The American saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” expresses a truth acknowledged by other cultures. The Albanians say, “To take a swim and not get wet.” The Portuguese talk of “wanting the sun to shine on the threshing floor while it rains on the turnip field.” In Vietnam, they warn “you gain one thing but lose the other.” All of these acknowledge a basic truth: you can’t have it both ways or you can’t have the best of both worlds. In the first chapter of his epistle, James urges those who lack wisdom to ask God “who gives to all liberally and without reproach” (verse 5). His message is comforting. When we find ourselves needing wisdom, we can trust God to bestow wisdom with generosity and without looking down on us for asking. However, we should take care with our request. God will not respond if we harbor doubts.
Doubt comes in a variety of forms. Some struggle with intellectual doubts. Those with intellectual doubts believe in God, they want to serve God, but find themselves with uncertainties related to doctrine or theology. Intellectual doubts, when approached with an honest desire to understand, can serve to strengthen one’s faith. One need look no further than men like Habakkuk, Job, Solomon, or the Psalmists to see people of faith grappling with intellectual uncertainties. Others possess doubts that are volitional in nature. They are skeptical of God or the Bible or Christianity (or all of the above) because they want to do what they want to do. These uncertainties are rooted in a resistance to the will of God. Finally, there are emotional doubts. Most uncertainties fall into this final category and, to be frank, we all experience such doubts in varying degrees at various times. Peter was overcome by an emotional doubt as he walked on the water toward Christ (see Matthew 14:22-33). Jesus rebuked Peter for his doubt, but what caused the doubt? It was his fear of the waves and of potential death that caused Peter to sink. Peter’s failure exposes an essential truth: doubt is rooted in fear.
Returning to James 1, our brother describes the one who doubts as “a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” a description reminiscent of Peter’s failure (verse 6 cf. with Matthew 14:30). Verse 8 tells us why the brother of Jesus chose this comparison. The one who mixes faith and doubt is double-minded and thereby unstable. If a need for wisdom is recognized but the one asks for wisdom is uncertain if God will respond, He will not respond. To acquire wisdom from God, we must be fully persuaded that He will give it when asked. Any and all fears to the contrary must be pushed aside. As James says, we cannot have it both ways. Faith cannot coexist with doubt when asking for wisdom.
Double-mindedness and the instability it produces occurs in contexts other than asking for wisdom. When Elijah challenged the priest of Baal on Mount Carmel, he challenged his countrymen, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). Here is another case where people tried to have it both ways. Israel counted Jehovah as a god among gods like Baal or goddesses like Asherah. Elijah uncovers their double-mindedness with a Hebrew idiom, “How long are you going to limp around on two crutches?” Paralyzed by indecision, Israel vacillated between serving Jehovah and serving Baal. At this seminal moment, Elijah echoes Joshua’s final exhortation from an earlier generation: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (24:15). Regrettably, Israel maintained the status quo. She tried to have it both ways and, predictably, the nation suffered a series of catastrophic upheavals. For example, during the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth years of Judah’s King Azariah, assassinations and coup d’états brought four different kings to power in the northern kingdom of Israel (see 2 Kings 15:8-16). Once again, the warning of James rings true: double-mindedness creates instability.
The prophets and apostles of the New Testament translate the lessons of idolatry into the dangers of false teaching. To eat meat offered to an idol is to eat from the table of demons (1 Corinthians 10:21). False teaching, says Paul, is inspired by the demonic realm (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Behind idolatry and false teaching lies the influence of the fallen angels. Like Israel dabbling with idolatry, the church must guard against mixing false teaching with the truth. The churches of Galatia heeded the message of Jewish-Christians who insisted one must keep the law of Moses while serving Jesus Christ. Their syncretism divided the Galatian churches from Christ and jeopardized their salvation (see Galatians 5:1-4). In gaining Moses they lost Christ.
Unsurprisingly, double-mindedness in matters of faith gives rise to instability. God designed the church to help us all become “a perfect man,” to attain, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:13-14). A church that lends an ear to false teaching leads its members away from maturity in Christ and towards instability. Time and again, Paul exhorts Titus and Timothy to teach sound doctrine lest they, or those they teach, suffer theological shipwreck (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:3-11, 18-20). False teaching preys upon the unstable (see 2 Peter 2:14, 3:16). Too many well-meaning but vulnerable souls have run their faith aground on the shoal of fear and doubt rather than anchoring their life on the rock of salvation. The one who seeks Christ while succumbing to the winds and the waves has no sure foundation. Doctrinal double-mindedness destabilizes faith.
Mixing doubt with faith when asking for wisdom and doctrinal syncretism are just two examples of double-mindedness. Clinging to worldliness and covetousness are two more symptoms of this mortal ailment. Do not be deceived — double-mindedness is a soul killer. It attempts to serve two masters and, as the Lord says, you can only serve one. When we are double-minded and our two masters come into conflict, we ease the tension through compromise. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we will notice that in those moments of compromise it is the Lord who loses out more often than not. Friends, it is time to get out of the boat, to ignore the rolling tides, and fix our gaze on the Lord Jesus Christ. Anything less than our full devotion is unworthy of Him.
“Teach me Your way, O LORD; I will walk in Your truth; Unite my heart to fear Your name. I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart, And I will glorify Your name forevermore” (Psalm 86:11-12).
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea
‘Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole of love
Is but my answer, Lord to thee;
For thou wert long before-hand with my soul,
Always thou lovedst me.
~ Anonymous, 1878