“Step 1 — Seeking Wisdom” on James 1:1-8 by Joe Ellis — January 14, 2024
Over the next five weeks, I’d like to place the Letter of James in conversation with a way of praying called, The Examen. We won’t be preaching through the whole letter of James, so I’d like to suggest that each of us read the letter on our own sometime this week. It's a short letter, so it won’t take too long.
When you do read the letter, you may feel slightly overwhelmed. The letter of James is full of challenging language about what it looks like to live faithfully as the people of God. James famously challenges us who read Scripture to not just hear the Word and forget about it, but to do it! Yet reading the letter could easily lead to feeling overwhelmed. There is just far too much in that letter for anyone to take on all at once. As you read, you might wonder which part of the letter does God want you to especially focus on — is it caring for orphans and widows? Controlling your speech? Getting consumerism under control? Or responding lovingly to people who are jerks (if so, how should I do that)? Or to pray for the sick? Or to confess one’s sins (if so, who do I confess to, or which sins to confess)? It's understandable as to why a person might get overwhelmed reading James, which could result in doing exactly what James hopes his hearers will not to do: ignore the whole letter and walk away!
So, how do we figure out what God wants us to specifically attend to? How do we know what parts of his word he wants us to focus on? How do we know what God is up to in our lives, and whether there is anything we need to shift in how we’re living? One follower of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, has found a way of helping us with these questions. He created a practice of prayer called The Examen, which can help followers of Jesus regularly deepen our understanding of their life, listen to how God is directing our lives, and shape our lives according to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Examen is a way of helping us understand how we have been responding to God and to life in general. The Examen is also a time to ask for God’s help for the future, as well as a time to listen for what He might be calling us to do. This form of prayer takes about 10 or 15 minutes a day, and is often done through journaling, but it could be done just as easily while you drive between Smithers and Telkwa.
There are five movements to The Examen,
1) Praying for God’s wisdom,
2) Giving thanks for the gifts of the day,
3) Praying over the significant feelings that surface as you replay the day,
4) Rejoicing and seeking forgiveness, and
5) Looking to tomorrow.
Now, I’ve found that different sections in James’ letter can actually give a lot of insight as to how and why to pray through these different parts of The Examen. So, this is my hope: My hope is that over these next five weeks, each of us will commit to praying The Examen on a somewhat regular-ish basis, and also read James's Letter once a week. My hope is that over the next five weeks we can look at how various passages in James's Letter can help us pray The Examen. But my hope is also that as we pray The Examen in our own lives, God might give us clearer guidance as to how he wants us to live out some of the things James talks about in his letter. My hope is that there can be a symbiotic relationship between The Examen and James's Letter — that praying The Examen show us where to live out James's letter, and that reflecting on James's letter can help us pray The Examen.
With that lengthy preamble, let’s see how the passage in James 1:1-8 can help us with that first stage of prayer in The Examen: asking for God’s wisdom to guide us. This first part of The Examen is short but really important. When you begin to pray The Examen, you start with simply inviting God to be with you during the next ten or fifteen minutes as you reflect on your day and look ahead. So we start by asking God for wisdom.
How does James speak into this first part of the prayer of The Examen? Quite directly: James says, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God! Who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you.” We could stop there, simply saying: “See! This is why we should ask God for Wisdom at the beginning of The Examen! We pray for Wisdom because God promises to give us wisdom! We could stop there, but we can go quite a bit deeper. Because the surrounding context help us understand not only why we should ask God for wisdom, but also why it's so important to pray The Examen in the first place.
You will have noticed that James starts out his letter encouraging the brothers and sisters in his faith community to consider it nothing but joy whenever they experience trials of any kind. There is a reason why James begins his letter addressing the trials that his brothers and sisters are facing — it's because they are facing difficult trials! When you read the letter of James later this week, pretend you’re a detective — see if you can figure out what sort of trials they were facing. As you read, you’ll see hints that there were a lot of stresses in this community — stressors around poverty, stressors resulting from being economically abused, stressors from being exploited by the rich, and serious differences. These stressors posed challenges in two different ways. First, there is simply the stress of the thing itself — the poverty, the abuse, the exploitation. Those experiences result in considerable stress. But then there is another type of stress, which is the reason behind James’ whole purpose for writing the letter. James was writing to encourage the church to respond to these very difficult situations in ways that are in keeping with the character of Jesus — To continue to reflect the character of Jesus even in very difficult situations. That’s our call as well. We saw this lived out in our brother, John G. Throughout his battle with cancer, John said that one of his greatest concerns was that he continue to be mindful that he is made in God’s image, and to live that out despite the very real challenges that lay ahead in his battle with cancer. That’s the beautiful challenge that James is calling all of us to — in the face of very difficult situations, to continue to reflecting the character of Christ — whatever life may bring.
And then James says to consider this nothing but joy — which no doubt can sound totally absurd. Nothing but joy!? Why? James says because through these trials, a strange sort of alchemy occurs. In trials, in periods of stress, when we experience pressures, challenges, difficulties, sickness, hardship or whatever, God can work through these very difficult experiences to develop patience, which ultimately leads to our maturation, our completion, our lacking nothing. Trials are a refiner’s fire, where we are like a precious medal placed in a furnace so that the impurities are burned away and the gold is shown for what it is. That’s why James says to consider trials a joy. It's not because the trials themselves are joyful, but because of where the trials may lead, how they can lead us into more deeply reflecting God’s image. Let me underscore, however, that James is not saying that this is the reason why these trials are in our life. James is not saying that the reason behind every difficulty we experience is that God is trying to improve our character. It's not as though God wanted this terrible thing to happen so that you or I might grow in character. Yet James is saying that through these trials there are opportunities to grow into the character of Christ. None of us will do this perfectly. James also knows that well. In chapter 3, he puts it pretty plainly: “We all stumble in many ways,” we’re not going to go through life perfectly, so let’s have a bit of grace when we don’t respond to a particular situation with the sort of grace we might have hoped for.
Now, seeing trials as opportunity for growth may seem almost reasonable in the calm of a worship service — but then we go home and life happens in real time, and life happens not in the ways we think it should. Each of us knows what trials we are carrying, what unique stressors have visited us and our families, perhaps with undesired regularity, perhaps with a dreadful sense of permanence. This is where confusion comes in. This is where bewilderment comes in. This is where we can feel like what James describes later — “like a wave blown and tossed by the wind.” Where we find ourselves just reacting to the different pressures exerting their forces upon us. This wind pushes us this way, the currents pull us that way, one force is pulling us down, while another force is pushing us up. Like a wave of the sea, we find ourselves going through life reactively, trying to keep our heads above water as various forces exert their strength on us. In those moments, this perspective of James, considering our trials as a way of growing deeper into God’s image becomes the furthest thing from our mind. These thoughts are difficult to avoid: “I don’t care about being refined like gold, I don’t care about being made perfect and complete, just make it stop!” It can be very hard, in those moments, to see what God is up to when you feel like a wave, blown and tossed by the sea.
James calls us in those moments to be anchored in God’s wisdom. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you.” If we are having difficulty seeing how a particular trial we are experiencing fits into the bigger picture, if we are having difficulty seeing how these trials are shaping our faith, if we are having difficulty seeing how best to respond to a difficult situation, or even where God is in it all— James says to ask God for wisdom, and he will give it. That’s what we are doing when we take time for praying The Examen. We pause for a moment in the day to ask God for wisdom to help us understand what has been happening and how best to respond. It's like a captain of a ship pausing during a storm to get their bearings and take stock of the condition of the ship — it helps us stay on course, it helps us become aware of what’s most important to attend to, it helps us out of crisis mode and to become more purposeful about what to do next.
From reading Horatio Hornblower, I know that a captain doesn’t just practice taking their bearings and taking stock of the ship when disaster strikes. In the midst of disaster is not the best time to begin training. It's in calm waters where we train and prepare ourselves to navigate difficult waters. Similarly, it's in calm waters where we best learn how to pray The Examen, where we learn to seek God and listen for His wisdom about what’s been happening and where we’re going.
So we begin the The Examen by saying: “God, as I think back on these past 24, 36, 48 hours (however long it's been), God, as I reflect on this past period of my life, please give me wisdom. Help me to see my life through your eyes. Give me discernment, show me what’s been happening in my own soul. Show me where you want me to go from here.” Then after asking for wisdom we simply trust he will give it, and so we move onto thanksgiving.
Here is the invitation to shift our eyes from focusing on whatever waves might have been beating on us, and instead, for a moment, becoming mindful of the loving, generous hand of the Father that has been at work over the previous day. We look for how he has been supporting us, blessing us, enfolding us in very specific ways — a beautiful sunny day, laughing at a good joke, finding a good job, eating a delicious chocolate chip cookie.
Then, reminded of the ways we have been tenderly loved, we move to the next part of the prayer. We talk with God about the parts of the day that came easily, the parts that came joyfully, but also the parts that were confusing, the parts that were sad, the parts we wish we had done something differently. We reflect on our emotional experience. We are becoming self-aware. God is helping us cultivate this self-awareness (after all, we did ask him for wisdom). Sometimes this self-awareness will come with a flash of insight, sometimes the self-awareness will come with a call to repentance — to act differently, to make things right, to confess where we fell short. Sometimes the self-awareness will come with a deep sense of comfort, and sometimes the self-awareness will simply be an invitation to trust that God is there despite not seeing where or how. In the last part of the prayer, we are invited to talk with God about what we see ahead of us. We are invited to ask God for the help we need. We are invited to listen for any sense of direction that he might give as he leads us forward into the future with a sense of trust.
Over time, as we practice, we’ll find that this way of praying is not simply a time for taking our own bearings — we’ll find that this prayer begins to feel like an anchor. A time for rest and stability as Jesus invites us to see our life through his eyes and reminds us of what is most truly important. We’ll find it to be a time of regularly anchoring ourselves to the wisdom that Jesus has revealed to us through prayer and Scripture. As we pay attention to the wisdom God gives, we’ll find we are less like a wave, being blown and tossed by the wind. Rather, we’ll find that Jesus is as the helm. The hand of Jesus is holding us, guiding us, and supporting us through the storm.