James 1:1-8 – Double-mindedness

I heard the story of a guy who got two job offers from different companies – both would be located in the same building, but on different floors. So he decided to take both of them. He’d get in early and start the first job around 7am, and then go upstairs and clock in at his second job around 9. He would then spend his day travelling between floors every hour or so. If people came and found him away from his desk, they just assumed he was in a meeting. He’d then finish at his first job early to work back late at the second. For 6 months he collected two paycheques before he was found out – and only then because someone resigned from one company, got a job with the other company – and recognised him. He was then sacked from both of them.

The letter of James, which we’re going to be studying over the next few weeks, warns Christian against trying to do this – against trying to work for two masters. It warns us against trying to live for God and for ourselves – or for everyone else’s expectations – trying to fool God that we’re working for him full-time, when every chance we get we’re sneaking off to our second job. Except God isn’t fooled. And sooner or later, we find it impossible to keep up the double life. 

In the ancient world, to be friends with someone was to be of one mind with them. (Aristotle famously described friendship as one soul in two bodies!) So the question James asks is this: how can you be of one mind with God and of one mind with the world, which is opposed to God? You can’t, so you end up being “double-minded” (1:8). In fact, “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (4:4). This is the central theme of James’ letter, and the framework we’ll be using as we look at each day’s reading.

Some background

The letter starts off like this:

1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. 

James was Jesus’ half-brother. He doesn’t feature in the gospels, as Jesus’ family by-and-large didn’t understand or acknowledge who he was until after his resurrection. But by the time we get to Acts 15, James appears to be the leader of the Jerusalem church. We often think of Peter and Paul as the key figures in the New Testament church, but in the earliest days it was James’ authority that was recognised.

His brief introduction addresses ‘the twelve tribes scattered among the nations’, or literally, ‘to the twelve tribes in the dispersion’. This was a technical term for the Jews who had been scattered to other nations as a result of the foreign occupation of their homeland. It may be that James was writing to the Jewish Christians who weren’t part of his Jerusalem church – those who had been converted to Christianity by Paul and others in the synagogues around the Mediterranean.

Alternatively, New Testament writers often used Old Testament terminology about Israel to refer to the Christian church. They consciously thought of themselves as the ‘new Israel’, the ‘true Israel’. So James may have been using this idea of the ‘twelve tribes in the dispersion’ as referring to all Christians scattered throughout the world.

Either way, he was writing to Christians who found themselves living in a foreign environment; living as a minority group trying to survive the influence of the dominant culture; living away from their true homeland, which is with God.

It kind of sounds like us, doesn’t it?

This is a letter written to Christians who – like us – are  struggling with the temptation to conform to the culture around them. And James urges them – and us – to resist this temptation to try to have it both ways; to be friends with God and with the world. Or as James goes on to describe it, to be “double-minded” (1:8; 4:8).

The temptation to be double-minded

After the greeting in verse 1, James begins his appeal in this way:

1:2-3  Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

James starts off with the assumption that we will face trials. What kind of trials is James talking about? He clarifies this a little in the next verse: he’s talking about trials that test your faith. In other words, trials that ask questions of your loyalty to God: any and every temptation that encourages you to remain “friends with the world.”

In coming days we’ll look at the many and varied ways in which we’re tempted to be double-minded. But before he gets to any specific temptations, James first puts it in perspective. Perversely, he sees the temptation in a positive light:

1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

You might be tempted to wonder what James has been smoking. Rejoice when we face trials? Rejoice when our loyalty is tested? But James gives us two reasons (which he expands upon later):

Perseverance in temptation matures our faith: that is, we get to practise being loyal to God, resisting sin. We’ll see that later on in chapter four (4:7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.)

How we behave when tempted is proof of our faith: that is, we get to put our money where our mouth is, and show that our faith is real. This is what’s behind the story of Abraham and Isaac in chapter two (2:21-23).

Now that’s all well and good to see temptation as an opportunity to strengthen and demonstrate our faith – but how do we avoid giving in to those temptations? James gives the answer in the next verse:

1:5 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.

If we lack wisdom we should ask God. Now wisdom isn’t just knowledge. It isn’t about having a high IQ. The Old Testament describes wisdom as “the fear of the Lord.” That is, the ability to make godly choices, and not just take the easy option. To trust that God is in control and commit to doing things his way. To know the right course of action and to actually do it.

(If you think I’m reading a lot into one word, see James’ own definition of wisdom a little later: 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.)

For James, wisdom is single-mindedness. It’s not being friends with the world. Therefore, if we lack wisdom – if we lack the moral will to obey God – he says we should ask God to give it to us.

1:6-8 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. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

Verse 6 has been used a lot as a blunt implement to beat people over the head with when God doesn’t seem to answer when they pray for stuff. “You didn’t believe enough.” “You doubted God, that’s why he didn’t answer.” And so people grit their teeth and try to “believe harder” when they pray for that pay rise, or for the new car, or for the perfect marriage partner. But that’s not what this verse is about.

Clearly from the verse that comes before it, the specific prayer in view is asking God for the wisdom to stand up under temptation. For God to give us the strength to be single-minded. So when we do ask God for this wisdom – this moral will – we should trust that he will give it to us. Believe it, because he promised it:

1 Cor 10:13 And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 

However, if we pray that God will give us wisdom, but then by our actions show that we never expected him to answer us, then again we fall into the sin of double-mindedness. Of acting in doubt of our own worldview.

We say “God will provide a way out,” but then we don’t take hold of any of those opportunities he gives us. We continue to look for our pleasure and comfort and significance in other things, not trusting in God to be the source of our pleasure and comfort and  significance. Our actions show that we don’t trust him. Our behaviour doesn’t match up with what we say. So again, we find that we are double-minded.

To think about

Over the next few weeks, James is going to challenge us about the areas in which we’re being double-minded – trying to be friends with the world and with God. But before we get to specifics, spend some time reflecting on these first eight verses, preparing our hearts by asking God:

  • to help us see temptation as a positive opportunity to display our faith;
  • to give us wisdom to know what is right and to actually do it;
  • to trust that – through his word and his Spirit – he will indeed give us that wisdom.


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