“If Any of You Lack Wisdom”: James’s Imperative to Israel

Craig K. Manscill

Craig K. Manscill, “‘If Any of You Lack Wisdom’: James’s Imperative to Israel,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 244–257.

Craig K. Manscill was an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.

The Apostle James states, “Let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect” (James 1:4). Perfect is a favored word with James. Besides its repeated use in this verse, it occurs also at James 1:17, 25; 2:22; and 3:2. Here James urges that his readers set before them the goal of becoming perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

There is no avoiding the awkward, even frightening challenge of this word perfect in the New Testament. It is by no means only in James that we hear it. Indeed the reason we meet it here is likely because James had heard the doctrine taught by his half-brother Jesus Christ when He said: “Ye are therefore commanded to be perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (JST Matthew 5:50). The achievement of perfection in its full, positive sense may seem infinitely remote. Nevertheless, the obligation to make it our persistent and urgent aim in life is made unmistakably clear in the New Testament and in the book of James.

James’s counsel to be perfect is followed up with this imperative: [1] “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). Wisdom is an attribute of God, and if we are to become perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect then it is important to apply to God for wisdom. One of God’s foremost gifts for His children who are striving for perfection is the endowment of His wisdom (see Moroni 10:8–9, 18). James expresses that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from . . . the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness” (James 1:17). Therefore, “how much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver!” (Proverbs 16:16). Wisdom, then, is in the deepest sense a divine gift (see 1 Corinthians 12:8).

To James, wisdom is the principal object. As with Paul and faith, John and love, Peter and hope, so it is with James and wisdom. James speaks of many problems that exist among the members of the Church: sinful speech, disobedience, unconcern about others, worldliness, quarreling, arrogance, and evil inclinations toward the rich. James advises those who struggle with temptation to apply to God in prayer for wisdom (James 1:5–6). With wisdom from God, we are able to judge soundly and wisely in the practical matters of life and conduct. James also claims that wisdom “from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). These are the fruits of wisdom and are to motivate behavior that leads to perfection. This paper focuses on wisdom and its attributes that lift the follower of Christ above the “divers temptations” (James 1:2) of the world which beset the Saints at the time of James.

Background to the Book of James

It is important to briefly review the background of the epistle of James in order to better understand why James is exhorting his listeners to obtain and apply wisdom in troubling times. His epistle is not addressed to any particular person or branch of the Church but is a general letter to all who care to read it: an open letter to followers of Christ everywhere. The letter is addressed “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1) throughout the Roman Empire; that is, to Jewish Christians of the dispersion. Earlier the Jewish people had proved themselves unworthy of their position and responsibility by their rejection of Jesus, God’s Messiah; in their place God had adopted the Christian community as His own people and nation. Hence, the twelve tribes, of which the northern tribes had disappeared entirely from known history, can be considered the whole company of Christian people throughout the known world, in this case the Roman Empire. [2]

Most scholars agree that the letter is authored by James the Just, the brother of Jesus Christ (see Galatians 1:19), for which the dispatch is titled. [3] James occupied a prominent, if not chief, place in the Church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9), conducted the first council (Acts 15:13), and with the elders, received Paul upon his return from his third missionary tour (Acts 15:12–13) in A.D. 57.

The epistle of James is presumed to be one of the earliest letters written to the Church. This notion is supported by the early martyrdom of James, which may have taken place in the year A.D. 61. The situation depicted in the letter best fits a period before A.D. 66, when the Jewish war with Rome took place. Over a century before this time, the Roman general Pompey had reduced Judean territory and made many Jewish peasants landless. This, coupled with the exorbitant taxes of Herod the Great, must have driven many small farmers from their employment. Consequently, many peasants worked as tenants on larger, feudal estates; others became landless day laborers in the marketplaces, finding work only sporadically. In Jerusalem the aristocracy became an object of hatred to Zealots, who felt that God alone should rule the land. Various outbreaks of violence eventually culminated in a Zealot revolt in A.D. 66, followed by a massacre of priests and the Roman garrison on the temple mount. This eventually led to the downfall of Jerusalem at which time, A.D. 70–73, its temple was destroyed. [4] Caught up in these social tensions, the Jewish Christians eventually went to war. Once understood in the context of the situation, James’s call for wisdom is essential to his argument; that is, with wisdom from God humankind may better cope with trials.


Wisdom plays an important part in this epistle. Some Bible scholars even claim that it may be regarded as the most characteristic word of James. [5] Wisdom for James is intimately related to divine knowledge from God, manifesting itself in the selection of proper ends with the proper means for their accomplishment. [6] Wisdom, from above, is the means. The end is perfection, and the reward is to receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him (see James 1:12).

In biblical times the word wisdom (Hebrew hokma) had a very narrow meaning as well as a general meaning. The confined definition of wisdom was associated with the demonstration of a person’s dexterity in a skill or in art (see Exodus 28:3; 36:1–2). The more general meaning of the word was identified with intelligence, sensibility, judiciousness, with reason, and skillful to judge (see Proverbs 10:1; Deuteronomy 4:6; 34:9). Combining the narrow with the more general meaning of the word, the connotation is one who is skillful in reason and careful judgment (see 1 Kings 2:9). Solomon, the exemplar of wisdom in the Old Testament, revealed his wisdom by being able to devise a test by which it could be determined which two women claiming to be the mother of a child was in fact the real mother (see 1 Kings 3:26). Solomon’s wisdom is what we call “moral discernment,” or that endowment of heart and mind which is needed for the right conduct of life. It is what Paul prayed that his readers might gain, the power to discern “what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2). [7] Thus, wisdom means the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts, especially in their practical relations to life and conduct. It is this type of wisdom that James extols to his readers.

James uses an intriguing metaphor, “engrafted,” to describe the process of how wisdom comes from God to man (James 1:21). To engraft, or to graft, is to insert one part into another so that a permanent union is effected. The purpose of grafting is to create growth resulting in a hybrid. James is advocating the planting of God’s wisdom into souls of the children of men that they may judge soundly and wisely in the practical matters of life and conduct. Engrafted wisdom from God, James teaches further, is able to save our souls.

James derives his concept of wisdom from the Old Testament and Jewish thought rather than from Greek writers. [8] For the Greeks, wisdom came to be associated with “cleverness” and subtlety of thought and rare erudition, implying the ability to make fine verbal distinctions and follow abstruse arguments. For the devout Jew, however, wisdom was an endowment of practical usefulness. It was the power to discern right from wrong and good from evil. A wise decision in an emergency was one which led to the greatest possible good in the circumstances.

Another kind of wisdom, which Paul calls “the wisdom of the wise,” is intellectual speculation about life and the universe—often divorced from a recognition of moral responsibility. It is this that Paul denounces in 1 Corinthians 1:18–31. [9] This “wisdom” could only mock the truths of God and seek to convince men of what is truth and wisdom through the philosophies and sophistries of men. James refers to this type of wisdom as earthly wisdom (James 3:13–15). Says James, “This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, and devilish” (James 3:15). Advancing this type of wisdom, results in envying and strife that perpetuates “confusion and every evil work” (James 3:16). [10]

Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy said the student should look for the Lord’s definition of wisdom, not the world’s. He asked what the world would say to the question, “How do you learn wisdom?” The world’s answers might include: go to the university, study, research, and learn from experiences. “Interestingly, none of those are the answer the Lord gives to this question,” said Elder Cook. “In fact, they have little to do with His answer. The Lord says one is to learn wisdom by: ( a ) ‘ . . . humbling himself,’ (b) ‘and calling upon the Lord his God, that his eyes may be opened that he may see, and his ears opened that he may hear; for my Spirit is sent forth into the world to enlighten the humble and contrite’” (D&C 136:32–33). [11]

Wisdom starts with an acknowledgment of God and a willingness to understand His will for man. Wisdom is the gift specially needed by one to whom people go for counsel in their spiritual, moral, and domestic dilemmas. This is seen in the role of a ward bishop.

Wisdom is the gift of being able to sense the course that will most likely lead to the good of all concerned—the gift of being able to guide people to an understanding of God’s will for them in their individual situations. This gift may be found in those of high intellectual equipment, but it is also found in those who have had few educational advantages and who are of little academic ability. It is God’s gift to those who ask in faith, not an achievement of human skill or endeavor. Wisdom then is also the ability to understand God’s will and to help others, in their perplexities and lack of understanding, to understand His will as it relates to them.

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

Wisdom is also a product of our knowledge. Knowledge is an acquaintance with, or clear perception of, facts. Wisdom is the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts, especially in their practical application to life and conduct. This being the case, it follows that wisdom, although more than, is nevertheless a product of, and dependent upon, knowledge.

The Book of Mormon specifically relates God’s wisdom to His knowledge. Speaking of the Lord’s plan for our salvation, Lehi says, “All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). James asks, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you?” (James 3:13). Thus, as God’s perfect wisdom is a product of His knowledge of all things, man’s wisdom is dependent upon his knowledge. But since individuals do not know all things, it is possible for them to be knowledgeable about many things, and still be short on wisdom—that is to say, be without the capacity of judging soundly and dealing wisely with the known facts in their practical relations to life and conduct. Hence, humankind, including James’s audience, in its present state of development is lacking in wisdom on two counts. First, individuals do not have all the facts; and second, they do not have the capacity to make maximum beneficial use in their lives and conduct of the facts they do have.

Is there then no hope for James’s audience or for the people of the world to improve their situation? Yes, there is a way, but only one way whereby humankind may obtain the benefit of the wisdom which will save them from their situation. That way is for individuals to come to a knowledge of the true and living God by approaching God in prayer. Psalms explains further that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). The meaning of the word fear as used here was not intended to mean dread, fright, terror, or dismay but rather “profound reverence.” [12] A more descriptive, clear version of the statement in Psalms would follow: “Profound reverence” for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Let us consider now for a moment the significance of profound reverence. One definition of profound is “arising from the depth of one’s nature.”

Reverence is the soul of true religion. Its seedbed is sincerity. Its quality is determined by the esteem in which one holds the object of reverence as evidenced by his or her behavior toward that object. When that object is God, the profoundly reverent person has an adoration coupled with a respectful behavior toward Him and all that pertains to Him. One who has a profound reverence for God loves Him, trusts in Him, prays to Him, relies upon Him, and is inspired by Him. Wisdom from God has always been and now is available to all men who have a profound reverence for Him. Conversely a lack of wisdom is a lack of profound reverence for God. What better way to overcome a lack of wisdom and obtain a profound reverence for God than to follow James’s advice and turn to Him in prayer and ask for wisdom.

Sound judgment, a function of wisdom, is a form of inspiration that can and often does compensate for unknown facts, that is, for lack of knowledge. For example, if a stranger at the crossroads, not knowing which way to turn, can receive inspiration from the Lord, his or her decision will be as wise as if he or she had known all the facts. Why? Because the Lord does all things “in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Nephi 2:24). Inspiration from Him is an expression of total wisdom.

The fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith was at that very crossroads. Joseph Smith, who had been effaced by the wisdom of the world, lacked true wisdom. With profound reverence for God and the knowledge he had, Joseph did as James directed and prayed. The promise of James was fulfilled in a heavenly manifestation (Joseph Smith—History 1:7–20). Joseph’s faith turned to knowledge and his knowledge turned to wisdom that led him through a turbulent life that ended in martyrdom. If members of the Church are to overcome the divers temptations that have beset them and demonstrate sound judgment they, like Joseph Smith, must turn to God for inspiration.

Divers Temptations and Afflictions: the Need for Wisdom

During the times of James the need for wisdom is apparently due to “divers temptations” which had befallen the Jewish Christians (James 1:2–4). The Joseph Smith Translation of James 1:2 indicates that the “divers temptations” refer to many types of afflictions. These afflictions may be due to outward trouble of different kinds such as: high taxes resulting in the loss of land and poverty, oppression from the aristocracy and the rich, and subjugation of government officials and pagan neighbors.

James speaks in his letter about many problems that exist among the members of the Church: sinful speech, disobedience, unconcern about others, worldliness, quarreling, arrogance and evil inclinations toward the rich. James addresses the pride of the rich (see James 1:9–11; 2:1–9; 4:13–17), persecution by the rich (James 2:6–7; 5:5–6), and pay withheld by the rich (James 5:4). He also addresses those tempted to retaliate with violent acts (James 2:11; 4:2) or words (James 1:19–20, 26; 3:1–12; 4:11–12; 5:9). Furthermore, James condemns those who have been drawn away from the fold by lusts, enticements (James 1:14–15), filthiness, and “superfluity of naughtiness” (James 1:21). Finally James questions the discipleship of those who profess faith yet do not match their faith with works (James 2:14–17). These undesirable attributes are not consistent with a person who is striving for perfection and is in possession of wisdom.

James responds to these situations with a call for wisdom rather than violence, sin, hypocrisy, and cursings (James 1:5). To the rich who are withholding pay and persecuting the poor, James expresses, “But the rich, . . . as the flower of the grass he shall pass away” (James 1:10). To those who are tempted to be drawn away with lusts and enticements the motivation is given, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for . . . he shall receive the crown of life” (James 1:12). Advice is given to those who offend in word, stating:

“For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.

“Behold we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

“Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

“Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” (James 3:2–5).

To those who speak cursings, envying, and strife comes the caution, “But the tongue no man can tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). To adulterers and adulteresses James warns, “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4). James alerts those who hold grudges against others, stating, “Behold, the judge standeth before the door” (James 5:9).

Father Lehi promised his son Jacob that God would “consecrate [his] afflictions for [his] gain” (2 Nephi 2:2). Most of us, like the Saints during the time of James, experience some measure of what the scriptures call “the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10) in our lives. If the means to the end is divers temptations and affliction and the end result is a net gain in wisdom, then let the furnace of affliction do its work.

The Effects of Wisdom

Wisdom from above is not in any individual’s power to achieve by his or her own endeavors and devices. The wisdom of this world may be acquired by wit and perseverance, but God’s wisdom comes only as God’s gift, to be received humbly and gratefully. Its only source is in God, a truth emphasized also in Proverbs 2:6, “The Lord giveth wisdom.”

James enumerates the effects that divine wisdom from above should produce. “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). These fruits of wisdom are to motivate certain kinds of behavior that lead to perfection and also help to cope with the problems, afflictions, and temptations previously mentioned.

The overarching attribute of wisdom is purity. God’s wisdom as bestowed on people reveals itself in conduct that is pure. One author writes of the purity of wisdom, “Wisdom which is free from any stain or blemish would be incapable of producing anything evil.” [13] This inner quality governs everything else related to it. Christ Himself is pure; the wisdom from above reflects its source. James explains that a religion that is “pure . . . and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). To be pure is to be free from self-interest and selfish ambition, to have an eye single to the purposes of God. It is not “double minded,” to use James’s own term (James 1:8).

From the basic quality of purity come seven outward attributes of wisdom. The first, “peaceable,” describes heavenly wisdom as peacemaking rather than perpetuating strife. James criticizes those who falsely claim to be wise for their contentiousness (James 3:14; 4:1–2). Peaceable wisdom conciliates, unites, and promotes peace. It is proactive in seeking to remove all causes of ill will and bringing about circumstances that favor harmonious cooperation.

The second attribute is “gentle,” or considerate of others, making allowances for their feelings, weaknesses, and needs. Gentleness is the unwillingness to mercilessly demand the strict claims of justice. Those who are gentle are also considerate, reasonable, forbearing, and forgiving.

“Easy to be intreated” is the third attribute. It explains heavenly wisdom as obedient or compliant and also connotes that one is easy to persuade. It describes a character which is the opposite of stubborn, self-opinionated, impervious to persuasion or appeal.

The fourth attribute of wisdom is “full of mercy.” James provides his own definition of mercy: the neighborly love that presents itself through action (James 2:8–13). Mercy abounds in good works and in being sensitive to the unfortunate. This contrasts with the resulting evil works of earthly wisdom (James 3:15). To be full of mercy means to be compassionate to those in trouble, even if their trouble is of their own foolish making. Mercy is a quality of God Himself. According to Jesus, it is also what God looks most of all for in men (see Matthew 9:13; 12:7).

The fifth effect of wisdom is “full of good fruits,” and it is by their fruits that we determine the real quality of both trees and people (Matthew 7:17–20). Good fruits here mean deeds of practical usefulness to others in need, deeds prompted by mercy and compassion.

The sixth attribute of wisdom is impartiality. The term describes someone who is not discriminatory, neither toward others nor inwardly doubting or being uncertain. Such a person has clear discernment of Gods will and thus can be confident regarding the wisdom of his or her actions. James illustrates the partiality exhibited from the rich to the poor man,

“For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;

“And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:

“Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” (James 2:2–4).

Mormon, in his epistle to Moroni, says, “For I know that God is not a partial God” (Moroni 8:18).

The seventh attribute of wisdom from above is sincerity. It is open and forthright, without lying, hypocrisy, deceit, or pretense. No schemes or subterfuges will form a part of this wisdom. James again alludes to this undesirable behavior,

“Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?

“Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh” (James 3:11–12).

These qualities of wisdom are the qualities of Christ Himself, who embodies the Wisdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:24). The attributes assist us to gain “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13); that is, to become like Him. These attributes of wisdom should be part of our thoughts and acts in progressing to what we hope to become.

Our Need for Wisdom

The Lord, knowing all things, foresaw our present state of confusion and lack of wisdom: Long ago, speaking through His prophets, Isaiah and Nephi, the Lord declared, “The wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:14; cf. 2 Nephi 27:26).

Confirming that fact, He has said in our day that the wisdom of men has perished and their understanding has come to naught. And He has specified that the reason for their loss of wisdom is the forsaking of Him. His words are:

“They have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;

“They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world” (D&C 1:15–16).

These could have been the very words of James describing his people who had fallen into “divers temptations” and therefore were in a state where they lacked wisdom.

Wisdom, as it was in James’s time, is of short supply because men and women do not turn to God for wisdom nor do they profoundly reverence God. Until we apply to God in prayer, in good faith and with persistent works, we will be forever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Until we come to a knowledge of God we will continue in distractions, regardless of how much other knowledge we acquire.

Though James has spoken in his letter about many problems, we owe a great deal to him for his teachings about wisdom and the fruits of wisdom. In learning wisdom and reaping its fruits we can rise above the temptations, problems, and afflictions that present themselves in our everyday lives, and thereby “patience [will] have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect” (James 1:4).


[1] Of the 108 verses in the book of James, about 60 have imperatives of one notion or another.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 32–33.

[3] Sophie Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), 38–39.

[4] Leslie Mitton, The Epistle of James (London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1966), 233.

[5] J. B. Mayor, The Epistle of James (London: Macmillan, 1892), 36.

[6] Cf. Merrill F. Unger, The New Ungers Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), s.v. “wisdom.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Moo, The Letter of James, 52–53.

[9] Kent A. Homer Jr., Faith That Works: Studies in the Epistle of James (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1986), 139.

[10] Moo, The Letter of James, 134–35.

[11] “Preparing for Spirit Is a Role of Students,” Church News, 24 March 1990, 10.

[12] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, s.v. “fear.”

[13] Moo, The Letter of James, 135.