“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all he does.” –James 1:5-8
It seems mean-spirited. How could God refuse a request because the supplicant lacks confidence in his generosity? Isn’t doubting God an understandable weakness? Besides, this kind of hard line would seem unlikely to help people come to God in faith. The policy is not only harsh, it is confusing. “God gives generously to all,” but on the other hand, don’t expect help if you lack faith. In other words, “I will help you. Or not.” Why should doubt be such a deal breaker?
Perhaps the faith policy presented in James 1 isn’t as harsh as it seems. The faith James admonishes us to have is not a fire in the belly. Just try to muster that up specially for the occasion. But James doesn’t even use the word “faith.” He tells us to “believe and not doubt,” which is really a matter of will. Moreover, the passage above concerns prayers for wisdom, not a Mercedes Benz. If my faith in God is so shallow that I do not believe he wants me to have wisdom, then I have more serious problems to deal with.
“You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (Jas. 4:2-3).
Is it a certainty that the one who doubts has corrupt motives? Or is motive just one of the reasons God declines requests? One clue is found in verse 8: “He is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” The second part is a corollary to the first; the instability ensues from the double-mindedness. And this same syndrome of faithlessness and bad motives is tied in with the will; the one with bad motives intends to spend what he gets on his pleasures. (v. 3)
Take the word “faithful.” Notice the linguistic progression in the word’s history:
1 : obsolete : full of faith
2 : steadfast in affection or allegiance : LOYAL
3 : firm in adherence to promises or in observance of duty : CONSCIENTIOUS
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but we see that the obsolete (ancient) meaning of the word meant full of faith, and then it came to mean loyal and conscientious. It isn’t so far-fetched to imagine that people who were full of faith became known for their loyalty and conscientiousness, which caused the meaning of the word to change over time.
What we believe is inextricably bound up with our wills. In another passage, James says about Abraham, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together” (Jas. 2:22). The father of the Hebrews was about to slay his only son, so strong were his convictions. For the person who lacks conviction, where will his double-minded instability lead him? If he lacks stability in his commitment to God, what is left but carnal, self-serving pursuits? These, God will not bless. Why would he? It would be like a man giving money to his drug-addicted son.
Is it unreasonable for God to insist that we believe him? Jesus’ disciples cried to him, “Increase our faith!” But Jesus told them all they needed was faith the size of a mustard seed to perform supernatural acts. It has been argued that Jesus was saying, “Look, you people already have a seed of faith inside you. I put it there. So use it!” And what of the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Why not? Because the peril in the situation has cut through their unwillingness to move in God’s direction. Approaching God requires personal adjustments, and it is futile to think about personal preferences when death is imminent. Suddenly, will imposes no obstacle. The staunch atheist is now freed to believe that God will hear his prayer for survival.
Faith in God is at once a belief system and a choice of paths. God does not demand of us what we do not have (or cannot obtain). Let us be like the man who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus in Mark 9. He had tried everything; even Jesus’ disciples could not heal the boy.
“If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can?'” said Jesus “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” -Mark 9:22-24
Jesus did as the man had asked. He did not judge him because of the tentativeness of his faith, but instead honored the step he had taken to grasp a greater faith. God worked with him right where he was; what was required of him was a choice to reach for a greater faith.
What then shall we take from James? Will God close the door because our faith isn’t perfect, or because we fail to use the little bit we already have? Surely God does not require us to produce a faith we do not possess. Why would he bother? The one who wonders what is in the heart of God should look at the creation and observe God’s gentle care for all his creatures. We are not being asked to see perfectly, only to open our eyes.