James 1:5-7 seems to make obtaining wisdom impossible.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
To get wisdom, there cannot be one bit of doubt. It is either perfect faith or nothing.
To make these words even more challenging, James is only reminding us of what Scripture has been saying all along. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5, also 26:16). Jesus restated the theme, “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24), and “if you have faith and do not doubt…” (Matt. 21:21).
All this does not sound too hopeful.
James and wholeheartedness
James has a particular interest in an undivided heart. He knows that when the true and only God shared space with other gods in the hearts of Israel, he really had no place in the hearts of the people. When allegiances were divided between Yahweh and Baal, the people worshipped Baal.
James picks up on these divided allegiances—these divided hearts. This is his master theme and is his significant contribution to New Testament thought.
Do you hear but not follow? There is that division. You believe one thing, you do another.
Do you know your Master’s interest in mercy and then pander to the wealthy?
Do you know things about Jesus? Even demons know things about Jesus. Do you follow the one you know?
Do you bless and curse with the same mouth? These are from two different streams with very different sources.
Are you angry and quarrelsome? This shows that you are friend of the world, not God. More starkly put, you are saying that God is, in fact, your enemy.
Our divided hearts are expressed in how we live, more than in what we believe. A little bit of hardship or “trials of various kinds” (1:2) bring that dividedness out for us to see.
With this in mind, James 1:5-7 is the book’s entrance to this theme of division and wholeness. God gives wisdom generously, James writes, but when divided hearts ask for wisdom, they are up to something other than how to live for the true God—they are trusting someone other than the true God. They believe or act as though God is not the giving, generous God who is faithful to his promises. The writer of Hebrews says the same thing, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
These doubts about God’s goodness and generosity echo the primal sin that came about as humanity questioned these same things in the Garden of Eden. James beseeches us to not repeat this sin, which is behind so much other sin. Jesus Christ and God’s lavish grace in him should have put such questions to an end, but they still echo.
Double-minded? Ask for help.
So what is our recourse if we are double-minded?
James tells us to reassess our hearts. We could paraphrase him this way: Do you believe that God is the generous “Giving God,” which is an apt translation of James 1:5, or do you have doubt? If you have doubt, your heart is broken into pieces in which the triune God has one part, which means that he has no part. A little mourning and wailing (5:1) and humbling ourselves (4:10) are in order, which can be followed with the verbal declaration, “You Lord are, indeed, the Giving God—the giving of your Son is the evidence.” Then ask for wisdom to be poured out, and it will be poured out.
Just ask. James’ concern is when we pray this with a divided heart and our living remains untouched by the Spirit.
Jesus’ invitation for weak people to receive more wisdom through the Spirit still stands. James’ warning turns us from complacency. Both are hopeful.