It’s a verse we all know and love. It seems to promise unbounded wisdom and that if we just ask for it, God will generously give it to us. But is that what this verse means?
Certainly, it is in God’s power to grant unbounded and universal wisdom to anyone he wishes, but does God really work that way? Put the question in human terms. If you walk into your local bank branch and tell the manager “I want a big loan, just give me money” – is the banker likely to help or will he or she ask “How much do you need and for what purpose?”
What we often miss in James’ words on asking for wisdom is their context. If we look carefully at the immediately preceding verses, we see James is writing about a very specific situation. He says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
James’ context is one of persecution. He tells believers that trials can bring about spiritual maturity in which we do not lack anything needed to deal with such problems (vs. 4). But if we do lack wisdom – implying wisdom in dealing with matters of persecution and patience – we can ask God and he will help us.
Take another example – that of the archetypal story of God granting wisdom to King Solomon. When God appeared to Solomon and offered him anything he wanted, Solomon did not simply ask for wisdom. Notice his request to God: “give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 7:9). Because Solomon asked for wisdom in a specific context – to do the work of ruling Israel – God was well pleased and granted him great wisdom (1 Kings 7:12, 29-34) as well as other blessings.
But we should remember that Solomon asked for the wisdom he needed in a specific situation. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the compositions believed to be written by Solomon, he often ties wisdom to particular contexts. Notice the wording of just one example: “Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure” (Ecclesiastes 8:5). Here, we see wisdom relating to “proper times” and “procedures,” and in many of the proverbs of Solomon, wisdom is tied to other specific needs and circumstances.
So when we consider the wider biblical context, the words of James regarding wisdom become clear. God rarely, if ever, gives unneeded gifts. If we desire wisdom, his word indicates we should not ask to be funnel fed wisdom without specific purpose. But we can humbly take our needs to God and ask for wisdom in the areas of life where we need it in order to best fulfill his will and our calling – and then, as James affirms, God will gladly give it to us.