On Wisdom & Doubt
Jesus further reveals himself to Thomas, lovingly inviting him into faith.
I loved Mark’s sermon on James 1. I am constantly in need of God’s wisdom and I don’t know about you, but I find it remarkably encouraging when James says that God “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).
But the passage doesn’t stop there, James goes on to talk about doubters and to be honest, that part doesn’t feel nearly as encouraging to me. According to the NIV translation, James says that doubters “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” because they are “double-minded and unstable in all they do”. This passage is difficult for me for two reasons:
At first glance, it sure sounds like God is “finding fault” to me and I thought the previous passage said he doesn’t do that.
I’ve struggled with doubt many times in my journey as a Christian (and so have many others that I love and respect), my first reading made me feel guilty for my seasons of doubt.
So is this passage saying that God doesn’t listen to the prayers of doubters? I don’t think so, and as I’ve studied the passage, I think James is saying something else that we need to hear.
First, let’s remember the way that doubters were treated by Jesus himself (John 20):
In his gospel, the Apostle John tells of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples after his resurrection, but one disciple (Thomas) isn’t there. Afterward, the disciples share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection with Thomas, but Thomas replies, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe”. Thus the phrase “doubting Thomas” was born. But Jesus didn’t judge Thomas for his unbelief, instead 8 days later when he appears to the disciples he singles out Thomas saying, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Far from condemning Thomas’ doubt, Jesus further reveals himself to Thomas, lovingly inviting him into faith.
If that’s the way that God handles doubters, why would James say that doubters shouldn’t expect anything from God?
Because James isn’t talking about “doubt” as we understand it If he was, James would use the Greek word Jesus did when inviting Thomas from unbelief (apistis) to belief (pistis). Instead, James uses the word “diakrino” a far more broad term that often references contention and conflict (eg. God’s instruction to Peter not to contend with Cornelius’s servants but to go with them [Acts 10:20; 11:12] and Peter’s ensuing conflict with religious leaders in Jerusalem [Acts 11:2]).
What James is saying is that we can’t ask God for wisdom and contend with him at the same time. Still a hard truth, but one that makes more sense. If we seek God’s wisdom while still insisting on our own way, we’ll “receive nothing” because of our double-mindedness and instability.
Have you ever known someone who goes to the doctor to complain about symptoms, but then refuses to follow the doctor’s treatment plan? That’s what it’s like when we contend with God, we can’t receive his blessing because we won’t do what he says.
This reminds me of Jesus’ teaching about the importance of our foundation. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:26-27)
The house didn’t fall because of God’s vengeance (he earlier described the house on the rock weathering the same storm) but as a consequence of the builder’s choice of foundation. If we contend with God (by living our own way) we’ll build our faith on sand and it will fall because that’s the nature of bad foundations.
If you’re struggling with doubt, don’t feel guilty. Instead be honest about it and Jesus will reveal himself to you, lovingly inviting you further into the journey of faith.
If you need wisdom from God, welcome to the club. Thankfully He has a lot of wisdom to give, but James wants us to know that even God’s wisdom will do us no good if we fight Him.