But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways. (James 1:5-8, CEB)
Wisdom, the ability to see things from a heavenly perspective, is a gift from God. And James describes God as a generous giver, one who doesn’t run us through the spiritual equivalent of a loan approval process. Thus, we shouldn’t read this passage as warning us that God will all of a sudden get stingy if he detects the slightest bit of doubt in our request, if he senses any weakness in our spirit.
But what does James mean, then, by saying that the one who doubts shouldn’t expect to “receive anything from the Lord”? As we’ve seen, the story in Mark 9 of the desperate father who cried out “I believe; help my unbelief!” flatly contradicts the mistaken notion that God will turn a deaf ear to any request that’s made with less than 100% confidence. True, Jesus corrects the man for his wavering faith. But I imagine he does this gently, and in love. And most importantly, he heals the boy as asked.
Part of the puzzle, then, is the question of what James means by “doubt.” The word he uses (in the Greek) suggests something that has been split down the middle. When he therefore says that the one who doubts is “double-minded,” I don’t think he’s saying that the latter is the consequence of the former; rather, he’s describing the same thing in two ways.
Indeed, some scholars believe “double-minded” is a word James himself coined; it doesn’t seem to appear in Greek literature before the time of James, but it does afterward. It’s as if James is casting about for a way to explain what he’s talking about, and makes something up on the spot: “It’s like…it’s like…he has two minds!” The one who doubts, in other words, experiences an internal split between two ways of thinking which may conflict with each other.
It may be, therefore, that the English word we really want here is not so much “doubt” as “ambivalence.” He’s not describing someone who doesn’t believe at all; he’s describing someone who believes two (or more!) contradictory things.
“Doubt” isn’t the polar opposite of belief; it’s the double-mindedness of believing two opposing things.
If that’s the case, then when James says that the one who doubts shouldn’t expect to receive anything from God, he’s not stating that only prayers offered with full and unwavering faith will be answered. In context, he’s talking specifically about prayers for wisdom, and I believe that what he’s doing is warning us of the unavoidable consequence of our unresolved ambivalence.
Or to put it more simply: If we want to learn to think about things God’s way, we can’t keep clinging to other ways of thinking.
We already know what this is like, don’t we? One voice in our heads says, “You can do this!” But another says, “You’re going to fail!” One voice says, “Things will be fine”; the other, “This is going to be a disaster.” And of course, the voices aren’t only inside us. Other people are offering us free (and often unsolicited!) advice, and there’s no end to the cultural messages we are bombarded with daily. The instability James is describing may be one in which we follow the dictates of one voice, hesitate, then pull back and follow another. We can’t commit to one way of thinking or one course of action.
Is that any way to learn wisdom?
. . .
Unfortunately, I’ve heard too many stories of Christians who have been hurt by their church communities on the matter of faith and doubt. They’ve gone to God with earnest prayers for help, and have asked their brothers and sisters in Christ to pray with and for them. But when their prayers weren’t answered the way they had hoped, they were told, “It’s because you didn’t have enough faith. It’s because you doubted.”
Let me say it unambiguously: that is a hurtful, sinful thing to say to someone who is suffering. It won’t strengthen their faith; if anything, it will tempt them to walk away from the faith, to find a community that is better able to embrace their pain.
So again: James is not talking about prayer in general, but prayers for wisdom. Nor is he saying that the infinitely gracious God will set that generosity aside if he finds that the quality of our faith isn’t up to snuff. But he is warning us of the consequence of being of two minds. When we want to grow in wisdom, when we want to see our trials through heavenly eyes, we cannot hold both a godly perspective and a worldly one at the same time.
James doesn’t give us a practical strategy for resolving our ambivalence. But we can at least start with this: let us hold to the truth that God in his very nature is generous and giving. That in itself may still some of the voices we could safely ignore.