If I Doubt, I’m Out?! A Look at James 1:5-8

In my previous two posts, I mentioned how important it is that anytime we read a difficult or perplexing Bible verse, we need to view it in its original context. We have to study what it meant “back then” before we can interpret what it means for us here and now. I’ll admit there have been times when I’d read a verse that confused me and I’d get really hung up on it and get frustrated . . . and then I’d read the rest of the passage. And I’d realize how silly it was to get frustrated so quickly, because the biblical authors would go on to explain away the difficulty! I sometimes picture them saying, “Well, if you had just let me finish!”

Sometimes we have to put a little more effort into our reading instead of just stopping at a verse or two. Today I want to give one example of a passage that can sound jarring at first, but starts to make a lot more sense when we look at the context and when we study what the author was originally trying to say. It’s in the first chapter of James.

“Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” (James 1:5-6, CSB)

Whoa! Hold up! So is James saying that if I ever have any doubts, God won’t answer my prayers? If I have even just a tiny bit of uncertainty or hesitancy in the back of my mind, I’m out? Call disconnected, try again later?

That’s how some people take this verse and others like it. They’ll tell you that you have to force yourself to have faith; you have to “will away” all your doubts so you can claim the blessing!

But this is silly if you think about it, because really it just turns your prayers into a way of relying on your own efforts – which, by the way, totally defeats the whole purpose of humbly praying to God for his wisdom! If my success in prayer was dependent on me having perfect confidence and intellectual certainty all the time, then my prayers would be getting answered zero percent of the time.

Thankfully, though, when we put this verse back into the context of James’ letter, we gain some much-needed clarity on what he’s actually getting at here.

James goes on to say: “That person [aka the “doubter”] should not expect to receive anything from the Lord, being double-minded and unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:7-8)

Hmm. So doubting is about being “double-minded.”

That wording just so happens to pop up again later on – in chapter 4, where James warns his readers not to be in love with material things and worldly status. (The danger of idolizing money and status is one of the key themes throughout James.)

He says, “You adulterous people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the friend of the world becomes the enemy of God” (James 4:4). James then goes on to call his readers to submit to God and resist the devil (4:7). He challenges them: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:8, emphasis added).

Ah. So being double-minded is related to loving the world at the same time that you claim to love God. It’s related to hypocrisy.

For James, being double-minded or a “doubter” isn’t so much about having intellectual uncertainty; rather, it has to do with divided allegiance.

A double-minded person is insincere in their claim to trust God, because at the same time they’re wanting to hold on to their worldly resources. They’re keeping their options open. They say they have faith, but really they’re non-committal.

This also goes hand-in-hand with the word James uses for “doubt.” That may not actually be the best translation, since we tend to associate it today with having questions about something or with being uncertain about the future. But the Greek term James uses here (diakrino) has more to do with wavering between two options. In this context, then, it’s about someone wavering between trusting God and trusting themselves; relying on God or relying on worldly things.

The key issue, in James’ view, is this: Are you really putting all your trust in God? Or does your true loyalty lie with the world and with your own resources? He’s echoing Jesus’ teaching that “No one can serve two masters” (see Matthew 6:24).

And this is why it’s unfortunate that so many people take verses like James 1:6 out of context and abuse them in ways that can be harmful. We all have doubts at some point. Every one of us. If you’ve never once doubted God or been unsure how he was going to answer your prayers, I’d love to hear your secrets, because that would be pretty incredible.

But James isn’t telling you that you can never have any uncertainty in your walk with God. Indeed, if we knew everything about God and about how he was going to answer our prayers, wouldn’t that make faith completely unnecessary?

Rather, what James is getting at is the fact that we should have complete faith in the character of God, even if we’re uncertain what he wants us to do or how he’s going to answer our prayers. The “doubter” James refers to is one who is wavering between God and the world. It’s not a question of having all the answers, but of whether your basic attitude is one of loyalty to the one who does have the answers.

We could consider Abraham’s life as an instructive example. The Bible says that Abraham Did not waver [the same word James uses for “doubt”!] in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God” (Romans 4:20). So Abraham did what James is telling us to do – trust God without wavering.

But notice how often Abraham asked God questions (see Genesis 15:2-3) and even laughed at the thought of God giving him a son when he was 100 years old (Genesis 17:15-19). And don’t forget that time he did try to bring about an heir through his own means instead of waiting on God (Genesis 16). But Abraham did continue to grow in his relationship with God and ultimately his loyalty was to God alone. He fully trusted that God was the best and only Master he should follow with his life.[1]

So, in summary: James’ point is about whether you’re truly relying on God, and not wavering between God and the world. It’s a question of loyalty vs. hypocrisy. God isn’t going to look down on you for having honest questions or concerns. We should remember the man who asked Jesus to heal his epileptic son, who cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Jesus did answer that prayer.

God would rather you be honest about your doubts while continuing to seek him, than to pretend like you have it all figured out and reduce prayer to a formula. Ask God for wisdom, and expect him to answer. Don’t waver back into self-reliance. That’s the point of James 1:5-8 in context.

I hope this reflection is helpful to you! Let me know if you have any particular Bible passages you’d like to see examined in-depth!

See you down the path.

 


[1] Credit to Craig L. Blomberg & Mariam J. Kamell, James, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), pg. 52 footnote 47 for the idea of Abraham as an illustration of James 1:5-8.



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