Yet within what James says we notice something that might seem odd at first. The apostle tells his readers who are undergoing trials that they should pray (vs. 4) – as we might expect. But, contrary to what we might also expect, he does not encourage his readers to pray for deliverance from their trials or even for strength to survive the difficulties. Instead, James says that if we lack wisdom, we should pray for it.
At first this instruction to pray for wisdom might seem unrelated to the matter of trials, but if we look carefully at the context we see it is not. Directly after saying we should rejoice in trials, James says the reason we should rejoice is because: “the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (vs. 3). It is then that the apostle continues “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God” (vs. 4).
We should notice the connection there. After saying that trials can lead to our not lacking anything in verse 3, James then says if we lack wisdom, however, we should pray for it. Bible readers often misinterpret this part of what James says by taking the command to pray for wisdom out of context – as though he counsels us to pray for wisdom in general. But why would James single out wisdom as the one thing we might be lacking? The answer is because it is the one thing we may need if we are suffering. If we keep his context in mind, we see that the apostle is not speaking about wisdom in general – rather he is addressing the issue of the specific wisdom we need when we are suffering.
So often, when we go through trials and suffering, we do not see the overall perspective. When we hurt it is hard to see beyond ourselves. But James tells us to gladly accept the suffering God allows us to go through. That does not mean we should somehow try to enjoy the trials themselves, but that we should ask God to help us see what suffering gives us – if we let it. And we do this through wisdom. We do it by wisely looking beyond the trials we are enduring and keeping in mind God’s purposes in allowing suffering to fall on us. And James knew that trials would come to all of us. That is why he writes “my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials …” – not “if some of you face trials,” but when you all do.
The fact is, we will all suffer as Christians – just as those around us who are not believers also suffer; but in our case, it can be to a greater purpose. Peter tells us exactly the same thing: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13).
Of course, this does not mean we cannot pray for help with sicknesses and other trials or that God will not rescue us out of them in due course. James and Peter both emphasize these things (James 5:14–5; 1 Peter 5:10), but James and Peter both tell us we should rejoice in trials while they are present because of what they can lead to – what God can accomplish through them if we stay close or move closer to him when we suffer – in order to better hear what we need to hear and to better see what God is trying to accomplish in us.
James also gives us examples from the Scriptures to remind us of this truth: “Brothers, as an example of patience in affliction, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. See how blessed we consider those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:10–11). Having given us these encouraging words, James reminds us, once again, of his basic point: “Is any one of you suffering? He should pray” (James 5:13). But James does not call us to pray primarily for deliverance when we suffer – he calls us instead to pray for wisdom to understand why God allows us to suffer, to see what we need to learn and change, and to see what God will accomplish in the end.