From double- to single-minded

Recently, as we’ve explored the book of James, I wrote that what James means by “doubt” is not the absence of faith, but something more like ambivalence, of belief being pulled back and forth between competing alternatives. Such double-mindedness, he notes, is inherently unstable: with hesitation and uncertainly, we lean first in one direction, then another, then back again.

And as I suggested in the previous post, we might see James’ words against the background of the teaching of Jesus, especially as James begins to tackle the problems of wealth and social status in the church. Why set our hearts on earthly treasures that are here today and gone tomorrow? Jesus taught. Store up eternal treasure in heaven. If you want to serve God, you can’t serve Wealth.

We live in a digital world of ideas and images, in which everyone is competing for our attention and manipulating our desires. According to Jesus, the pull of earthly “treasure” is ubiquitous; according to James, we become double-minded, wanting to hold to God and Mammon at the same time.

But again, we don’t have to read Jesus as railing at his followers for their faithless and greedy materialism. “Don’t worry,” he says repeatedly, knowing that the typical cares of this life, while understandable, can get in the way of our devotion to God. His teaching in the latter part of Matthew 6 isn’t about correcting bad behavior, but calming our anxieties by reminding us that we have a heavenly Father who loves and cares for us.

This, I think, is the context in which we must understand the famous words with which the chapter ends:

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matt 6:31-34, NRSV)

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” The context of that command is Jesus’ acknowledgement of our tendency to worry about our needs, our anxieties about both the present and the future. Our energies, physical and mental, are taken up by our striving for security. It’s not that we don’t want to follow God. It’s that we’re too preoccupied with the business of survival. Both James and Jesus recognize our double-mindedness, our divided souls.

What’s the remedy? It’s not to try to suppress worry. Telling ourselves repeatedly not to think about X is a surefire way to make sure we can’t stop thinking about it. Rather, the answer to double-minded is single-mindedness. In Jesus’ words, it is to actively strive for God’s “upside-down” kingdom in all we do.

Is this teaching only for those who are actively worried about having enough to pay the rent or to put food on the table? Surely the relatively wealthy don’t really worry about food and clothing; their bellies and closets are plenty full, thank you very much.

Point taken. Indeed, Jesus has other choice words for those who are rich and arrogant, as in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), a story he told to two brothers who were squabbling over inheritance. Here, the emphasis is on selfish greed: “Take care!” he warned the two men. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (vs. 15). And this is the context in which we are given Luke’s version of the teaching in Matthew 6, including the command to strive first for God’s kingdom (Luke 12:31).

Perhaps we might say that there are different ways to be double-minded. We can worry about the money we don’t have. We can be worried about protecting the money we do have, or take too much satisfaction and comfort in it. Whatever the case, focusing on this life, whether in anxiety or arrogance, takes away from our focus on the life to come. And in every case, the command is still the same: strive first and foremost for God’s kingdom. Be single-minded. Be kingdom-minded.

But what does it mean to strive for God’s kingdom, to store up treasure in heaven?

We’ll explore that in the next post.