Tag Archives: Prayer

A Prayer on Sunday

HauerwasSpirit of Truth,
Direct our attention to the life of Jesus
so that we might see what you would have us be.

Make us, like him, teachers of your good law.
Make us, like him,  performers of miraculous cures.
Make us, like him, proclaimers of your kingdom.
Make us, like him,  loving of the poor, the outcast, children.
Make us, like him, silent when the world tempts us to respond in the world’s terms.
Make us, like him, ready to suffer.

We know we cannot be like Jesus except as Jesus was unlike us, being your Son.
Make us cherish that unlikeness, that we may grow into the likeness
made possible by Jesus’ resurrection.

(Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken, 27.)

Scripture on Sunday – Ezra 7:10

EzraEzra 7:10
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel.

When I received my new Bible, I wrote this verse on the front fly page, together with a very pious prayer:

Lord, teach me from your Word and let it be for me a Word that shapes my life, and truth that guides my way; and grant me the grace to so live it and teach it that others also might walk in its light (September 1, 2002).

Why this verse—especially when Ezra-Nehemiah are amongst the most obscure books in the Bible for me? It has been ages since I have read them, and I have never really studied them in any depth. Yet this verse has been a benchmark in my life for many, many years. I came across it in the very early years of my Christian life, well before I was married, from memory.

The study had begun in Psalm 78:8: “And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God” (KJV). I searched through the Scriptures to discover what it meant to have a right heart toward God. Over and again I found reference to those who had ‘prepared their heart’ to seek the Lord. The phrase was especially prominent in 2 Chronicles, and I found it here in Ezra as well. Ezra prepared his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach it.

What particularly attracted me to the verse was the order of the concepts: study, do, teach. A common saying is that one ought to practise what they preach. Although that might be true enough, this verse would shift the order and exhort us to preach what we practise. Chances are we would have many fewer and much shorter sermons!

Quite simply, the purpose of biblical study is obedience, understood in terms of a life shaped by the central vision of Scripture, as well as concrete obedience to specific precepts and commands where they apply. In my line of work this is a professional hazard. It is possible to study for other purposes: to prepare a sermon, to teach a lesson, to gain knowledge, to write an article—or a blog post, to prove a point, to dispute with a colleague, to win an argument, to make a name for oneself, to escape from less desirable activities, especially those where interaction with other people is required.

Not all of these other motives are necessarily wrong, although some are. Nor is it the case that the heart is missing, inactive or corrupt in them. Yet it may be. The biblical emphasis on the centrality of the heart is unmistakeable. The Lord looks on the heart… When the text says that Ezra set his heart, Fensham (The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah [NICOT], 101) notes that the word for ‘heart’ (lebab) connotes the entirety of one’s whole being. Ezra had devoted his life to this task, and, whether as result or as cause, “the good hand of the Lord was with him” (Ezra 7:6, 9).

Ezra’s study, practice and ministry was the focus of his life. He had become “skilled in the law of Moses” (v. 6). I suggest that his skill was not simply a mastery in terms of knowledge, but discernment and endurance with respect to application, as well as practical wisdom, understanding and passion in teaching.

Ezra is a prototype reformer, and I suspect the great reformers of the church have always been those who dig deeply into Scripture. They mine it to know God and his purposes more fully. They track back and forth through its pages to reappropriate the gospel in fresh ways for new generations, and to experience afresh the truth of the gospel in their own lives. They communicate it with power and passion in new times and conditions. They see a vision that demands their attention and obedience; they cannot help but proclaim it to others. I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring…

I look back with some amusement at my pious prayer in the front of my Bible. I know that I have often failed to live up to the lofty sentiment it expresses. I know, too, that I have allowed a professional distance to infiltrate my spirituality with respect to Scripture. Further, being pious is also such poor form these days. Who wants to be holier than thou? Our Christianity, our hermeneutics are too sophisticated for that!

Yet I look back with some longing at my pious prayer in the front of that Bible. I recoil—rightly, I am convinced—from the narrow and legalistic kind of pietism that is so sure of itself and its truth that it cannot help but be holier-than-thou. But I long for a genuine, humble piety, a heart set right toward God, and so therefore toward others as well. It seems I have grown tired of the kind of ‘secular Christianity’ I see so much of. The hip kind of Christianity that is so biblically and theologically lite that it lacks any genuine substance, as well as the hip kind of Christianity that is biblically and theologically aware but jaded, cynical and spiritually fruitless. And so I pray,

Lord, teach me from your Word and let it be for me a Word that shapes my life, and truth that guides my way; and grant me the grace to so live it and teach it that others also might walk in its light (July 19, 2015).

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 16:32

Dog, Self-ControlProverbs 16:32
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who captures a city. (NASB)

Like a city that is broken into and without walls,
is a man who has no control over his spirit (Proverbs 25:28; NASB).

In these two proverbs a contrast is made between the one who rules their spirit and the one who does not. In both cases the image used is that of a city surrounded by its walls, a primary and enduring means of defence in the ancient world. Strong walls may not guarantee victory, but lack of walls or broken walls may well guarantee defeat. A city without walls was vulnerable to every passer-by. One need only remember the downfall of Jericho (Joshua 6) or Nehemiah’s tears to understand the importance of sound walls in good repair. As long as Jerusalem’s wall was broken down, the inhabitants there were in “great distress and reproach” (Nehemiah 1:3-4).

The message of wisdom, of course, is that one must “rule their spirit,” and yet this is easier said than done. Indeed, the first text suggests that it is more difficult to rule one’s spirit than to capture a city. It may be possible that a person of unrestrained anger might prove a ferocious warrior, perhaps even a resolute commander who can conquer cities. Yet better is one who rules his or her spirit.

English translations of 16:32 differ, many rendering “rule one’s spirit” in terms of anger, and so making the second part of the verse more explicitly parallel with the first part. So the NRSV translates: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible captures the sense in a memorable manner for English readers: “Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s temper, than capturing a city.” Nevertheless, Roland Murphy’s suggestion that the word for spirit refers to a person’s appetites and passions perhaps allows us to extend the meaning of these texts beyond a narrow application to anger alone (Murphy, Proverbs (WBC), 194). Many passions and appetites vie for expression in the human heart, and not all of them good. Anger may be a prominent and suitable example, but others include pride, envy, greed, lust, sloth and gluttony—all of the classic deadly sins. Other emotions such as fear, guilt and shame might also be included. The wise person, it seems, will rule them all.

Taking our lead from the biblical example of anger we gain some hints into how this might be achieved. The text speaks of being “slow to anger.” Sometimes anger smoulders, sometimes it explodes, and sometimes it roars into flame after smouldering away for a long period. Being slow to anger suggests that one stops and “counts to ten” in the face of provocation, and that one keeps one’s regular temperature cool rather than heated, so that small things do not cause us to “boil over.” In other words, we practise restraint, keeping a sharp rein on our temper, considering other perspectives, possibilities and options. A wise person will maintain a “cool spirit,” seeking to subject the affections to reason (cf. Proverbs 17:27).

Another strategy for ruling one’s spirit is to practise the virtue that stands in opposition to the vice. Proverbs 19:11 is an example: “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.” To practise forgiveness is a glory whereas to flame into anger is foolish (cf. Proverbs 14:29). A third strategy is to recall the promise given to us by God and live toward that hope. In light of what is at stake, Jesus advocated a ruthless exercise of self-control in the face of sexual temptations and lust: “If your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).

Of course the problem is that I have only two hands and two eyes… And so in the end, we must pray. Self-control is, after all, a fruit of the Spirit’s work and activity in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). So, too, Jesus counselled his disciples saying, “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). I am reminded of one of the sayings of the desert fathers:

They said of Sarah that for thirteen years she was fiercely attacked by the demon of lust. She never prayed that the battle should leave her, but she used to say only, “Lord, give me strength” (Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, 36).

A Prayer for Sunday

Girl at Prayer William Henry Hunt from Wikigallery.org
Girl at Prayer William Henry Hunt from Wikigallery.org

Dear Father,
Take this day’s life into your own keeping.
Lead and guide all my thoughts and feelings.
Direct all my energies. Instruct my mind. Sustain my will.
Take my hands and make them skilful to serve you.
Take my feet and make them swift to do your bidding.
Take my eyes and keep them fixed upon your everlasting beauty.
Take my mouth and make it eloquent in testimony to your love.
Make this day a day of obedience, a day of spiritual joy and peace.
Make this day’s work a little part of the work of the Kingdom of my Lord Christ,
in whose name these my prayers are said.


(from: John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 41; updated and amended)

A Prayer on Sunday

At Prayer in St Peter's Square in the Rain
At Prayer in St Peter’s Square in the Rain

Eternal Father of my soul, let my first thought today be of you, let my first impulse be to worship you, let my first speech be your name, let my first action be to kneel before you in prayer.

For your perfect wisdom and perfect goodness;
For the love wherewith you love humanity;
For the love wherewith you love me;
For the great and mysterious opportunity of my life;
For the indwelling of your Spirit in my heart;
For the sevenfold gifts of your Spirit;

I praise and worship you, O Lord.

Yet let me not, when this morning prayer is said, think my worship ended and spend the day in forgetfulness of you. Rather from these moments of quietness, let light go forth, and joy, and power, that will remain with me through all the hours of the day,

Keeping me chaste in thought;
Keeping me temperate and truthful in speech;
Keeping me faithful and diligent in my work;
Keeping me humble in my estimation of myself;
Keeping me honorable and generous in my dealings with others;
Keeping me loyal to every hallowed memory of the past;
Keeping me mindful of my eternal destiny as a child of yours.

O God, who has been the Refuge of our fathers through many generations, be my Refuge today in every time and circumstance of need. Be my Guide through all that is dark and doubtful. Be my Guard against all that threatens my spirit’s welfare. Be my Strength in time of testing. Gladden my heart with your peace, through Jesus Christ my Lord.

(John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 9).

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 10:51

BlindBartimaeusMark 10:51
And answering, Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Aside from all the literary and symbolic significance of this little story within Mark’s overarching narrative, this is a wonderful miracle story, as well as an amazing statement from the lips of Jesus.

Bartimaeus was a hopeless case: blind, poverty-stricken, socially isolated. But he had obviously heard of Jesus and cried out for mercy, ignoring and resisting all attempts to silence him. He pushed through the crowd and gained the ear of Jesus who called for him and asked this amazing question: What do you want me to do for you? After healing him, Jesus said, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”

In fact, it was God’s power operative in and through Jesus that made him well. But Jesus said it was his faith that made him well. His faith.

This verse, like many others in the gospel of Mark, is a great challenge and a great encouragement. For Mark, faith is the fruit of hopelessness and desperation, a turning to Jesus as to one’s only hope. Yet faith has a potential far beyond what we could ever imagine: Fear not! Believe only!

What is the character of Bartimaeus’ faith, at least as it is presented to us in this story? By far the most important feature is the object of his faith: Jesus. We could, however, speak also of his single-minded focus and determination, and his persistence. The nature of his faith is also indicated in his action once healed. Whereas Jesus told him to “go his way,” Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.” He chose Jesus’ way rather than his own way. Jesus was “on the way” to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and to death; and Bartimaeus followed. Some people want faith in the same way they want a tool: to get a particular job done and then put the tool away. Bartimaeus’ faith drew him into a life of following Jesus in the way of the cross.

For me, the astonishing feature of the story is Jesus’ incredible question: What do you want me to do for you? Is this question only for Bartimaeus? Might it also be for those who cry out to Jesus in their need and determine in their hearts to “follow him on the way”? Nevertheless the question is too big for me: what could I possibly ask? And yet, Jesus asked it as a simple question and Bartimaeus gave him a simple and very specific answer.

What do you want me to do for you?
How might you answer?

A Sermon for Sunday: James 1:2-8

Saint_James_the_JustSorry for the inordinate length of this post. Having spent a number of weeks on the exegesis of this passage, I wanted to prepare a sermon based on the passage, moving from exegesis to exposition. I have not preached the sermon, and it would change somewhat according to the audience and context, and as story, illustration and application are added and focused. It could be shortened if time was limited, or extended to two sermons to allow for more extensive exposition of the supporting texts and ideas. I have tried to avoid moralising and to use the passage to preach the gospel, though with faithfulness to James’ idiom. Let me know if you think it works.



A common experience is misconception: we read the data wrongly and get the wrong impression; we have false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps we think we will get married and live happily ever after: never the slightest spat; this one person will delight me, nurture me, inspire me—til death do us part! Maybe we start a new job or join a new church with high hopes that soon come crashing down. We go to a reputation restaurant and leave disappointed. We think the Dockers will win the Grand Final…

Many believers tend to have misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about the Christian life. Sometimes, having experienced something of the good and gracious God, having received answers to prayer, and the blessings of Christian acceptance and fellowship, having been taught about the victory we have in Christ, some believers may gain the impression that the Christian life is one of continual blessing and endless triumph, praise, thanksgiving and victory. If only that were true! Generally it does not take too long to be disabused of these misconceptions because, simply speaking—you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “stuff” happens.

From the very first words of his letter, James wants to set us straight, but also give us a fresh perspective concerning the nature of Christian life.

     Read the Text: James 1:2-8

James’ words are almost incomprehensible: rejoice when the tough times come! I like J.B. Phillips’ rendition of this verse: When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my friends, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! What was James thinking? Welcome trouble? Invite it in like a long-lost friend? Rejoice in trials? The worse it gets the better we like it? At least he is not telling us to go looking for trouble! He doesn’t have to, because you know as well as I do that trouble comes, “ready or not.” Troubles and trials come to everybody. Is there anyone here who has not faced some kind of test even this week? For some, the trials may have been a minor inconvenience or a momentary frustration. For others, the trials are far more serious, perhaps even a matter of life and death, of major stress or life-change. For others still, the whole course of their life is a continual trial and hardship: unrelenting pain, physical or emotional; the grief of loved ones gone and never returning, of dreams which can never be fulfilled, of reversals from which it seems there is no return.

Alana’s story: measles in infancy...

How can those who suffer in these ways ever make sense of James’ advice? Actually, it’s more than advice: it’s a command. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind. How can we possibly obey so counter-intuitive a command? Where’s the joy in trials? How can we rejoice when life threatens, hurts and disappoints?

It is evident that James wants to reframe our understanding of life and its many and various trials. He wants God’s people to have new wisdom, godly wisdom, and a new perspective so that when the trials come, they may view them with new eyes, so that they may even become productive rather than destructive. What is James wants us to know?

1. Trials come, but they have a special meaning for Christians

Everyone faces all kinds of trials, and Christians are not exempt (1 Cor. 10:13). Trials arise simply on account of life in a fallen and broken world. These are the conditions of existence faced by all and sundry. Other trials emerge because of human sinfulness and foolishness—our own and that of others. Christians will face all kinds of trials because of these features of life, just as everyone else will. You don’t have to go looking for trouble…

But Christians also face trials specifically on account of their faith. Trials arise because we are Christians: persecution, the suffering which arises because we refuse to participate in the sinfulness of the world, the difficulties which may arise because we have chosen to do the good. We may be forced to wonder if it is really worth being Christian at all. But our faith is also tested even in the normal trials of life: we may wonder where is God when it hurts? Does God care, or have we been forsaken? Is God even real, or have we mistakenly believed in God? Would it not be easier if we simply gave up our belief? It is for this reason that James refers to trials as tests of our faith. No matter how practical an issue we face, in the end what is being tested, tried, probed, pressured and put to question, is our faith.

“These things are sent to try us…” Yes—and No. Another common misconception amongst Christians especially, is that God sends these trials for the purpose of perfecting us, maturing us, or teaching us some lesson. To say this, I believe, is to confuse purpose and effect. God may bring a positive effect out of our trials, but this is not to say that God purposed the trial for this effect. I want to affirm that God is sovereign over all things, that there is not one moment nor one millimetre of this world which is not subject to his vision and power. But to say this is not to suggest that God is the only actor in this world and in our lives. Indeed, James holds a vision of reality similar to other New Testament writers, and to that of his brother, Jesus.

See Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Luke 22:21-32
The apostles Paul and Peter, and the Lord Jesus each warn us of the spiritual context in which the believer’s faith is tested. There is a spiritual enemy whose attack is directed against our faith. These tests do not come to build our faith, but to destroy it.

Why? Because our faith is precious (2 Peter 1:1), a precious gift by which we have been brought into a living relation to God and made heir of all his promises (Romans 5:1-2). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and indeed Jesus wondered whether, at his return, he would find faith on the earth (Luke 18:8). Thus, he gave the great assurance to Peter—and so also to us—that he prays for us that our faith would not fail (Luke 22:32; cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), for it is by faith that we overcome the world (1 John 5:4) and inherit eternal life (John 3:16; Hebrews 6:12). Indeed, we are preserved by the power of God through faith, and our faith will result in praise, glory and honour to God at the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:5-6). How precious is our faith! No wonder the enemy of our souls directs his attack against this most precious gift of God.

Given what is at stake, James goes on to teach us how to stand in the midst of trial.

2. Rejoice in Hope

And so we are back where we began. James’ first instruction is that we rejoice in the face of testing and trials. We do not rejoice for the test—which intends our hurt—but in the midst of the test, trusting that God can provide a way of escape and deliverance (1 Corinthians 10:13; Psalm 34:19), and that regardless of what happens, our very lives and our every hope are in his hands. Many passages of Scripture instruct us to rejoice in God even in the midst of testing (e.g. Psalm 27:5-6; 50:23; Jonah 2:9; Matthew 5:11-12). We rejoice in God’s saving grace and promise. We rejoice in the hope which is laid up for us in heaven beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

It is only possible to have such joy, even in the midst of suffering, if we know these ways of God. Because you know, says James. Not only are we to know and believe the hope which awaits us beyond this life, the hope of eternal life and blessing and grace in Christ, but we are also to know that as we stand fast in the midst of the trial, as we persevere and endure, as we exercise the very faith that is under attack, and hold fast to it trusting God, then the trial intended to destroy our faith actually serves to strengthen it! Indeed, the trying of our faith develops patience, endurance and perseverance.

Hypomonē – replacing and strengthening the pillars under Garrett Road bridge. When faith is threatened and begins to sag or weaken, endurance is the strength that helps us stand and withstand. Instead of buckling and collapsing under the pressure, our faith is supported and strengthened.

3. Stand Fast Together

But, says James, adding a second command, let perseverance finish its work. In other words, we must stand fast until the end, as Jesus also taught, the one who endures to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:23; 24:13). How could we ever do this? Only together, only in the company and with the encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. James has addressed these commands not primarily to individuals, but to the community of the church, his brothers and sisters in the faith. We need one another more than we realise, and over the course of our lives together, we will have many opportunities to give and receive encouragement and care, and help one another stand firm in our faith. Those who are strong are to help bear the burden of the weak for tomorrow we may be the weak in need of their strength (see Romans 15:1-2).

But there is also something more at work here. We are to let perseverance have its perfect work so that [we] may be perfect—mature and complete—not lacking anything. For James, this is the way to maturity, to wholeness, to perfection. God is able to bring good out of that which was intended for evil! He is able to make all things—even the attacks designed to overcome us—work together for good, so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). That you may be perfect!—what vision and confidence James has for his suffering people! James views Christian maturity in terms of mature and virtuous character, and this character is formed and refined as we stand fast together, encouraging and supporting each other, that we might grow, more and more, into the very image of Christ. This is what we were made for—to become a people of character, a truly human community!

4. Pray—and stay—in faith

James finishes his exhortation with two further commands and a very solemn warning. The two commands are let him ask of God and, let him ask in faith. In every trial we need the kind of wisdom that we have already been receiving from James. But we also need the particular wisdom required for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we can respond wisely and appropriately. And so James commands any who lack wisdom to ask God for it, and he encourages us that it will be given to us.

But while we may lack wisdom, we must not lack faith! Again we are alerted to the importance of faith in the Christian’s relation with God. Of the various virtues mentioned in this passage—faith, joy, perseverance, wisdom, mature character—faith is singled out as preeminent. We have already mentioned that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith it is also impossible to receive the answers to our prayers. Let not that [doubt-filled] person think that they shall receive anything from the Lord.

Over against the steady trustingness of faith stands the unstable, wavering nature of doubt. To some extent we all doubt sometimes. To doubt is to stand wavering between two options, non-committal and undecided. However, Martin Luther has helpfully suggested that although we cannot stop the birds from flying over our heads, we can stop them from building a nest in our hair! Doubtful thoughts will come into our minds and when they do we must let perseverance finish its work! We can stand together and help one another to trust in God. This kind of doubt is normal and not what James assails in this text.

What James assails is the doubt which has become entrenched in a person’s life to such an extent that it now characterises them: they are a doubter. James graphically portrays this person in terms of the restless, ceaseless, shifting movement of the stormy sea, tossed and thrown hither and thither, driven this way and that: in other words, this person is precisely the opposite of the settled strength and confidence of those who have let perseverance finish its work. They are a double-minded, two-souled, unstable, indecisive, uncommitted kind of person. They cannot, will not and do not commit themselves unreservedly to God. They cannot, will not and do not entrust themselves to his promise and his care alone. They cannot, will not and do not depend rest their hope fully upon God. Let not that person expect to receive anything from the Lord—anything!

A great secret to answered prayer is to pray in faith and then to stay in faith. Nowhere in Scripture is this more clearly taught than in Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-25, where Jesus teaches that when we pray we must “believe that you have received it, and you shall have it.” The believer believes the answer has been given when they pray, and before they ever actually receive the answer. They must believe first and then “you shall have it.” I once heard an elderly preacher with a whole life of experience say, “Between every prayer and its answer there is a wilderness, and what you do in that wilderness determines whether or not the prayer will be answered.” What was he saying? Pray in faith and then stay in faith. Continue to trust. Let perseverance finish its work!

How can we possibly have such unwavering faith? Here pastor James provides another piece of practical Christian wisdom: keep your eyes firmly fixed on the good and gracious God, rather than on yourself! Instead of worrying about whether or not our faith is sufficient, turn away from yourself and look solely toward the good and gracious God. In verse five James magnifies the generosity of the good and gracious God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. The Greek text is even stronger: God gives with single-minded generosity. Over against the double-minded person stands the single-minded God! God is single-minded in his grace and generosity toward us, and calls us to be single-minded in faith and trust toward him. He is the good and gracious God, the generous-hearted God who has promised to accompany us through every moment of this life, to hear and answer our prayers, and to bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom! This is the good and gracious God who holds our entire existence—past, present and future—in the palm of his hands; the God who will never leave or forsake us.

Trust in this good and gracious God!
Stand fast in the good and gracious God!
Rejoice in the good and gracious God … that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing!

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:7-8

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:7-8 
For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

In these verses James continues, intensifies and extends his comments in verse 6 about the person who doubts. Not only are they driven and tossed like the surf of the sea, but that person (ho anthrōpos ekeinos;that is, the one who doubts) must not expect (oiesthō) that they shall receive anything from the Lord, for they are a “double-minded” person (anēr dipsychos), and unstable (akatastatos) in all their ways (en pasais tais hodois autou).

First, verse 7 comes as a great shock, especially after the portrait of God’s generosity in verse 5, which explicitly notes that God does not reproach his petitioners. Evidently, God does not reproach them for their lack of wisdom. Active doubting, however, seems to be another matter entirely. Is there a tension in the text here? God gives single-mindedly—but not to the doubter! God reproaches not—except for the doubter! Or is it the case that God is ever the generous giving God but our doubt so destablises us that we cannot watch for God’s giving because we are ever looking elsewhere; that we cannot receive God’s giving because we are ever turning elsewhere. Indeed, the doubting person must not expect to receive anything from God. Not only is their prayer for wisdom not going to bear fruit, but divine generosity is frustrated in their case.

James’ teaching on the relationship between faith and prayer echoes Jesus’ teaching on the same subject. The generosity of God and the assurance of answered prayer in verse 5 echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:7-11. But Jesus also warned his disciples concerning the problem of doubt:

Matthew 21:21-22
Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and case into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.

In this text, as in James, faith is set in contrast to the problem of doubt and made a condition for answered prayer. Without this faith, says James, do not even think that your prayer will be answered.

James goes further, however, moving beyond the dynamics of prayer to the character of the person, from spirituality to ethics. The doubting person is double-minded, literally, two-souled, in contrast to God who is haplōs (v. 5), generous and single-minded. It is possible that James has coined the word he uses here (and in 4:8)—dipsychos—for this is the first occurrence of the word in extant ancient Greek.

The way in which James has constructed his brief instruction on prayer suggests that he sees a correspondence between God and true human and spiritual maturity. As God is single-minded in his generosity, so those who approach him are to be single-minded in faith. In response to God’s kind and active benevolence, the person of faith hopes, waits, watches, endures, rests, expects, and depends upon God, answering God’s faithfulness with their own responsive faithfulness in return.

The contrast could hardly be starker. The person who doubts anxiously scurries about seeking means to establish their own right and opportunity rather than waiting watchfully for God’s activity and resting in God’s provision. Doubt is independence and self-reliance rather than dependent reliance on God. In place of patient and resolute endurance, the person who doubts is impatient and unstable. James especially identifies this characteristic in the final clause, identifying the doubter as “unstable in all their ways.” The whole tenor of the person’s life and conduct is “thrown into doubt.” Their doubt toward God is indicative of a much deeper and more pervasive flaw in their character: their instability is not simply with respect to their prayer for wisdom, but is also evident with respect to their conduct under trial, their relationships, and their conduct within the community.

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:6

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:6
But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.

The “let him ask of God” in verse 5 is echoed and extended by the “let him ask in faith” of verse 6. Again James uses a link-word to tie two verses together, this time aiteitō (ask). Just as he used the imperative to instruct those who lack wisdom to ask God for it, now he uses the imperative to instruct those who do ask for wisdom, to ask for it in faith. One indeed may lack wisdom but one must not lack faith. Faith, in this context, is single-minded trust in the giving God. James’ logic is simple: if God is so generous and single-minded in his giving, the believer is likewise to be single-minded toward God.

We recall that the believer’s faith is already under threat, being tested and tried (v. 3). Pressure mounts to destroy their faith—their single-minded trust in God. Faith, it seems, governs the relationship the believer has with God. Faith is the characteristic of this relationship seen from the believer’s side. From God’s side the characteristic of this relationship is better understood in terms of grace, of God’s generous and freely given gift. James hints, as we have seen, at this in verse 5. In verses 17-18 he underlines the primacy and centrality of God’s generous gift. At present, however, his focus is on the believer’s appropriate response to God’s generous promise.

Faith is not simply a belief although belief is an important aspect of faith. Faith is not simply agreement with or assent to a doctrinal position, although such knowledge is also an important aspect of faith. Faith includes but is not limited to knowledge or belief. In his Truth Aflame, Larry Hart (420) shows the relation between these three qualities of Christian faith. He notes that since at least the Reformation, theologians have understood saving faith in terms of notitia, that is, the body of knowledge that makes up the truth claim of the gospel, and assensus which refers to the belief one has when they have heard the Christian message and become persuaded of its truthfulness. These two responses, however, are not yet faith in full flower. Simply knowing and believing are not sufficient in themselves but must come to completion in fiducia which is the trust and existential commitment by which we entrust ourselves to God on the basis of his promise which we have heard and which we have acknowledged and believed as true. Faith is a single-minded, existential dependence on God, a watching, waiting and expectant dependence in which the whole being of the believer is oriented and turned toward God in confident and assured hope. Faith is not simply an intellectual commitment, but a relational response and devoted commitment to the God who has awakened our hearts and opened our eyes to his reality, presence and grace.

This is faith as James conceives it here, where he contrasts faith with doubt (diakrinomenos). The two phrases “in faith” and “without any doubting” express the same point from different angles. What is positively expressed in the former expression is negatively expressed in the latter.

Matthew’s gospel provides a dramatic illustration of the kind of doubt James has in mind here, in the story of Peter walking on the sea (Matthew 14:22-33). Peter is already participating in the miracle, walking on the water with Jesus and toward Jesus, and on the basis of Jesus’ word to him, “Come.” But verse 30 indicates that Peter began to give his attention to the wind and waves rather than to Jesus, and as he did so, he began to sink. In the midst of his doubt he cried out to Jesus and was saved. Nevertheless Jesus’ question highlights the temptation we continually face: ” O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

To doubt is to engage in dispute with oneself, to waver between two options, to be “double-minded” (James 1:8) rather than single-minded. Doubt anxiously looks in multiple directions rather than steadfastly watching toward God. James goes on to provide a vivid picture of the one who doubts, likening that person to a wave or the surf of the sea, “driven by the wind” (anemizomenō) and “tossed” (rhipizomenō). Both of these participles are present-passive, indicating that the doubter is continuously  bobbing about, as Vlachos images, like a cork in a stormy ocean (27). This image conveys restlessness, a person acted upon by other forces, ever in motion but without genuine purpose. As such, the picture is virtually the opposite of the solidity, steadfastness and resolute endurance portrayed in verse 4.