Tuesday, February 20, 2007

James 1:5-8 - Belief, Doubt, and Prayer

My good friend Alex is studying some in James, and he left a comment recently about James 1:5-8, which says, "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 he think will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does."

Alex wrote: what did you/your small group do with chapter 1 with the part where God gives genrously to all without finding fault UNLESS you're a doubter, in which case you shouldn't expect to receive anything at all. It seems that's a pretty significant blockage...and I'm having a hard time finding a way around it.

This is indeed a troubling passage when taken at face value. It seems that it's all up to us - God will give generously, but with a condition. But, as Alex knows, we have to use the full counsel of Scripture to interpret passages that are confusing or don't seem to jive with the God we know, and so that is where I started in thinking about this. If this verse were true at face value, then the man whose son was possessed by a demon in Mark 9 was in trouble, because his "prayer request" for healing was followed by, "I believe; help me overcome my unbelief. "Sounds like there is doubt there to me. Yet Jesus healed him, generously.
The NIV Bible Commentary says this, "This father was not oscillating between belief and unbelief. He desired to believe--and even asserted his belief--but because he felt keenly the inadequacy of his faith, he asked for help in believing. He was not facing both directions at the same time like the "double-minded man" of Jas 1:8. In spite of his conscious weakness, he had set his heart to believe. And Christ responded to his faith and healed his son."
There is also the passage where Jesus tells us that if we have a mustard seed faith, we can move mountains, which once led me to despair. If all it took was a mustard seed to move a mountain, I must have incredibly little faith, because I had not moved any mountains. But perhaps Jesus' words were less a commentary on the required amount of faith, but rather on the powerfulness of the faith's object - that God is so mighty that He takes the mustard seed that you give and moves the mountain.

We also have to let verse 5 inform 6 and 7 - God's gives generously without finding fault. We as Christians are in Christ, and we have sonship relationship with the Father. He loves and longs to be generous to us, which Eugene Peterson shows well in his Message translation of these verses:
If you don't know what you're doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get his help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who "worry their prayers" are like wind-whipped waves. Don't think you're going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.

My friend Macon came up with this a helpful analogy (or he borrowed it from our favorite theology professor, Gary Deddo) to talk about the role of faith in prayer. Macon asks the question, "How much is enough to get my prayer answered?" So, does God require that I be 100% certain? How about 98%? Or is it just a majority, like 51% sure that tips the scales on my behalf? If I have 49% or less, am I unable to get God to move? Knowing my own heart, there have been few, if any, times that I have had 100% faith when I prayed. On my BEST prayers I've been in 90% range, I think. Yet God has answered. God has moved, using the the faith that I offered. See, Jesus lives in me and He lives for me. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. I no longer pray, but Christ prays in me. And so I offer Jesus my 30% faith and He takes that prayer, perfects it, and offers it to the Father on my behalf as a 100% prayer.

It seems that Scripture is full of doubters and strugglers, men and women who did not have 100% faith, and yet God still moved for and in them. Think about Gideon's fleece, John the Baptist's father, Sarah's laughter. It seems that God is not limited by our faith, or lack thereof, in the way that we think He might be. Yes, faith is important. But God can work with far less than we offer, and He answers feeble prayers just as much as He answers confident ones. Prayer being answered is not about our rubbing the magic lamp just right so that the genie comes out and gives us our wish. It is a recognition of need that we cannot supply, and whether we are 100% certain that God will come through and meet that need as we see fit, we still recognize that we need help and are asking with all the faith that we can muster.

So, all of this gives me a new lens through which I have to read James 1:5-8. One key phrase in this passage that the NIV Bible Commentary points out is, "he is unstable in all he does." The double-minded man is not someone who prays to God and has some doubt that He will answer, or someone who has imperfect faith. Rather all that the double-minded person does is characterized by flip-flopping and indecisiveness in their relationships, their work, their walk with the Lord.

In sum, I think that when I operate as a person under the Law, James is very troubling. The Law view of prayer would say that there is a standard that I have to meet in order to unlock the power of God. But Jesus has met that standard for me, and lives that standard in and through me now that I am in Christ. I am not a double-minded man, because I am in Christ and I have the mind of Christ (Col. 2:16). I am not abandoned to my weak faith, but can in all things depend on Christ, crying, "I believe, Lord help my unbelief."

What do you think?


Alex said...

yes, yes, yes. really good stuff here, marsh. the "i believe, help my unbelief" guy i think is particularly instructive, since i think that pretty well sums up most of my prayer life (and/or any other part of my life). i like macon/deddo's analogy here as well. that's helpful and clairifying. i do think, too that the way that james unpacks what the doubter looks like ("double-minded, unstable in all he does") is instructive, as you have commented.

all in all, thanks for helping me work through this. i guess i'll keep reading the bible, after all, thanks to you, marsh!

Marshall said...

whew! That was a close one - we can't have a Bible teacher with your skills stop reading the Bible. Crisis averted!

Elana said...

oooh thats some good stuff! thanks for the wisdom :)