“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 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 he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” – James 1:1-8
To begin with, James (again, probably James the Just, brother of Jesus Christ) introduces himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” One of the major themes in this book is humility and equality. Many of the other letters written in the Bible begin with introductions that contain credentials of apostleship or elder status. Of course, there was good reason for these credentials to be given in those instances. But with James it is different. No matter if James was James the Just, James the Great, James the lesser, or any other person named James, he introduces himself as “a servant.” This sets the tone of this epistle. James does not feel the need to give any credentials, other than the ones that we all share. The only credential that matters is that of servant-hood. This is what Jesus Himself was trying to get across when He washed the feet of the apostles. Jesus taught, “Unless I wash you, you have no part of me.” And He continued, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” In other words, “Follow my example. I have come to serve you. Now you serve one another.” Lao Tzu puts it another way in the Tao Te Ching:
Display yourself and you will not be clearly seen;
Justify yourself and you will not be respected;
Promote yourself and you will not be believed;
Pride yourself and you will not endure.These behaviors are wasteful, indulgent,
And so they attract disfavor;
Harmony avoids them.”
We work as hard as we can to fix our own issues. Some of us do it with our moral efforts. Some of us do it by trying to numb our pain. Whichever way we try to deal with our trials, the result is the same. We end up at rock bottom. Each time we make a mistake, each time we weather a trial, we tell ourselves, “I will redouble my efforts. I will do better next time,” or “I won’t let this thing beat me. I’m going to fight it.” Or we resolve ourselves to shove it down, not think of it, numb it away. Then we get that much more disappointed when we inevitably fail again, and the next trial comes up to bite us. But James teaches us that we should be grateful for this process as well. Each time we try and fail, each time we endure a trial, we are growing. But we grow like a seed.
A seed cannot become a flower until it has shed its need to be a seed. Not only that, but the seed cannot really stay a seed forever without finally becoming so useless that it will not grow. The seed has to willingly sacrifice its “self.” The seed can’t become what it was intended to be until it admits to its self that it may be a decent seed, but a pretty useless flower. We, like that seed, have to sink down to the depths of our rottenness, break apart, and let the potential that God put in us spring out. And each time we go through a trial, we are growing in the compost. Like that flower, we grow from hardship, trials, and death. We need good sunny days, but we also need the rain to fall. We need the rotten, decaying compost. We need the worms to crawl through our soil. We need to count our trials as pure joy!
This is the root of our wisdom, to know that God is in charge, and to know that we are nothing without Him. But no one can do this perfectly. This is why James tells us that we are to ask God for wisdom. God will give this without favoritism. We have to believe and not doubt, and God will give us what we ask of Him.
There are many who take this verse and others like it, and set up a false doctrine that has come to be called the “prosperity gospel.” It is the “name it and claim it” doctrine. It is a lie. A group of super rich people have gotten even richer by telling people who have very little that if they will trust God, send what they have in faith to their “ministry” then God will bless them ten fold. Then, when the blessings don’t come the “minister” can point to the “do not doubt” part of the verse, and lay the blame solely on the victim. I even heard one “pastor” (who I will not name publicly) say that Jesus was a rich man. He said that God would not come to earth and live the life of a poor person. God does not want us to be poor, and that Jesus was wealthy. When the interviewer asked him about the verses that mention things like Jesus not having a place to lay his head, the “pastor” replied, “I have been to seminary. You have not. Leave interpreting the Bible to those who have studied it.”
So, if that is not what James means here, then what does he mean? He means that we are to trust in spite of what our emotions or our logic tell us. Emotions tell us lies to one extreme. Logic tells us lies to another extreme. Faith is trusting that between those two extremes, God is righteous and will deliver on His promises. James says that if we lack wisdom we should ask God for wisdom. God will not deny this request. Like most things, our answer from God will most likely come in a way that surprises, shocks, and maybe even offends us. But He will give us exactly what we need, when we need it.
James has some pretty strong words here about doubters. He says that they are like waves tossed by the sea. He says that they should expect nothing from God. Does that mean that if I ever question God, or have any doubts, that God will not bless me? Of course not. The doubt that James is talking about here is a deep questioning of the reality of God. It is about people who have experienced the grace and wonder of an almighty God, but who have believed the lies of their emotions or their logic to the extreme. When God has performed, and continues to perform miracles in their lives, and they turn their backs on it. A doubter in this sense is one who has experienced a taste of God, but then starts to trust their emotions when they tell them that they could not be safe or loved or cherished by God. Or, when their logic tells them that there is no way that miracles happen. God probably doesn’t even exist. And even if He does, He surely doesn’t have time to bother with intervening in my little life. These are people who will be “tossed about like a wave on the sea.” They cry out for God when times are tough, all the while not trusting that He can deliver. Then when times are better they find some reason why it was their own inner strength, or coincidence or whatever that got them through.
A person who has doubts, but is not a doubter in James’ sense is one who has experienced God’s Grace and miracles, and may experience the transient thoughts that come from logic and emotions, but who does not fall into their trap. Zen Buddhists attempt, in part, to free themselves from suffering by clearing their minds of thought in meditation. In one way they are onto something. They realize that emotions and our logical mind both will lead us astray at some point. We should not cling to either of them. We have to see them as the transients that they are. They speak of watching your thoughts come into your mind and then letting them pass, observing them as clouds drifting in the sky. This is an aspect of the Buddhist mentality we would do well to emulate. We should take our emotional responses and our logical responses and see them as clouds that pass. They serve their purpose, but they are not solid ground to stand on.
A skimming of the Gospels shows that we are in good company when we have these type of doubts. The apostles, every one of them, turned their back on Jesus. They were with Him. They saw Him feed five thousand on a few loaves and fish. They saw Him heal the sick. They saw Him cast out demons. They saw him raise people from the dead! They, with their own eyes, right there in broad daylight, watched Jesus Christ raise people from the dead! And then, when they saw Him crucified, even though He had told them it would happen, and that he would be resurrected, they went right back to their old way of life. They went right back to fishing. But still this was not the kind of doubt that James was talking about. They were those of “little faith.” Even the “faith of a mustard seed” will allow us to command a mountain to fall into the sea!
God knows where we are. He not only made us, but He became one of us Himself. He knows the struggle of doubt. He knows exactly how much we want to turn away, give up, and go back to fishing. He Himself cried out in agony, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”) But the difference is that He went through with God’s plan anyway. That is the difference of faith. We can’t go through with the plans perfectly as Jesus did, but we can keep trying. We can allow God to guide us, step by step. When we fail, we can trust that God will lift us up, dust us off, and set us aright. And the beautiful thing, the thing that is pure joy, is that God give this “generously to all, without finding fault.” He doesn’t fault us because our fault has been absorbed by Jesus on the cross and in His resurrection. Now it is a process of perfecting us one trial at a time to turn us into the type of Heavenly creatures He intended us to be.
So, let’s say with the man in Mark 9:24…
“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.'”
I mention the so-called prosperity “gospel” in this post. Below is a short excerpt from a sermon by John Piper. He says it better than I could…