Over the next five weeks, Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell will be blogging through the book of James. Their commentary, the first in the ZECNT series, will release at the ETS and SBL annual meetings, beginning Nov. 19. This first post by Craig looks at James 1:5-7.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. Those who doubt should not think they will receive anything from the Lord; they are double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:5-7).
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormonism, describes in his autobiography that it was this passage that led him as a teenager to ask God which Christian denomination he should join. He claims that he received the answer, “none of them,” but was instructed to await further divine revelation. The “prosperity gospel” regularly appeals to this text to support its “name it and claim it” approach to prayer, especially in the areas of health and wealth. What about all of those who don’t receive what they ask for in prayer? The text of James gives them the debilitating reply: “you just didn’t have enough faith.” The average Christian intuitively recognizes that these applications of the passage are probably wrong, though he or she might not always be able to explain conclusively why. But many believers count on these promises for “routine” prayer. Yet they are troubled because it can sound like James is requiring them to know in advance how God will answer their prayers if they are to have sufficient faith, without doubting. What exactly is James teaching here?
To begin with, it is important to note that James is talking about asking for wisdom. Not health, not wealth, not even a job or a spouse or a car or a child or any other specific “thing” we might wish we had. He promises to give us wisdom, to guide us, to help us apply the large body of truth in his revealed word to our current circumstances.
What then is the doubt that we are to avoid?
Well, if what we are lacking is godly insight, then he can’t be requiring us to know God’s will, much less “name it and claim it” in some particular situation, because it is uncertainty in that arena that is precisely what is prompting us to pray! Rather the faith we must have without vacillation has to be referring to the object of our allegiance. Verse 7 likens the doubt we are to avoid to “double-mindedness,” a word in the Greek (dipsuchos) that we have yet to discover was ever used in the Greek language prior to James, suggesting that he coined it for this occasion. We do the same thing in English when we add the prefix bi- to a word to make it mean two of something. Biweekly means every two weeks, bicycle means having two wheels, and bisexual means, well, you get the idea! So in a faculty committee, I might refer to a task force that has two professors assigned to it as a biprofessorial group, though I doubt that word appears in any standard dictionary.
This is what James has done with dipsuchos. Psuchos comes from the root for “soul.” So a double-minded person is literally “two-souled.” Sometimes discerning the meaning of a word solely from its etymology leads us astray because words change in their meanings over time. But when someone coins a word, etymology is the only thing we have to go on, so it is a valid approach. We, of course, have its context, tool; here it is paired with “unstable,” a word that also means restless or rebellious. We also have its second, and only other, New Testament occurrence, in James 4:8. Here it is used as parallel to “sinners” who need to repent and be purified.
With all this information we are in a better position to determine the kind of doubt we are not to have when we pray to God for wisdom. We are not to be dually aligned, both to God and some other god. As Doug Moo in his little Tyndale Commentary on James puts is so concisely, “The word suggests, then, not so much intellectual doubt as a basic conflict in loyalties—as for instance between God and ‘mammon’ (Mt. 6:24) or God an ‘the world’ (Jas. 4:4)” (p. 64). When we are convinced that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the one and only one to whom we should turn for life’s answers, then we can claim these precious promises for guidance and insight—not necessarily a detailed blueprint—for the mundane, and dramatic, affairs of life.
Did Joseph Smith pray with that kind of faith? We are in no position today to know. But if he wasn’t even yet sure which of all the churches in his hometown to join, one could doubt whether he had a true, undivided commitment to the living God of the universe before praying his prayer. It’s at least plausible to imagine, therefore, that he could have been vulnerable to misinterpreting the spirits he believed were replying to him.
Craig Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author of 15 books, including 1 Corinthians in the NIV Application Commentary series.