When it comes to beliefs, opinions, and intellectual problems revolving around those said beliefs, doubt in them can be a sign of honest truth searching. But one Scripturally informed skeptic pointed to a passage from the book of James that seemed to condemn such thinking. Let’s see what’s really going on here.
During the short span of time I’ve had my head in scholarly works and apologetics, I have doubted more of my beliefs than I have ever had. Whilst I was once a fundamentalist who believed sinners would literally burn for eternity if they didn’t come to Christ, I’ve had to reexamine, change, and completely abandon beliefs I once clung to. I began having doubts towards what I believed. In fact, I’ve had my faith almost broken by skeptical arguments and objections. While it is indeed painful, doubt is a sure sign one is being intellectually honest towards what they believe. If one never doubts it wouldn’t be too hard to conclude one doesn’t think either.
But what about the passage in James that seems to condemn such doubt. As one skeptic I’ve come across put it,
“That sounds nice to modern ears but it isn’t biblical. The biblical response to doubters is that they are unstable and have no right to think God will give them anything they ask for.”
He then proceeds to quote the passage in question. Let’s take a look at James 1:5-8,
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.”
At first glance, it seems pretty conclusive. James condemns anyone who doubts, even going as far to call them “double-minded.” But I don’t think this is the complete picture. How does James define “faith” in his epistle? James 2:14-26 defines it, not as a mere belief, but something that involves work and action. In a Biblical context, faith is more closely associated with loyalty.
With that in mind, how does context serve us in defining what James means by doubt in this verse? Loyalty pre-supposes the existence of someone to be loyal to, so doubt could hardly pertain to the existence of the said person, but to their ability. To say “I doubt He will do that” doesn’t mean I’m doubting if he exists; my unbelief is in His ability to do as He has promised. This is the kind of doubt James is condemning. But why?
The answer is found in the logical next step. If I doubt God’s ability I’m also doubting my willingness to continue to be loyal to Him in the face of temptation. For example, if I doubted my friend’s ability to cook an adequate meal, I would then waver in wanting him to serve me. I would cook my own dinner. But what if I still asked him to cook for me because making my own takes too much effort? This is why James calls the doubter “double-minded.” I am asking my friend to do one thing while I’m secretly wanting to do another.
In James’s epistle, he is pointing to those who are asking for God’s wisdom but are doubting if they will even follow through with submitting to what God says at the same time. They’re essentially saying “I want wisdom but I’m not sure if I will obey and follow that wisdom.” They want what God can give but they desire to do something else whether because of shame or dishonour. James is condemning hypocrisy rather than doubt in the existence of something. Such a person is indeed unworthy to ask God for anything they desire.