Doubting vs. Making Distinctions
As I look into the New Testament Book of James with a couple of friends these days in preparation for a class at church, I am struck by the cohesiveness of the letter. It has been said that James is a kind of “Proverbs of the New Testament,” because of what must seem to some as a disjointed list of encouragements or aphorisms. To my mind (and many others) nothing could be further from the T/truth.
This book is well-written and does not feel disjointed at all. For instance, the first three verses after the opening salutation (James 1:2-4) are all about being steadfast in the midst of trial. In v.5, it may seem like we enter into a whole new discussion, this time about wisdom and how to get it. James says just to ask God and he will give it generously. But…the caveat is, you must not “doubt.”
Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s OK to have times of doubt in your faith journey. Yet, this sounds like it completely contradicts that thought. You must not doubt because that makes you just like a wave at sea, driven by seemingly fickle weather patterns. The person who does doubt should expect to receive nothing, says James.
But, as is so often the case, there is a deeper lesson here than just about a person who has trouble grasping the likelihood of God’s response to prayer. This word for doubting is actually used again by James in James 2:4 where it strictly means “to make distinctions.” In that context, James speaks of a Christian who has justified his decision to treat people differently based on their social status. In his mind, he has made it acceptable to treat the rich differently than the poor in the assembly, presumably because he sees a potential benefit for himself by doing so. That Christian is “making distinctions” and it is NOT OK.
When we take this meaning back to our original context of the word “doubt” in James 1:5-8, we begin to get a much better picture of what is going on. This is a person who prays for wisdom from God, on the one hand, but then on the other, makes a distinction, telling himself that, in this case, he can make a choice that will not cost him so much. He is not being steadfast, in the words of James 1:2-4. He is a doubter–a “distinction-maker”–in a way that goes against his faith. He has faced a trial (James 1:2) and though he prays, on the one hand, and understands what his faith would require of him, on the other hand he would rather make a distinction between this trial and his faith commitment so that he could make a choice that will not cost him as much.
Having points in our lives where our faith seems low because of trials (loss of job, death of loved ones, personal suffering, or, dare we say, rampant disease) is not a deal-breaker with God. He loves you. Your times of doubt are no challenge to his steadfast relationship with you and your heart that longs for that deepened relationship is something he draws close to unfalteringly. Such doubts will not keep his love at bay. It is the person who is quick to live a different way than his faith dictates–finding a way to make distinctions between circumstances that will keep him from having to maintain the same faithful standard in each one–that person is the one who should expect no answer to his prayer for wisdom. That is a double-minded person (James 1:8). He wishes to live God’s way when it suits him, but another when it is more convenient and potentially beneficial.
We are a people of steadfastness–staying true to our faith in all trials. We are not a people of making distinctions for our own benefit. Stay steadfast. Single-minded. Full of godly wisdom.