebrews 9:28:

“. . . so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him.” (NLT)

That phrase “eagerly waiting” is a rich compound word that literally means “to welcome or receive from out of” with the emphasis being, based on Paul’s usage too, that we welcome Jesus’ coming and all that it brings – the glorious transformation of our lives – as we also come “from out of “ the world. In other words, we longingly look for and welcome Christ while turning from all else.

Finally, this is not just a part of the Christian experience, but creation itself is waiting! Notice the same word is used in Romans 8:19:

 “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (NIV)

So during this Advent season, will you commit to the following:

  • Celebrating the “coming” and “arrival” of the Messiah;
  • Recognize that waiting is a natural part of Advent;
  • Exhibit the biblical definition of waiting as an active experience, a “burning expectation” inherent with all the above characteristics and more;
  • And sincerely grasp that waiting is not to be despised but embraced as a time of growth and intimacy with God.

So if you’re waiting on God for something, wait with an active “burning expectation”. It shows your dependence upon him, and your expectant eagerness to see his “coming” and “arrival”.

Just like at the first Advent!

RA

 

 

 

 

James, Devotion #5: The Wise Person

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Here’s what I hope you discover today:

  • We are commanded to ask “in faith” so God can give!
  • Wisdom comes from God, and it is more than just knowledge!
  • The doubter drifts between ‘two-souls’ and so he is disordered!

IN THE WORD

Read James 1:5-8:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways..” (ESV)

The last time we investigated James 1, we discovered that our trials have a purpose, and as we go through our trials (“when you encounter various trials”) we are to deliberately (“Consider”) have a joyful attitude knowing that trials can bring numerous benefits.

Today, as we focus on 1:5-8, James continues to help those going through trials by informing them what to ask God for, and how to ask God.

We are commanded to ask “in faith” so God can give!

James bluntly reminds us:

  • James is commanding us to ask “from the giving God” (V. 5). In other words, it is natural to God to give, and he wants to bestow what we ask for.
  • James, the half-brother of Jesus, demonstrates his knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. Notice how similar this is to what Jesus himself taught in Matthew 7:7-11.
  • We receive from God not because we deserve it, nor because we earned it, but because we ask for it through the medium, or vehicle of faith.
  • This is the second time the word “faith” appears in James. In James 1:2, we were told “your faith” would be tested; now, we are told that asking “in faith” brings results!
  • Faith is the medium, or vehicle by which we receive salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9), wisdom (James 1:5), and the only way we can please God (Hebrews 11:6).

Wisdom comes from God, and it is more than just knowledge!

Here’s what James tells us about wisdom:

  • Of all the things we could ask for (money, power, health, love), James demands if we lack wisdom, ask for it.
  • Wisdom is putting knowledge to use. In the Hebrew tradition, wisdom is not just intelligence or facts, but it is skillfully living in the proper, godly way of life. Observe what these other verses teach about wisdom:
    1. Job 28:28: “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding.’” (NASB)
    2. Proverbs 2:6: “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (NIV)
    3. 1 Corinthians 1:30: God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin.” (NLT)
  • In summary, wisdom is a gift from God, ultimately seen as reverence for God (the “fear of the Lord”), personified in the life of Jesus, that we might know how to skillfully live the godly life.

The doubter drifts between ‘two-souls’ and so he is disordered!

James concludes by describing the doubter:

  • In comparison to the one asking “in faith” and receiving, “the doubting one” (literally what V. 6 says) is like a wave of the ocean: spineless, chaotic, tossed about with no aim or direction, and dangerous.
  • “The doubting one” should expect to receive nothing because he has faith in nothing (at least not in God). He may believe in many things, but faith is confidence and trust in the word and promises of God. This, “the doubting one” does not possess.
  • “The doubting one” lives as if he has “two-souls” (the literal meaning of the word “double-minded”) and is consequently “unstable” and disordered in all his ways.
  • Literally, “the doubting one” is “unstable” because, as the original word suggests, he is at war with himself, mostly because he does not know himself, or his Creator. The word “unstable” is the same word used later by James in 3:8 of the tongue (“it is an unstable and unrestrainable evil”), and 3:16 of disorder of any kind associated with all kinds of evil.

IN THE WORLD

Let these instructions from James soak in as you reflect on these questions:

  • What are you asking “the giving God” for these days?
  • How is Jesus the “wisdom” of God today?
  • As James describes “the doubting one”, this is not a person who is at times perplexed or may doubt why God says or does this or that. James describes “the doubting one” as a person who continues to doubt and has no confidence in God at all. In closing, can you see the contrast James is depicting between the wise person and “the doubting one”? List how different these two people truly are.

RA