“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:5-7, NIV)
Recently my parents wrote me an amazing note that I have taped next to my desk that still makes me cry when I look at it. It is full of encouragement for myself as a parent but also for all the other aspects of life that I embody. They reminded me of my grandma’s favorite verse being James 1:5 and the fact it was often a “go to verse” when parenting the four of us. It must have worked, not because I’m so great but because of how much I hope to model my parenting after them.
I have to admit, though, I have always had trouble with James 1:5. Not because I don’t love the idea of being given wisdom when I lack it (which feels like always). I’ve had a hard time because of James 1:6, the idea of believing without doubt, the idea of seeing myself as a wave tossed by the wind. Verse 7 goes on to say that such a person “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” I have always found that idea terrifying, to be labeled a doubter, to never shrug the cloud of shame exemplified by the fact I would never receive anything ever because of that time I doubted. And then, like so many times before, I listened to what I was saying and realized that such a beautiful promise had been covered in lies by the people who believed them too.
There is another story in the Bible about doubt we all know so well and what it was to be on a wave of the sea, tossed and blown by the wind. In Matthew 14 the story of Jesus walking on water is bookmarked by the faith of Peter and his subsequent doubt and near drowning. We hear the words of Jesus in verse 31, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?,” and if you are like me you automatically feel shame for Peter and maybe even yourself for not having enough faith to walk above the storm. But that moment, not Peter’s denial of Jesus, nor any of the other recorded and unrecorded mistakes Peter made were enough for Jesus to deny him anything forever. Peter was called the rock on which Christ would build His church, rock that hell itself would not overcome. And when was it that Peter was given that title? When he recognized that Jesus was the Savior they had been waiting for.
In our society of paranoia that demands we only trust ourselves and that if at first you don’t succeed you inevitably failed, James is urging a different calling. He is writing to the twelve tribes, scattered across the nations and reminding them that they are still in community with the Alpha and Omega, that He is still a generous and loving God and that He makes good on His promises.
Perhaps James is pressing hard against doubt because it had become an epidemic among those who had been scattered. Those who felt they had to be self-reliant to make it in the ever secluded and separated world they lived in. Perhaps it’s not the fact that doubt ruins God’s vision for the gift He will be bestow on you, but instead it ruins our ability to see God as anything but a last resort who only comes through in inspiring Facebook stories and nice sermon illustrations.
We often dress up the idea of doubt as saying we’re “skeptical” or perhaps that we’re “realists” but the God we serve is as real as it gets and our skepticism doesn’t rob Him of His glory but it robs us of the joy of basking in that glory. The doubters and the skeptics who ask for things and then assume they won’t happen, or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message “worry through their prayers,” shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord not because He won’t give it but because they simply don’t expect it.
My friend Aaron Espe is a singer/song-writer who wrote a song called “Faith and Doubt” a few years back and just today it has taken the story of Peter and reminded me what it is to believe and not doubt. The words go like this:
When I read that story I heard thunder everywhere I could hear that boat crashing on the waves The bow is in the air And I have respect for Peter who had faith enough to dare Step out onto the water While all the others stared And when hell is on your back Sometimes you think you got strength and you say Hey Lord, save me, I’m drownin’ out here! But I’m caught somewhere between Faith and Doubt And I feel like I’m never going to find my way back outta here.
Sometimes faith and doubt are so near to each other we can’t see which is which, so we ask for wisdom from a generous God and we expect big things that hell itself can’t overcome. And when a lifetime of learning begins to pay off, we tell our children the same things.
Ali can be reached via email here.